Who couldn’t use a distraction right now? The news is grim and relentless. COVID-19 infections are spreading exponentially. The death toll doubles every 24 hours in some cities. Job losses are spiraling into the millions; global markets are cratering. And the bitter irony is that the most helpful thing most of us can do right now is just stay home and do nothing—or as Governor Greg Abbott put it, to adopt “a standard that is based on essential services and essential activities.” Boredom, if only as a retreat from abject terror, is inevitable. So how do we fill our time?
Abbott has lost himself in poetry, searching for ever more lyrical turns of phrase to avoid saying “shelter in place.” Senator John Cornyn, of course, has buried himself in Chinese studies, using all this extra downtime to really delve into this fascinating culture and find new ways to blame all our problems on it. Texas representative Chip Roy is growing a beard. It’s good to have a hobby.
But you can only spend so much time bettering yourself. What do we do with those scant remaining hours? Like a lot of other people, Ted Cruz has been binge-watching Tiger King, the Netflix docuseries that is arguably the greatest beneficiary of this whole pandemic. Its literal captive audience also includes Texas representative Dan Crenshaw, who says he also started watching the show “in the spirit of American solidarity.” What better way to tune out the worsening crisis than with a story about a rugged American individualist, arrogantly defying the laws of nature and common sense, until he’s undone by his own hubris? Especially since every single other TV show has shut down production.
Movies are also good! Specifically, movies that were already made years before Hollywood shuttered and can be viewed in your living room, since theaters are among the many abandoned, inessential public spaces we’re not allowed to enjoy at the moment. We could just remember some movies, like dozens of members of the Texas state legislature did recently. Adjourned unless Abbott composes some appropriately florid metaphor for “special session,” our homebound state senators and representatives have little to do besides retweet Centers for Disease Control infographics and wallow with the rest of us. So to pass the time, a bunch of them played the “share a GIF from your favorite movie” game on Twitter last week, reveling in the memories of beloved films that now seem to come from a shadowy “before” time, so removed are they from our current existence. And then I spent the better part of a day combing through all of their answers, because I needed something to do besides staring at outbreak maps and worrying.
Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather (twice)—yep, those are movies! It checks out. And while ordinarily I’d be tempted to rib these as the kind of safe, obvious choices you might find in divorcees’ Tinder bios, next to “dogs” and “the outdoors,” these earnest reminders of America’s greatest artistic achievements are more than welcome amid so much precarity. The Lege’s chief of staff Justin Williamson loves Star Wars: A New Hope, Chris Turner loves The Empire Strikes Back, Victoria Neave loves Lord of the Rings—and honestly, I love all of three of these nerds and their zeal for blockbuster science fiction and fantasy. Just thinking about those movies fills me with my own warm, nostalgic reveries of a childhood spent idly playing with action figures on the carpet of a house I could still leave regularly.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few bona fide cinephiles hiding in the Texas congress! Gina Calanni dropped the 1953 Marilyn Monroe/Lauren Bacall/Betty Grable classic How to Marry a Millionaire, while Terry Canales championed both the original Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 and the Peter O’Toole epic The Lion in Winter. “Like a good Texan, I’ve been obsessed with Giant since I was 5,” James Talarico said, while Brooks Landgraf served up the similarly Marfa-lensed No Country for Old Men—two films that evoke the kind of beautifully sprawling Western desolation that seems increasingly like a practical way to live. And on the arthouse front, Azhalia Leal professed her adoration of Lady Bird, Sarah Davis stumped for Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, and, what the hey, let’s even throw in partial credit to Four Price and Dade Phelan for naming Pulp Fiction, Snatch, and The Big Lebowski, like the edgiest guys in your dorm. It seems a bit silly to be snobby about movies at the moment.
Speaking of which, what about losing ourselves in some big, dumb frat-boy comedies? Today, if there’s one thing that can unite us and our lawmakers, even across partisan divides, in purely blissful ignorance, it’s Will Ferrell movies like Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and Blades of Glory. And while I don’t agree with just about anything Briscoe Cain has said or done since he took office, man, I would gladly sit down and watch Wet Hot American Summer with him right now, on repeat. I’d gladly watch a movie with any of these people! Frankly, it would just be nice to be in a room with another human, besides my own family. Just like in Erin Zweiner’s house, we’ve mostly been watching Frozen 2 over here, and I’m beginning to lose all sense of my own identity. I’d even watch Nacho Libre with its two biggest stans, Poncho Nevarez and Christina Morales, and truthfully, that movie is kind of awful.
Let’s see: What other meaningless effluvia can we absorb before we’re forced to confront the real world again? It seems Joe Moody likes the 1993 L.A. gangster drama Blood in Blood Out, and Michelle Beckley is a big fan of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and now I want to hang out with both of them, wasting a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching cheesy B-movies on HBO, with zero awareness of what’s happening outside. Also, Jon Rosenthal—who posted a GIF from the original Star Trek TV series—apparently doesn’t know what a “movie” is, and Dr. Mary Gonzalez is probably a little too into this game, seeing as she answers with Lonesome Dove, Selena, Frida, and even the largely forgotten George Strait romantic comedy Pure Country. Bless these people. These people are weird, they are hilarious, and they are alive—and for now, so are we.
Look, is knowing any of this useful? No, it is not. Is it helping anyone? Not really! But for one blessed second, maybe you stopped thinking about exponential growth rates, and instead you started thinking about that time in 1992 when they tried positioning George Strait as a movie star, and what an optimistic era that was. Maybe that’s all that matters. Maybe if we keep reminding ourselves of the time when possibilities seemed exactly that endless, we’ll appreciate them all the more when we finally reach the other side of this. For now, let’s focus on the distractions.