The Homemade Dystopia

The other day I camped with my son at a remote (to me) State Park in the Maine Highlands, and for several hours in the afternoon, it rained. We read inside our tent while peals of lightning were followed by booming crashes of thunder. When the storm passed, we emerged to find all the day-trippers had fled the lake’s swimming area, and only a few campers remained, spellbound as I was, by the sunset over Borestone Mountain, the heavy, gilded clouds, and steam rising off the water. 

My son asked if he could go on the playground. He hasn’t been to a playground since March. Because of the heavy rain and the fact that no one was there, I let him go. For the next half hour or so he played pirate ship, slid down the slides, and let his imagination run wild. 

It was the kind of moment that Rachel Morrison, director of the short film “The Lucky Ones”, part of Netflix’s Homemade series, would have loved and hoped for. The collection of short films, all shot by notable directors during lock down in their respective homes around the world, capture the strangeness, and strange beauty of quarantine life. Morrison’s contribution is a four minute long love song to her children, cherishing the fact that they might not know what’s going on, or the stress that us adults have had over the last four months. It’s a beautiful piece that not only moves parents to tears, it captures just how strange our world has become, and how we cling to any sense of normalcy despite things slipping away.

And things have, in fact, slipped away. The world no longer looks the same. Ladj Ly’s contribution to the series follows a young boy’s routine in lock down; exercising, sharing notes on homework via computer, and attending virtual classes. It feels small and claustrophobic, yet ends with an expansive view. After the studies and exercise routine is complete, the young boy flies a drone outside his apartment complex, spying neighbors and long lines of masked shoppers outside grocery stores. In any previous year, this would have been a subtle, brilliant piece of science fiction. Today, it is a piece of strange beauty, alien and spooky in its familiarity.

Boredom and monotony play a role in many of the films. Paolo Sorrentino delivers a hilarious film about Queen Elizabeth being quarantined with the Pope. Their strange, lifelong isolation nothing new to them, they develop a budding, and touching romance. It’s shot exclusively with small action figures.  

Other films contemplate the more mundane, but mine the viral load that all science fiction and good genre writing uses to get to find humanity. A couple tries to keep their relationship together through Zoom sessions (Pablo Larrain), school children find fantastic imaginations to keep them company, whittling away the monotony (Natalia Berstain, Naomi Kawase, and David Mackenzie) while other short films are more ambitious, imagining a world where the solar system itself is attacked by a virus (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Kristen Stewart even makes a contribution with a disturbingly real portrait of a woman attempting to silence the anxiety and fear that plagues every waking moment of insomnia. 

I’m completely honest with my child, and give adult answers. If he asks where babies come from, I talk about spermatozoa, haploid cells, and ovaries. So when he asked if he could go on the playground, I said, “Well, it just rained and no one has been on it, and there’s a really small chance of transmission through fomites, so, go for it.” 

The couple on the bench behind me, enjoying the sunset and no doubt trying to preserve their own sense of normalcy, looked back and shook their heads at me. Maybe they thought it was all a hoax. Maybe they didn’t like my honest answer. Maybe they thought I was crazy.

I was just trying to keep my son and family safe.

Welcome to the dystopia. We’ve been living in it all along. 

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