Heath Ledger as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” Warner Bros.

How’s everybody doing?  I’m assuming, as opposed to the tiny but megaphone-blaring minority of Americans defying social distancing guidelines, we’re all in the same boat here – stuck inside, scraping the bottom of the Netflix barrel in our desperate attempt to fill up the quarantine days. (I mean, we could all be learning a new language or finishing that novel, but it’s mostly Netflix.) 

And while there’s no shortage of shows and movies you’ve always meant to catch up on, well, you’ve likely already binged them during this time we’ll call The Great Couchening. So, as a dedicated sofa-dweller these days, I’ve found myself drawn to rewatch movies that might just provide some helpful, even hopeful, lessons for those of us caught up in a global catastrophe. 

Note: spoilers ahead. 

Other note: no actual pandemic movies ahead. Who needs that noise?

“The Dark Knight”

Sure, everyone’s seen this second (and best) of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies. But I popped it in recently, yearning for one particular sequence that refutes its villain (a mesmerizing, regrettably late Heath Ledger) more than Christian Bale’s fists ever manage to do. As part of the Joker’s plan to prove the world a hopeless, mad, cynically horrible joke, he’s set up a fiendish trap, not for Batman, but for us. Two ferries – one filled with Gotham City’s prisoners, one with regular citizens – are each given a detonator. Push the button and the other ship explodes, but yours makes it. (There’s a midnight deadline when both go up, because he’s the Joker.) It’s an insoluble moral problem that the good people of Gotham decide is simple – they’re not prisoners, so they deserve to live. Except – and here’s the lesson, writ large and powerful by a convict played by glowering movie tough guy Tiny Lister – to make such choices in the face of fear is to take death’s side. With one decisive, silently eloquent action, the convict takes all the power out of the Joker’s hands. 

Lesson: Don’t let someone (or some thing) define your morality by making you afraid. 

Stream “The Dark Knight” on DirectTV, Sling. 

“Matewan”

John Sayles 1987 true labor drama remains a largely unknown, uniquely American classic that examines how workers are pitted against each other – and how unions (both literal and figurative) can bring them together. Depression-era West Virginia coal miners’ attempt to unionize for better conditions sees the bosses bring in both Italian immigrants and black workers from out of state, assuming that the miners’ will will be broken and racism and xenophobia will trump solidarity in the face of economic oppression. Instead, thanks in part to a union organizer (a never better Chris Cooper), all three disparate groups band together in an uneasy but ultimately formidable alliance. Blood is shed, there are unthinkable losses, but, for all the feel-good, well-intentioned historical dramas out there, it’s this messy, incomplete, but eloquently hopeful cinematic rebellion that shows America what it truly can be. 

Lesson: Ignore those attempting to divide us during hard times – they’re probably selling something. 

Sadly, you can’t stream “Matewan” anywhere, but the good people at the Criterion Collection just put out a typically deluxe DVD and Blu-ray edition, which I’ve got on order as we speak. 

Still from “The Florida Project.” A24

“The Florida Project”

If there’s a plague in this achingly real and beautiful low budget 2017 indie, it’s poverty. Trapped in a seedy motel in the shadow of Disney World, a group of rambunctious kids run mostly unsupervised while their impoverished parents scramble desperately to feed and house them all. That desperation turns to near tragedy, and then just tragedy, all while the indomitable kids and their flawed but loving parents stand firm with each other, at least part thanks to beleaguered motel manager Willem Dafoe (the movie’s one star, again, never better), who, despite his own troubles and demons, does what he can to keep the kids safe and make their lives just a tiny bit better. Like in “Matewan,” the victories may be small or heartbreakingly fleeting, but they exist, thanks to the stubborn humanity of people constantly tempted to despair.

Lesson: We’re all in this mess together, and even the smallest act of kindness can be a literal life-saver. 

Stream “The Florida Project” on Neflix, Hoopla, Kanopy. 

“Night of the Living Dead”

The original zombie classic might have a plague, sure, but at least the walking dead aren’t actually walking the streets, right? Plus, as director and zombie maven George A. Romero shows in this still-excellent horror classic, it’s not the things out there that are going to get you. Always cagey about his zombies’ origin, Romero uses the unthinkable terrors as all-purpose metaphor for the things that make people abandon human decency, common sense and each other. The people trapped in the film’s isolated farmhouse have literally everything they need to survive – TV and radio, means to defend themselves, a truck and gasoline – and yet they all perish in the end. Romero always maintained that his zombie classic and its many sequels were about humanity’s inability to overcome its weaknesses, saying, “People don’t communicate well enough with each other, which means that anything out of the ordinary leaves them befuddled.” And dead. 

Lesson: Talk. Listen. Debate. But keep your eye on the big picture – there’s something very scary out there and unless we all work together, it’s going to get in. 

Stream “Night Of The Living Dead” almost anywhere: Amazon, Criterion Channel, Roku, Kanopy, Shudder, Syfy, Epix.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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