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State of Mind: Northern Exposures

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Back in the good old days, when cabin fever would strike only about this time of year and not in June or September, I had strategies to deal with it. This was before “streaming” was invented — back when you could gather freely at Capitol Video on Main Street or Downstairs Video at the Savoy Theater, elbow to elbow with other gloomy people in snow boots, parkas, and sweaters that gave off faint aromas of damp wool and wood smoke, and pore over shelves of videos you could rent to while away Friday and Saturday nights. 

I had two favorite films as antidotes to bouts of cabin fever back then and rented them over and over. One was “Summer Lovers.” This was a film shot on location in Santorini, Greece, where the white stucco buildings were so bright in the sun that it hurt your eyes. A young American couple played by Daryl Hannah and Peter Gallagher meet a French archeologist (Valerie Quennessen), and the threesome spend many days together swimming naked in the azure waters of the Aegean. They also engage in other indoor-oriented “sports,” but I won’t go into that.

A second favorite was “Sirens,” in which a young minister (Hugh Grant) and his wife (Tara Fitzgerald) are sent to the estate of a famous artist (Sam Neill) to request that he not display in an exhibition a painting considered blasphemous by church officials. There they meet three young women (supermodel Elle Macpherson, Kate Fischer, and the real-life spouse of Ellen, as in DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi). The three women model for the artist, and the minister’s wife joins them as they bathe naked every day in a rocky pool in the semi tropical forests of New South Wales, Australia. She eventually ends up nude in one of the artist’s
paintings.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Uhh, Lare, there seems to be a common theme here and it involves a lot of exposed skin.” That’s not it at all! As a journalist, I have trained myself to watch films like an adult, with an eye on the plot, the cinematography, character development, the quality of the acting, and the deeper existential meaning. I hardly notice the buns and bazooms. No Siree! Really! Besides, these films are set in places with green vegetation and sunshine and that alone would brighten my spirits. It just happened to be warm enough outside that the actors didn’t need swimsuits. 

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But the pandemic has changed my outlook.

If I were to view “Summer Lovers” today, I’d be thinking Daryl, Peter, and Valerie should be at least six feet apart instead of writhing together all sandy and sweaty on the beach or beneath bedsheets. And Elle, Kate, and Portia in “Sirens” should be wearing masks when they pose.

My new strategy to combat cabin fever is to watch movies in which conditions seem more miserable for the characters than when I am cooped up at home. So here are some recommendations for films that will not have you thinking about social distancing, facemasks, or cabin fever for that matter. 

“The Trail” is about a young woman (Jet Jandreau) who survives an attack by native Americans while she and her husband are traveling west on the Oregon Trail. She is left alone with no survival skills to face cold rain and snow with little food or water in just a thin dress and inappropriate shoes. But she is alone, so there is no need for a mask and social distancing. And after watching her try to start a fire, you will truly appreciate matches, kindling, and your woodstove.

Another film is “Arctic,” in which a pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) has crashed and is stranded in a frozen wilderness. When a helicopter shows up to rescue him, it too crashes and leaves him with a severely injured young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir). The only skin you see is the protagonist’s black, frozen toes when he removes his boots and the woman’s abdomen as he uses a surgical stapler from the helicopter’s medical kit to close a severe laceration. He must save her along with himself by trekking vast distances through a savage, snow-covered terrain ruled by polar bears while pulling the woman on a sled. He and the woman should probably have worn masks, but you’ll be thinking they probably aren’t going to make it anyway, so COVID-19 is the least of their worries.

If those two films seem a bit depressing, try the fantasy “The Golden Compass.” The story is set in a parallel world in which a ruling class, the Magisterium, captures children and takes them to a mysterious laboratory in the far north  to “save” them by separating them from their souls, which are represented by animal “daemons.” They do this so the children cannot learn about a magical “dust” discovered at the North Pole that has the power to unite universes. The young heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), must travel to the secret lab to rescue her friends from the villains, with the help of witches, “gyptians,” an “aeronaut” (Sam Elliott), and a polar bear that talks and wears armor. The action ends up in Svalbard, the island archipelago that is as close as you can get to the North Pole and still have solid ground under your feet. By the time you arrive in Svalbard you no longer care whether the “Magisterium” and its representative, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), are wearing masks or social distancing. You are hoping they will catch COVID.

Next to these three films, Central Vermont in February looks downright bright, warm, and inviting.