Stuck with You
By Mark Asch

New Strains
Dir. Artemis Shaw and Prashanth Kamalakanthan, U.S., no distributor

New Strains played March 18 and 25 at Museum of the Moving Image's 2023 First Look festival.

During the first days of the 2020 lockdown, when New Yorkers saw time opening out abyssally before them and for filmmakers any kind of large-scale production was impossible, Artemis Shaw found her old camcorder in her parents’ apartment. Embarrassed and then inspired by the skits, video-diary entries, and other sundry scraps of her teenage creativity, she and her husband, Prashanth Kamalakanthan used another Sony Hi8 Handycam, Kamalakanthan’s old family camera, to embark on a pandemic project. Filming in an unoccupied apartment near their home on the Upper East Side, acting out scenarios and surveying the art-filled walls and princess-in-a-tower river views from the rooftop, they shot scenes for a few hours a day across the first and scariest, most apartment-bound months of quarantine. New Strains, winner of a Special Jury Award at Rotterdam last month, responds, with raw naturalism, to a historically surreal moment.

While Hollywood has largely struggled—or avoided—depicting the pandemic, the conditions of lockdown have proven appealing to independent and no-budget filmmakers, an invitation to use the materials most directly at hand. Unsurprisingly, these projects tend toward the self-reflexive, whether Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes’s The Tsugua Diaries, or John Magary’s short The Big Trim, filmed in his Harlem apartment, starring himself and his girlfriend Kalle Condliffe. Like that film, New Strains follows the daily routines of a couple living right on top of each other, running out of distractions from their problems just like filmmakers ran out of actors, locations, or plots to displace their autobiographical impulses onto.

Shaw and Kamalakanthan play Kallia and Ram, a couple who probably should have been a little more proactive about canceling their vacation plans as a new virus started to take hold in the United States. Arriving at Kallia’s uncle’s spacious apartment for a city break, they’re maskless but immediately set down to surface disinfecting—a flashback to the early days of PPE shortages and conflicting advice from experts. New Strains includes what might be classified as documentary footage of Manhattanites banging on pots and pans at 7 p.m., but the film’s temporally ambiguous semi-fictionalization is more evocative of the disorientation of the early pandemic than a scrupulous re-creation would have been. The timeline doesn’t quite line up with ours, and its unnamed “new strain” is not COVID-19; according to stone-voiced newsreaders, this virus causes the infected to mentally regress to a childlike state (harrowing viral news clips show old men playing with their food). These obviously metaphorical symptoms give an edge of suspense to the 2020-vintage decompensation on display: as the apartment-marooned Kallia and Ram turn into slobs, cooking gross pantry meals and humming to themselves, we wonder whether we’re seeing cabin fever or fever-fever.

Uptight Ram at first takes the virus more seriously than Kallia (who blows him off butsneaks off to look up what he said on her phone). Their relationship bickering traces wider fault lines exposed by the pandemic: beta toxicity and income inequality. Kallia seems to have money; Ram—who is, incongruously, an aspiring rapper of “deconstructed” and socially conscious hip-hop—has six-figure student loan debt and lashes out neurotically over Kallia’s studied carelessness about the rules. The proximity, in the neighborhood, of her more successful ex doesn’t help either. (In The Big Trim, as well, the specter of infidelity, physical or at least emotional, looms, fueled by the paranoid sense that too much bodily proximity could push the heart away.)

While there are a few socially distanced outdoor two-shots, most of the supporting cast pops up in self-recorded videos and FaceTime calls that double as mini-documentaries of their own making, like John C. Reilly’s cameo in Stars at Noon. But the film is mostly a two-hander between Kamalakanthan and Shaw, covering familiar pandemic tropes—Zoom catchups, laptop aerobics—and relationship dynamics. Ram’s shortcut for ending fights is to wait a beat and change the subject to something aggressively banal (the apartment’s water pressure is one, particularly transparent such topic). But the humor pushes past satire of topical or eternal subjects and edges up to muffled, deadpan hysteria. Kamalakanthan, with his bass voice and worried affect, shows the strain of staying committed to a bit as conditions grow ever more absurd, seeming irritable, frantic, and tragic as he administers a dubious diagnostic memory test to Kallia and asks if she has a preference for the ad “experience” that plays between questions: “Boeing or Dove?”

The music, composed and recorded by Will Epstein in his upstate home using a Casio keyboard, Yamaha sampler, and iPhone drum machine app, has a bedroom-pop looseness and an onscreen counterpart in the tinny toy sounds of the melodica Kallia sometimes messes around on. It’s all very noodly in a way that will feel bone-familiar to anyone who set aside an hour a day for a new creative hobby in early 2020, a vibe which the image quality works with and against. Most people making home movies during the COVID-19 lockdown would have had a better-quality camera on their own phone (an overwhelming profusion of evidence to this effect exists on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube). With its archaic 4x3 aspect ratio and few hundred horizontal lines of resolution, 8mm videotape signifies an improvisatory resourcefulness and realism to a greater degree than even the high-definition digital sketchbooks of Hong Sang-soo and Kim Min-hee, to name another pair of partners in art and life who work with minimal crews and scenarios devised on the fly.

Video is also an inherently nostalgic visual format for millennials such as Kamalakanthan and Shaw, many of whom found themselves living back with mom and dad during lockdown. Taking turns filming themselves and using fixed setups, presumably with the camera set on a shelf or tripod, for two-shots, and using the zoom lens to steal live looks into other apartments, other lives, other glimpses of atomization, the two evoke a sense of play. The occasional combing effects from interlaced video lend even stationary subjects a wobbly appearance at times, particularly the apartment buildings in the background, making the world seem less solid. The filmmakers lean into the potential for weird video artifacts as Kallia and Ram’s reality seems increasingly distorted and unreal.

The texture of the film, with its small-screen picture and color resolution blown up for DCP and theatrical projection, and the frequent casual nudity and diaristic-seeming dialogue from the filmmaker-subjects, hearken back to the early days of mumblecore. This is perhaps appropriate for a film about a moment when the flow of new culture abruptly stopped and audiences were left to self-navigate through previous eras of film history, becoming fixated on cultural moments selected semi randomly from whatever services they subscribed to. And yet, in its depiction of a seemingly endlessly purgatory, New Strains is so germinal that it feels like an injection of fresh hope for the future.