Once the national lockdowns had come into force, cultural pundits and tastemakers made wearied predictions a new curiosity would soon appear. Coronaculture: a wave of COVID-19 themed art to inevitably hit the culture scene, regardless of whether or not readers would want to pore over a poem about lockdown tedium.
We have watched aghast as the coronavirus upended the arts. Audiences were barred from visiting theatres and then too jittery to take the risk when allowed, while film and TV production ceased virtually overnight.
As a sort of pacifier, housebound audiences have been treated to Zoom-style alternatives. There have been reunion episodes of fan favourite TV shows such as Parks and Recreation as well as integrated approaches such as the BBC miniseries Staged, and even a celebrity-addled read-through of a cult teen classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).
There is some semblance of video conferencing camaraderie as familiar faces peer down into their webcams from palatial cribs or conspicuously stripped back settings. In these instances, Covid-19, lockdown and the tumult of the world is a peripheral acknowledged fact, as opposed to a crucial plot point or driving principle.
The film industry has tentatively taken steps to resume business as usual. The highly anticipated 2021 reincarnation of Batman hit headlines for boldly doing so.
In entertainment, Covid-19 has largely been appraised as a logistical blockade to its creation and consumption, but how will it figure within the drama itself? It seems unavoidable 2020 and its Dantean plunge deeper into the depths of despair will soon be coming to a silver screen near you. Or, more likely, to one of the numerous streaming services that have gorged on subscriptions this year.
In the aftermath of trauma, experts describe how commemoration and remembrance are key to the recovery process. In terms of collective trauma, cinema has been crucial in shaping how the public view and interpret it.
Filmmakers have used cinema to reckon with the incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces behind such collective trauma, as well as the new social reality they create. Modern crises have readily been revisited and reckoned within film and TV: 9/11 and the Iraq War, Brexit, the 2008 recession.
COVID-19 has no bodily villain
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Yet unlike the nefarious bankers and mortgage lenders of 2008, the architects of 9/11 hunted in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) or the Columbine high school killers in Elephant (2003), 2020’s social flashpoint has no bodily villain or group to ascribe blame to.
An invisible pathogen working its way through the population does not easily lend itself to cinematic catharsis. The attempt is carried off with mixed success in Contagion (2011) only because the persistent threat of the virus is outweighed by the panicked havoc humans wreak on one another.
Viewers of a film like Elephant, a languid portrayal of America’s deadliest school shooting at the time, will know the subject before entering the theatre or pressing play. They know broad facts but want finer details, motivations and tipping points. They want to know why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their peers and one teacher.
It is not just the nature of the villain that throws up narrative hurdles. Unlike 2008, this is not a crisis that forces millions out of their homes, it is one that urges people inside. Thousands of homeless people across the UK were housed and over a billion worldwide were placed under stay at home orders.
The experience has been punctuated with horror and fear but also boredom. While the former feed into cinema action, the latter is anathema. It would be a challenge to tell a gripping crisis story so inextricably tied to monotony, tedium and household confinement.
The crisis thus far has spanned months and could extend over years. People are desperate for 2020 and Covid-19 to be consigned to the history books. So when will there be an appetite to look back at this period? We will never be nostalgic for it and it is unlikely we will immediately want to revisit what we just escaped.
It took years for filmmakers to engage with 9/11. World Trade Centre was released in 2006 and sought to reassert American patriotism and heroism by depicting events from the perspective of first responders.
Yet there is a major difference in the nature of this crisis compared to 9/11. The Covid-19 pandemic cannot be mapped onto such recognised parameters of storytelling: good versus evil, rooting for the underdog and even the revenge narrative.
9/11 was a single shocking event followed by lingering trauma. The virus spread has been prolonged and insidiously diffuse. We know it emerged and unfurled in Wuhan, but circumstances are hotly contested. There is no single identifiable trigger.
This litany of coronavirus-shaped holes in film pitches could be remedied with films that do not award Covid-19 top billing. The gut-punch twist ending of Remember Me (2010) does this to some extent, although many felt the choice was a peculiar one.
Following the 2008 sub-prime mortgage collapse that tipped the global economy off a cliff, The Big Short (2015) took a seething dive in. Adam McKay’s insider critique simmers with cynicism and revulsion. It unpicks the complexity of the financial system, acknowledging its self-perpetuating opacity that ensured everyone left them alone to their predatory lending practices.
There are lots of films made about the financial crash
However, the film that best encapsulates the feeling of the boom/bust late noughties isn’t The Big Short, Margin Call (2011) or any of the brilliant and blood-boiling documentaries. It is The Hangover (2009). It was released almost a year after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, but the words mortgage, financial crisis or foreclosure are not mentioned once.
The film’s shrugging sexism and racism has not aged well. Its popularity at the time spawned a trilogy of drug, drink and tattoo-addled revelry. This in itself showed the film had hit a nerve. It captured the whiplash bewilderment of the credit crunch. The Financial Crash for Dummies films had not yet materialised, leaving people dumbfounded and wondering what on earth had happened. Much like the bromantic trio, we woke up one day to find the place had been trashed overnight, forcing us to retrace our steps to figure out the source of the catastrophe.
In a similar way, films set during the Great Depression, such as It Happened One Night (1934) or Modern Times (1936), often focus on the deprived characters and their stories with the crisis as a backdrop.
These films use a certain visual language to subtly locate the audience without explicitly stating the setting: dusty labourers, desperate job-hunting signs or single suitcases containing ones few worldly possessions.
These visual cues channel the environment of this seismic world event into the undercurrent of the film. Audiences could similarly comprehend a 2020 cinematic setting with something as simple as a close-up on a crumpled blue disposable face mask lying on the street.
For many teens enthralled by Stephanie Meyer, myself included, Twilight (2008) was the first time we heard reference to the Spanish influenza. Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen almost succumbs to the virus in his mortal life, before he is turned into a vampire. The deadly 1918 virus was a small but essential plot point of the saga and educated a generation that otherwise would not likely have known of it.
The muted cultural rendering of that pandemic, despite its death toll of at least 50 million people worldwide, could point to its absence of romance and cinema. Films about The Black Death are similarly few and far between.
Films can be crucial to our cultural memory as well as our collective reckoning with trauma. 2020 has been a year of traumas. Not only the coronavirus and its ripple effect in virtually every aspect of our lives, but police brutality and systemic racism, encroaching climate calamity, Brexit, terrorism and broken political discourse.
We are already on a collision course with what could be a Contagion-esque 2020 rehash. Ultimately the question boils down to when filmmakers will have the urge to grapple with the pandemic and its octopus tentacle effects, and then how they will choose to do so. It is hard to believe the coronavirus could, like the 1918 flu, only feature as a minor plot point in a major film franchise this time next century. However, we could prove as eager to forget this pandemic as they were to forget that one.
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