Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Coronavirus At The Movies

The Movies Have Got It Covid

Warning: This article gives away the endings to Wonder Woman, Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Over the last six months of pseudo lockdown, I’ve been writing and editing a monthly Pandemic newsletter which I send to a small circle of friends to help keep them occupied and smiling through these trying times. Normally I don’t repeat content from here that I’ve included there and vice versa but, I thought the following article which I wrote for inclusion in the final issue (volume 2 starts up when we hit the second wave of Covid), number 6, last week might interest some of my blog readers too so, here’s the article I wrote speculating how cinema content might be shaped in the Covid and post-Covid world. I hope you like it.

It’s been suggested to me recently that, once movie production gets going again properly, it’s doubtful that the future of film will be reflective of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. The argument is that people will not want to see depictions of social distancing on screen and, instead, will want to see a world untouched by the disease that has been, err, plaguing us these last six months or more. Audiences go to the cinema for escape, after all.

I'd have to say that... I think it’s probably quite dependent on how long this ‘new normal’ will be with us but I don’t think that people who are working on any form of art... be it film, fiction or music (to name but three), will be necessarily falling over themselves to provide people with a Covid-free environment in their work. Also, the fact that it seems people can get reinfected just a few months after having the symptoms, possibly prompting four times a year vaccines* if, indeed, an effective one can be found, is also going to be a factor in this. I think we could be stuck in this for a while and I fully expect our films to represent this. Even those set in alternate fantasy versions of our current reality such as the DC and Marvel universes, for example.

One of the things you need to remember is that a lot of fictional creators tend to base their stories in a world of historical accuracy. Unless they’re set in the past or in some remote fantasy land such as Middle Earth or Cimmeria, they’re going to want to base their story in the real world as much as possible. Why? Well simply because conforming to a facsimile of the real world helps make the fantasy they are weaving... be it superheroes, spy stories or even romantic comedies... more believable. If the audience can buy into the physical, psychological and sociological environment in which certain characters are interacting with each other, then it makes the story they are telling more credible.

Historically there are plenty of things which buy into the time period of when they are set and in which great pains are taken to explain certain historical inaccuracies conjured up by the subject of their stories.

Take the comics of DC published during the Second World War, for example. The DC characters were so powerful that kids would wonder why they didn’t just go over to Germany and stop the war. A good point... Superman would have finished the war in one afternoon.  So the writers came up with (or is that fell back on?) the artefact which Hitler himself listed among his occult obsessions. In the DC comics, Hitler absolutely had possession of the Spear Of Destiny (the spear that allegedly pierced the body of Christ on the cross), an artefact which has been used over and over again in genre fiction and movies since... well, for a long time. Because of the strange properties of the Spear Of Destiny, the readers were told, the superheroes couldn’t go near Hitler because the Spear would negate their super powers. And so, the comics could go on publishing superhero tales without the question of quickly ending the war ever coming up. A useful side step.

And we’ve seen things using historical context time and time again at the cinema. Take the recent Wonder Woman movie, for example. This was set in the First World War and, because it was Diana’s mission to end that war by destroying her war god brother, the film-makers brilliantly made sure that the day that she does this also coincided with the day the armistice was signed. So in the real world about her, the war was over but... we flies on the wall know how it really ended... right? Wink. A nice solution to what could have been a huge fantasy versus reality problem. One which allowed the fantasy world of the character to play out in a relatively accurate historical backdrop without the two elements ever fighting one another. Nice work.

Of course, some writers and directors don’t care about historical accuracy... or so it seems at first. Look at the two Quentin Tarantino movies Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, for example...

I work in an educational establishment and I can’t even begin to tell you the horror stories of the genuine historical ignorance of a large number of the students making their way through colleges and universities across the country. It’s astonishing and I can tell you now that there are a lot of people of a certain age (and younger, now) who believe that Adolf Hitler met his death by being machine gunned down in an exploding cinema and... that’s how the Second World War ended, didn’t it? Because that’s what happens at the end of Inglourious Basterds so, it must be true, right? That was set in World War II. Now, I’m absolutely all for artists doing what they want in movies but, when something presents itself as historically accurate then I think they should just have a little warning put in at the beginning of the film saying that the outcomes of this film are in no way representative of real life. Because, you know, a lot of people think these things actually are.

Similarly, even though the ending Tarantino was going to go for was obvious even before I took my seat at the cinema to see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, there are a fair few people of, again, a certain age, who think Sharon Tate went on to have a long, prosperous career as a Hollywood actress. I guess at least some of the people who go on to explore her post-Manson body of work will hit a wall of truth when it comes to the IMDB, at least.

The thing is, though, even these flights of fancy on the parts of Tarantino are taking a lot of time to paint that fantasy into a world which is backed up by the time in which they are set. Sure, the outcome is different but all the window dressing of 1940s Germany and 1960s Hollywood is brought into play to make his fantasies credible. So, really, he’s doing exactly the same as most filmmakers do these days... setting the story in a historically accurate environment.

Which brings me back to Covid in the movies (and other art forms). If this thing truly does last less than a year then I think the virus and the distancing will, at the very least, be used to have a scene or two with ‘light hearted social distancing’ scenes used to show, say, a development through time for a romantic relationship. “Oh, look guys, now they’re in the 2020s and they’ve got that kooky social distancing going on!”

At the worst... which I’m guessing is where we are at (the news hasn’t been very encouraging of late), I think we’ll be seeing the long term effects of social distancing and coronavirus in movies for a long time to come. Because, for one thing, it demonstrates what the audience are living themselves and thus adds credibility to the story line (whether you want to see it or not) and two... because if you’re forced to film scenes in a socially distant manner then, surely, it will be easier to do that if the scenes you are doing that with are having socially distant content?

So yeah, I’m sorry to say that, in terms of the virus and its more visible side effects, I think art will be imitating life just as much as it always does in the future and, since coronavirus is such an important part of our everyday lives currently, I don’t see us escaping that anytime soon.

*has been suggested at time of writing

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