We’ve seen this scenario before, but only in the cinema: a mysterious plague, for which there is no cure, suddenly appears out of nowhere and ravages the globe. In everything from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), dealing with the Black Plague in the 1300s, to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), in which a mysterious virus causes agonizing death in a matter of days, society is unprepared for what befalls it, scampering uselessly in circles to contain the spread of the disease. This time, however, there is no barrier between the spectacle we witness unfolding on the screen and the audience. This time, the threat is real. And as in the cinematic iterations of a viral pandemic, we are unprepared in real life.
The only thing that comes close to this level of worldwide impact is the so-called Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918–1920, which infected 500 million people around the globe, leaving a death toll measured anywhere between 17 to 100 million — the statistics surrounding the event are still imprecise — and fundamentally changing the course of society. But in the end, no real lessons were learned, because as governments worldwide are again caught unprepared, the COVID-19 virus, first identified in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, has spread throughout the globe with a death rate of 4.5 per cent as of March 25, 2020 for every 1,000 infections. And the virus has yet to really take hold.
There is no vaccine; there is no cure; and the only thing that can be done is to isolate patients from the rest of society, much as was done during the Black Plague. Then the victims of COVID-19 have to fight it out on their own, with the elderly being particularly susceptible to serious illness and death. It’s a perfect horror movie scenario, but unfortunately, this is one nightmare we can’t wake up from. And, of course, in times such as these, people are forced to adapt to the new normal, with no idea of when the pandemic will end. As I write this in late March 2020, I’m hoping the by the end of August, things will have eased somewhat, but the best information now is that COVID-19 is here to stay, a perennial, seasonal disease, and until a vaccine is found, a lethal killer.
So what do we do to cope? We’d like to go to the movies, but for good reason, the theatres are closed. Indeed, all public places around the world have been shut down or severely curtailed, with limits of ten people in most cases in public places at the most lenient, and forced house quarantine in the most severe regimes, have been enforced. The same goes for stores, concert halls, churches, weddings, funerals, all public gatherings — they’re all history. Looking now at images of people walking through the streets of New York City even a few months ago — when, for example, I attended the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art on October 18, 2019 with bustling crowd of artists and critics — are immediately nostalgic.
Everything has moved online. We’ve all seen the videos of the citizens of Italy, along with China and Spain one of the hardest hit nations, singing from their balconies to each other to maintain social distancing — the new buzzword of the current era. Television and film production has been stopped throughout the world, and the release of nearly all theatrical films has been pushed back until the theatres can open again — but when will that be? Any attempt to schedule or manage the timeline of the COVID-19 virus is an exercise in futility; the virus creates the timeline, not us. We can only wash our hands, keep our distance, and stay home until the crisis passes — as presumably it will, in one fashion or another.
So with theatres shut, how do you get mainstream films out to the paying public? Universal Pictures decided to release four of the their current theatrical releases to streaming video, including Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, and Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (all 2020) at a $20 price point, but the experiment has pretty much failed; people are used to paying $2.99 or $3.99 for a recent film, and all of the above mentioned films are relatively low budget projects that will earn back their production cost without a theatrical release. For the blockbusters, which traditionally need a massive global opening theatrical weekend, we’ll have to wait. But will audiences return to the multiplexes? Recently, theatre owners have been discussing that in order to get audiences to return to theatres, they may have to let audiences in for free until they get the theatrical “habit” again.
The online world of images has flourished as never before, to the point that the streaming giants have voluntarily degraded their signal from high definition to standard definition to clear up additional bandwidth for the battalion of new online customers. Netflix, of course, has exploded, as has Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming video sources; not only that, but with traditional brick and mortar stores closing on every side, leaving only online ordering for goods and services as an option, all of society has become a cloistered cohort, living entirely through Zoom, Facebook and FaceTime, since human face-to-face contact is now so inherently risky. In New York City, the normally bustling streets are empty, and the same goes for Los Angeles, London, Brisbane, Wellington, and every other large-scale city — and even small town — throughout the world.
There has been a bizarre upside to COVID-19, if that’s possible — the return to DIY filmmaking and video production, on such platforms as Vimeo and YouTube, as individual artists either upload new work created entirely by one person, or older works that recall a past now seemingly beyond authentic recall. At the same time, the number of older films illegally uploaded to the web has also expanded considerably; the entire 20th century of worldwide cinema is online, free, if you know where to look for it. All of this has happened in mere months, and yet it seems that the change in what we view, and how we view it, is irreversible and long-term. Late night chat shows around the globe now rely on Skype interviews for program content; airlines have shut down, airports are closed, hotel chains have thousands of empty rooms, because no one wants to fly — and indeed no one can, since nearly every country has imposed some sort of ban on travellers in an attempt to contain the virus.
There’s no telling when this will end; indeed, there’s no real sense of how it will end, barring the creation of a cheap and universally available vaccine, and, of course, some sort of treatment for those already infected. Most experts believe that any effective prophylactic is a year or more away, although trials for experimental vaccines have already started. But in the meantime, we might do well to consider how our fascination with global destruction has led us into complacency, as something that could only happen in a movie, but not in real life.
There are numerous cinematic variations on the theme of a global, fatal pandemic, a theme that seems always popular with audiences, who want the risk and excitement of fictional danger but at the same time want to keep it safely at arm’s length, as something that could never happen to them. When H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay for William Cameron Menzies’ all too prescient film Things to Come (1936), he accurately predicted the outbreak of World War II, but also something that did not come to pass: a worldwide pestilence called the “wandering sickness,” causing people to stagger aimlessly about like zombies, infecting others everywhere they go, with violent death — usually at the point of a gun — as the only way to stop their onslaught.
In Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow’s The Last Man on Earth (1964), Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) and Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), a viral plague has similarly destroyed civilization, until only a few survivors are left to fight against the infected walking dead. Terence Fisher’s The Earth Dies Screaming (1964) posits a “gas attack” that kills all but a few survivors, all of whom were in controlled ventilation areas or in oxygen tents, and thus avoided certain death. In Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), scientists rush to combat an airborne virus from space that kills all life on contact within a matter of seconds. In John Sturges’ The Satan Bug (1965), a lethal virus secretly developed in a bioweapons lab in the American desert is stolen by a fanatic bent on world destruction. And in the more recent South Korean film Flu (2013), directed by Kim Sung-Su, an outbreak of the H5-N1 flu virus kills all whom it infects within 36 hours. The list goes on.
But perhaps the most useful comparison is to Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, based on several stories by Edgar Allan Poe. Shot in England by the gifted cinematographer and later director Nicolas Roeg, Masque owes obvious debts to The Seventh Seal, but succeeds on its own merits as it tells the tale of Satanist Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, in peak form) as the debauched ruler of small province in Medieval Italy. While the rest of the world dies in agony outside the walls of Prospero’s castle from the effects of The Red Death, Prospero leads a select group of jaded upper-class revellers in a series of sadistic games that culminate in the death of his entire party, as the Red Death enters the castle and strikes down one and all. In an epilogue, the figure of the Red Death notes that “I called many… peasant and prince… the worthy and the dishonoured.”
The COVID-19 virus is, indeed, the great leveller. No one is safe from it, and the fact that it seems like a hardy perennial, eventually to join the host of other illnesses that we deal with on a daily basis, makes its appearance all the more alarming. And yet, we have been “preparing” for it since the dawn of the cinema, and the first time we contemplated our own inevitable mortality on screen. Now the threat is no longer an abstraction, but a fact. As we move online, for goods, services, entertainment and social contact, we leave the real world behind all the more.
This is when the fictions we created on the screen become real, as we move into a semi-permanent world of quarantine. The images we make now will have only a phantom connection to the past, and when and if, at last, this virus is conquered, it will have left a mark on civilisation that will never be erased. What kind of a new cinema will we make when the crisis is past? Like 9/11, COVID-19 has changed the rules of the game; what we create in the future will have a distinctive point of rupture from the past.