Almost inevitably, Hollywood will help shape the cultural memory of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several quarantine films have already come out, but they haven’t quite hit the mark. They emphasize social isolation, while foregrounding their production constraints, or delve into disaster tropes, like the much-panned “Songbird.”
It will take some time — and the pandemic will have to recede — before anyone can see it clearly.
Joshua Loomis, author of “Epidemics: The Impact of Germs and Their Power over Humanity,” argues the pandemic will be memorialized much the way the polio outbreaks of the 1930s through the 1950s are remembered.
“If you look at artistic production, it was really centered around the heroes of the story,” Loomis says. “It focused on how we moved on and overcame. There were books and movies about Jonas Salk and FDR. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra supported the March of Dimes. They tried to put more of an uplifting slant on it. You didn’t see the horrific side of kids being paralyzed the rest of their lives, or people in iron lungs. The cultural production was all about how we came together to defeat it.”
Loomis points to the Super Bowl and the Golden Globe Awards, which each honored frontline workers and first responders.
David France directed “How to Survive a Plague” about the AIDS pandemic. He is now at work on a documentary for HBO about the researchers who raced to develop the COVID vaccines. He argues that the pandemic could open up interest in all kinds of people who did not have the luxury of working from home.
“The word ‘essential workers’ was never applied to the people who sell you your cigarettes at the bodega,” France says. “Now we know we could not have an economy without the class of retail workers, delivery drivers, Amazon workers… It opens up their stories to us and our curiosity about their stories. It makes them more relevant.”
The frontrunner for best picture, “Nomadland,” is not about the pandemic. But its lead character works in an Amazon distribution facility, along with other tenuous jobs.
France has spent a lot of time thinking about the lost generation of gay men due to the AIDS pandemic. The victims of COVID were largely elderly, and a disproportionate share came from communities of color.
“We’ve lost a generation of our seniors,” France says. “I bet we’re going to start seeing artists find a way to express that loss.”
But in the near term, people may simply prefer not to think about it. In the years after effective AIDS treatments became available, France says the prevailing response was silence.
“It was over and gone. We had done it we knew it and that was that,” he says. “One needs to get away from a trauma, a mass death experience, and spend some time not thinking about it before you’re ready to go and ask the question, ‘What did it really mean?'”
The pandemic to which COVID is most often compared is the 1918 influenza. But coming on the heels of World War I, it left little cultural impression either at the time or later on.
“People were just tired of disease and devastation,” Loomis says. “There was very little mention of it in the decades that followed.”
In every pandemic, Loomis says, the worst elements tend to be forgotten. Even the cultural memory of AIDS — which does tend to emphasize empathy and suffering — leaves out some of the darkest aspects. The same will be true of COVID, Loomis says.
“No one want to see a movie about COVID-19 right now,” he says. “We’ve all lived it so immensely. Who wants to watch a movie about death and suffering if that’s the focus of it?”