Commentary: When the coronavirus fades, will we find any trace of it at the movies?

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When crises and cataclysms strike, they do their damage and then enter the bloodstream of everything we watch.

What we see, often, is popular culture running the other way. With the film, television and streaming realms suddenly and radically reordered in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of us order up bread, circuses and “Tiger King.” Something low, and tasty.

It feels like a very long time since I saw Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” March 10, at the IMAX Theater on Chicago’s Navy Pier, sitting in close proximity with moviegoers wondering if they should’ve been there.

How will the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 play out at the movies and on home screens next year and beyond?

It’s impure guesswork at best. It’s far easier to make a list of how COVID-19 has turned every film made before 2020 into a compilation of social-distancing misjudgments. “I watch old games on ESPN, and seeing a stadium filled with people actually gives me anxiety,” says Bill Krebs, executive producer and writer on the NBC series “Good Girls.” “I watch a movie, any movie, where there’s a crowded restaurant, people waiting for a table — anxiety.”

Another TV producer and screenwriter, Jennifer Cacicio, is working on two TV pilots, both of which sold before “all this happened,” she says. One is about an unsolved art heist. The other is about the daughter of a serial killer. “Right now the heist a lot easier to work on,” she says. “It’s less depressing.”

Cacicio says that the energy is very strange in her industry right now. Executives in charge of development are unsure about viewers’ near-future appetites, six months or a year ahead. “I think we’re all just waiting,” she says, “to see what sort of work this will lead to.” Krebs says that “friends of mine who work on medical shows are seriously concerned that some of their episodes, if they’re about a virus in a hospital, might have to be rewritten or re-shot.”

A pandemic is not like a terrorist attack, no matter how often a politician calls it “the Invisible Enemy.” It’s not as easily demonized, unless you want to get into the politics and management of the crisis, thereby writing off roughly half the country and half your potential viewers.

Yet the history we’re living through, today, is hugely dramatic in impact and in the individual stories waiting to be told. “As a writer,” Krebs says, “you want to give voice to something that hasn’t been heard or seen yet. What’s happening to all these small businesses, all the restaurants closing? What about how everyone is struggling on multiple fronts?” A few years from now, he says, “I think people will want to understand how something like this happened. Because they don’t want it to happen again.”

A century ago, the nation and the nation’s film industry had just been through two massive losses of life: World War I, and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. The Great War ended just as the pandemic began.

Many of the independent operators couldn’t survive the flu outbreak and subsequent closures. The Spanish flu years were, for the movies, life-threatening. The majority of U.S. theaters closed down for up to six months. When they reopened, the movie business came back strong.

As Richard Brody wrote in a recent New Yorker film essay: “Just as in 1918, it’s not inconceivable today that movies made ‘before’ – before the crackdown against the novel coronavirus, which seems like its own kind of wartime — will seem as dated, and prove as unpopular, as war movies did after the Armistice.”

I wonder if I’m alone in wondering: As a country, are we about to hit a period of our history combining unlearned lessons of the 1918 pandemic with the lingering economic fallout of the Great Depression? I hope not. On the other hand, the Depression’s worst years in the early 1930s served as the spark for one of the greatest periods of Hollywood filmmaking.

The Production Code, designed to keep the movies relatively vice-free, was still laxly enforced. The moral landscape of the movies was all about dire straits, expedience and survival. The thrills were often cheap, but the anger was a tonic.

In the pre-Code era, says author and historian Thomas Doherty, you had every kind of movie: from mad comic escapism, in the form of hugely popular and instantly dated Eddie Cantor musical comedies such as “Roman Scandals”(1933), to “a cycle of films at Warner Brothers that directly addressed the effects of the Great Depression.”

Doherty wrote a marvelous book on the subject called “Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934.” In some of the harshest films of the period, corrupt and sadistic prison settings (“20,000 Years in Sing Sing,” “Each Dawn I Die” and especially “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”) became teeming metaphors for a nation teetering on the brink.

“You look at those films, and you see the rebellion and chaos and fear of a country that’s going off the rails,” Doherty says. “Many of those films, and not just the prison pictures, are a pure expression of what artists and audiences are feeling at the time. It’s striking. You’d think audiences would only go to escapist stuff, to Fred and Ginger dancing in art deco apartments.”

Horror classics of the time, such as the 1931 “Frankenstein,” dealt with the tyranny of the angry mob out for vengeance, not so different from the frenzied bank run in Frank Capra’s “American Madness” a year later. Movie mobs such as these suggest a crying need for mob rule. And in part, they explain the rise of the gangster genre in the early ’30s — films in which American streets became battlegrounds, and the stuff of warfare.

When the COVID-19 movies come along in the next few years, one film historian speculates, they’ll lean heavily on stories of everyday heroism. Martin Barker, author of “A ‘Toxic Genre’: The Iraq War Films,” focused his book on the 23 Iraq-themed dramas released between 2005 and 2008. “They were made in the teeth of rejection by audiences,” he says. “People knew the films were likely to fail.” Some didn’t; “The Hurt Locker” took the top Oscar, and it remains a pretty riveting procedural. But “everybody making a movie on the subject was either (slammed) for being anti-war, or anti-American or, worst of all, anti-soldier. Or else they were criticized for not being tough enough.”

Barker lives in Bristol, England. “Here in the UK,” he says, “I feel the current emphasis is on heroes — the heroes of the National Health Service, the caregivers. We need to celebrate these people, including all the immigrants who’ve put their lives on the line to save other people.”

Several movies made following the 9/11 terrorist attacks tried a similar tactic, though for such an allegedly unifying moment in 21st century American history, the films struggled to find big, appreciative audiences. The attacks also caused some collateral damage to movies and TV shows of the time, including the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Collateral.” The international bombers plot felt all wrong for a post-9/11 release; the film ended up coming out a few months later, with a new marketing campaign.

Meantime Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch,” then in production, went back to the drawing board for a new climax. Stitch’s 747 joyride through a cityscape wasn’t landing anymore; the scene was relocated to Hawaii, and the aircraft became an alien spaceship.

It’s easy to be yanked out of a movie — “Man of Steel” or “Batman v Superman,” to name two crass DC examples — when a second-rate director plunders images derived from Manhattan under attack on Sept. 11, 2001. With a first-rate director, it’s different, or can be. Steven Spielberg wreaked 9/11-tinged havoc in “War of the Worlds”; the best images, such as the speeding train on fire, took an extra step into the fantastic, not for kicks, but for cold creeps and a deathly chill.

That’s the sort of image made for a big screen and a big crowd. A few months from now, will people be itching to get out of the house to find that big screen and a big crowd, the way I am? Or will they stay put, and hope they can get the stuff they used to get at a theater while they’re at home?

The recent streaming premiere of “Trolls World Tour,” a hugely popular lockdown viewing option for the kids, has threatened to erode the major film studios’ allegiance to traditional theatrical release strategies. AMC Theatres, a financial mess thanks in large part to the pandemic, says it won’t be showing any Universal Studios titles if things get back to before.

Netflix may be cleaning up right now, but production isn’t back up and running yet. With this exception, announced April 28: “Orange is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan is making a quarantine anthology series for Netflix. It’s titled “Social Distance.” It’s a virtually rendered project, with showrunner Weisman Graham running the show from her living room, with cast members performing and in their separate residences.

In this “new, bizarre, bewildering reality we are all experiencing,” the series producers wrote in a release earlier this week, “Social Distance” will cover “a broad spectrum of tales and moments, some seismic and some mundane,” with the hope of “helping people feel closer to one another.”

Screenwriter and producer Cacicio, the one writing the two series pilots, says “it’ll take six months, or whenever this ends” for her to begin thinking clearly about one question in particular. That question is simple, she says: “What do I want to write about what just happened?”

And that, Cacicio cautions, isn’t what executives higher up the food chain are worrying about. Their question, she says, hasn’t changed across a century’s worth of calamity:

“When all this is over, what are people gonna want?”


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