I felt a range of different emotions when the COVID-19 crisis began, and a lot of different thoughts went through my head. One was a profound sense of unreality: this kind of thing happens in movies, not in real life, and definitely not here, in Switzerland, in one of the wealthiest, most privileged countries in the world. Another was constant, low-level stress and the feeling that my brain and its usual processing power was off, somehow, that my thinking was constantly woolly and my ability to remember things (never exactly my strong side) was pretty much shot.
However, not all of what I was feeling was confusing, confounding or plain bad. There was also a sense that for the first time in my life we were experiencing something as the whole world. Even if we were stressed, anxious and confused, we were sharing this. No other event I’d ever experienced felt as truly global, and that was a good feeling: we were all in this together.
Fast forward several months and there’s little left of this sense of togetherness. It’s not so much that a feeling of global solidarity has eroded, but that we’re all in very different places. I look at news from the UK or the US and it sounds like these places are an entirely different world from the one I inhabit. Mege’s already written about how much has reopened here; I look at my movie diary and see that we’ve already seen five films at the cinema since the movie theatres around here reopened. (It would have been six films, but we fled an open-air showing of Bonjour Tristesse last Friday evening because the torrential rain that began more or less at the same time as the screening didn’t exactly fit the film. Now if it’d been Tarkovsky’s soggy, dripping classic Stalker…) Granted, it’s not the big blockbusters so much as smaller indie films and world cinema, movies that made the rounds at last year’s festivals – but we’re seeing films we’ve not been able to see before. At the same time, I open Twitter and see US and UK film critics discussing the release of Tenet or Black Widow being moved even further into the future, because who in their right mind would go to the multiplex these days? Very few people – at least in the countries where these films make the biggest bucks.
Obviously this is not even close to the most crucial aspect of the pandemic, even if there are obviously important discussions to be had about what COVID-19 will end up having done to the creative sector. I’m also not trying to rub anything in here, how we lucky few, blessed with a government that is less aggressively bad at governing, can afford to look all smug because we can go to the movies. Very few people chose the country they live in based on its supposed or actual pandemic preparedness.
For me, one of the most striking things in all of this is really how, three or four months ago, we were going through a crisis as an entire world, and now there seem to be all these parallel universes going through their own what if? version of the pandemic. I go back to the office at least some days of the week, I go to the shops, I think about what we can see at the cinema some evening this week… and then I listen to an episode of This American Life or Radiolab and hear heartbreaking stories of how the pandemic has hit people there, how many people are sick or dead. I see presidents spout ignorant nonsense about how the situation can be handled, or how there isn’t really a situation that needs to be handled to begin with. I listen to podcasts and watch video essays made by people who’ve mostly been sitting at home for months, trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, and they don’t know how they, let alone so many artists, will survive this economically.
It doesn’t really matter if we won’t be getting the latest season of our favourite series on Netflix any time soon. It doesn’t matter that Tenet may still be months away from being released. We’ll live if we have to go to our back catalogue and watch something else or, gasp!, rewatch something. But the delays are a symptom, as is the uncertainty. While we’re all sitting in our own little parallel universes, where some of us go to the cinema and others don’t know if the cinemas will open any time before 2021 (and, if they do, whether it would be foolhardy stupidity to go there), artists and the creative industry are going through a massive crisis. Whenever we get through this pandemic, it’s unlikely that the creative sector will look even remotely similar to how it was before the big C-19.