The Corona Diaries: Hello darkness, my old friend

Here we are, Sunset and Camden: yesterday, for the first time in almost half a year, I sat in a movie theatre, watched the lights go down, the curtain open, and the film begin. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, all wearing yellow raincoats, begin to sing that iconic song. Sitting in the satiny dark of the cinema felt like coming home – but, like so many homecomings, there’s a note of ambivalence.

In late October 2020, cinemas closed in Switzerland, as did theatres, museums, and the like – and it was probably the only right thing to do. Switzerland had opened too quickly and too carelessly last summer, and the second wave hit hard. You do you, COVID-19, and you definitely had your fun last autumn and winter.

Obviously it is great to be at the cinema again – and doubly so if the first film we get to see at the glorious REX is Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s dazzling Technicolor confection Singin’ in the Rain, a film I’d only seen on TV to date. It wasn’t entirely perfect: for some reason, the final reel suffered from an audio/video desync that, while fitting some of the film’s plot quite neatly, did mar the final scene, resulting in both Kathy Selden and Lina Lamont singing when their mouths weren’t open and being quiet when they were. But it did feel good being back after all this time.

If only it wasn’t for the strange zigzag course the Swiss authorities embarked on in recent weeks. They’d long been accused of making it up as they go along, as opposed to defining a set of metrics that would help decide whether stricter measures were necessary or whether things were looking up and restrictions could be loosened or dropped altogether. Earlier this year the government had finally defined those metrics, even if it didn’t state what values would result in what kind of changes to the measures. Lately, most of these metrics had worsened, if not radically so (yet) – so the government reacted in the only sensible way: by deciding on an extensive easing of restrictions. More infections than two weeks ago? Open gyms, restaurants, cinemas and theatres!

Obviously I do feel with small businesses, artists and organisers of cultural events, as the situation has been an existential threat to their work and livelihood, and I have missed being able to go out and do things. And there has been progress with respect to vaccinating the groups most at risk (though most of the recent vaccination news are that there have been delays for this or that reason, so it’s not really like we are on schedule). There have also been protests, though when many of them are organised by outright COVID-19 deniers I can’t say I have much sympathy for those. But I admit that I am worried about two scenarios that aren’t unlikely: 1) in a couple of weeks, numbers will start going up more steeply, and before long we’re back in some form of shutdown for the indefinite future, or 2) numbers go up, more people will die or get ill and suffer from the long-term effects of COVID-19, but the genie’s been let out of the bottle and at this point it’s mainly the parties prioritising short-term economic gain that call the shots.

I am glad to be back at the REX. I am glad that my favourite theatre festival, AUAWIRLEBEN, is able to take place physically, at least to some extent. I am glad that there is some hope for the small cafés and restaurants, theatres and cinemas. And I dearly hope that neither of the two scenarios I’ve mentioned come true. But it is difficult to enjoy a joyful, exuberant musical as much as I would want to if the countries surrounding Switzerland are going in the opposite direction. Switzerland has a long history of regarding itself as special: we’re on top of things, they work differently here, our chocolate and cheese and money and neutrality (but not cuckoo clocks, whatever Harry Lime may claim!) will protect us. Here’s hoping the virus knows that too.

But let’s not end on that grim note. Whatever happens in a few weeks or months, we got to see Singin’ in the Rain at our favourite cinema, and that should keep us going for a while.

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