Omissions of This Magnitude Have Consequences
April 26, 2023 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Our collective memories are what give us historical consciousness. We currently have next to nothing we can point to and say: this happened, it is still happening, here is what we’ve lost, and here’s why this must never happen again. from Hollywood Pretends There Is No Pandemic by Violet Blue
posted by chavenet (47 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for this. I would probably nope out of watching anything that was really grimly tackling the pandemic since I'm just not ready for that, but I have really appreciated a few shows that have acknowledged it's happening. I can think of a few not mentioned in the article: romance Alone Together (which was just fine), The Bubble (which was pretty funny), and my personal favourite, Locked Down, which used the pandemic as a plot point in a heist. I also very much enjoyed how Glass Onion (which was mentioned in the article) handled it.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:08 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]

Where is our Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe?
posted by njohnson23 at 4:19 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]

So, I just watched Sick on Peacock the other day, and it was great! That was some Covid slasher shit that was so much better than a big-standard slasher!
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:22 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]

I credit Steven Soderbergh and his team on KIMI for weaving the pandemic as an element into a Rear-Window-esque thriller. The filming appears to have been adapted well to pandemic protocols, per this Entertainment Weekly article.
posted by JDC8 at 4:34 PM on April 26 [8 favorites]

Remember when Tom Cruise, of all people, goes on a outburst about failed Covid-19 protocols? That honestly gave me a sliver of hope that "professionals" had to take it seriously.

Then when new seasons began airing, I was irate at one scene where one character literally mocks another one for wearing a mask because they're six feet apart - in an enclosed room. All the characters wore a mask for the first scene, then took them off as soon as they had a single line or close-up, and they never showed up again. Bizarrely, this was a show that literally fired one of the supporting actors for not being vaccinated.
posted by meowzilla at 5:02 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

I worked in post-production in Hollywood, in what I know now was Zone D, and bruh, I tested twice during 2020-2021, all the while meeting Zone A peeps fairly often. (Pretty sure I didn't infect the late Ed Asner or Cristela Alonzo.) Not super happy at the moment with my former employer and the new VP hire, a certified Covid safety officer, overseeing that mishegas.

My colleagues all seemed to have risk factors that put them in line first for the vaccine, and were starting to live lives of hope, faith, courage and freedom again... so two years ago I asked a different, friendly VP to sign a letter I had typed up stating that I was a janitor so I could get a vaccine at an event in Los Angeles County. I'm not proud of jumping the line, but I don't think I actually stole a vaccine from someone who needed it more; I showed up at the very end of the event and saw excess palettes of the Janssen vaccine in an air-conditioned storage unit waiting for people who didn't show.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:15 PM on April 26 [7 favorites]

The second season of the delightful Everything's Gonna Be Okay was filmed and takes place in 2020-2021. Nobody gets Covid but the effect of the pandemic on the mostly teenage characters was nicely handled.

I'm currently on Day 4 of my first (afaik) case of Covid. It sucks! The good news is that I didn't infect any of my colleagues thanks to our staggered WFH schedule. The infuriating news is that my employer has decided to end that schedule starting next week because "we need to go back to normal."
posted by doift at 6:44 PM on April 26 [5 favorites]

It's not Hollywood, but the BBC's Staged, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen (or was it Michael Sheen and David Tennant?) was a great couple of seasons based entirely around the realities of the pandemic.
posted by chromecow at 7:01 PM on April 26 [15 favorites]

Where is our Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe?
posted by njohnson23 at 1:19 PM on April 26 [+] [!]

London lost 15% of its population in the Great Plague. Based on the current population of London that would be 1,350,000 deaths.

20,000 are listed as having died of Covid in the Greater London area.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:03 PM on April 26 [15 favorites]

We’re being gaslit and mocked by the very people we’re looking to for some relief in all of this.

Yo, just because Hollywood isn't making the shows or movies you think they should doesn't mean we're being "gaslit". That word really has become pretty much meaningless at this point.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:09 PM on April 26 [25 favorites]

it really does mess with me, a lot, to think about the way that Hollywood takes incredibly strict precautions on a day-to-day basis to safely enable them to create the illusion that the pandemic is over
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:17 PM on April 26 [9 favorites]

Since we're giving credit for shows that acknowledged Covid, A Million Little Things had some major plot points related to it, a couple of which had results that still affect the characters in the final season. And The Good Fight Had a major Covid plot with a sick character although most of it was in a flashback of what happened during the show's long hiatus.

AMLT is a soap opera and people getting sick and having issues is their jam, and TGF was very topical and political, so that makes sense. I'm actually OK with some shows ignoring Covid because I enjoy the escapism, but I do see this article's point.

The worst thing for TV watching during Covid has been the shows that had major behind-the-scenes impacts. Worst example that will never be beat: The Blacklist locked down during the production of their season finale, so half of that episode was inexplicably a cartoon, presumably produced by the people that do those low-budget Vietnamese TV news re-enactments.
posted by mmoncur at 7:22 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

A friend of mine loved The Blacklist, I can't believe he didn't mention the partial cartoon finale! The last season of One Day at a Time (2017) was during spring of 2020. Due to Covid the season was abbreviated and the final episode was also animated.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:32 PM on April 26 [2 favorites]

I'll be contrarian and say that I don't object to shows that use the pandemic for some serious purpose, but I feel no need whatsoever to be reminded of it all when just watching some random sitcom that happens to be set in 2021. I lived in NYC, I saw it, and I don't need to see N95s on faces as the set-dressing versimilitude equivalent of the right waist on the jeans.
posted by praemunire at 8:35 PM on April 26 [15 favorites]

It might take a while. The US withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. US movies about the war started to appear about five years later: Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) ...
posted by JonJacky at 8:57 PM on April 26 [13 favorites]

We thought the Righteous Gemstones was opting to maintain a covid-less universe when it returned, but then Uncle Baby Billy shills his magic snake oil by promising, "rub it on your hands! No mo' CO-vid!"

It was brilliant. OF COURSE covid had happened in that universe; there was just no way that crop of idiots was going to have taken it remotely seriously.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:36 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

Evidence of the pandemic will survive in repeats of old UK panel shows (QI, Would I Lie to You etc) in the form of plastic screens separating the participants at their shared desk and greater distance between their seats. Shows like this were often filmed without their usual studio audience too, which is very evident when you happen to catch a repeat from Covid times.

There are whole channels here in the UK which depend heavily on endless repeats of these shows for their content - and many of the shows themselves have a healthy international following on YouTube - so there's no danger of the Covid era episodes disapproving any time soon.

As for a modern Journal of the Plague Year, I can recommend this
posted by Paul Slade at 12:24 AM on April 27 [6 favorites]

Curious. Hollywood is so marginal to my existence, I did not immediately get the point of this. There again, I struggle with a core proposition, namely that "Our collective memories are what give us historical consciousness" - where do you begin? "Our collective memories" yours or mine? And this is in an infamously fractured and divided world in which there are more 'ours' and 'we's' than ever? And if it were otherwise? If there ever was or might be an ours, would it be less plastic, less malleable, less contested by power seekers? Who we are and what we remember are political prizes endlessly contested. Then there's 'historical consciousness' as complex and contested in its turn quite apart from the perfectly legitimate process which has every generation revisit and rewrite the past. Last but not least we have that innocent seeming "give" to link the one to the other. That is a black box of considerable proportions and complex inner workings!
posted by dutchrick at 12:36 AM on April 27 [9 favorites]

The US withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. US movies about the war started to appear about five years later

I came in here to make a related point. US movies set in Vietnam started appearing five years later but movies that were influenced and talking about the war were being made during. Famously, Last House on the Left (1972) was a direct response to the violence of Vietnam being sanitized for people.

When looking back to this time, there will be immeasurable amounts of media in direct and indirect conversation with the pandemic, even if it's not COVID: The Motion Picture.

I'm sure there will be an Emmy-winning show about COVID specifically in the next decade but not all representation is or should be literal.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:13 AM on April 27 [6 favorites]

There was a point, I think probably early 2021, where all sorts of tv shows - crime dramas, relationship dramas, anything contemporary and nominally realist - started to feel strangely science fictional to me, because none of the characters seemed to exist in the world of the viewers. Why were they hugging all the time? How did they go where they wanted so blithely? It was as though all these genres warped into alternate timeline stories.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 3:52 AM on April 27 [20 favorites]

War has been fodder for storytelling since the days of, well, Homer.

Plagues and pandemics on the other hand? Ignored, suppressed, time to move on.

Just look at media about the 1918-1919 flu, which killed at least 5x times as many people as covid has (in absolute numbers; as a percentage of the world population it's more than an order of magnitude). Absent from silent film, absent from talkies, absent from fiction until Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider in 1939!
posted by basalganglia at 4:46 AM on April 27 [17 favorites]

It's always sunny in Philadelphia and shameless are two other shows that made COVID a plot point, fairly realistically I thought
posted by subdee at 4:58 AM on April 27 [6 favorites]

I want to preface this complaint by saying that I have a lot of time for Violet Blue as a writer, and I think she made a number of really good points in her article.

However, what the heck was that comparison to the holocaust doing in there? She even mentions that it's comparing apples and oranges, and really should've followed her impulse to take the whole thing out.
posted by Kattullus at 5:31 AM on April 27 [4 favorites]

It's not Hollywood, but the BBC's Staged, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen (or was it Michael Sheen and David Tennant?) was a great couple of seasons based entirely around the realities of the pandemic.

This is such a wonderful, wonderful show.
posted by Gadarene at 5:47 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]

Also not Hollywood, in Pierre Jeunet's futuristic BigBug, filmed during the pandemic, a robot makes a joke about it. Really fantastic film.
posted by The Half Language Plant at 6:58 AM on April 27 [1 favorite]

I wrote a very brief mention of the pandemic into a short story about a pair of non-binary kids being stalked by the magic school they flunked out of, and the editor tried to take it out twice. The first reason she gave was, "It seems too realistic and out of place in this magical story," that was otherwise set in a trailer park on the south side of Indianapolis. (Here, I roll my eyes.) Reason the second, teens aren't ready to read about it.

Like... given that most of YA publishing is in NY, and NY was struck (arguably) the hardest, maybe the gatekeepers aren't ready to process it through art. And I can see that, not wanting to sink into a trauma you just finally left. There isn't a lot of 9/11 centered media either, all things considered.

But, I can tell you that creators are trying to create that material. They're often just denied the opportunity. (BTW, the two whole lines about the pandemic stayed in my story-- anthology comes out in June!)
posted by headspace at 7:52 AM on April 27 [7 favorites]

Also, someone (like myself) who pays too much attention to trends in low-to-mid-budget filmmaking can spot subtext of the pandemic by looking at 2021 and 2022, and seeing the sudden spike in dramas, comedies, thrillers, sci-fi, etc. whose premise relied on a small amount of people in fixed locations.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:12 AM on April 27 [8 favorites]

"Our collective memories are what give us historical consciousness" - where do you begin?

Yes, this is a form of reasoning you see sometimes in less robust leftist analysis, where a claim is picked up from more sophisticated theoretical work and redeployed without the nuance and context as a kind of bludgeon to clear space for arguments that need to be better grounded. It's not that the claim is false, but rather that it's shorthand for a lot of assumptions and analysis and you can't just use it as a truism.
posted by praemunire at 8:52 AM on April 27 [5 favorites]

I think SNL did an ok job about the sheer absurdity and hopelessness about the pandemic, but it's NYC, not Hollywood. Everything from endless Zoom calls to judging people about eating indoors in a restaurant, and an entire "remotely filmed" episode.

For now, there's Contagion, released nine years prior, which features a Hollywood-competent CDC and a grifter who gets his.

Just look at media about the 1918-1919 flu, which killed at least 5x times as many people as covid

More absurdity: the 1918 flu killed significantly more people than WW1, or "The Great War", yet we don't call it "The Great Flu" or anything.
posted by meowzilla at 9:08 AM on April 27 [2 favorites]

I will admit that covid plots were not the best, as they were so limited in what you could do while home alone, etc. Superstore did the best at incorporating the topic while still having to work as usual anyway, but most people just gave up on trying. On a related note, I just finished watching Daystreamer, a musical taking place in Zoom on 2020, mostly angsting about being a musician stuck at home/in a shitty day job in 2020.

Where is our Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe?

I signed up for The Pandemic Journaling Project, so that's where.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:37 AM on April 27 [4 favorites]

Okay, after now having read the article, I'd say the comparison to the Holocaust is legitimate.

The Holocaust has long been the world’s benchmark for mass death at a scale which we deem both inconceivable in its horror and the highest priority to prevent. Though the figure of six million is an estimate, it is widely agreed-upon that it happened in three short years between 1942 and 1945.

It can be said that comparing genocide and the Covid-19 pandemic is apples and oranges; my point is to impress upon you the sheer scale of what we’re going through. It is arresting to consider that within covid’s first three years 6,880,004 lives were lost to the virus. Nearly seven million. This number is an estimate, a known undercount. The actual counting of which ceased this month on the three-year anniversary of the pandemic’s first recognition, although not because the deaths nor the virus have been stopped.

We take pains to remember the Holocaust and its estimated 6 million deaths. We're ignoring the six million due to covid.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:44 AM on April 27 [3 favorites]

There is, in effect, no longer a pandemic for the vast majority of people. People on this website may not like this fact, but pretty much everyone has accepted that COVID is now part of regular life going forward, and don't think about it much anymore, or alter their behavior much because of it.

Every so often it's nice to be reminded that the majority of people really, really don't give a crap about people like me.
posted by MrVisible at 11:03 AM on April 27 [12 favorites]

Superstore did the best at incorporating the topic while still having to work as usual anyway, but most people just gave up on trying.

Yeah, Superstore (comedy about a bunch of floor workers at a Wal-Mart like store) did the pandemic pretty well.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:46 AM on April 27 [5 favorites]

Sadly, all the way to the end where the entire store closed and became online-only.
posted by meowzilla at 12:22 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]

We take pains to remember the Holocaust and its estimated 6 million deaths.

The six million is "only" the Jews. Even if you omit "mere" prisoners of war and regular old civilians of hostile nations, which would more than double that number, you add at least a million more from the Roma, the institutionalized, and homosexuals. still don't think it's an apt comparison.
posted by praemunire at 1:13 PM on April 27 [6 favorites]

The Holocaust has long been the world’s benchmark for mass death

The Holocaust is a benchmark for mass killing, not death. It has clear culpability. It was enacted by people against other people. It is a poor comparison.

The pandemic is more like a random act of God, like a tornado or earthquake. There aren't a lot of heroic tales or amazing feats to highlight. Blame is widespread and diffuse. The benchmark for pandemics is the Black Death. Proportionally, it would have to kill at least 1.4 billion people today.
posted by meowzilla at 1:37 PM on April 27 [15 favorites]

It seems worth noting that while references to concentration camps as being part of the Nazi, uh, deal, start appearing in films during the war, widely available art that reckons with the scale of the holocaust itself (not as a backdrop to a spy movie/war movie/escape film) and the full facts of the camps does not really start appearing until the early 1950s.*

So even if we applied those standards instead of, say, Vietnam War movie standards, we likely still have some years to go before there is a substantial body of art around Covid.

*There are a couple of films made in the Soviet Union during the mid-late 40s that (unsurprisingly) don't seem to have made it to wider release.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:03 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]

(this conversation may be dead but I was just reminded last night that The Menu also references Covid)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:11 AM on April 28 [1 favorite]

No actual reporting—she just links to other sources, with no follow-through.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:56 AM on April 29 [2 favorites]

There isn't a good narrative yet for the pandemic. If you write a story it has to have a conflict and a resolution. And what is the resolution we we've all gotten from our common experience with the Pandemic? A mass death event is the kind of thing that sets up a conflict beautifully. We have all kinds of stories about serial killers and about terrorism and natural disasters because we can write endings to those stories. But the Covid pandemic? What's your satisfying ending?

The serial killer story has a clear antagonist; the conflict is whether they will be stopped or not. You can end the story with an arrest, the serial killer being killed, a narrow escape where the protagonist survives, a narrow escape where the serial killer gets away, doubt that the person shot really was the serial killer - Maybe they are still out there! - but how do you write an ending to the Pandemic story?

A lot of people died. Mainly "unimportant people." They died quietly. They are still dying. Only now a lot fewer of them... What's your resolution?

So the pandemic isn't a hook big enough to be anything other than setting. Writing about the pandemic is like setting your story in Philadelphia. It's background. Maybe the plot you come up with couldn't occur in any other setting, but the conflict and resolution will not be about the pandemic.

Here's an example: Child is sent to live with unknown aunt during the pandemic. Learns independence and solves family mystery. That works, but the reason child is sent to live with unknown aunt doesn't have to be that medical professional parent can't see them due to the pandemic. The story would work just as well if the parent were being treated for cancer, or had to take a business trip to Europe.

If you don't want Disney to write the pandemic out of it when they make the movie version, you'll have to have the kid sneak into the hospital, and manage to get in because they are in full PPE with a stolen badge. How do you make that into a satisfying resolution? It's either a kid that horrifies and distresses everyone with their bad judgement, or its a slapstick comedy, rolling with fun, feature a chase scene through the hospital during the pandemic lock down, gurneys and iv poles going flying. But you don't even have a black comedy here like Jojo Rabbit, because it's the major mass death event that didn't happen just because people locked down; the kid violating lock down is not a hero. Well, I suppose if Fox News ever starts producing kids movies they might consider this one...

What's your really exciting personal story about the pandemic that you can be confident will make everyone stop dead and listen when you talk about it? How many of us have one? I mainly stayed home and found getting supplies very stressful, and spent two weeks really ill and lost about ten pounds. I don't have a story.

What was the plot of "A Journal of the Plague Year?" There wasn't really a conflict and resolution, it was a series of vignettes, and a weak conclusion that the plague was deserved because people were wicked. "A Journal of the Plague Year" works, but only because the events in it are sufficiently harrowing. Our pandemic vignettes are mainly not harrowing enough and there are not enough of them.

You could make a collection of "best pandemic anecdotes" and see if it would be as riveting as "A Journal of the Plague Year" but it would mainly boil down to people being inconvenienced, nursing homes being underfunded and a squabbles about if the restrictions were proportionate or not. I am not sure anyone wants to listen to yet another anecdote about witnessing some Karen mistreating a clerk because she didn't like how they were wearing a mask.

But suppose you look at one of the awe-inspiring anecdotes that made the rounds, like the one about the woman in a Texas Costco who was buying diapers for herself and all her children just before lock down hit, even though the youngest of the kids was about seven, as she planned a marathon social-distancing, methamphetamine-fueled, no-stops drive to her mom's home in rural Maine? That could be the premise for a story but what's the resolution?

Stephen King started the novel "The Stand" with just such an incident. He made the car crash when the driver died, and had the driver's panicked flight be the reason the plague spread so inexorably and rapidly through the US. But that's not what happened to this poor family and if you tell their story it won't be about Covid, but rather how the family coped with their mother running for home and her own mother, when the nightmare fuel began to ignite.

Borat 2 is about the pandemic... does that not count? It's a black comedy. But again, the ending is contrived and was tacked on to try to tie everything together. I suspect it's not what people remember about that movie at all. I think it merits a weak chuckle that Borat unwittingly spread the pandemic. The story that people will remember was the relationship between the father and daughter. The Covid theme in Borat 2 was an afterthought, only included because the filming happened to partially take place during the pandemic. It's not really about the pandemic; the resolution was only put in because they couldn't produce a movie set in the pandemic without saying something about it.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:29 PM on April 29 [8 favorites]

This is a perfect explanation of the trouble with pandemic plots, right here. No resolution, kind of "boring depressing apocalypse." As for vignettes, I havent been able to write a story for storytelling performances in years because life wasn't working like that to write about it. My most interesting ones probably involve Zoom green screen theater.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:32 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

I mean... Bo Burnham managed. Being locked in isolation and slowly losing your mind is a time-tested narrative. I think a movie about a profession with a high COVID death rate, like the meat packing plant people or the line cooks, would also be sufficiently harrowing. Or make it about hospital staff burnout or someone who has to work a public-facing job and deal with the qanon-addled public. All harrowing.
posted by subdee at 4:33 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]

I think the movies aren't getting made (or rather: released by major movie studios) for the same reason studios shelved War Inc for three years and only let it be released after "everyone" realized "we'd" been wrong about the Iraq war: they're afraid of the political fallout if they tell the truth about the pandemic.
posted by subdee at 4:37 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]

Have people processed the pandemic enough yet to be ready to watch movies about it? Or can you still think of five or more movie premises that you would rather watch?

Are you yet hungering to explore the pandemic? Are you angry that the personal stories of its impact are not getting out, the way people became angry about the impact of the Vietnam War on its veterans? What do you need to learn about the pandemic that you don't know yet?
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:30 AM on April 30 [3 favorites]

I think a movie about a profession with a high COVID death rate, like the meat packing plant people or the line cooks, would also be sufficiently harrowing. Or make it about hospital staff burnout or someone who has to work a public-facing job and deal with the qanon-addled public. All harrowing.

OK but what is the ENDING? "Wow this is harrowing!" isn't a plot.

Does everyone want to watch a movie where terrible things happen the whole time, nobody learns anything, and nothing at all gets better ...? Shit, nobody even wants to WRITE that movie.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:44 AM on April 30 [5 favorites]

Those movies get made all the time, they're just arthouse pictures with limited impact.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:44 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

I really liked Slalom, for instance.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:45 PM on May 5 [1 favorite]

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