COVID-19 Series: #6

Author: Andrew Dopper

“I’m not insane!” screams the hysterical man, hair plastered to his head with sweat.

A psychiatrist sits him down. Momentarily calmed, the man begins talking, recounting his return to California.

“At first glance, everything looked the same,” he says, his eyes gleaming wildly.  “It wasn’t,” he adds . “Something evil had taken possession of the town.”

This excerpt is from the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a science-fiction horror about people becoming “pod people” or becoming “them”. On the surface, the film is a run-of-the-mill 1950’s horror about aliens possessing people. Sounds fun, right?

In fact, it is widely regarded and almost laughably obvious, that the inspiration for the film was the fear of Communism invading America. Them are the Soviets. This era is now often referred to as “The Red Scare”. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was one of countless films inspired by Cold War paranoia. Paradoxically, half of Hollywood at the time of filming were actually Communists. The hilarity.

In the wake of the 1973 global oil crisis, which saw petrol shortages and looting across Australia, we saw a young Mel Gibson roar through lawless highways in 1979’s Mad Max. Later, in 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Max takes out a Geiger counter to detect radiation within the stock of a junk-laden water-dealer

“What’s a little fallout, ey?” the vendor says, as Max trudges off.

Whilst the first two Mad Max films remain the most loved, it’s the aesthetic of Beyond Thunderdome that is still evident in post-apocalyptic fiction today. Unlike the first two films, Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by concern of the nuclear bomb, which saw people living in constant fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (aka M.A.D: They bomb us, we bomb them, repeat––until nothing’s left.) This was a very real scare leading to countless close calls, from the Cuban missile crisis to that time Boris Yeltsin nearly nuked some Norwegians studying the Northern Lights in the 90’s. Yes, that actually happened.

On the 11th of September 2001, a terrorist attack rocked not only the US, but the entire world. After a few years, the superhero genre dominated cinema across the globe. These films usually saw American heroes come out of the woodwork and save the world by stopping foreign bad guys from blowing up Manhattan. It doesn’t take a scholar to notice the inspiration there.

The influence of world events on cinema is clear. What was essentially a 50-year-long dick-measuring competition between the US and USSR inspired not films featuring Americans complaining about Communists at BBQs, but countless sci-fi horror, espionage and spy films. High petrol prices caused by political bickering gave birth to forty years of spike-studded, shotgun-wielding post-apocalyptic media, not films about people saying “jeez, bloody petrol’s expensive. And, rather than producing films about airport bag-checks, 9/11 essentially turned cinemas into superhero viewing machines.

Today, this begs the question: what will post-COVID-19 cinema look like? Since we probably can’t expect 2022’s biggest blockbuster to be Dunny Roll Hoarders II, how do we possibly predict which genres will emerge? I mean, who knew that between 2008-2012 all people wanted to watch were shiny vampires and hunky werewolves?

One way we could gauge the type of cinema this pandemic may produce, is to look at existing films relevant to our current timeframe. Yes, this means that we have to talk about 2011’s Contagion.

Admittedly, re-watching Contagion right now is a jarring experience. I found I laughed dumbly when a Dr. told a man who should know better to stop touching his face, right after informing him how quickly the virus in question could spread.

Living through a similar crisis today, however, I found myself enjoying the film far more than I did when I watched it nearly a decade ago. Contagion was ahead of its time, a quality rare in most films. No one makes a Cold War film a decade before the Cold War.

This is where science-fiction seems to set itself apart from other genres – it often stands at the forefront of a fundamental change in viewing culture.

Recently, I also re-watched one of my favorite films, 2006’s Children of Men. and it hit me harder than ever. The film presents a version of England in the midst of a societal breakdown, one that causes the slow decay of humanity. The world around these people is crumbling under a falling capitalist empire, yet they go about their day adapting to the chaos, even as it slowly sets in and reveals a grim state of world normality, where children can no longer be born.

Unlike traditional apocalyptic cinema, Children of Men does not represent spike-studded rally-drivers and zombie-infested wastelands. It simply shows us London enduring a mass extinction.

Each country is experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic differently, and it’s only  matter of time until more outbreaks occur – if they haven’t already.

Every time I watch Children of Men, consequently, I have to stretch my imagination less and less.

One prediction could be that there is a resurgence of films like Children of Men, which represent life not ­post, but during the world-ending crisis. Rather than depicting epic, country swallowing waves or Bruce Willis blowing up comets, cinema may instead represent slow yet impactful societal breakdowns. This new breed of films would provide a far slower, smaller snapshot of world crises, and in doing so, heighten the prevalence of “slow burn” cinema.

As I write this, the US is experiencing a time of civil unrest caused by police violence; unrest that has rippled across the world and is building every day. Today’s lack of trust in those who lead is a far cry from the celebrated world leaders of yesteryear.

People are seeing the cracks in the capitalist world. We’re experiencing what happens when world leaders actually have to step up and represent the people in crisis. Some countries are prevailing, while others…well, let’s not judge…

*Cough* Trump. *Cough*

In order to progress, we may not see entirely new genres come to fruition, but perhaps witness redefinitions of those we know well.

Comparing Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), we see two alien invasion films; but they are vastly different aesthetically and thematically. The former says, don’t trust anyone while the latter asks, why don’t we just trust anyone? As portrayed in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Gotham City looks a lot different than it did in 1989’s Batman. Christopher Nolan’s portrayed Gotham’s zany villains more as corrupt politicians. Conversely, the America portrayed in 1995’s Judge Dredd had a far lower crime rate than the US actually does today.

The zombie films of the 1950’s people fought zombies, yet now, the zombie hordes act as mere backdrops while people fight one another. Post-COVID, perhaps, we may see the post-apocalyptic genre become something very different, departing completely from spike-studded cars and wasteland couture and edging towards something frighteningly real.

Some of you may be screaming, “but people might want hope!”

Indeed, hope is something Hollywood, and indeed publishers, always seem to advocate for. As a writer, I have been turned down many times for that reason. Positive narratives and happy endings sell. And I do think we will see a feel-good movie resurgence in the wake of this pandemic. Honestly, if the world was on fire, there would still be Pixarfilms about animals embarking on fulfilling journeys with satisfying conclusions.

But audiences are smarter than that. McDonalds might be cheap and tasty, but people still go to 5-star restaurants.

People want hope, yes, but hope comes in many forms. Cinema, like most art, is often a reflection of culture, of the contemporary. Invasion of the Body Snatchers worries, Mad Max observes, Arrival questions, Children of Men warns. Right now, people protest for a better future, not because they have no hope, but because they do have hope.

Could we see films born not from fear of the future but from a reaction to our time in isolation? A resurgence of the frontier film, perhaps – films about exploration and discovery and the natural world. Will we see people moving to more rural areas, wanting to re-connect with the natural world, escaping the rat race? Has capitalism been exposed for its impact on lower classes? Will we see a new genre of “revolution” films?

I could go on.

The reality is, we do not know exactly what film within a post-COVID world will look like. The last six months alone could very well create a new breed of consumer––one that filmmakers will respond to in kind. Remember, an oil crisis in the 70’s eventually lead to whatever the fuck 2018’s Bird Box was.

What I am suggesting, is to watch the screens and take note.

History, after all, shows that it often takes only one or two films to start a genre or film resurgence that takes over the world’s screens for years.

Post-pandemic, let’s hope it’s not shiny vampires again.

About Andrew Dopper

Andrew Dopper is a final year writing and cinema studies student. His short story Dog’s Bend was previously published in SWINE’s 2020 Representation issue. He is currently working on his third novel.

COVID-19 Series: #4

Author: Imogen Williams 

One thing keeping me entertained during isolation is scouring the weekly TV guide for films showing free-to-air. I have seen great films such as The King’s Speech, and not-so-great films such as Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. One of the former such films I’ve watched is the 1959 classic On the Beach, directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the novel by Nevil Shute. I’d been wanting to watch it for a while, since my Mum had told me it was a fantastic film with a brilliant cast including Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins (best known as the creepy smiling guy from Psycho). Plus, it is set in Melbourne!

Eager to find out what Melbourne looked like in the days of my parents’ early childhood (spoilers, very different), I watched the film. All my Mum said was true; it was an eye-opening and thought-provoking masterpiece. The film is set in an alternate Melbourne of 1964, in the aftermath of a nuclear war that had wiped humanity from existence everywhere but Australia. The film follows the final months of a group of people’s lives, as they struggle with the knowledge that a cloud of deadly radiation will inevitably reach Melbourne. So, it was quite a distressing film to be watching in the middle of a pandemic, a time when many of us are experiencing a downturn in our mental wellbeing. For me, however, the viewing of the film seemed apt since many aspects of the film have direct comparisons to our current COVID-19 crisis.

In the film, a young Australian woman, Mary Holmes, is in denial about the situation. She is unable to accept that in a few months, humanity will be no more and she cannot bear to hear anyone talking about it.

People have also had this reaction in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Some, like Mary, are in denial and wish to carry on as if the virus does not exist. We have seen this happen in Melbourne prior to the second wave, with several large families gathering and thus causing outbreaks. Like the film, people are literally gathering on the beach in Australia, and in the US and in the UK. They are ignoring restrictions, not wanting to miss the warm weather, despite the stupidity of such actions. This is still happening during our second lockdown, with people having parties despite the danger they present. Although we can all get tired of constantly hearing about coronavirus, as Mary did about radiation, we must understand the intensity of the situation and respond seriously and sensibly. Mary’s husband Peter understands the enormity of the circumstances and recognises the need to accept the facts and prepare for the worst, which is what we must do too.

Once Mary stops denying humanity’s dreadful plight, she plunges into depression for the remainder of the film. The stress and horror of the COVID-19 crisis has caused some people to do the same, with calls to mental health services in Australia increasing substantially from last year. Crisis support service Beyond Blue reported a 66%, 60% and 47% increase in calls in April, May and June compared to the same months in 2019. Callers reported feeling “worried, uncertain … overwhelmed” and experiencing “exhaustion and fatigue”.

Mary’s denial and depression, and Peter’s pragmatism, are seemingly familiar and justified responses to an unprecedented event. However, the way On the Beach depicts the overall community response to life’s total upheaval, is surprising, I am shocked by the incredible order and calm demonstrated within the film, as the end approached. People having parties, all conducted with an air of civility. There are scenes of drunkenness, sure, but everyone remains fairly reserved. Citizens line up in an orderly fashion to collect their government-supplied suicide pills, as their names get ticked off a list.

There are no fights as people collect their pills – a stark contrast to the video back in March that went viral, of two women selfishly fighting over toilet paper. There was no panic buying, just an acceptance that there will be shortages, like that of petrol, perhaps because WW2 was still fresh in the characters’ minds. Rather than panicking and taking all of the alcohol for themselves, in one scene featuring two men at a club, they simply grumble that there is no way the members will get through all of the bottles of port before the end comes.

Last year, I watched the 2012 American film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which detailed the final weeks before Earth was destroyed by an asteroid. This film depicted people behaving and reacting to their impending doom in ways I considered to be far more realistic than in On the Beach. In the modern film, there are riots with people burning buildings and committing murder, because they can get away with it. There is a drunken orgy in a restaurant, and people stop going to work because there is no point, so they generally run around doing whatever they damn well please.

Near the end of On the Beach, Captain Dwight Towers, commander of an American submarine, feels an obligation to captain the submarine back to the US when his crew tell him they would prefer to die at home than in Australia. Dwight is unwilling to do this, since he would like to stay and die with his lover Moira. However, he decides to leave her behind to help his men head home, as he sees this as his duty. He does this despite the fact human civilisation is mere days away from its end.

I told my Mum that the order and goodwill shown in On the Beach seemed unrealistic, and was surprised that she believed this behaviour to be perfectly accurate. Mum explained that she was alive during the tail-end of the era when the film is set, during 1950s and 60s Melbourne, and that in many ways, people showed more care and respect for the good of the whole community, rather than only caring about self-preservation and promotion.

My mother’s words concerned me, and made me wonder – has this sense of good for the whole been lost? I feel that maybe it has, that the good of the individual is now considered more important. However, often what is good for the whole, can also be good for the individual. Though an individual may decide to sneak across the NSW border, because in that moment it seems right for them, in the end this could cause another outbreak, which would in turn negatively impact that individual.

These days, many people seem to be rather disparaging of the phrase ‘the common good’. I have encountered those writing in newspapers and on social media, complaining of how the government is forcing people to be tested “for the common good” as if it is a bad thing! However, some do believe in the importance of ‘the greater good’, and I hope that with time and discussion, more of us will.

In On the Beach, the deadly radiation infecting Melbourne is invisible. An unseen enemy, just as COVID-19 is. Ultimately, though, you cannot hide from this silent killer. It is inevitable, it is going to kill you. The characters of On the Beach cannot self-isolate indoors to escape danger as we can, yet they deal with their situation graciously.

The film concludes with shots of a deserted Melbourne – not a soul on the streets. This is eery because there is no sign of destruction. The buildings are intact, with no markers that anything is wrong but the sheer emptiness of the city. These images are of striking similarity to our quiet Melbourne streets, alongside scenes of deserted precincts in other cities around the world  this year.

When On The Beach was released, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated: “There is not the slightest doubt that this is the most important motion picture ever produced… and the most moving!”. The film is considered important because of its strong anti-nuclear message, yet I now believe this is not the only reason for its importance. On The Beach can teach us plenty about the world today, and how we have changed. Beyond its thematic message, I also recommend the film for its fabulous cinematography, remarkable acting and haunting use of music (a kissing scene backed by the sound of drunken men singing Waltzing Matilda may sound unusual, but is especially poignant).

The media often focuses on the negative and selfish responses to the rules designed to help us. Yet a silent majority do remain, committed to altering their behaviour for the common good. This can be seen by the number of people who write into the ABC’s coronavirus live blog, for example, asking about the right thing to do. Like Dwight, these people personify social responsibility, which we should all aspire to.

If we all do the right thing, then eventually everything will be fine. So why not act with reason and benevolence?

About Imogen Williams

Imogen is a first year student studying a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Business double with majors in History and Marketing! In 2018 she won First Prize in the Senior Secondary School Short Story category of the My Brother Jack Awards with her piece Pensioner Purgatory, which was published online.