Epidemics and Cinema: A Mutual Remediation

Curator's Note

The current pandemic and resulting lockdown have hit movie attendance. While this situation is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, theaters were frequently closed or restricted to prevent the spread of epidemics including scarlet fever, smallpox, and poliomyelitis (polio) in the early twentieth century. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918–19, motion picture theaters were often among the first, and sometimes only, places closed by health authorities. Protests by theater owners and managers followed: why close theaters but not churches, streetcars, shops, or factories? Exhibitors believed film was being made a scapegoat. 

In the case of these earlier epidemics, particularly the flu, the disease was often remediated within the space of the theater. Exhibitors tried to capture the momentum of public health programs (and thus avoid regulation) by making theaters into spaces of health education. In addition to advertising their good sanitation and ventilation, theater managers played educational health films free of charge, showed slides prepared by local health authorities, hosted lectures by medical professionals, and distributed flyers and pamphlets on disease prevention (see advertisement and flyer). This remediation made the social position of film stronger, as theaters became established as important community centers.     

One hundred years later, film is no longer the scapegoat—it is our sociability, our mobility, our set of habits as consumers. Film prolongs its life outside the movie theatres, thanks to a wide relocation into new physical environments, including our households, and becomes the main entertainment during the lockdown for many. The same technology that underpins the migration of film allows most of our usual behaviors to become virtual—virtual meetings, virtual parties, virtual teaching in virtual classrooms. Movies reach us where we are, and our lives move onto the screen. The pandemic ultimately elicits a panfilmic existence.

Yet the pandemic reveals the limitations of cinema. There are several movies that have premediated the outbreak; Vulture lists “The 79 Best Pandemic Movies to Binge in Quarantine,” including Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak (1995), which was released two months before the spread of Ebola in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Steven Soderbergh’s all-star Contagion (2011), which hypothesized the spread of a deadly virus transmitted by respiratory droplets. Although many of these movies are excellent, their depiction of illness now seems in some ways disappointing: it is too dramatic, overplayed, and schematic, with the right share of heroes, victims, and perpetrators. Our daily experience is different: full of expectation and boredom, of fear and resignation, of minimal gestures and daily routines. The evil reality of the epidemic, in its banality, ultimately remediates its filmic depiction.

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