To mark the approach of the sinister statistic that sees the death toll from the novel coronavirus reaching 100,000 in the US, Ted Anthony, writing for the Associated Press, reflects on the ambiguities and political consequences of the pandemic’s inexorable progression. He highlights the cultural confusion it has spawned in its wake. Politicians live and die by polls, trends and statistics, but the COVID-19 disease that is caused by the coronavirus has provided no patterns, flowcharts or guidelines either for preventing its spread, predicting its evolution or managing its consequences.
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This pandemic constitutes a supremely traumatic event — or rather an unending sequence of anxiogenic events — in one of the most dramatic moments of modern US history. It coincides with a presidential election featuring the most controversial, traumatizing but weirdly popular incumbent in the nation’s history.
Anthony focuses on the nature of the confusion that COVID-19 has created. “Adding to the complexity is how different coronavirus deaths are from, say, a 9/11, a mass shooting or a cataclysmic natural disaster,” he writes. “Unlike those, the COVID saga unfolds gradually over time, growing steadily more severe, and resists the time-tested American appetite for loud and immediate storylines.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Some people’s favorite substitute for reality since, faithful to its linear logic, it conveniently reduces the incomprehensible multi-dimensional complexity of reality to a linear sequence that leads to either a simplified moral lesson or a uniformly happy ending
Anthony correctly identifies a significant cultural truth: “the time-tested American appetite for loud and immediate storylines.” Not all storylines are loud and immediate. In other cultures, storylines may be quiet and extended over time. Even in US culture, not everyone prefers the loud and immediate. But those who commercially exploit the media know what works (i.e., sells). They understand the logic on which most people become dependent, if not addicted.
Great storytelling isn’t a substitute for reality. Whether it’s Homer, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa, for true artists, the storyline is little more than the primitive skeleton of a storyteller’s evolving organic creature. It’s the frame within which the painter will construct a new vision.
What Anthony means by “loud and immediate storylines” can best be understood by examining the evolution of media and popular culture in the US since World War II. The triumph of the consumer society in the second half of the 20th century led to a culture that fabricates slogans and memes and then structures its life around them. As anyone who followed the TV series “Mad Men” can understand, advertising itself tells a loud and immediate story every time it seeks to sell something. More significantly, Madison Avenue culture has taught people that everything is about branding and, of course, that branding is about selling.
The unfolding narrative of the coronavirus poses several problems to a public of consumers. Although it came in with a roar, it will last too long for anyone to accept that it remains loud as it drags on in time. After a chaotic beginning, Americans want to turn down the volume, at least for the summer months. But that’s like leaving the movie theater half-way through the film, without knowing how the superhero will overcome the formidable obstacles put on his path in his quest to save, if not humanity, at least the United States or perhaps just the city of Los Angeles.
Then there’s the fact that the novel coronavirus remains invisible and will never be revealed as a purely physical force that can be confronted head-on. That means it can never become a credible obstacle for the superhero to overcome. No amount of explosives can take it out. There is no chance of producing the kind of ear-shattering fireworks an action movie requires to signify to the audience that they have arrived at the end of the storyline. Worse, it doesn’t convert into an “immediate” storyline because there is no way of predicting what kind of weaponry might be required to assure its ending.
The other serious problem is that the only imaginable happy ending — its definitive disappearance after a long struggle — seems increasingly and depressingly unlikely. COVID-19 and its future avatars aren’t about to leave us alone to get on with our lives. For many people, especially those who have lost their jobs and at the same time wonder about the long-term viability of their employers, even their sense of what “getting on” might mean seems to have lost its meaning.
A culture that expects loud and immediate storylines will only accept less immediate storylines when the audience understands that its patience will be rewarded by a happy ending. Ethan Alter, a senior writer for Yahoo Entertainment, recounts how the shooting script of the original Rambo movie, “First Blood,” had a tragic ending. The hero, John Rambo, committed suicide at the end of the film. It turns out Sylvester Stallone was unhappy seeing his character die. So were the test audiences. The producers decided to shoot an alternative ending that allowed Rambo to survive.
The director of the movie, Ted Kotcheff, opined: “Unhappy endings are intellectual endings. But happy endings are popular endings.” By 1982, when the first Rambo movie was released, the US had definitively turned anti-intellectual. Ronald Reagan would soon announce that it was “Morning in America” and that a commitment to anything that was orientated toward commercial success required — as the Monty Python had already understood in “The Life of Brian” — looking “at the bright side of life.” Tragedy made no sense. After the trauma of the Vietnam War, tragic tales left a bad taste in people’s mouths. And with Reagan’s deregulation of the stock market and liberating Americans from other tragic constraints, there was money to be made.
In Hollywood, it’s still possible, but not very common, to produce social dramas with ambiguously unhappy endings. Because they target the small remaining minority of intellectuals, their producers seek to prove by the disappointment of the ending that the problem being demonstrated has not been resolved. It’s something to think about and even feel indignant about.
But even such stories respect the criteria of loudness and immediacy. The suffering — whether it’s from racism, economic oppression, systematic injustice, ecological disaster or any other social ill — must reach an appropriate level of loudness to inspire pity and awe. The demonstration of villainy must be immediate, not the result of vague suspicion. There is always at least one prominent character who represents what is often a vast network of evil forces.
Tragedy, as exemplified by the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, stands as a traditional art form imbued with ambiguous moral and metaphysical reflection. It was once a popular form of storytelling, even in modern times. The iconic film, “The Third Man,” for example, had a beautifully tragic ending, with deep philosophical and moral overtones. So did many great films noirs made in Hollywood, though often by European directors. That was before Rambo.
A decade later, the past was already visible. In one brilliantly constructed scene, the 1993 movie, “Last Action Hero” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, self-consciously illustrated the banishment of the tragic principle from popular culture and the triumph of Hollywood’s new commercial ethos. It used a crucial excerpt from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet and contrasted it with the audience’s expectations about the behavior of a modern Hollywood superhero. (The movie added a touch of subtle irony by casting Olivier’s widow, Joan Plowright, in the role of the schoolteacher who projects the film to a class of raucous students bored by traditional culture).
COVID-19 has clearly produced suspense. But it hasn’t yet offered a storyline that American audiences can get a feel for. For the moment, it resembles chaos. What it needs — and may well get but probably not before 2021 — is a good treatment by a top screenwriter. In the meantime, Act II will already have played out unpredictably for everyone alive today. The remaining question for the screenwriter will be: Is this a three-act or a traditional five-act drama? Or perhaps even “Groundhog Day.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.