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The Plague Prophets

From Contagion to World War Z to Palm Springs, what the artists who foresaw the pandemic are thinking now.

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Plenty of art has and will be made about the era of Covid-19. But some artists seemingly saw this plague year coming long before it arrived. Their films and novels seemed to foreshadow what life over the past year would be like: Quarantine. Social distancing. Feeling like you want to sleep through it all. Feeling like you’re stuck in a time loop. The fear of infection. The spread of misinformation. The politicization of public health. And much, much more.

To mark the one-year anniversary of lockdowns in the US, and the American death toll having crossed half a million and counting, I talked to seven of those artists — “plague prophets,” as I came to think of them. I wanted to hear about what crossed their minds when the pandemic hit, what they’ve learned in the past year, and what they’re thinking now. Like so many others, they’re sorting through unexpected resistance to mitigation efforts, what they’ve done to survive, and the disastrous consequences of misinformation. In their thoughts I hear echoes of my own — along with some hope for the future, if only we can pay attention.

Scott Z. Burns, screenwriter of Contagion

Burns’s screenplay, about a deadly novel virus that spreads around the world with horrifying results, became the 2011 film Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh and praised by experts for its surprisingly accurate depiction of a hypothetical pandemic. In early 2020, with news of a novel coronavirus on the rise, Contagion rocketed back up to the top 10 charts on iTunes.

Scott Z. Burns; Kate Winslet in Contagion, 2011.
Vera Anderson/WireImage; IMDB

I expected that many of the panic-related phenomena we saw would happen — hoarding of goods, fake cures, collapse of health care, and conspiracy theories about the origins and the effects of the disease. I also expected that the internet would become filled with misinformation and once again, science was unable to respond in a compelling way.

One of the problems with science is that it tends to move more slowly than conspiracy, as it relies on facts and experiments and repetition. Many of those things take time, and ideally, that time should be filled with leaders encouraging calm and focusing on what we do know. In the absence of clear information, we need to rely on leadership — and that was woefully lacking.

I did not expect that at all. I did not anticipate that wearing a piece of fabric over your mouth and nose in order to save lives would become so controversial.

The question we must all ask ourselves is how did our behavior increase the death toll? I often wonder if Donald Trump had said at the beginning that this virus is real, and that until we find a vaccine and a treatment, we need to come together and protect each other by listening to the experts — how might things be different? For one, far less than half a million people would have died. For another, the economy would be stronger as a result of coherent policy. And finally, we would be a less divided society, as the virus would have given us a common enemy.

I am amazed how so many people still don’t understand how viruses work, or that by allowing it to spread, we are actually helping it develop new variants. I am grateful that we have vaccines but chilled by the number of people who do not trust them. I really thought we would come together as a country against a common enemy; instead, we have politicized something that can only be seen under a microscope. Our government has failed to protect us and has been shown to be far more vulnerable to a virus than human enemies with brains. What does that say about us?

We are all writing the sequel to Contagion together. I guess if I were to change anything, I would amplify the part of the story that Jude Law’s character represented — the human capacity to profiteer and politicize a disease. The tagline for the movie was “nothing spreads like fear.” I think that still holds true, but I would add that “nothing divides like misinformation” as well.

Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven takes place mostly in a post-apocalyptic world, which has been ravaged by a mysterious virus known as the “Georgia Flu”; it reentered the cultural conversation as the pandemic took hold. Mandel’s latest novel, The Glass Hotel, was released in March 2020.

Emily St. John Mandel; Station Eleven.
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

My expectation was that there would be a long period of shock as we adjusted to the reality that we’d lost an entire world, and this was borne out. For the first six months of the pandemic, no one opened an email with “I hope you’re having a good week” or similar, because of course no one was having a good week, ever.

What I never imagined would happen, and probably this was naive of me, is the politicization of public health. I never would have predicted that wearing masks during an airborne pandemic would be somehow perceived as a political statement.

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Moshfegh’s 2018 novel is the story of a young woman who, trapped in a cycle of depression and grief, tries to sleep through a full year by taking a combination of drugs while remaining mostly in her apartment. In June 2020, Moshfegh released her latest novel, Death in Her Hands. And amid the pandemic, sales of My Year of Rest and Relaxation began to rise again.

Ottessa Moshfegh; My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

When the lockdowns started, I was not thinking about My Year of Rest and Relaxation at all. There was really no reason for me to think about a book I’d written years ago. But then it was brought to my attention at some point that sales had gone up. And so that was an unfortunate plus, because I knew why people were buying the book. That book has a life of its own at this point.

I’ve found that for my closest friends, the people that I’ve been in consistent touch with, it seems like this has been a year of self-confrontation and soul-searching in a way that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Everyone I know has gone through an internal transformation. And that makes perfect sense. That’s why I write about isolated characters — so they can have a deeper relationship with themselves in the course of the novel. That’s why I’m slightly antisocial to begin with, too. I spend a lot of time having to figure out what’s going on inside.

So that hasn’t really surprised me. But in a time where there has been so much trauma and loss, it was a silver lining. Humanity finds purpose where it can. It’s like flowers growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. People can grow anywhere. That is beautiful.

When I wrote an article for the Guardian about lockdowns last April, I had not settled into reality. I was adjusting to it like everybody else. A year in, I would write a very different essay, maybe a more intimate portrait of how I’ve changed.

But I also wrote an entire novel during this period. I needed to. To survive.

Andy Siara and Max Barbakow, director and screenwriter of Palm Springs

Siara and Barbakow’s debut film Palm Springs, starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, was a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. It’s the story of two people who become trapped in a “time loop,” where every day doesn’t just feel the same but is, in fact, the same day. By the time the movie came out in July, it hit pretty differently than it had six months earlier.

Andy Siara and Max Barbakow; Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in Palm Springs, 2020.
Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie; IMBD

Max Barbakow: We both suspended our expectations very early on, even at Sundance. The movie was born out of a period of creative therapy in a creative friendship. We wanted to rediscover ourselves as people, to reflect on commitment and intimacy. It coincided with Trump getting elected. The earth kind of shattered, and everything changed. For a lot of people, it provoked a period of self-reflection and exposed a lot of inequity. Maybe some of that energy compounded over the four years from when we were working on it to when it came out, and the pandemic exposed even more of the fucked-upness. The existential confusion that was provoked initially by an election bubbled to the surface.

Even when it came out, it was summer, so it was still pretty early days. And even within that, it was right after all the civil unrest and the mass protests in June. So I think it snuck up on people because it was something new that was coming out. A new, fun comedy, a source of escapism, and it resonated with people for that reason. They were able to escape in it. I, at least, started to notice that people were able to glean some sort of — not comfort, but maybe felt less alone in their confusion.

Andy Siara: The whole idea [of the movie] is that it’s better to share this experience of life, even if it is all meaningless. We might as well go through with a buddy. Shit is dark, but at least things are good when I can sit down on the couch and have a glass of something and watch some TV with my partner, or talk about this movie for hours and hours with Max.

So when the pandemic came in, no longer could anyone avoid the darkness. It was too clearly there. There’s different ways of being in denial of it. But a lot of people were being forced to actually deal with the same stuff Max and I forced ourselves to deal with, to question, to work through for those two and a half years or so. Now the entire world is going through it. They were unrelated to each other, but it’s still the same idea. When shit is dark around you, how do you get through it? Through connection.

Max Barbakow: The difficult thing in this period has been that the world is even more absurd than it was when we were making this movie about finding meaning in an absurd world. And we’re living through it. And we’re isolated.

Andy Siara: A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in our backyard with my two daughters and my wife, and thinking, “I can’t wait to get back out in the world.” I want to, like, go to concerts and go to restaurants. But at the same time, I’m now starting to feel a little bit of denial at the end. It’s a world filled with death and disease and it’s like, at least in here, or in a Palm Springs time loop, there is a strange safety. People have realized the value of the people who you break bread with every night, and you share a place with. Hopefully, when this all opens up, we don’t forget how important that was, too. I hope this changes our relationship to work and work hours.

It’s almost like the argument that we set out to make with Palm Springs is now being tested on a global level. Maybe that’s why the movie struck a chord — because the argument that we made was a valid argument, and our point was a valid point.

David France, director of How to Survive a Plague

In 2012, France made a documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, covering activist groups that fought to make drug treatments widely available, in opposition to the Reagan administration. How to Survive a Plague was widely praised as one of the best films of that year. In 2016, France published a book by the same title. His recent documentary Welcome to Chechnya was on the 2021 shortlist for the Best Documentary at the Oscars. His new documentary on the race for the Covid-19 vaccine will debut on HBO in 2022.

David France; Peter Staley in How to Survive a Plague, 2012.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for TheWrap; IMDB

Those of us who experienced the full length of the previous [AIDS] plague felt somewhat prepared when this one happened. We were prepared for the terror that marks those first few months. We were prepared for the behavior modification — what they now call NPIs, non-pharmaceutical interventions — that were being sold by parts of our government and undermined by other parts of our government. Those of us who were there at the birth of the “condom code” saw how it worked and were entirely prepared to adapt — in part because we’ve seen the consequences before.

The people who I know who didn’t have that experience have been at best haphazard in their behavior modification stuff, in their NPIs. I’m not talking about the people who don’t believe in that stuff. But the people who do believe in that stuff and who really think they’re doing the right thing.

That hasn’t made it any easier. We’ve all been locked down for a year. Some of us are luckier than others, but it’s been tough. My friends who lived through the length of that last pandemic have suffered a lot, from depression, from post-traumatic responses. Across the board, a lot of us have fallen into alcohol and despair and pot and other coping mechanisms that aren’t really coping mechanisms. And maybe more from my cohort have fallen deeper into those things than others.

There’s also the matter of age. My generation will have shortened life expectancy from having gone through this. We just know it. We’ve lost a year already. That’s a kind of tragedy.

I think we’ve learned that the way we organize the economy can change, and will change, and that there will be a new normal. Office space will be different. Home offices will be much more commonplace. We’ve learned this kind of autonomy/connectedness that Zoom has given to us.

But I don’t think that works the same way in creative pursuits. I have a studio that sits across town two miles from here that no one goes to. I’m working on a project now; we’ve got 14 people working on it. And we fill little [Zoom] boxes on the screen. We’re constantly checking in. But it’s not the same as pulling together. We’re pulling in 14 directions; a lot of them are in the same direction, but we’re not pulling together. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the end product. What will films look like when they’re organized like that?

I do believe that we’re going to be vaccinated, and that the mutations and other viral strains and variants will one day leave us alone. I don’t know when that’s gonna be. But in the meantime, we’re at least able to make a documentary. Think if we were making theater! Or a narrative feature where people might have to be in the same frame together. It’s hard to imagine. It’s hard to believe, as some people want to, that those of us who survived one [plague] see a way to survive the other. We don’t bring wisdom. I think we bring patience.

I was as freaked out as anybody, staring out my window in March and April, looking for clouds of virus, and feeling kind of hopeless. I couldn’t imagine a future. I knew that this was going to tear down the present. But what would the future be?

When Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets, they gave me something to hope for. And they modeled for all of us who are locked at home what a future could look like. There’s also the influence of that activism on the electoral battles in Georgia and elsewhere. Actual historical milestones being created by that activism. That’s been really thrilling.

So in a way, I like to think something good is gonna come out of something horrible like this.

When I started making How to Survive a Plague, I was trying to raise money for it, and nobody wanted to give anybody money for an AIDS film. And I kept saying, “You know, a lot of good came out of all that death.” I wanted to find it and talk about it. I think a lot of good will come out of all of this death. I don’t know what it is yet.

With Covid, as with AIDS, there’s no way to say even how many [died]. It’s all just a rounded number. We’ll never know. And even if we knew the number, we would never know the names.

Max Brooks, author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Brooks’s 2006 apocalyptic zombie novel — which became the basis of the 2013 Brad Pitt movie — explored various countries’ responses to a viral plague that turned most of the earth’s inhabitants into zombies. His novel Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, in which Sasquatch stands in as a metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic, came out in June 2020.

Max Brooks; Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Sterling Jerins, and Abigail Hargrove in World War Z, 2013.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; IMDB

I’m not surprised that we cocked it up. Working with the [Bipartisan Commission for Biodefense, a privately funded organization devoted to assessing the health of the United States’ biodefense strategy and policy], I saw how we handled things like [our response to] measles. The writing was already on the wall for America. We’re selfish and lazy. We’re three generations away from the greatest generation at this point, and even the grandparents are selfish baby boomers. When even the grandparents have no living memory of a pre-polio vaccine America, why shouldn’t we all act like spoiled children?

What I was very surprised about this year was the European medical systems, which all good liberals are supposed to worship — they were just as bad as us.

Also, 20 years from now, I think we’re going to look back on the failure of Western media to trumpet the real triumph of Covid, which is Taiwan. That’s the big buried lead that we won’t have the courage to write about until Chinese communist [state] money dries up and our own greed is finally under control. Right now, China is on a global campaign to make Taiwan disappear. Anybody who writes positively about Taiwan gets censured by the Chinese. They want very much for Taiwan to go away. And that agenda is fueled by our own greed — thank you, Apple and Disney and all our major corporations. Thank you, hypocritical liberals who will shriek at the top of their lungs about Israel but do it on a Chinese phone made by political prisoner labor, as the Chinese government are literally putting millions of Muslims in reeducation camps.

And on the right, there’s out-and-out racism; Donald Trump wanted to cast this as a “Chinese” disease. That’s bullshit. The Taiwanese are as Chinese as the mainland Chinese.

[The Covid success in Taiwan] was a golden opportunity for the Western world to prove that democracy works. The Chinese government’s line is basically that democracy is chaotic and inefficient. “Look at us,” [they say], “building hospitals in 10 days. Look at us enforcing lockdowns. Fascism works. Fascism keeps people alive. Democracy doesn’t. Look at you in the West versus us here.”

But Taiwan blows that out of the water, because they’re as democratic as we are. They have a free press. They have everything we’re supposed to cherish. And while we were locking down for the third time, they were shooting off fireworks celebrating a 100th day Covid-free. Free!

My most crushing disappointment is that we’re entering a whole new phase now of great power competition. And whether we admit it or not, it’s a competition based on values. The Chinese model is capitalism without democracy. That’s where the Soviets failed; they had nothing to offer us. They couldn’t offer us a Chevrolet and color TV. But the Chinese can say, “You can have all the awesome shininess of capitalism. You just have to give up all your human rights.”

So here was an opportunity to hold up Taiwan as the beacon and say, “Democracy isn’t a luxury.” Democracy actually is life and death. Democracy keeps people safe. The Chinese Communist Party were suppressing their media, and threatening doctors, and allowing this virus to get out of control, because they sat on the truth. While they were doing that, the “other” China, the democratic China, was keeping its people safe voluntarily, without stepping on their freedoms. And they should be celebrated as the model that democracy at least literally keeps you alive.

Had we had a different president, the plague would have been the perfect time for national service. There have been horrible suicides because people are feeling helpless. That would have been the time to have a “Covid Corps,” or just expand AmeriCorps. Do you remember in the beginning of the plague, you saw those mountains of potatoes rotting in Idaho? That would have been the time to train some AmeriCorps kids who want to do something meaningful with their lives and say, “Hey, drive to Idaho and get those potatoes to the food banks.” During World War II, suicide in Britain plummeted because everybody had a job to do.

Statistically, millennials and [Gen Z] are much more giving than my cynical Generation X. The time is ripe for voluntary national service, because millennials and [Gen Z], they don’t acquire stuff, they acquire experiences. They value their adventures. So give them an adventure. Give them something they can talk about the rest of their lives. You know, my dad [Mel Brooks] would call [Carl] Reiner and all these Hollywood legends, and whenever they got together, they talked about, “Well, where were you stationed? Where did you serve? What did you do?”

There’s a new opportunity now.

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