The last couple of months in a world with COVID-19 have felt absurd, incomprehensible, like something out of a movie. Most of us hunker down in our homes and wear masks whenever we’re out. Those who work in patient care settings try to limit risk, both of becoming infected, or perhaps worse, unknowingly infecting others. How can this really be happening? Everything seems to have changed overnight. The paranoia, fear, and confusion are palpable.
As a physician who is mostly homebound these days, I have tried to cope – and as a film buff and aspiring screenwriter, I often turn to movies for escapism. Yet, the more I think about it, this current historical event is ironically exactly the kind of movie I would have sought out and even enjoyed. It sure feels different being on the inside of this story, feeling powerless to affect the forces in control.
What genre of movie is the COVID-19 pandemic crisis? It is truly a thriller, but also a family drama, a science-fiction dystopia, and a horror.
Alfred Hitchcock, widely seen as a master of thrillers, intentionally designed each of his movies around a central mystery that set into action the film’s events. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is chased by spies after he is mistakenly identified as a government agent trying to prevent them from sharing state secrets. In the course of the film, we never find out the details the secrets this spy organization is in possession of because all that really matters is how it sends Thornhill on a series of twists and escapes. Indeed, what is most memorable about this film is not why he was being chased, or even how it ends (on a train, with Grant’s Thornhill embracing the real spy, played by Eva Marie Saint). Rather, it is the classic set pieces of Thornhill in a cornfield running away from a crop duster plane shooting at him. It’s the chase scene on top of the presidential face monuments of Mount Rushmore. What matters in film is what matters in life: it’s not where we end up, it’s how we find a way to overcome adversity.
Hitchcock referred to the central conceit in each of his films as a “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is what sets the plot in motion, “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about, but the audience [doesn’t] care,” Hitchcock explained in an interview with Dick Cavett. We may never even figure out the whole mystery, because what’s important is not the exact cause, but how the heroes respond.
In our current world, I think Hitchcock would have seen the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the MacGuffin. The general public doesn’t know how the virus works, but it is the impetus for everything we are doing. We’re the characters in this movie who are concerned and trying to understand how we got here, but focusing on what we can do now may give us peace.
There are questions: How did this happen? Where did it come from? How can we stop it or at least manage it? We all want to restore our world to one of sanity and predictability. That’s all Roger Thornhill wanted. It is that uncertainty, the lack of clarity about what the right thing to do is that is causing so many of us anxiety. COVID-19 is the reason that governments are putting citizens under lockdown and quarantine, that we are working from home and homeschooling our children, that our economy based on social gatherings is teetering. But what we can learn from Hitchcock and North by Northwest is that the COVID-19 MacGuffin may be what set this crisis in motion, but what is actually important is how we handle this situation as people working together.
We know that we will solve this crisis eventually, just like every movie has a conclusion, but that doesn’t make this thrill-ride any easier to endure. Yes, a vaccine seems a near certainty, but it will take many months to develop and roll out. The details of how this disease is spread, who it affects, how it has upended our day to day life are important. Academics are eager to learn about the virus’ physiology and to learn how to build infrastructure to prevent this from happening again.
At the onset, our response was denial – this virus won’t spread, and then that it won’t be that big a problem, or that it isn’t much worse than the seasonal flu. Thornhill in North by Northwest felt the same way. He thought that being mistaken as a spy was a problem that he could run away. Likewise, we have made mistakes, not heeding advice fast enough, hesitant to change our lives in such a rapid fashion. But like Thornhill, we are resilient, and I can already anticipate the climax of this film – that we will be pushed harder than we could have imagined and that we will survive.
Someday, I suspect I will recount this time of fear with mixed emotions. Sadly, there are people who have died and more to come, and this time will also lead us to reassess our way of life and make changes for the better. I work from home, juggling the management of patients by telemedicine with homeschooling my daughters, still working to find meaning and direction to do the right thing.
With movie theaters all shuttered right now, and likely to struggle after this crisis, I hope the simple pleasure of watching these pictures in the theater can still be my escapist comfort. I yearn to go to the movies, and for me, streaming on Netflix can’t match that theater experience. Still, I find purpose and meaning in reminding myself that we are characters in this movie, and just as in Hitchcock’s thriller, the deeper meaning is in how we as people respond to extreme circumstances.
Jules Lipoff is a dermatologist
Image credit: Shutterstock.com