The cultural pall cast by the outbreak is already widespread.
Chinese moviegoers spent a mere $4.2 million on movie tickets during the 2020 Lunar New Year holiday, a sliver of the $1.76 billion shelled out a year ago. The Hollywood Reporter has suggested that the international film industry could lose $5 billion due to the epidemic. The latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” on Wednesday saw its release date pushed back six months in hopes the virus will subside.
Meanwhile, Venice’s Carnival was canceled and Milan’s La Scala opera house is closed. In Italy and Japan, soccer and baseball games have played to empty stadiums; future matchups face cancellation. Seiko Hashimoto, the Japanese politician overseeing Tokyo’s preparations to host the Summer Olympics, said on Tuesday that the games could be postponed.
Big cultural events and activities can’t bridge all of our divides, of course. You know that if you’ve ever argued with a friend about “Game of Thrones” or waded into Twitter combat about the latest Star Wars movie. If we can’t agree on whether Tony Soprano is dead, there is no superhero team-up powerful enough to end political polarization or reduce income inequality. But culture can get us talking, give us a set of reference points and help us realize, if only for a couple of hours, what we all value.
Take the Olympics: Sure, it’s a bit silly that every two years, when the torch is lit, many of us pretend, in the name of national pride, to be experts on dressage or the gymnastics point systems. Still, at a time when patriotism in America is at best attenuated and at worst deformed, rooting for Team USA is an old-fashioned delight.
And even as we maintain our home-country loyalties, the games provide an opportunity for viewers to encounter athletes from other nations — and to draw our collective attention to the conditions under which they compete. Pollution in Beijing or Brazil may seem comfortably distant, but seeing athletes struggle for excellence through dirty air demonstrates that the world’s biggest problems know no borders.
The Olympics aren’t the only cultural event capable of spurring this kind of transnational sympathy. “Mulan,” Disney’s latest live-action remake of an animated hit, was set to be one of a few American movies to get a wide release in Chinese movie theaters — before Disney canceled its Chinese premiere in the face of covid-19.
Attempts by a giant corporation to convert its intellectual property library into an even more valuable cash cow might not be the most obvious basis for an international dialogue. But Hollywood movies that are released in China often either are cut to appease the country’s censors or include extra material intended to appeal (or advertise) to Chinese audiences. The “Mulan” remake was trying to thread that needle to better effect, giving audiences in both countries a top-quality production informed by Chinese history and culture.
American audiences will still get to see “Mulan.” At a moment when the president frequently paints China as an enemy and covid-19 has provoked disturbing incidents of anti-Asian racism, any counterprogramming is valuable. But it’s still a shame that American and Chinese audiences, so often separated by censorship, won’t get to see and debate “Mulan” across borders at roughly the same time.
If American movie theaters close or audiences choose to Netflix and chill their way through the epidemic, Americans could lose out, too. Staying home and bingeing a television show is no substitute for the joint experience of seeing a major movie, in a theater, at the same time as millions of other eager viewers. Simply choosing to sit with strangers in a dark room and share your reactions to a piece of art is an expression of communal trust, the quality most imperiled by coronavirus.
That the Mona Lisa is receiving visitors again is a rare bright spot in this confusing, isolating moment. However vexing the crush of camera-wielding tourists around her can be, the enthusiasm for da Vinci’s portrait is a touching reminder that so many of us — no matter our nation, race, religion or gender — have a profound hunger to be in the presence of transcendent art. Beating the novel coronavirus will take time. And even when we do, we’ll need culture as a vaccine for isolation and division.