When I’d go out for walks toward the start of lockdown last year, I quickly noticed a recurring theme amongst the signs that began peppering the windowsills of the homes I’d pass. “We’ll get through this!” “Stay strong!” “Shine your light!!”
It was a touch implicit, and it took my dumbass a short while until I understood the message. In the face of an unprecedented pandemic, and ever-shifting goalposts about how you, citizen, are being enlisted to help fight it, in the interest of national security you are henceforth reduced to a reactionary state; you can do nothing to change your circumstances except endure until you are told it is safe to come out again and enjoy society.
OK. Great. Let me just queue up some videos, order in all my food, and begin the WAIT. But I have a question, if I may be so bold. What will be left to enjoy of society when (if) this is all over? (Ducks, to avoid career cancellation.)
I have no problem abiding by the strictures set forth by health authorities; at least, I wouldn’t, if there was the dangled carrot of a promise of a return to normalcy at the other end of this interminable tunnel. That must have been the guiding light for every person who lived through a plague in history. You emerge from something so awful dead set upon returning to the joys that made, and make, life worth living.
Now we’re told that when (if) we emerge from lockdown, we’ll be ushered into a new normal. A great reset. A insert-whatever-clever-branding-designation some marketing guru pieced together this week. But what do we have to look forward to? What will still be there that we once loved?
Crime is up across the country, the nation is falling deeper into apparently intractable political division that manifests in paroxysms of violence separated by ever-shrinking windows of time, small businesses are shriveling up without any hope in sight.
Meanwhile, everyone is hunkering down in their homes and thinking, I don’t…need to go outside to do anything anymore.
I can order food. I can order groceries. I can stream whatever show I want. I can listen to whatever music I feel. I can go to school. I can perform my work duties.
Against this encroaching echo of a technologically-driven drivel of doom, we need a hero.
Every time I get an image of Christopher Nolan, he is always impeccably dressed, invariably in the same get-up. Black jacket, silver vest, white shirt, trousers or khakis and a smart set of shoes. Much as has been said of presidents, or other leaders of state, who have their outfits neatly pressed and ready for the day ahead, to save them the quotidian banality of deciding what to wear for work. They’ve got enough on their intellectual plate, the reasoning goes.
Nolan appears to have decided, long ago, that he’d landed upon an outfit he liked. Might as well keep wearing it, washing it, wearing it. That way, he could focus on his art.
What he did in 2020, apart from oversee the release of his latest film, Tenet, was lobby a consistent plea that, even as we cope with an unprecedented global dilemma, we don’t lose sight of coming out on the other end with some shred of society still preserved. The world has gone through pandemics before; the point was, if you survived, you were raring to get back to the business of living. To enjoy the things you’d been deprived of.
What we’ve been told since last March was that there’s no going back to society as it once was. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? It happened with WarnerMedia’s announcement that it would be shifting its entire 2021 film catalogue online—captured in the headline atop this page, which quite rightly drew Nolan’s ire.
It would make the more cynical among us certain that this is just the latest example of someone up on top of us putting his thumb on the scale of progress and herding society where he wants it to go, in a manner that will materially benefit him and screw us over. So you liked going to mom and pop restaurants? Well, actually, the societal construct of going out to eat has only existed for a generation. Before that, only the well-heeled had the means, or the resources, to indulge in this extravagance, because the only “restaurants” available charged exorbitant rates.
What we’ll likely see is more of what already exists in San Francisco: food delivery warehouses that exist solely for providing meals to people in their homes, shepherded by hapless drivers with ever-more-frayed nerves. Sitting down and enjoying the experience of a meal? That’s not your bag, man—there’s a new show on Netflix. Stay in, and order in, instead.
The communal experience, already guttering, is nearly extinct. Condition a society long enough to not want something, and you’ll probably achieve what you’d hoped to. It is unforgivable, sure, but oh your phone just pinged and there’s a new discount on your favorite clothing site. After your brain is suitably Harrison Bergeron’d, you don’t really care too much what you missed out on. Come to think of it, you can’t even remember what it was that had been bothering you. There’s just this itch you can’t ever seem to scratch, but if you buy something here it might go away.
It’s the same on a larger scale. Statues demolished. OK, who looks at statues anyway. But it goes beyond that. What you were told was important a decade ago is now beyond the pale; free speech is literally violence, OK? You begin to get the point. What’s the point of taking anything seriously when it won’t matter in a few days’ time? What good does it do me to go against the grain when it’ll ruin my career chances.
This is the point that is being drilled into you. The postmodernist debacle writ into public coda. Nothing makes sense, nothing matters, so you must trust the government to do right by you. If you should resist, well…you’re only supposed to resist when it’s acceptable. When it’s the wrong kind of resistance…
If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that humans require release valves to let off steam. Take away literally every one of them through lockdown, and you get mass unrest exploding every few months.
If we ever do emerge from this dreary state of affairs, I hope more people will do what Nolan has attempted to instill in his audiences: a reminder of their natural-born nature as explorers. We’re meant to move about the world, to see, to feel.
It’s McConaughey in Interstellar telling a jittery crewmate, as their shuttle hurtles through deep space, that the best solo yachtsmen tend to not know how to swim. They could learn, of course, but it’s more a reflection of the fact that their confidence in their capabilities as a seafarer must be absolute.
It’s the tchotchke in Tenet reminding us that a ship is safe in harbour; but that’s not what ships are built for. We can sink into sedentary stupor and devolve into what will eventually become those mindless blobs in Wall-E, or we can get off our ass and go exploring. At a safe distance from our fellow man if necessary; but it’s not as if striking off in search of something new was ever a packed event.
Back in March, when the lights were first going out in Europe, and abroad, Nolan penned an editorial expressing his keen desire that we might make it through this impending struggle and reemerge ready to support an incontrovertibly elemental aspect of society.
When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.
If only I could still believe it were true.