Alissa Wilkinson is a film and culture critic at Vox who has reflected on how artists — filmmakers, writers, and musicians — capture the time they live in, or the time they imagine. This is how they recognize, remember and deal with our complicated life.
Wilkinson found that artists have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by doing what they do best: creating and making things that – for at least some people – help them feel alive even though they face grief and trauma.
Wilkinson is the author of “How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World”, co-authored with Robert Joustra. She is also a professor of humanities and English at King’s College in New York. Shannon Henry Kleiber of “To the Best of Our Knowledge” spoke with Wilkinson.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Shannon Henry Kleiber: You wrote this book about surviving the apocalypse before we actually had the pandemic. That sounds a little prophetic, or at least a little prescient. Does that sound like it to you?
Alissa Wilkinson: Yes. It was obviously not intended for this to be so. My co-author and I started maybe in 2014 and finished the following year, so we turned in the manuscript in 2015, not realizing how much that would make the book feel like it was written like a textbook. instructions for our time.
But it’s also a sort of furtive philosophy book. So, of course, it’s supposed to be relevant all the time, and it turned out that we hit it a bit more than we expected.
SHK: More recently, you have written about the “plague prophets”. Who are the plague prophets?
AW: At the start of the pandemic, I started to think of people who had written books, or spoken to, or even taken a class, who had said things that seemed meaningful and related to what we were going through. .
One of them was Max Brooks, who wrote “World War Z” years ago. It’s a book on international relations and political theory in which he thought, “Well, if there really was a zombie apocalypse, how would different countries react to it based on the core values of their nation or how they view isolationism versus immigration and all these different issues?” And so when we got to the one-year mark, I wondered how many people who had written books or done movies that seemed oddly prescient, how many thought they were right?
So I reached out to Scott Z. Burns, the screenwriter who wrote “Contagion,” which is a movie that a lot of people were talking about because it’s pretty accurate, even though the virus in that movie is even more severe and moves rapidly. it kills people. I asked, “What do you think you’re right? What do you think you’re wrong? What could you never have foreseen?”
And I’ve done it for a number of people. I talked to Ling Ma who wrote the novel “Severance”. I spoke to Emily St. John Mandel, who wrote the novel “Station Eleven”. I spoke to the filmmakers who made the film “Palm Springs,” which just came out in the middle of the pandemic, but really captures the feeling of living in this Groundhog Day reality where every day is the same.
SHK: A time loop.
AW: Yes exactly. And for the most part, a lot of them were like, “Well, I never expected something like this to get as politicized as it has.” That there would be people who literally wouldn’t face what was happening, or that it would suddenly become a marker of identity, like, are you taking these social health measures or not? And that it was supposed to say something about your political affiliation. They just never expected this.
And other people said, we didn’t write this movie or this book to reflect anything about a world where people isolate themselves and stay away from others, but what we achieved in living the reality we wrote about was that we had achieved something good, and were learning a lot about ourselves and our relationships with each other.
So yes, it was quite interesting talking to all these people. One thing I’ve learned is that artists anticipate things because they work in the realm of the imagination, and sometimes they succeed. But even then, they’re not so much prophets as they tap into something fundamental about the human condition, which artists have always done.
SHK: Do you think artists have an unusual ability or even a responsibility to reflect what is happening, but also to predict the future?
AW: I’m always hesitant to say that artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular because I think it depends on where their gifts are. But I think there are a lot of artists whose job – or what they feel inside – is to know human nature so well that they can put humans in different situations in their imagination.
Obviously science fiction has been doing this for a very long time and can tell us something about ourselves and how we feel about each other, whether or not we are in that situation. What does it mean to have empathy? What would it be like to face a particular ethical dilemma that might mean I’m not the winner, but more people live?
I think artists often have this unique ability because they train and sharpen their imaginations to really think through all the scenarios and tell compelling stories that people can relate to.
SHK: What do you think of the future in terms of creative writing, film and art? Do you think a new type of art is emerging from the pandemic?
AW: I’ve talked to a lot of authors who wrote novels at that time, and they said, “I had to write it because I felt like I was going to disappear if I didn’t. wasn’t doing. Or filmmakers who took cameras and started making films about what was happening, whether documentaries or fiction, and often with the various COVID-related constraints weighing on them.
Longer term, I think we’ll see a lot of people work through the incredible anxiety that we felt very intensely when there was just no end in sight, and no idea if it would ever end.
SHK: It’s strange that there is something creative and beautiful that comes out of it. And for those of us who enjoy reading and watching movies and listening to music, it might make us feel more connected to each other during this disconnected time.
AW: Yes, it’s true. One interesting thing that happened during this time was that musicians released albums that they often recorded in isolation. Music connects us in a way that even narrative art doesn’t do as well. There’s just this habit of songs that you have, and then people are able to talk about it. There is something comforting in knowing that everyone is listening to the same album.
I’m sure we’ll be talking a long time about things that aren’t explicitly COVID, but how you can feel the experience in there. You can feel the processing of the trauma. This will be very important to us for a long time.
In the short term, some of them will just be too much on the nose and no one will want to watch them. But you also have to ask yourself if we’re making movies right now that feel too much on the nose and nobody wants to watch them, will we feel any different 30 years from now? And the answer, I think, will probably be yes.