The Good News is: The Corona Epidemic is Internationalizing Our Culture

GELFAND’S WORLD--Let’s not talk about the current president today. By the time this appears, the final presidential debate will (presumably) have finished.

Trump is being advised to act more personable – to show his charm. We’ll see whether Joe Biden manages to bait him just enough to generate another angry outburst from Trump. Meanwhile, the whole world is going to be musing over whether the mute button will bring civility. 

Instead, let’s talk about a couple of effects of the Covid-19 epidemic. The positive effect (what a strange phrase to type) is that all of a sudden, we are connecting to each other from all over the world. The following is one example:

The Alliance for Jewish Theatre will be holding an online conference from Sunday, October 25 through Tuesday, October 27. You can go online and register here. The director explains that there will be presentations from all over the world, and they will all be available to you on your desktop.

I don’t pretend to know much about theatre production (I still have trouble trying to figure out whether to type theater or theatre) but there are zillions of actors and writers, young and old, in this area, and they put on hundreds of plays, readings, festivals, and symposia. This one, however, is directed by our old friend Jeremy Aluma, who ran the group Four Clowns before he took leave to Chicago. My friends who are adept in the theater arts tell me that they are particularly interested in a talk to be given by Rebecca Taichman, who is the director of the Broadway play Indecent. There are lots of other talks and events, if you care to register – as in local movie festivals, you can purchase a one-day pass or go for the whole thing with one ticket. 

Another example: 

The beginning of October would (in an ordinary year) feature the annual festival of early film that happens in Pordenone, Italy, and goes by the name Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (i.e.: the silent film festival). I’ve written about it here in past years. This year, what with the lockdown all over the world (and particularly in Italy at the time the event was being planned), it was either cancel entirely or rig something up online. 

So this year, instead of visiting Teatro Giuseppe Verdi on a far-off continent, I sat in my chair after plugging my laptop into the old flat screen tv. It worked marvelously well, other than the lack of the free samples of Prosecco and other local wines that the festival offers when it is presented live. 

Here is another curiosity: Those of you who are familiar with Zoom type meetings (this being a similar platform) are also familiar with the Chat function, which allows you to type comments. Those comments then are readable by everyone else who is connected online. So here I was in San Pedro, California, just blocks away from the site where Laurel and Hardy meet up in their first (or maybe second) film made as a duo, and this during an online discussion of none other than Laurel and Hardy. So, I typed a chat saying hello to friends in England and mentioning that I was looking out my window at the historical site used in the film Putting Pants on Phillip. That was reasonably fun, but what happened next was an indication of the ultimate effect (so far) of this whole technological breakthrough. 

The director of the festival was chatting from Italy with people in a couple of other countries, when he mentioned in passing that there was a chat comment from – and here he mentioned my name and location! And then he read my greetings to the friends I haven’t seen for a year, and my thanks to various people in the festival, and mentioned in particular my comments about the historical underpinnings of Warehouse 1 and the steamship terminal in San Pedro. 

So one of the interesting effects of this epidemic is that – out of sheerest necessity – we are going online to communicate, and in so doing, the fact that the internet connects across oceans as easily as it connects across cities, has turned the whole world into a unified telephone party line that also includes pictures. For those who are old enough, it’s the wrist television that Dick Tracey used in the old comic strip, a fictional invention that was introduced after the wrist radio became a little old. Nowadays, it’s hard to walk down the street without passing somebody talking into our modern version of the wrist television, with the single exception that the screen is bigger and we don’t usually strap them to our arms. 

I strongly suspect that this style of online meetings will stay with us to some extent even after we have a working vaccine. For one thing, it allows people to participate (or at least watch movies) without flying across the continent or across the ocean. Earlier this year, the Cinecon film festival (which usually has maybe 500 people in attendance) got 8000 online attendees. That’s thousand not hundred. And some of those attendees explained in Chat that this was their first time being able to attend the festival. 

I’m particularly looking forward to this new world of online discussion opening up to everyday scientific presentations. In a non-epidemic world, the best scientists are invited to give talks at the leading universities, and it would be really nice to be able to see and hear them without driving across town on the freeway or missing them entirely because they are being presented at MIT or at Yale. It’s starting – next month the annual UCLA meeting on mitochondria will be entirely online. 

This use of online meetings is, by the way, an important element of fighting global warming, but that’s a discussion for another day.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)