Can they do that? Covid-19 and intimacy on screen

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Vill? Bernád muses over intimacy on screen, our surprising new-found discomfort with large crowds, and our yearning for human connection.

This year has been like no other. With the rise of Covid-19 our world has drastically changed. It has only been seven months since the start of the global pandemic in Ireland, but when we think back to March it feels like a lifetime ago. It is amazing how quickly we humans can adapt to the new normal, with things like masks, social distancing, and isolation are all now standard practise for most in Ireland, and the world. I’m sure we have all experienced the following: you are filling up your overwhelming free time by watching your favourite TV show. Two characters agree to meet but instead of speaking over Zoom as you were expecting they actually meet in person inside a restaurant, where upon arrival they hug each other. During the scene you get this overwhelming feeling of “no, they can’t do that!” before reminding yourself that these are, in fact, fictional people.

Media, unlike other parts of our lives, cannot keep up with how quickly the world changes. New restrictions make filming and releasing projects more difficult, so in many cases we are left watching our old favourites. Because of this we keep repeating this strange new uncomfortable experience of on-screen crowds filling us with unease. Humans are social animals and we desire physical contact. Shaking hands, hugging, kissing; not only do we enjoy these things, but we need them. For many people these intrinsically human experiences have been drastically limited. Having such an integral part of life almost completely removed will cause some strain on our minds as we adjust, and in adjusting we have come to, rightly, be wary of crowds or close contact with another human. This has, by extension, changed how we view television and film.

These small moments can make us feel disturbed. It often takes a moment to remind ourselves that there was a world before social distancing. Sometimes it only takes a second to overcome this confusion, laughing off how bizarre this whole situation is, sometimes it can cause a deeper reflection on the situation the world finds itself in. Reminders of an intimacy we can no longer experience for the most part is difficult. I never thought I would miss large crowds at sweaty gigs, but I often find myself craving passing physical interactions with strangers. A pat on the back, a quick exchange at the bar, a “sorry let me slide past you there man.” The lack of these social situations is even more profound when we see it on screen, the digital realm carrying on as if nothing was wrong. Touch is very powerful. We can forget how much until we go weeks without being touched by another human being. Seeing families and friends hugging on screen when you have not seen yours in weeks can be deeply affecting and upsetting. The emotion of all that can be difficult to adjust to and for a moment these attempts at escapism can just reinforce our reality. 

Interestingly, there is also another side to this bizarre new phenomenon (which I am calling ‘Covid Brain’) and that is when you see characters in older films of shows complying with social distancing or wearing medical masks. In many South-East Asian countries, mask-wearing is normal, especially if you are sick and don’t want to pass it around. Due to this, many Japanese, Korean, or Chinese films and television shows feature characters wearing medical masks. Seeing this on screen can be somewhere relieving. For example, the 2003 Memories of Murder is a South Korean film by acclaimed director Bong Joon Ho. In certain parts of the film, characters wear medical masks, either as part of their job or as courtesy to their co-workers. Seeing this was oddly soothing, as I didn’t worry about them catching Covid-19 (again, this film came out in 2003). The same can be said for any show in which a character is isolated from others; never did I think 127 Hours could be relaxing, but being stuck under that boulder really keeps him away from any of those dastardly super-spreader events.

Simple moments of intimacy which we have enjoyed and taken for granted for so long are now being questioned and replaced with an anxiety surrounding physical touch. So, what’s next? Production has restarted in many countries and it is worth wondering if the way they show intimacy will change. With social distancing measures in place in almost every country, will we begin to see films and television shows that reflect our current reality? Will we see romance’s that end with the lovers standing two meters apart, gazing wistfully at each other? Action films where all the fist fights are conducted in separate rooms and then edited together? Court-room dramas over Zoom? It is difficult to say.

As we continue watching our favourite media, it is worth trying to see these moments of intimacy, not as something we have lost, but as something we will return to. Although our newly conditioned brains might find crowd scenes panic-inducing for the time being, eventually we will return to crowds ourselves. We might not be able to experience these things ourselves right now, but until then we can experience them through the characters. We can get wrapped up in these stories and we can try to push aside reality and escape it for a while. Even if that means giving out to the fictional couples on your screen for not standing two meters apart or silently appreciating the mask-etiquette on display in your favourite anime series.