Interview with Dr Dan Hassler-Forest, assistant professor in the department of Media and Culture Studies at Utrecht University (Netherlands). He has published books and articles on science fiction, fandom and cultural studies, media theory, anti-capitalism and popular culture, and even zombies. He writes frequently for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
What strikes you the most about the digital entertainment during the lockdown period?
Dan Hassler-Forest: Definitely the endless creativity on digital platforms on which people can create their own things: often short, thirty second home made movies. Of course YouTube, Instagram and TikTok have become much more important in recent years, especially for the youngest generation. But the largely stalling of traditional film and TV production during global lockdowns has made such platforms even more important. They filled the gap after the loss of new film productions.
You did your PhD-research on the effect of the terrorist attacks from 9/11 on superheroes in film. Which similarities and differences do you see between the impact on entertainment of the crisis back then and the crisis now?
Dan Hassler-Forest: The similarity is that something does change in the content of media productions. After 9/11, we began to think differently about conflict and enmity: instead of nation-states, invisible and elusive terrorist cells were identified as the greatest threat in movies and TV, as the US government declared a ‘War on Terror’. We switched from stories about conflicts between nation states — a typical consequence of the Cold War — to stories about terrorists as the new enemies. In the current corona crisis, we are dealing with a literally invisible enemy: the virus. And now we suddenly see a lot of community spirit: people who want to be together at a distance, want to make something together, and seek out connections.
How does the present reality of the corona-crisis compare to what you have seen in science fiction movies?
Dan Hassler-Forest: Many people watch films about virus outbreaks and zombies during the lockdown. What I especially notice when I compare films such as Outbreak from 1995 and Contagion from 2011 with the reality of today is that the pace of life during a pandemic is so much slower in real life. The effect of the lockdown is also more alienating than spectacular. In Hollywood movie scenarios, everything is very dramatic. And instead of more community spirit, conflicts that break out between people often turn out to be more dangerous than the virus.
What has been your own favourite form of digital entertainment in lockdown?
Dan Hassler-Forest: I don’t spend much time on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok myself. I have used the lockdown period to set up a film school for my own children, aged 5 and 8. I have selected fifty film classics from before 1980. Together we watch films like Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music and the films of Charlie Chaplin. I tell my children about them. I let them make drawings, write about it and talk about it. That’s a great fun project that we never seemed to have time for before. Now I enjoy it to the fullest together with the kids.