Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Contagion


Every few years, it seems, some new strain of encephalitis appears out of nowhere that threatens to go pandemic and kill millions of us. Each new viral scare is both a product of a shrinking planet and a vindication of it. The "medical thriller disaster film" Contagion illustrates these strengths and vulnerabilities.

Two men, John Sayles and Steven Soderbergh, represent the two main problems with American "independent" film. (If on they could somehow be merged in one filmmaker, the resulting films would be something like Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers.) Sayles has never been short of things to say (Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Men With Guns, Casa de los Babys). He's the closest we have to an American Ken Loach. What Sayles lacks is an original or compelling way of saying them. Soderbergh, on the other hand, has acquired a superb technique that is too often confused with art and is lavished on trivial material or on movie star vehicles.

Soderbergh's film Contagion has almost everything that a film dealing with such a subject requires: intelligence, truthfulness, and a plot driven by a genuinely frightening eventuality. What it doesn't have, strangely, is what Sayles would've given it at the expense of suspense: a point of view. Soderbergh takes a dim view of humanity when he shows us a handful of experts who know what to do and who get to it, a bureaucracy that does pretty much whatever the experts tell them, and the rest of humanity that does nothing but wait on enough luck to survive. The everyday sort of selfless heroism that was evident in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami is omitted. Western observers spoke often of the apparent stoicism with which the Japanese public endured their daily hardships. But some of them also speculated that Americans might not be so stoical, if and when they are faced with such a national calamity. Soderbergh shows them on their worst behavior as the disease spreads, stampeding pharmacies, looting grocery stores, and vandalizing everything else. The only cool heads in the movie are, of course, played by the stars.

Probably the most despicable character in the movie is played by Jude Law - a blogger who contributes to and exploits the hysteria. At one point, he tells a scientist (played by Elliott Gould) that he's a writer and has his own blog. "Blogging is not writing," Gould tells him. "It's graffiti with punctuation." Law is dubious of everything that established institutions do to fight the virus. Even when they develop a vaccine, he says "This thing's side effects will be like the credits at the end of a movie."

Contagion, which is immeasurably better than the last film on the subject, Outbreak, has a current of fear that is, er, infectious. When we first see Gwyneth Paltrow, she coughs, and we follow her home from Chicago, after a business trip to Macao. Our clinical interest in her fate is softened by the helplessness in which her illness leaves her, and by Matt Damon's stunned reaction to the news of her sudden death.

I suppose that such a film, which must cover vast distances (Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Dubai, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Russia, Malaysia, and Hong Kong) couldn't avoid the many ellipses and musical segues to which Soderbergh so often resorts. A throbbing, monotonous music score underpins these scenes, that manage to be dramatically effective while basically saying very little.

The star-studded cast is headed by an excellent Laurence Fishburne as the director of the CDC - for which Contagion is an extended endorsement. Kate Winslet manages to turn her small role as CDC field investigator into a memorable vignette. And Matt Damon is once again convincing as a regular Joe - in this case a hapless man who is immune to the virus that kills his wife and young son.

What the film tells us about human beings isn't very surprising or edifying. Camus' great novel, The Plague, is something of a model for all such stories, even if it is about much more than just the progression and containment of a bubonic plague outbreak in a 1940s Algerian city. The last paragraph of the novel (in Stuart Gilbert's translation) reads:

"...as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crows did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests, that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city."

Needless to say, Camus' chronicle is incalculably more moving as a human drama, and a towering work of art. Soderbergh has announced his upcoming retirement from directing. I can't think of too many other directors who could've made Contagion run its 106 minutes as smoothly as Soderbergh. Smoothness may not count for much, but in American film, perhaps it's the most we have a right to expect.

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