Contagion: Stop Touching Yourself!

09/09/2011 9:45 AM |

Early mock-up of a Matt Damon 2012 campaign poster.

  • Early mock-up of a Matt Damon 2012 campaign poster.

Hey, it’s this summer’s final BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are coating their entire bodies in hand sanitizer. This week they shoot deathly glares at every audience member who coughed or sneezed during Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.

Hey, Ben. I’m writing this to you from my newly hermetically sealed office space, where my keyboard gets a dousing of sanitizer every five minutes and men in hazmat suits deliver my food in plastic containers. Why all the sensible precaution? Because I just saw that alarmist Contagion movie, the apotheosis of our germophobic age of hand sanitizer. From its repulsed series of shots of people making contact with each other or manhandling water glasses, I learned that no one should never touch anyone or anything, especially their own faces. That’s how disease spreads, Ben, and diseases are like nature’s weapons of mass destruction. (You saw The Happening, right?) This pathological aphephobia fits in well with a global culture in which relationships and socialization are increasingly moving on-line; notice how the one relationship in the movie that blossoms does so through text messages? Physical contact can be fatal—our fingers may as well be made of knives—but nobody ever caught chiropteran swine flu from Facebook. (You’ll excuse all the scientific terminology, Ben, as half of this movie’s all-star cast plays doctors and speaks in jargon-heavy dialogue.) “Our best defense,” Laurence Fishburn’s character says, “is social distancing.” And yet Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns don’t put much faith in virtual realities, as the film’s “blogger”—the modern iteration of your archetypal shoe-leather newshound—comes off almost as bad as the contagious disease itself, right?

Actually, Henry, sexting teenagers notwithstanding, I think social media are thoroughly vilified in Contagion. The web’s capacity for viral news distribution is repeatedly likened to the virus that’s killing tens of millions, with one character even suggesting that the panic incited by Facebook and Twitter will be worse than that caused by the virus. And then Elliott Gould’s professor character—an old media spokesperson hoping to have his research published—tells the anti-Big Pharma blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) that “blogging is not writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” (And what an evil-sounding name, “crumb-weed”; why not just call him Alan Dirtbag?) The film’s virus remains a news event that happens on television—as opposed to the Twitter-centric earthquake of a few weeks ago. Newspapers’ conspicuous absence from Contagion‘s muckracking competition is partly explained in an early scene during which Krumwiede visits the San Francisco Chronicle‘s offices, only to be turned away by an editor who explains: “We have almost no freelance budget.” As he leaves the angry blogger yells “print media is dying” to the entire newsroom, a fate he precipitates with his viral vlogging. But with its pervasive fear of touching other people and the objects they’ve handled, isn’t this film also implicitly in favor of online, non-physical media? Or does the internet’s proclivity for inducing panic preclude its appeal to mysophobes?

Yeah, it’s hard to say, isn’t it? On the one hand, Soderbergh and Burns seem to want to scare us straight about disease into believing that the potential for a neo-plague pandemic is something we should take seriously. On the other hand, the movie preaches that panic during a crisis leads to the disintegration of civil society, which is more dangerous than the disease. Society breaks down within, what, a month? Two? With food shortages and roving bands of masked looters? The onset of apocalyptic conditions is as rapid as the disease, as though the movie’s superflu rotted the culture itself as well as humans’ brain and lung functions. So, the filmmakers want us to be really worried about the threat of contagious disease, but they don’t want us to panic. They don’t want us to go near anyone, but they also don’t want us to go on-line. What the fuck do they want, then? For us to spend more time in lockdown with our families?

You think all this panicking and media misdirection is in service of some family values message, Henry? It’s a pretty specific type of family though, isn’t it? All middle-class heterosexual Americans, by my count. Although admittedly Contagion isn’t so irritatingly WASPy as, say, Rabbit Hole: there’s the wise janitor and apparent single father Roger (John Hawkes); and, in this outbreak omnibus’s most remote plot strand, World Health Organization epidemic specialist Dr. Orantes (Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped and held for vaccine ransom by leaders of a poor Chinese village. The have-nots are clearly Contagion‘s most numerous victims, but they remain mostly that, numbers. Meanwhile to call the surviving richers back home “families” seems a stretch—Center for Disease Control researcher Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) and his fiancé (Sanaa Lathan) get married mid-movie, Mitch (Matt Damon) and daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) are the remaining 50 percent of a family. Perhaps instead we might say that this film values education above all else. Before being handed back to the duplicitous WHO, Dr. Orantes is teaching the Chinese children English; Krumwiede praises his readers for being discerning media consumers (whether he actually believes that is another matter); and just like high school, the film ends with prom night. That disproportionately sentimental send-off did seem in keeping with Soderbergh’s repeated acknowledgements, however brief and winking, of his film’s Emmerichian hyperbole. What was your favorite break from all the self-seriousness, Henry?

I don’t know, Ben, that I would say the movie really ever broke from its self-seriousness. I mean, there are moments when characters aren’t yelling at each other never to touch their faces for the rest of their lives, but those are just screenwriter shortcuts, so the characters have a little dimension. I think Soderbergh really means that prom scene. (Nice use of U2, btw!) The sustained tone is what makes the science fiction so effectively unsettling—it’s so ostensibly reasonable, so verisimilitudinous. I mean, you can step back and say, “this movie’s out of its fucking mind” but while you’re watching it, the progression of events seems so plausible, and Soderbergh usually delivers it cool-headedly. It helps that he lights everything so warmly, so that every space in the movie is so beautiful, so easy to give yourself over to—even those lit by fluorescent bulbs, even hotel and conference rooms, CDC labs, casino floors and funeral-parlor parlors. (The Informant! looks like that, too.) Anyway, you know what I wanted to bring up? That at the very end, (spoiler duh) it turns out that the disease started with a chef who shook someone’s hand after handling raw pork. So…you could kind of blame all those millions of deaths on the meat industry. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but perhaps a bit more obliquely, is this the summer’s second animal rights movie?

That’s an awfully oblique animal rights message, Henry. Though it’s mentioned early on that the virus somehow contains traces of bat and pig genomes—leading me and presumably every other viewer to imagine something like this—the flashback that ultimately reveals how this unlikely combo occurred is literally a footnote, taking up the film’s final minute. More significantly, whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes portrayed its human authority figures with outright contempt, Contagion actually likes people. A few may be corrupt, like the World Health Organization henchman (which isn’t exactly breaking news), but Mitch (Damon), Dr. Mears (Winslet), Dr. Cheever (Fishburne), Dr. Orantes (Cotillard), and all those innocent children are portrayed as fundamentally good. Equally oblique is Contagion‘s pro-New Yorkness. While conventional disaster movie epicenters Chicago and San Francisco get slammed, New York City isn’t mentioned a single time, not even when CDC staffers and newscasters do their “thousands reported dead in such-and-such” tallies. Maybe they removed any references to New York’s devastation due to the timing of Contagion‘s release on 9/11’s tenth anniversary weekend. Lastly, and perhaps in support of your pro-animal rights/anti-human reading, Soderbergh includes what struck me as a fittingly cynical little scene (one that evoked the ending of every Indiana Jones movie). CDC scientist Dr. Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) freezes a batch of the bat-pig flu vaccine in a kind of national vaccine vault, alongside treatments for recent panic-inducing viral phenoms H1N1 and Avian Flu, as if to suggest that we’ve once again treated the symptoms without addressing the deeper problems. Or maybe Soderbergh’s just planting the seeds of Contagion 2: Swine-Bat-Bird-Polar Bear Flu.

One Comment

  • Here are some things that don’t make sense:

    1) Gwyneth gets the disease from a COOK at a casino, and she is the only one who gets it that way?

    2) Society completely breaks down in a month, and Damon can’t even get a can’t meal from the army and then . . . three months later they are still comfortably chilling at home? Huh? Lost the big picture there, I’d say.

    3) Agree about Alan Dipshit. I guess Soderbergh has never used the internet before, he’s only heard about it. Not sure how else to explain the fact that the whole world is focused on a *single* blogger with a website that looks like it is from 1998. And yes, the the main reason people spread misinformation on the internet is in the service of securities fraud. Right, that captures the dynamic of our age perfectly.