"Contagion" dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011

I don't consider myself a germaphobe, but I empathize with those who are, particularly if they attended a screening of Contagion recently.   Steven Soderbergh's latest film manages to take the premise of Wolfgang Petersen's 1995 film Outbreak and remake it into something that works.  I'm not sure there was an abundance of doubt that Soderbergh's take on the Epidemic genre would prove more interesting and artful than Petersen's film, but the difference between what the two directors are able to do is significant as a way to read Contagion, which manages to occupy an odd liminal space between making something really interesting out of the worst of 70's cinema (the Disaster film) and delivering a picture that serves as a fairly dense cultural reflection on the nature of realistically dealing with mass epidemics in the information age.  In Outbreak, the Motaba virus threatened to wipe out the human race...(in my best Dustin Hoffman) "unless we find that monkey!"  In Contagion, the difference is in the clever yet simple plot construction, which ultimately clicks neatly into place, leaving us with a fairly thoughtful conclusion to carry out with us, if you will.

Matt Damon in Contagion
It comes as no surprise that Soderbergh is tackling a new genre.  If we've learned anything from the career of Soderbergh, it is to expect the unexpected.  In retrospect, his debut feature Sex Lies and Videotape (1989), a movie that helped to define indie film making in the early 90's, seemed like the work of a filmmaker who might give us more of the same:  intimate, cheaply made character indies that were breaking ground in contrast to the dearth of serious films in the late 80's.  Sex Lies and Videotape signaled the start of a strong career, but the films that followed tell us a lot about how ambitious Soderbergh's vision can be:  Kafka in 1991 (his take on Kafka's "The Castle" featuring Jeremy Irons; rumored to soon be released in a re-edited edition), King of the Hill in 1993 ( a depression era film featuring a child actor in the primary role), all the way through to maybe his most aggressively subversive film, 1996's Schizoplois  (a credit-less cult film that serves as a sort of "fuck you" to the movie industry from Soderbergh).

It isn't until after Schizopolis that mainstream America got a sense of what Soderbergh could do as a mainstream film maker, with such box office successes as 1998's Out of Sight, 2000's Erin Brockovich, and the Ocean's Eleven (lets hope) trilogy.  Although I'm not a huge fan of those films, I have always admired Soderbergh's attitude about the kinds of projects he takes on, which seems to be more about continually testing his capacities as a director and accommodating the script and genre, and less about imprinting any overt auteur-like signature.  In contrast to another late eighties/early nineties film maker of note, Hal Hartley, Soderbergh seems to have always worked outside of his comfort zone, although I think that both film maker's bodies of work have some equally impressive entries.  For Hartley it seemed as if he made the same film for a number a years, and a great film it was, from his short work through to his most impressive features, including 1990's Trust, 1992's Simple Men, and, perhaps his masterpiece, 1997's Henry Fool.  Where Hartley's style was always recognizable--the rhythm of his language, the in-and-out-of-the-frame Godardian blocking, and the insular world of his storytelling--Soderbergh's personality always seemed to be hiding just beneath the task at hand.

Jay Thomas Ryan and Parker Posey in Henry Fool
Gwenyth Paltrow in Contagion
Contagion is maybe the first film of Soderbergh's that seems to carry over a personal style in a significant way, even though it's not a "personal film," per se, it shares the visual sensibility and thematic scope of some of his recent work, including 2008's Che and 2009's The Informant!  It seems that Soderbergh has moved a bit more toward a consistent approach across these pictures, at least in contrast to the difference between Sex Lies and Videotape and Kafka.  Contagion exhibits a remarkably seasoned directorial hand.  Soderbergh is extending his grasp beyond a film like Traffic (2000), where he balanced the two contrasting worlds of the drug war so articulately, and allowing his film language to reflect more directly the age of globalization.  The look of Contagion flattens us out and leaves us exposed.  The drab hallways, office enclosures, and hospital rooms on display in the film, from Chicago to Hong Kong, all wash together in a way that makes the continental leaps Soderbergh is taking here seem cohesive.  As I mentioned earlier, this very aspect of how to handle a global crisis in filmic terms can make the difference in the ultimate success of a film, as exhibited in the way less successful disaster pic leanings of a director like Wolfgang Petersen to the dreadful speculation on the consequences of the climate crisis in Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow.

SPOILER ALERT!:  The final image of The Day After Tomorrow 
What makes Contagion even more remarkable, in contrast to it's expert handling of geography, is the way in which the film establishes a tremendous sense of intimacy.  The only other recent film that manages such a palpable closeness to it's characters is Terrance Malick's Tree of Life, but to an entirely different effect.  Contagion plays, in part, like a horror film, and within the first 15 minutes the film has crawled under the audience's skin.  Soderbergh gets uncomfortably close to the red cheeks, the puffy eyes, the sweating brows.  The spread of the epidemic, as the puffy eyes turn to foaming, gaping, dead mouths, is a slow burn, and the film's sense of pace is really kind of thrilling, although that seems an odd thing to say about the portrayal of relentless and unstoppable mass death.  But, no country gets off more on mass hysteria than the United States (!), with disaster epics dating back to the thirties, and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the next volcano, Poseidon adventure, or alien attack.  In that respect, Contagion might be read as an attempt to put a cap on, at least, the "Epidemic" contingent of the Disaster genre by making a film that effectively works as a post-summer popcorn movie, as well as an artful piece of cultural reflection.

Steven Soderbergh shooting Contagion
Throughout Soderbergh's career, he has been exploring film release strategies and trends, as with his 2005 star-powerless experimental project, Bubble, which toyed with simultaneous DVD and theatrical release (watch the incredible trailer for the film here--a great little film on it's own).  With Contagion, Soderbergh seems to have released the first all-star, big budget I-MAX release that doesn't rely at all on special effects displays or grandiose CGI (save, maybe, the peeling back of Gwenyth Paltrow's skull, a moment I will admit to taking perverse pleasure in).  I imagine there have been a number of ticket holders who have left feeling cheated out of their extra I-MAX coin after not getting even one 2012-esque global collapse sequence, but, hopefully, there is a more prevailing perception that sees how well the cinematography jives with the I-MAX experience, and possibly an understanding that there are possibilities for the format that go beyond vertigo-inducing stunts.  In this sense, there is a case to be made that Contagion holds an unprecedented spot in cinema history, although the film itself barely holds together in some of the more remote corners of the narrative.

Jennifer Ehle in Contagion
The momentum of Contagion is undeniable and well executed, but that comes at the expense of half-executed peripheral story lines, like the one involving Jennifer Ehle's character Dr. Ally Hextall, the chief CDC employee working on a vaccine for the virus, taking a life or death risk as a way to test the vaccine; same goes for the story involving Laurence Fishburne, who plays the head of the Center for Disease Control, and his attempt to get the vaccine to his wife.  Although all of the performers are on the right page, particularly Ehle who is very memorable here, they tend to get caught in the least interesting corners of the narrative.  There is an interesting parallel story involving the great character actor John Hawkes that hints at how class roles play out in this imagined situation that would have been an interesting extended theme for the film, but I think Soderbergh is more focused on staying true to the procedural-like narrative at hand, although he does allow for some surprisingly insightful moments.  Particularly, the trajectory of Jude Law's online conspiracy theory reporter is an interesting one, and although I imagine there will be some who see Contagion as turning his character into a villain, with the government intervention of the vaccine the hero, I think that Soderbergh is perhaps going for a more thoughtful analysis of what "the truth" means when a situation like this occurs during the most communicatively interconnected age in history.  (Although you might reconsider the validity of my reading, especially if you agree with Eliot Gould's brief character, Dr. Ian Sussman, whose whole purpose seems to be to deliver the line:  "Blogging is not writing.  It's just graffiti with punctuation.")

Jude Law in Contagion
The final sequence of Contagion is a reminder of the fragile and unpredictable nature of our existence, which struck me as a pretty heavy conclusion for an I-MAX affair (at least a bit more heft than my last I-MAX outing, Thor).  That sequence is juxtaposed to a scene that features one of the central characters of the film, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) throwing a contagion-free prom for his daughter and her boyfriend.  The Emhoff's matriarch (Paltrow) was patient zero, and we are left with them trying to piece together this uniquely American coming of age ritual as a way to stave off the loss and chaos around them.  The scene is a not only effective in terms of how we feel about those central characters, but also as a representation of what we all do, every day, to survive.

Anna Jacoby-Heron and Matt Damon in Contagion
As a final note, for my money it's Soderbergh's most experimental works that are his best.  As a mainstream film maker he can get the job done, and he does that and then some with Contagion.  But, if you haven't really looked at some of the lesser known Soderbergh, I urge you to construct a mini-film fest of some of these titles.  Without the hilarious abandon of Schizopolis, the hit man genre re-structuring of The Limey, the sister experimental works of Bubble and the Girlfriend Experience, and his work with the late great Spalding Gray, Soderbergh could be seen as just another corporate shill of a filmmaker.  The breadth of his work is amazing, and Contagion strikes a chord that hopefully signals a return to his more risk-taking tendencies.

Steven Soderbergh in Schizopolis
Terrance Stamp in The Limey
Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Spalding Gray in Gray's Anatomy


jason said...

My partner and I just came back from seeing Contagion. I liked it better than she did, but my expectations were low. In general, I very much enjoyed the movie. Not a great movie by any means; but very entertaining and believable. I liked the technical side of the disease (the language/terminology, the mapping of it, the science, etc.). But my partner and I both wanted the movie to go further. We concluded that it's about the little acts in life. The decision to not follow protocol; to do things because you want to not because you're chasing fame and fortune; to live with a sense of ethics and commitment to other human beings; etc. But then there is also luck of the draw--lotteries, immune systems, shaking someone's hand, and bats dropping bananas. But the critique that my partner I came up with: not all actions are equal, which the final scene tends to gloss over. Certain institutions have serious power and decisions/actions of those institutions carry more (potential) consequence. Don't want to say too much here so as not to spoil it for others. But that last scene needs play a bigger role in the movie. Why highlight the bulldozer if you're not going to wage a serious critique? It could have been ANY bulldozer, but instead, it was a very specific one. Thus, it comes off like a gloss. But, regardless, still very enjoyable. Hey... where's my hand sanitizer???

Jason Hedrick said...

I love your read of the film, especially the ethical aspects you get at, which I think are best exhibited in a scene like the CDC head vaccinating the janitor's son. And, you are correct, the film is not a great film, and I think one of the reasons is that the final scene does not play a big enough role, even though it still manages to be a striking coda to the whole thing, and the film as a whole is a pretty significant cultural reflection, if not a perfect movie. Thanks for reading and responding--I love to keep the conversation going.