I read a lot of film and play reviews, and I have to wonder what some critics are really about. Have we seen the same movie? In the name of objectivity, do some of them simply refuse to be swayed by what the piece is really all about, focusing instead on the stars, or the director, or even better, the plot. A reviewer bereft of a creative response can always delineate the story, accompanied by appropriately clever caustic remarks. And then there’s the “message”? The “theme!” What a great word that is. What a terrific way to dodge any personal involvement or emotional impact that a film may bring about. What an impressive way to display one’s own “understanding,” one’s special talent for observing “truth,” one’s unique knowledge of technique, background, history, methodology. Above all, what a cult-like forum for judging the “art” of cinema and theatre. But it’s not really about the display of objectivity or intellect, is it? It’s about the personal, emotional impact, the punches straight to the gut. And it’s about the state of the gut before and after it gets hit.
Case in point: I recently came out of the new film Contagion, which finally replaced The Help last weekend as top box office draw. I was resolved to write about it knowledgably, so I looked it up on the internet to find out how it came to be, who was involved and why, what the real critics had to say about it, etc. They were divided, and for the most part inexplicably less than enthusiastic. What I want to do with this as well as with any other film or play, is feel its punch. Let’s face it: Every viewer will have his or her own response to any specific art form, as determined by a convergence of all kinds of personal predilections and experiences. It just has to be acknowledged. Still it’s worth exploring just how and why this film had its impact on me.
My clearest first response to Contagion is that it is more prediction than fiction. It’s certainly not a fear flick, or an end-of-the-world epic extravaganza. It is a revealing and measured exploration of human nature under a very plausible crisis. I use the word “prediction” from my own personal conviction that we as a species are sitting on so many time bombs that we can’t possibly avoid all of them forever. Our pride will not suffice to allow us to live forever at the center of or own universe, a truth of which we need to be occasionally reminded. After my own nanosecond of a lifetime, other forms of life and society will go on without me … sadly for all of us! And after the nanosecond of human life on earth, the earth will go on in some form or another, allowing other creatures to perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that the threat of human life is a thing of the past. And when our sun burns out and the nanosecond of the existence of our solar system becomes a thing of the past, the universe will proceed merrily on course making new matter from our ashes.
Yet there is indeed some comfort to be had in the nano-ness of our existence, is there not? We all conduct our daily lives as if we will live forever, unshaken in our conviction that no wandering asteroid will ever collide with us and destroy all mammalian life on earth, even if one once did. Even in the midst of devastating warfare, huge natural disasters, inescapable starvation, and horrific diseases, we don’t wallow in doom and mystery. Instead, we seem to acquire a strange sense of indifferent humor, something that ironically forces us to accept the negative, to console ourselves and seek the positive, to keep moving, to hope, to dream. And despite evidence of the chaos all around us, we continue to insist on a belief in right and wrong, in fairness, and in justice. But in the end, those values are there only when we make them there and hold them dear. It’s called survival, an instinct we share with every other living organism.
So in that grand scheme of things, what is there to be afraid of in a little pandemic? An estimated 100 million people died from the Black Plague over four centuries in the middle ages. The great Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 took out about 1% of the world population, somewhere around 50 million people, some of my own ancestors numbered among them. And that was after World War I had already wasted a mere 15 million human lives. The UN suggests some 60 million people have thus far been infected with AIDS since it was first recorded, and the disease has already killed 25 million of them, 2 million just in 2008. Nothing new: Contagion already has an all too familiar history.
Finally it’s the survival instinct that is most impressive about Contagion. (Yes, this is after all still a personal response to Contagion. I never said I was a critic.) My thoughts tonight are colored by a convergence of recent experiences that remind me just how small and vulnerable we are, and nevertheless just how fast we can pick up the pieces of catastrophe and move on. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Towers, it is with celebrations highlighting the recovery of families, buildings and spirit. As I write, I am on vacation in Duck, NC, devastated on August 27 by Hurricane Irene, which also left Hatteras Island stranded and went on to wreak havoc all the way up the East Coast and into my old home state of Vermont. And tonight, the half-gale-force gusts from a new Nor’easter rock our cottage on its stilts and turn the sea white.
Last night I briefly checked the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website to discover ongoing concerns about existing major contagious diseases and threats. Even ignoring the more mainstream diseases of H1N1, SARS and AIDS, it seems that today in 2011, variations of both plague and measles, as well as a variety of food and insect-born diseases, could potentially become catastrophic pandemics like the MEV-1 virus portrayed in Contagion. And at the same time, critical funding for the health workers who would manage such a crisis is being dangerously slashed.
My response to Contagion is also colored by a recent viewing of Spike Lee’s angry and heart-breaking When the Levees Broke, his comprehensive “Requiem” on Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans. It is a devastating acknowledgement of the power of nature and a shameful indictment of political incompetence that should be witnessed by us all. Both films, one all too real, and one (so far) fiction, share similar scenes of disorder and death, of heroism and human resilience. Both cover overwhelming “end-of-the-world” panic, yet both are ultimately about our instincts for survival. As an afterthought, earlier this week the people of New Orleans were once again traumatized, this time by thirteen inches of rain from Tropical Storm Lee. This time, the levees held.
My feelings are further colored with completing John Grisham’s novel about the execution of an innocent man, followed immediately by this morning’s headlines trumpeting the imminent execution in Georgia of the quite possibly innocent Troy Davis. Victims of climate change, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, drought, injustice, and religious and political warfare proliferate the media. We all sit on the edge of the abyss, and thankfully live as if we did not.
Finally, just two weeks after the devastation of Irene, as I sat on the littered shoreline the evening after seeing Contagion, I watched the beauty of an ominous storm cloud bearing down from the Northeast, bursting with jagged flashes of lightning. Dark fingers of rain reached almost laterally for the rapidly blackening ocean, its surface increasingly dotted with angry whitecaps, and its surf foam roiling whiter and blowing higher in front of my eyes. As my imagination took me into a mid-Atlantic rubber dinghy, watching the approach of the same storm, I was silently grateful that I sat only on the edge of chaos, and not in its midst.
Now after all that, if anyone still wants a review: Contagion is compelling. The science is solid. And yes, it may very well really happen. Scott Z. Burns, a veteran of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, is a thorough screenwriter. He has done superior research with the full cooperation and blessings of the CDC. Stephen Soderbergh is an impressive director, aptly dealing with extraordinary details and juggling a super cast, including Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Elliot Gould, Marion Cotillard and even Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Their film is honest. It is accurate. It is frightening. It is reassuring. It’s a thriller. Go see it! … And wash your hands.