Saturday, 19 November 2011

contagion (d. steven soderbergh, w. scott z burns)

The classic modern text dealing with issues of pestilence is Camus' The Plague. Contagion is basically The Plague reworked and distilled, on a global scale. Just not as good. It feels like something everyone - writer, stars, director - has done for the cash. Indicative of another plague which has always haunted society: the plague of mediocrity.

Soderbergh usually creates films which have some element of surprise. He might be the closest Hollywood mainstream gets to having a maverick, with his unusual career pattern and portmanteau projects. But in learning to play the Hollywood game, he has taken on the Coppola, Scorcese tactic of Quid Pro Quo: I'll do something for you if you do something for me. Contagion seems like one of the ones he's done for them, to put some credit in his fantasy box.

It's a pity because the ingredients are there for a compelling drama. The bio-political state is an under-reported one, as someone must have said. The politics of contagion are there to be explored and are backed up by that great movie trope, the Doomsday scenario. Initially, the film nimbly traces the disease's exponential kill pattern, moving from Hong Kong to the US to Switzerland. The script seems to be positing a globalised movie, Camus's wartime town morphing into the whole of the 21st C planet.

Then it runs out of steam and gets stuck in the US. A succession of bizarre cameos, not least from Jude Law, fail to interconnect with one another. We get the decline and fall of Western Civilisation in the space of about 20 minutes, followed by its sudden recovery (to the refrain of a U2 track; this time the world reincarnates with a whimper). As though the film's ambition outstrips its capacity. The globalised vision is shrunk to a few streets in San Francisco and the Midwest. Perhaps there's another subtler allegory here? The globalised dream, the world as cyber-village, destined to collapse in on itself under the weight of the sheer detail it cannot bear. In the end there's no room in Soderbergh's movie for Asia, Africa, Latin America or even Europe. In another misconceived cameo (in a misconceived film), Marion Cottilard spends the whole of the epidemic holed up in a village in rural China after being kidnapped. When she's freed, after a dodgy deal, she chooses to run back to the village. Better to live in humane seclusion than our bastardised techno-commercial world, slaves to the bio-capitalists.

Contagion is ripe for Zizekian interpretation. However, this has nothing to do with its quality and all to do with the territory it has tried and failed to assimilate. In an echo of Camus' great novel, the film attempts to link the vagaries of fate with the exigencies of morality, investigating whether the two are connected: is the good man/ woman more like to survive than the morally neutral? Unlike Camus' book, having set up this territory, the film seems to duck all the issues it has raised, and everyone, apart from Winslett's saintly health officer, survives, be they good, bad or somewhere in the middle. (This being a film made for North Americans about North Americans, they are on the whole unfailingly and tediously 'good'.)

Incidentally, since seeing the movie on Wednesday night, I've picked up a cynical, malevolent toothache. Let's hope this isn't the harbinger for a global outbreak. I can't really face the prospect of Contagion 2: The Killer Toothache.

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