Contagion

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October 19, 2011 by Carson Lund

While critics and viewers continue to single out Cliff Martinez for his lush but silly musical efforts on Drive, I’d like to turn the attention towards his work for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a score as organically suited to the material as that of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for last year’s The Social Network. The music, taut and propulsive and dark and nail-biting, is the aural equivalent of the phantom virus that defines the film’s plot. Its skittery electronic beats sound like the distorted, panicked workings of the internal body, its rapid pace echoes the unrelenting speed of global information-transfer, and its continued use of delay, with indistinguishable techno textures bouncing around the speakers until they slowly disappear in the back of the mix, resembles the cascading effect of the epidemic. The music is weaved in and out of Contagion for a large majority of its 106 minute running time, never directing the audience’s feelings but reinforcing and heightening the sense of do-or-die suspense.

I begin with Martinez’s score because it’s one hell of a useful entrance into understanding the effect of Soderbergh’s film, seeing as it crystallizes so precisely the ideas that the director and cinematographer are working with here. On the surface, the film fits cozily into the disaster movie genre, reflecting the global meltdown of people in the face of an entirely uncaring and irreversible force, and Soderbergh seems both embracing of that populist mode as well as defiantly committed to straddling genres, confronting heady themes, and – as is typical of late-period, digitized Soderbergh – at least partially ignoring Hollywood codes of characterization, audience reinforcement, and stylistic norms. This is a film made on an international scale with a plethora of A-listers that boasts a premise tailor-made for cheap gimmickry and gratuitous production expenses, but Soderbergh keeps the whole thing so intimate and focused that it can mostly be reduced to a crisply edited succession of interior dialogue scenes. Not only that, but its horrors are decidedly mundane: the touch of a hand, a doorknob, a piece of food, a previously germ-infected room, all of which lead perilously to rapid physical decline. The first twenty minutes of the film are masterful in their economic precision, paying vivid attention to the invisible enemy and creating anxiety out of absence and abstraction, such as in the image of a door slowly swinging back on its hinge long after a person has passed through, temporarily disrupting the breakneck pace of the montage.

Like his 2000 film Traffic, Soderbergh is using the template of the geographical network narrative to dramatically connect people and spaces. But Contagion is less about drawing gimmicky, deterministic ties between different individual narratives (the Iñárritu mold) than it is about charting how the modern world manages to erupt very similar types of paranoia across the globe in response to a quickly spreading threat. Few contemporary filmmakers, other than, say, David Fincher, are as attuned to and fascinated by the ways in which information is spread rapidly around vastly separated territories (phone calls, news broadcasts, internet blogging abound), and how that information becomes a kind of currency. The tension between what characters know for sure and what they perceive to be true is a guiding dramatic force in the film, eliciting the many phone calls that instantly disseminate data or otherwise withhold it and motivating the ideological conflict between Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and conspiratorial blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) that acts as a collision of the concerns of capitalism, ethics, and science running through the film.

Soderbergh doesn’t pick a side here (his ambivalence may be a tipping point for some, but I see it as an admirable stance on the notion of such an unexpected tragedy), instead pointing to the complexity of the issue and acknowledging that both schools of thought – Ellis’ practical, methodical, and ultimately slow-moving research methodology and Krumwiede’s anarchistic support for a homeopathic remedy called Forsythia that he believes to be of immediate assistance – are concerned first and foremost with the containment of the disease and the survival of the greatest possible number of people. Within this framework where time passes and casualties exponentially rise, Soderbergh cuts between the various characters with increased efficiency and spreads a heightened awareness to issues of sanitation and isolation. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), the family of the first virus victim Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), hole themselves up in their Minnesota suburb; Dr. Ellis orders head Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould) to extinguish all samples for fear of their contamination outside the lab; medical researcher Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) gets kidnapped in China and taken to a remote, allegedly safe village to order for the quick relief of the group of survivors; and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is rendered impotent with the virus during her creation and management of a massive refuge center.

Meanwhile, the disease seems to act in utter counterpoint to the vain actions of humans, brutally disregarding and embarrassing their cautionary maneuvers. Of course, its actions have nothing to do with humans, only with nature, but it’s tough for the characters not to think there’s some supernatural force of evil dictating the vicious path of the contagion. It’s this vision of nature as disconnected from morality and only containable through the often unwieldy efforts of science that distinguishes Contagion’s blunt, oppressive, and entirely plausible worldview.

In a film where the putrid, lifeless shades of green, brown, and blue expose the clammy textures of hands and faces, it’s only natural that criticisms of misanthropy are raised, and that attempts to sketch a complete portrait of humanity fall short. Then again, Contagion is a horror film that’s more about process than people, and it becomes more effective the less it characterizes and individualizes. Not only does Soderbergh’s overflowing cast undercut the hegemony of the Hollywood star system, it situates people beneath the alien processes of nature. That no character takes center stage here – when Damon begins to, the film lurches awkwardly – is a testament to the collective paranoia at work, the fact that no individual is above the heedless trajectory of the virus. Damon’s story of knee-jerk survivalism overwhelming deep feelings of confusion (over his wife’s pre-death infidelity) and grief (it was his wife after all, and he loved her) is blandly written and melodramatic despite the actor’s skillful work sinking into the restrained emotional world of the character. In fact, nearly all the actors do a terrific job of breathing palpable life into their sometimes thinly written characters: Fishburne with his deep, soothing voice, Cotillard with her expressive physicality, Winslet with her longing eyes and persistence, Law with his no-nonsense sloganeering, and Jennifer Ehle with the delicate care and concern writ across her entire face. In regards to these formidable presences, questions of three-dimensionality and screen time become negligible.

The widespread panic caused by the virus, as well as the alarming stubbornness of the civilians, becomes reminiscent of that which is caused by any modern alert of terror, newsworthy spectacles that ignite increased ventures of national security. Here as well as in the “real world” (though Soderbergh attempts to erase the boundaries on a sociological and political level), corporations are the mouthpieces that define the actions and movements of people. Although Contagion flounders when it moves abroad – falling into the trap of generalizing the Third World as a place of poverty and in need of rescue – the film certainly understands the American power hierarchy and the public reaction to it. In charting some of the human resistance to this top-down process of information-transfer, Soderbergh also finds unsettling instances where compassion falls to the wayside and people rob and kill for their own attempted survival. It is this collapse of human dignity and companionship that ultimately disturbs on the deepest level in Contagion.

In the end, Soderbergh nearly pulls a Spielberg and erases the frightening implications of his film in a flimsy scene of suburban sentimentality featuring a homemade prom for Mitch’s daughter and her recently vaccinated boyfriend, but as if to overturn feelings of resolution and tranquility, cuts right to an eerie, stomach-turning epilogue that thoroughly traces the cause of the virus back to poorly prepared meat that Beth ate on her business trip to Hong Kong. The scene might feel tacked-on were it not cut, lensed, and integrated so beautifully, if it didn’t adequately literalize Mitch’s connective thought process when flipping through the photos on Beth’s digital camera (ever since Sex, Lies, and Videotape Soderbergh has been struck by the connection between recorded images and the brain), and if it didn’t tie the film’s vital cautionary morale back to a tangible source. Soderbergh’s stressing the need for resilience to capitalistic forces, which can so easily (especially in a timely industry like the food industry) overlook public interests in the name of financial gain. Not to mention that in the midst of the uproar and chaos captured so precisely by Soderbergh, one might have forgotten that these tragedies have real, physical reasons for being. And one might recall an earlier, rapid insert of meat-chopping at a street vendor, which has now been given retrospective resonance.

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