Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, September 19, 2011

You Can't be Coughing on a Moving Train: CONTAGION and the Soderbergh/Assayas Post-Post Post

If you can't wait and must see Steven Soderbergh's disaster movie CONTAGION (2011) in a theater, be sure to sit next to a guy who won't stop coughing  --it's what this movie needs to really 'hit you' with that William Castle 'Percepto' aural 3-D meta feeling, and Steven Soderbergh must have known a coughing person in every showing was all but assured based on its early autumn release --in 2011 of all years, right before the 'man comes around'  in 2012.

As a product of one of indie-dom's few prolific auteurs, CONTAGION makes me worry Soderbergh's bottomed out in the post-affect school of eternal jet lag, i.e. he's become a permanent tourist, enamored to the point of idiocy by the brooding post-modern thrill of hustling from airport to airport, convinced setting humans in rapid motion through public places-- timed to a cool ambient techno track; editing taking advantage of every corner; every reflective surface singing with Antonioni alienation--will bring meaning to the vaguest and most anemic of shaggy plague dog tales.

But Soderbergh forgot that some of us don't just automatically root for the cardboard humanity on display, especially if we're population control advocates. In the end, the only characters we end up feeling bad for are the animals --frightened pigs and traumatized monkeys are tortured and slaughtered in the name of science, all so a few million more people don't die, like we really need them not to; it's like jettisoning all the oxygen tanks in an airless spaceship to make room for a dozen more shallow breathers. Not that I'd prefer to get to know each and everyone of them - their families, hopes and --oh brother---dreams for the 'cough' future. OK OK Sorry I said anything!

And as far as that prized post-affect 'moving sidewalk to the next gate' jet lag genre goes, Soderbergh's just tagging along in the brisk footsteps of French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, the genius behind the influential post-affect films BOARDING GATE (2007, above) and DEMONLOVER (2002). As long as Soderbergh is focusing on the progression of the disease--making the virus itself the star--a hand smear on a door, or the fingerprint smudge on a subway pole, bus strap, door to a store, hand-rail down the subway stairs, apron to shaking hands to panhandles--it's fine: the virus is like Jason Bourne or Will Smith in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998), tracked by satellites and security cams patched into the nexuszzz. But there's always dumb human--dare I say Spielbergian?--moments that seem far more contemptible than the riots and looting, like the Matt Damon righteous father making a big beeyootiful prom space for his isolated daughter and then crying in the closet looking at his wife's pictures from Hong Kong, which he should have turned in to the feds for ID-ing and sterilizing and so forth, but then we wouldn't have all this 'perfect' meta Baudrillardian closure. 

Soderbergh himself has become so post-post that these scenes scan trite as one of those irritatingly homespun Peter Coyote ipad2 commercial voiceovers. Forget it Peter! No folksy drawl is going to bring back the open plains and prairie flowers. Over in France, Olivier Assayas is too smart for such sentimental rot: he finds humanity in the running from it. The secret to the post-post cinematic time-image affect lies in its total transparency. Soderbergh can't show the virus coming home from work after a hard day of dodging the men in the white hazmat suits, so he does the next worse thing. Won't somebody please think of the janitor!? Look at this picture of his small boy! Tell him about the violin lessons for a-his dead-a mama to be a-so proud of a-him.

Moving out to a metatextual wide shot: CONTAGION will not promote international tourism (you will not want to visit Hong Kong after this film); it also doesn't encourage cinema-going in a city like New York, especially if you took the subway to the theater and forgot your hand sanitizer. One moron in our row at the BAM coughed more or less nonstop until his date made him go outside and get a drink of water. At first he just joked and pretended to be super sick like he thought she was kidding. Three minutes after his brief sojurn he was back again, coughing away, oblivious.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in wanting to kill him, with plastic gloves on.

He confirmed my worst suspicions about humanity's decline into the abyss, and Soderbergh's suspicions seem confirmed as well, for what we see in CONTAGION is not the truth, not even a fantasy, but a problem that is the result of our overpopulated, horrifically over-linked social order --the end game 'nonfiction/fiction' collapse of interpersonal borders. With Soderbergh's smug liberalism in play, even our fictional minor characters are too important to let die, so everyone lives to endanger humanity as a whole, swamping the lifeboat. The meltdown 'melting pot' of genres and styles as well as communities ensures that no one can escape the thresher with a golden ticket--no women and children first, boys, with sailors brave enough to threaten to shoot Molly Brown if she tries to row into  the drowning panicked Titanic melee. The sorrows of the individual are the ambivalent solution of the many and so seldom vice versa, thanks to Spielberg and Ford, rather than Hawks and Assayas. Mere life takes effect and no one is allowed a vegan or special dietary restriction option on their in-flight meal.There are lives at stake and you blather about leg room?  Not a chance.

But I betcha Soderbergh never flies coach --otherwise he might feel different.

Not to be a devil's advocate, BUT... If contagious diseases can spread this fast because we're so super-connected, wouldn't it help to be less connected? To lose sixty percent off our world population total and revert to an agrarian hunter-gatherer post-apocalyptic paradise? A couple billion people could die on this planet and--if you didn't know them--would you miss them? Would you weep with frustration at the big statistics in the paper or would you breathe a sigh of relief that real estate prices are finally going down? We could lose half the current population and still only be back to where we were in the 1970s --when we were allowed to worry about these things without being branded as anti-human. And what about the pigs, chickens, goats, cows, and fish who die by the billions daily to feed our combined appetite? Won't someone think of the innocent turkeys and pigs that might have more on the ball than the slack-jawed cradle-to-graver who assumes his red meat just comes magically from the back of the supermarket and gets indignant when an activist shows him photos of an abattoir? If any and all humans weren't 'entitled' by the meat welfare system to a lifetime of free meals they are way too stupid to ever catch for themselves, natural selection might have a fighting chance. To use the TEXAS CHAINSAW analogy, we're a nation of comatose grandpas, too weak to even lift the hammer but still guaranteed a piece of Marilyn Burns, and thus the Burns's are chopped up by the thousands at the Leatherface brand Marilyn packing center. But if a single grandpa dies, oh the humanity!

CONTAGION brings these feeling up by ignoring them, never realizing the animals seen in the film are the only humans worth rooting for, and their welfare is in the hands of sadistic liberals who would kill an entire population of chimps if it might save temporarily extend the life of a single elderly pedophile.

12 Monkeys
If I was king I would free these monkeys, move them to an animal sanctuary and use convicted felons and pedophiles and stoner volunteers for lab rats instead: one monkey freed for every criminal convicted --making a reverse monkey jail!  Reverse Monkey Jail monkeys: you shall be free...

In a way I'm secretly proud of my fellow humans that so many of them seem genuinely concerned for the welfare of those people in places like Indonesia or Rwanda, places they only read about on the news but still feel, by 'virtue' of having read the stories--connected, outraged, and personally responsible. They don't need even to see the faces of the suffering; the statistics alone awaken compassion. Maybe, though, it's all  just a pose they've been taught at their bourgeois private schools and somehow Soderbergh's seems enamored of the pose rather than the solution that would make compassion unneccesary.

I personally think that genuine compassion must engage the issues of overpopulation, cruelty to animals and depletion of resources. If you only have food to feed three people, why struggle to keep 30,000 more mouths alive, knowing that in a few years that number will swell to 60,000 because America's fundamentalist Christian bloc won't let you give them condoms? And they'll still be right where we left them, yelling "pan pan pan!" and mimicking eating motions like the beach kids in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

And it's that stony, long range humanism that marks a great genius like Assayas, the abandoning of the publicity-garnering, short-sighted moral high ground in favor of a prismatic retreat that the not-one-domino liberal quagmirism of CONTAGION fails to encompass, and thus the whole film falls flat unless you, here and now, turn vegan!

Compare for example Assayas' CARLOS (2010) with Soderbergh's CHE (2008): they're both multi-part biopics about globe-traveling revolutionary terrorists, both are set in the 1960s-70s, both have one word name titles that start with 'C', but the lines dividing them are so basic, so elementary, they go back to the basic dividing line of all pop culture - the Stones/Beatles dichotomy: Assayas and Carlos the Jackal are the Stones to Soderbergh's Che Beatles. Like the Beatles, Soderbergh seems to believe in humanity as it currently defines itself, never losing faith in 'Us' - believing that love is all there is and the love you take is equal to the love you make and still confident in the possibility of utopia, an inclusive exclusivity underneath the waves.  Like the Stones, by contrast, Assayas knows you can't always get what you want, but if you keep moving forward, keep lunging through the crack in every closing door, keep rocking and balling, never saying no to a drink or drug, always showing sympathy to the devil and jiving sister morphine, then maybe you might at least get laid or super high in the process of fighting for truth, as you define it. There's no belief the possibility of a fair system for Assayas because he knows any system in itself doesn't exist... and never has. Men live and die by ficciones.

Che, top / Carlos, bottom
Even when doing non-fiction like CARLOS, Assayas isn't too concerned with 'real' people and integral consistency: his Carlos changes as a character from moment to moment as calmly as Travis Bickle or Lawrence of Arabia, fluctuating along lines that erase all distinctions between social and personal action, and maybe the only difference between terrorism and heroism lies along these same lines. Soderbergh's Che must always struggle for the people, for the cause... and that means tending to the wounded even if it means staying behind and risking capture, and of course never smiling because even one person is starving somehwere for freedom from capitalist oppression. Both characters delude themselves in their quest for a 'better world' and how to get it. But at least Carlos knows--deep down--there wouldn't be a movie about him if he wasn't dangerous. Che can't allow such honesty to corrupt his self-righteous Marxist buzz. While Che would be making bandages, showing you photos of the poor people of his village and reading aloud from Das Kapital, Carlos would be hiding his bazooka under your bed, drinking all your whiskey, and stealing your girlfriend.

This is why Assayas' heroines--like Asia Argento's assassin in BOARDING GATE or Connie Nielsen's corporate spy (above) in DEMONLOVER--are so much more alive and sympathetic and even realistic than the 'good' girls in CONTAGION like Winslet's epidemi-vestigator or Marion Cotillard's Stockholm-syndrome hostage (her run back to her abductors in the airport comes off phony and bleeding heart self-righteous) or Jennifer Ehle's spunky little biologist (top) in her cute orange outfits and blue-green dishwashing gloves, cooking away in the sterilized lab kitchen-- the ultimate petrochemical-armed mom as envisioned in Laurie Anderson's "O Superman." In their noble missions to save as many space-wasting lives as possible Soderbergh's chicks are the bleeding hearts that stop human evolution in its tracks -- not that they shouldn't save the planet but they could at least acknowledge the paradox: If they could go back in time and prevent the bubonic plague, would they? or the Spanish influenza, or even small pox? I can see some idiot out there saying of course they should! Life would be so much better if our global pop. was 12 billion instead of only six! They're all for it until, of course, someone expects them to share their bedroom with a homeless family and their chicken.

That last image I cribbed from Dr. ZHIVAGO, and like that film, CONTAGION is the kind of moving train Howard Zinn decided awhile ago you can't be neutral on, though by now this train has become so crowded you can't even sit down, let alone remain neutral, or anything but suffocated. The only time a seat opens up is when someone dies but then Soderbergh's doctors run up and save them for a few more stops, until the only ones allowed to sit are the dying which never quite die thanks to those 'heroic' medicos... and soon there are many trains on the track they all have to crawl slower and slower until they're nearly as torturous as the 4 'express' at NYC rush hour, and people are hanging off the sides like the commuter to Kolkata.

And people wonder why we're broke, and why our democratic system is so crippled by fear of change. Being from France, Assayas moves much more freely through the post-affect landscape: his characters get off the train and sneak down alleyway shortcuts. Soderbergh might ape the New World Order / Assayas post-modern gridwork image-within-image paradigm, but he's still a tourist, and CONTAGION is just another stack of high-res postcards from the edgeless.


  1. Agreed. I was very kind to the film in my write up, although I was mostly trying to make the point that Soderbergh is best in his most experimental modes. But, your comparison to Assayas is dead on--I would much rather see anything Assayas does at this point than see another wide release Soderbergh.

  2. Thanks Jason, I agree - Soderbergh is a gifted filmmaker across a wide range of styles - but are they his own styles? And what do they have to do with his subject matter? I can't help but think that, on some fundamental level, he has nothing to say.


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