the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion (2011)

How to Survive the Plague and Keep Working

Steven Soderbergh is more interested in film than show business. He took the world by storm in winning the Palm d’Or in 1989 with a meditation on post college angst. His follow up? Kafka. Yep a feature about… Kafka. I am one of the few living people who sat through it on the big screen. It brought to mind the line from “Stranger Than Paradise” when one of the characters brags about seeing the latest European movie titled “Days Without Sun”. “Sex Lies and Videotape” was dark and funny. “Kafka” was dark and… dark. In defense of the director – he wasn’t looking for box office gold – and he didn’t find it. Mission accomplished.

Life presents the problem of making a living. Mr. Soderbergh has sought to balance the art vs. manna conundrum. His career has oscillated between two poles: projects that flesh out ideas of interest to a curious boy raised in an academic setting (his father was a University administrator) and projects designed to get asses in the seats. It mirrors his life experience. Rather than go to college he went to Hollywood and worked holding cue-cards for game shows. This was the crucible for a very cleverly conceived first feature. One senses he might have wanted to make “Kafka” out of the gate – but that apprenticeship on daytime TV must have made the young auteur save his bullets. Remember it’s show BUSINESS.

Sonderbergh can sell tickets when he wants to: Erin Brockovitch, Traffic, Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, The Informant!… but he can also work on his craft: Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience… Not sure what to make of his two part bio-pic about Che Gueuevra – this was , unlike many of his more experimental works, real money with big stars – hard to believe he would think this would bring home the tocino. Maybe Che is indirectly an inspiration for “Contagion”: a disastrous film forces the director to make a disaster film.

Contagion is Soderbergh’s first crack at this tried and true Hollywood formula for box office gold. This genre isn’t exactly an auteur’s dream. I doubt there are very many articles in Cahiers du Cinema about “The Towering Inferno” or “Deep Impact”. Previously Soderbergh has lowered himself to re-hashing film noire or road films… but this is unpretentious ca-ca. The pay off is bodies dropping; the more you scare the shit out of everyone – the better. We’re closer to “Night of the Living Dead” than “The Maltese Falcon” or “Some Came Running”. One can only imagine the teamsters on set, not to mention the producers, wondering if the kid can deliver the goods. In short – he does… sort of.

Contagion is all dressed up… with absolutely nowhere to go. The problem with this film is in the DNA of the disaster movie. There can never really be a good one. The cities burns… or doesn’t. The meteor hits… or misses. The boat sinks.. or stays afloat. The plague rages… or is contained. In between the set up for there are sundry good/bad people riding out the threat. Some die. Some live…”. The spectacle of mass Armageddon is only of interest to young audiences that are callow enough to believe this is entertaining. Older people have seen enough of the world to be more invested in the characters within the spectacle of calamity. Unfortunately the disasters always snuff out whatever hope there is of having been touched by actual human interactions. By definition a “disaster movie” prevents you from caring about the characters in the story.

The first hour of Contagion works. We see a top director working with a talented cast uncovering the nightmare. The threat looms and the actors cower. The struggles are real. Matt Damon, the decent family man, accepts loss and rises above rage to protect his daughter. Kate Winslet, the paradigm of the “good doctor”, faces off against small- minded bureaucrats and rushes to stop the spread. Laurence Fishburne faces the contumely of press coverage and struggles with the demands of his job and his role as a friend, lover and good citizen. Jude Law hits all the marks as a self-righteous, get rich quick, Internet conspirator…. It’s good stuff that gives a telling glance at contemporary political and social mores. Ironically these sketches are too good. The logic of this genre demands a less compelling group of lab rats. In great films plot and character take center stage. In disaster movies the spectacle is the thing.

Sonderbergh should have remembered “Friday the 13th” – the serial killer never reveals his face. The power of the threat lies behind that white hockey mask. In “Contagion” the disease finally lays bear its deadly secrets and “poof” the dramatic arc of the story vanishes and all that is left is a dreary waiting game. Who is going to get the dreaded sniffles? Who is going to get the magic vaccine? Which begs that eternal question which haunts everyone working in the arts: Does anyone care? Ironically, the dynamism of cast/script undercuts the last half of the film. Sonderbergh might have been able to make a really dumb movie interesting. Unfortunately he made a somewhat interesting movie tedious. Maybe the approach should have been to MERELY present a less authentic, less studious, more bombastic feature: more creepy scenes of bodies dropping, less character introspection and most important of all – don’t reveal the deadly virus’ secrets until right before the credits role… but this is a dangerous endeavor for a director who has built a career as being a reflective, alternative filmmaker.

Maybe there is heroism in trying to be deep in the shallow end of the pool. Perhaps if he had kept the virus going he might have a franchise on his hands. Then again a cynic might accuse him of pimping himself while retaining the mantel of the cool, clever director. There were snippets on the news that some health officials lauded Contagions realism – i.e. this isn’t merely entertainment – this is IMPORTANT. Let me inoculate you against any notion that this film is as healthy as spinach – it’s a chocolate bar… better than a Milky Way…. Maybe as good as Lindt…. But candy at heart. Fighting plagues and hosting revolutions are not so sweet. Failure can lead to bitterness, isolation and, even worse, a career in daytime television. Contagion plays it safe. The result is neither awful nor fantastic. Soderbergh’s career and standing are intact. The audience can cheer or cry at the protagonists brimming with greed, heroism, vanity, integrity – and leave feeling unfulfilled. Film critics might carp at what might have been. In the end Soderbergh is neither a hero nor a villain… just a filmmaker trying to make a living.

No comments: