This Gwyneth Paltrow Has Been Sanitized for Your Protection
by Eric J Baker
Think back. You’ve touched your face within the past minute or two, haven’t you? You’re probably doing it now, after running your hands over that bacteria farm of a keyboard no less. Bad move. Oh, and take that finger out of your ear. You don’t know where that finger’s been!
Those last two lines belong to a scene from the movie Airplane! (1980) in which a man offers that sage advice to another character who is using his ear for a nose. Yes, you know the sequence, but I bet you don’t know who that man was. He was acclaimed movie director Steven Soderbergh.
That’s actually not true at all. I made it up. I’m sorry. But you’ll excuse me for getting confused, because Soderbergh’s new film, Contagion, dispenses the same message as Airplane! did 31 years ago: Take that finger out of your ear! It’s dirty.
Ever since the lame Outbreak – a disease-epidemic thriller with little disease and no thrills – was released in 1995, my inner child has been waiting for Hollywood to make a big-budget, gore-laden, disease-apocalypse flick that would finally give critics a chance to say, “It’s Dawn of the Dead meets the Ebola virus on steroids!” or some other hokey shit. In other words, lots of meltdowns and projectile vomiting, with enough eyeball carnage to send weak-willed viewers fleeing to the lobby before the second act.
Alas, Contagion is not that film.
No, Soderbergh had to show utter contempt for my wishes and make something not for my inner child but for my inner adult: A really good, artistically daring movie starring a bunch of pretty people who agreed to give up the glamour lighting and hero shots for the sake of the film. Jude Law gets greasy hair and crooked teeth, Matt Damon gets pudgy, Kate Winslet gets a hazmat suit, and Gwyneth Paltrow gets infected… very infected. I don’t usually flinch at anything in a PG-13 movie, but, see, there’s this one scene…
Contagion will probably be described by some writers as “documentary style,” which is true in regard to the passive, observant camera work and the bland, natural lighting. Yet it also contains many graceful, poetic passages free of dialog and sound, save for the pulsing synthesizer score. The film owes something to Fritz Lang’s M (1931) as well, with its jumpy narrative, its detached, urban isolation, and its lack of a central character to anchor the story. And its quietly unnerving presentation.
Also like M, the movie wastes no time introducing the concept. In fact, it begins in darkness, with the sound of coughing courtesy of Ms. Paltrow, who is looking none too healthy when we finally see her face. She simply has jet lag upon returning from a Hong Kong business trip, she tells her lover over the phone. Meanwhile, a Tokyo bus passenger drops dead in front of his shocked fellow riders. As this happens, a fashion model in London is felled by seizures and dies. Then a working-class apartment dweller in China, feverish and delirious, staggers in front of a moving truck.
Soon the CDC is called in, followed by the World Health Organization. A viral epidemic unrivaled in history has been unleashed, passed by touch and quickly infecting millions. As panic grips the world, society begins to collapse and neighbors turn against each other. It’s a movie George Romero might have made if he’d ever managed to graduate from self-financed horror flicks to become a Hollywood auteur. Indeed, Contagion is rather similar in some ways to his 1973 film, The Crazies, a rough-around-the-edges but intelligent paranoia thriller about a disease that turns people violent and the frantic attempts to find a cure. Except, unlike Romero’s film, Contagion doesn’t feature obscure cult princess Lynn Lowry, a woman who specialized in playing disease-infected hippie chicks in the early 70’s. Here she is in I Drink Your Blood (1970), a rabies-epidemic film that author Ed Naha once wrote was “edited with a pick-axe.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of analyzing a story, to me, is noting which moments the storyteller has selected to build his tale. His options are many, and the ones chosen obviously shape the audience’s perception. For example, why does Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather begin with a courtroom scene involving a minor character rather than a more conventional opening like, say, Michael Corleone stepping from a train, just home from the war? And why did Woody Allen include that scene in Annie Hall with the lobster running loose in the kitchen rather than a mouse under the bed or a goose in Central Park? Why show it at all and not something else?
Likewise, Contagion separates itself from similar disaster tales by avoiding the obvious. The movie does not begin with a crane shot that reveals a happy family living in the suburbs, unaware of looming disaster. No one dies in her lover’s arms while violins saw away in a manipulative minor key. Most of the triumphs and tragedies occur off screen. Instead, Soderbergh lingers on a door handle at a restaurant or shows looters smashing a bank window for fun. The story is told in 10- and 15-second snippets, often focusing on the seemingly pointless, random moments of which lives are made.
Sean Penn might be a humorless, pompous jerk but, as a defender of Jude Law during Oscar telecasts, he’s on the money. Jude Law is really good in this movie. It’s the kind of part that won’t earn much notice, since he’s one of many in a strong ensemble cast and has limited screen time, but he so fully inhabits his part as Alan Krumwiede, a sleazy blogger and muckraker, that I was not even aware of the actor’s identity on a subconscious level. It was a Gary Oldman performance, and I don’t issue such proclamations lightly.*
Unfortunately, I think the casual moviegoer may walk away disappointed. Contagion is too unconventional in structure and too demanding of the audience’s attention, as viewers are required to meet the film halfway. There are no traditional heroes and little spectacle. It a story broad in scope yet focused on the details. And worst of all, there is no projectile vomiting!
Fear not, folks. If you are looking for diseases and gore in the same flick, I can steer you in the right direction. In the aforementioned I Drink Your Blood, a band of Satan-worshiping cultists gets rabies and goes on a murderous rampage in a small town. Amidst much mouth foaming, several body parts end up separated from their rightful owners.
If comically bad acting and unintentional campiness aren’t your taste, then check out David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), a brilliant and disturbing – and incredibly disgusting – tale of a man metamorphosing into an insect, which can and has been seen as a metaphor for coping with terminal cancer. Be sure to miss the dipshit monster-movie sequel, in which the underrated Eric Stoltz vows to fire his agent.
Too “heavy”? How about Cabin Fever (2002)? While it’s not exactly a global epidemic, the story includes several gruesome deaths via a flesh-eating disease and features the notorious scene in which an infected women decides to shave her legs, only to look on in horror as the razor takes away quite a bit more than hair. It’s also the feature debut of director Eli Roth, whose two Hostel films were the pinnacle, such as it is, of the short-lived “torture porn” trend. He seems like such a nice, funny guy too.
If none of that satisfies you, then you’ll just have to send me money so I can finally begin production of my long-awaited disease epic, Virushark vs. Bacteriasaurus, a no-holds-barred war between a flesh-melting virus and organ-exploding bacteria… where humans are the battlefield! Per the script, the deadly organisms crawl into our brains via our auditory canals, which will allow me to reverse 31 years of close-minded cinematic thinking with one simple tagline: Hurry! Get that finger into your ear!
*Gary Oldman is the best actor in the western hemisphere