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Pox: On ‘Contagion’

September 12, 2011 | by

Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Pretty grim here,” a girl in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Contagion, texts to a friend from a funeral home, where the director is explaining to her father that he’s refusing to accept the infected corpses of her mother and brother. Lethal epidemics usually are grim. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be entertaining. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, which fictionalizes a 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London. Defoe’s novel opens with mortality reports: two Frenchmen died of plague in Drury Lane in early December 1664, and over the next few months, the number of dead swelled from the usual 250 a week to a suspiciously high 474, though the municipal authorities were reluctant to name the plague as the cause of the rise. Statistics!, the habituated news reader thinks. What’s more, untrustworthy statistics! The reader is drawn into the game.

Soderbergh’s movie is scored to a similar drumbeat of numbers. Five dead in London. Three dead in Tokyo. Eighty-nine thousand cases worldwide. Eight million cases worldwide. The human mind can’t really make emotional sense of such numbers, of course, and for that Soderbergh turns to interwoven vignettes of the sort familiar from movies like Traffic and Crash. With such dismaying material, the artist’s challenge is how to make it real but not too real. If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow’s performance of Alzheimer’s is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer’s, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.) Read More »

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