The virus, on screen and off, spreads at a rate that outpaces the economy. Marx would not be surprised that Trump is calling for a return to work since workers have always been sacrificed for the good of the economy. The viral spread is akin to the maddening pace of industrial manufacturing where the workers are destroyed by the means of production. Not much has changed since Chaplin was eaten by the machinery in Modern Times (1936). Then, and now, the victims carry the blame and pay the cost of the cure.
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During the 2020 coronavirus crisis, the most-viewed programs on Netflix and other streaming sites deal with viral outbreaks, with Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2011) among the most popular. Media commentators typically note the appeal of the horror genre during times of crisis because it identifies the threat that is otherwise invisible and provides a conclusion with the reestablishment of social order. It may be wishful thinking to assume that societal panic is isolated to specific events. Much of the population, including in so-called First World countries, live in conditions of anxiety, precarity and fear due to conditions they cannot control. The invisible hand of the market is just as deadly, but hidden by dominant ideology.
Contagion has an ideological function not unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and remade in 1978) and other red-scare movies of the cold war. They present a threat that is invisible but that is able to permeate all of society, and that needs to be battled by some combination of vigilant individualism and authoritarian institutions. The invisible threat is often in our inability to control nature (or that nature may take revenge for our callous disregard for the earth) and our inclination to locate that threat with a geo-political enemy. In the 1950s it was the threat of communism and the Soviet Union (used to scare us away from progressive and socialist activity in the west), and now it is China (to deflect its rise as a dominant economic power). These fears, hand in hand with the coronavirus, are useful distractions from the crisis of civilization in our time.
While much of the economy is shut down during the crisis, the production of ideology continues apace. This is the function of watching Contagion. Like most ideological texts, it reflects the contradictions of contemporary liberal democracy by presenting progressive representations of race and gender, though limited, while also endorsing existing authority, albeit with specific criticisms. The film shows us an orderly and concerned set of government institutions, though with petty conflicts to give colour to the narrative. We do not see political leaders, as this allows the film to play across party lines, though for a U.S. audience it is really just two sides of one business party and at times of crisis and war the population rallies around the leader. That even Donald Trump has seen a boost in his polls suggests that the ideal of leadership is more important than the specific individual in charge. This situation could even serve as a measure of the extent to which a vacuous figurehead can serve elite interests while performing for the masses. Remember when George W. Bush was the limit and now, in retrospect, a towering intellectual?
The film shows the scientists accountable to a military rather than a civilian political leader. The military reference is not accidental since war metaphors are commonplace in this time of what is, among other things, a health care crisis. But this framework is necessary in the long ideological project of keeping the population fearful and in uncritical support of the war machine. If the film were to be made today, would it include the denial of scientific expertise with the masses beholden to a populist authoritarian? Would we see the mass ornament of a Trump rally, a remake of Triumph of the Will as if hosted on local public-access cable TV? There is a hint of this in Contagion with scenes of rampaging and violent masses invading homes and looting groceries. The film tells us that ordinary people as a mass population cannot be trusted; that the army as well as the actions of an individual hero are needed to restore order.
Benevolent Authority and Working-Class Allegiance
Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) is the flawed but stoic director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is worth noting that a black actor remains unusual in the role of authority, outside of superhero movies, and especially where he is not killed off in the plot. There is some indication that he will face repercussions for violating rules of secrecy, but the film clearly endorses his empathetic individualism. He is identified with the system, but is also shown as acting on emotion in defiance of rules and is seen in alliance with the working-class white janitor (John Hawkes). Their comraderie is disrupted when the janitor overhears Cheever on the telephone to his wife, giving advance warning of a pending mass quarantine. Here, the film reflects working-class antagonism to elites who appear to put themselves first. Later, Cheever counters this perception by giving his own vaccine dose to the janitor’s son. This is a testament of solidarity across class and racial divisions, but it also indicates that in a country deeply stratified by race, it is always the job of the black man to demonstrate reasonableness. Because he is the reasonable expert, Cheever advocates social distancing throughout the pandemic, and, after the enemy/disease has been defeated, he shakes the boy’s hand and gives an impromptu lesson on the origins of the handshake as signal of peace. Black audience members watching this in America would know that they always have to show their hands when dealing with authority, especially at a traffic stop with a white police officer.
A woman scientist discovers the contagion vaccine, and others bravely investigate the origins and spread of the virus, but they also defer to the father figures and are usually punished for their independence. The film begins with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returning from a business trip to Asia, she is showing symptoms and had delayed her return flight in order to have a quick fling with an old flame. This is the unholy trinity of bad women in Hollywood: independent, associated with a “foreign” land, and sexually promiscuous. The bad woman dies a painful death by virus but is later redeemed by her good husband. Needless to say, however, there is some satisfaction in seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die of disease after years of her marketing crackpot new age remedies, including vaginal steam cleaning followed by a candle purported to carry the scent of her vagina. It is not just men who think with their genitalia.
Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is a selfless and brave frontline medical investigator dispatched by Cheever to track the origin of the disease. Along the way, she has to explain the urgency of the situation to intransigent bureaucrats, notably including an older woman who protests the proposed shutdown of shopping malls on “the busiest shopping day of the season.” The film is set in the liminal zone of consumer bliss between American Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the implicit assumption that women need to shop. The pattern of Hollywood is to balance the independent woman with the female stereotype so that the net sum of progressivism remains zero. We see Cheever reaching out to Mears at an emotional level (the sort usually reserved for women) to ask how she is feeling. The strong woman fails the good dad in that she dies on the job, and it is his angst that carries the emotional weight of the film. She represents the logical technical intelligentsia (explaining the exponential spread of the virus), but Hollywood cinema requires down-to-earth individualism. The virus, on screen and off, spreads at a rate that outpaces the economy. Marx would not be surprised that Trump is calling for a return to work since workers have always been sacrificed for the good of the economy. The viral spread is akin to the maddening pace of industrial manufacturing where the workers are destroyed by the means of production. Not much has changed since Chaplin was eaten by the machinery in Modern Times (1936). Then, and now, the victims carry the blame and pay the cost of the cure.
Professional Men and Dangerous Journalism
The day is saved by professional men, working outside the rules but for the good of the country. First, a private-sector researcher, Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), keeps his lab open in spite of a security order to close down, and his action echoes the “common sense” of Cheever. He is then able to make the initial discovery leading to the eventual vaccine. That vaccine is then developed by Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who immediately goes to her dying father’s bedside to thank him for his selflessness; in effect, to give him credit. There is another outsider male, the journalist/blogger Alan Krumwide (Jude Law). At first, he appears to be an earnest reporter digging for the truth, but then transforms into a conspiracist profiteering through the hyping of a quack cure. Jude Law is made to look especially ugly and malevolent here, and the media, especially in its nontraditional forms, is dismissed as outside the institutional parameters of legitimacy. In other words, the film tells us to put our trust in the good men in positions of authority. As Sussman says: “Blogging is not writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.” In the eyes of authority, graffiti could not be art, it can only be a crime.
If there are good men in this American movie, there are also bad men from far away. The film, like Trump, blames Asia as the source of the disease. We see irrational Asian authorities reluctant to cooperate with medical investigators from the West. They orchestrate the kidnapping of Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) as ransom until the vaccine is provided to save children in a remote village. Orantes is the good woman unable to act independently, with the exception of when she is told by her bloated white contact that the vaccine that was traded to secure her freedom is a placebo because “The Chinese never negotiate with hostage takers.” In disgust, she runs away, presumably returning to the village. The outdoor food markets and the trade in wild animal meat is blamed, on screen and off, for the contagion. These markets are upsetting to first-world viewers accustomed to the separation of animal and food (it’s not baby calf, it’s veal wrapped in plastic), but these markets have fed and sustained populations for thousands of years. The point is not where the virus originated, but how this image is used. The demonization of the “dirty” Asian provides a racialized target for Western anxieties as well as displacing criticism of capitalist overdevelopment. Or to put it another way, there is much that is unsafe, not the least for the animals, in Western factory farming.
Health Care for All
Contagion advocates a Bernie Sanders-style fair distribution of the vaccine, and we can watch this unfold in the movie while on another screen we see that the Democratic Party has ostracized Sanders, the one candidate advocating universal health care in the United States. The vaccine is distributed according to a lottery system; thus success depends on random chance. This is ground-zero fantasy of American ideology, that conditions such as family wealth, privilege, and access to education are not factors in success. Everyone can buy a ticket and take the ride but that not all trains are allowed on the same track. Wages at our grocery chains are “temporarily” raised during the current viral period (but not to worry, viral capitalism the sequel will be back on screen soon), and workers are only essential until they are disposable, like members of the unruly mobs in Contagion, or as Hillary said, the deplorables. They are the workers at Amazon unable to take paid sick leave and given the Hobbesian choice of spreading the virus or losing their job. They are then to be punished by society with the loss of food and shelter, the broken mirror image to the punishing conditions on the job. Meanwhile CEO Jeff Bezos made billions from the sale of stocks just prior to the news of the virus – must be the luck of the draw – and is asking for donations for his foundation.
The Good Father
All these contradictions need to be reconciled with the presence of the good father Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon). He first defends his wife’s honor and then accepts the truth of her extramarital affair. At the end of the film, we see him weep in mourning as he flips through the pictures on her phone. What would evangelical Mike Pence say, as he vows never to be alone with a woman not-his-wife, but that she got the punishment she deserved, in that we see her smiling and joyous in the company of men. Mitch becomes the stern father figure protecting his daughter while also serving as nurturing substitute mother.
There is reference to the daughter’s biological mother living far away with another man and not needing this family – another bad woman who must be kept at a distance. In keeping with the film’s urban cowboy individualism, Mitch brandishes a shotgun to protect home and family, even using it to chase away the viral threat of the daughter’s boyfriend. Sex is never far from death in Moral Majority Americana. After the boyfriend is sanctioned by authority, with a wrist bracelet indicating vaccination, he is allowed into the home and led to the living room that Mitch has decorated to stage his daughter’s prom. The scene is meant as an emotional trigger of family empathy but has the creepy vibe of Mormon polygamy when the daughter calls to the dad to join the teen couple as they dance. This is the new New World Order, where we live in isolation while gun-slinging dad and army keep us contained. The threat of the enemy is ever present, but the virus is the least of our worries.
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD or trailers.