A Cluster of Ideas on "Contagion"

A discussion between two Notebook critics on Steven Soderbergh's globetrotting epidemic thriller, _Contagion_.
Ryland Walker Knight, Daniel Kasman
Finding much to like and be scared by in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, Danny Kasman and I engaged in a fittingly geographically separated, electronically connected conversation over a week or so about the film and its director (and even a little bit about politics). As we go into at greater length below, what's particularly interesting about this film (and Soderbergh's films in general) is their granular attention to policies, process, places and systems over broad talking points.  We aimed to get specific in what follows.

DANIEL KASMAN: I at first thought a better title might be Cluster—a new phrase introduced to me in the film, meaning a localized group of people infected by a disease.  But soon I realized the film's original title was far more apt: like recent David Fincher films, this is about connecting isolated people and facts across spaces.  The connecting thread of the narratives, that which gathers and links all these Hollywood stars and non-stars, American locations and international locations, is the communication of a disease across space and time.  The disease itself, the idea of the disease.
RYLAND WALKER KNIGHT: Indeed: the first, striking facet is that first moment, a cough in the dark, perhaps meant to imply that this movie is itself a contagion, a virus, designed to work you over.  As that first, brisk twenty minutes goes—skipping between the disparate locations our story will play out within—we see a truly digital film: a literal network narrative (such a tired "category" trumpeted as a "genre") organized like a mosaic, like a CCD chip in a digital camera that gathers discrete points of light as data, arrayed into a cohesive image.  Despite its subject matter and title and mode of production, not even Fincher's The Social Network is as much a series of links, of people being linked, so much as time overlapping.  Soderbergh's interest in time is far simpler: it's fast, just like the virus and just like the world.
KASMAN: Yes, so fast that we barely see "stories" in Contagion, the amount of inter-personal micro-narratives is almost nil, and what exists is mostly the affection that develops between two people associated by the disease.  For example, Matt Damon's daughter's empathy for her father seems to be born sui generis because of his nearness to the infection and deaths.  I kept waiting for someone to fall in love or something and that assumption kept being cut short by the film's spooky (to steal Manohla Dargis' perfect, concise word choice) attitude towards spaces and people, each defined by its utility in relationship to the virus.  It's not hard to imagine every space Soderbergh photographed (he's acting as his own DP again, and seems to be filming on location in every single scene) totally evacuated of human presence, creating a mise-en-scène which in no way needs large-scale epidemic spectaculars...you can already sense where catastrophe lurks simply in the fact that this space is being filmed, this person is on screen.  (It's a horror-movie principle too, like a Dario Argento film, where we quickly realize the rules of the film, that anything that is shown is being shown because it's in danger. Nothing is safe; being filmed means being unsafe.)
KNIGHT: "Nothing is safe" starts with the cough, but it's continued in both the concrete act of humans touching—I reeled any moment any person touched any other person, totally spooked—and the concrete representations of objects touched—again, I found myself nervous, thinking almost audibly, as in a horror movie, "Don't touch those peanuts!"  Which is a way to say that the horror is in the everyday.  Unlike most horror movies, this one posits the human as the horror in truly mundane ways.  Once our bodies are not our own, thanks to a sickness, they become these generative foces for death and, as panic mounts, plain evil.  This is what makes Laurence Fishburne's small, sage speech about the ritual of the handshake, in one uninterrupted shot no less, so powerful: it rejects cynicism.  Or, it aims for charity.  He is, after all, a doctor.
KASMAN: In a way, the film is very mundane; in fact, a lot of recent Soderberghs, Che and The Girlfiend Experience, have been mundane.  For me, this film is a success in that it re-contextualizes the filmmaker's weirdly distant, cerebral attitude towards what he's filming: it makes sense here, filmed in this manner.  This de-personalization, this distance and mundaneness, these corporate, institutional, office and home spaces, all chilly and functional.  If the human characters vanished the spaces would mean nothing, be records of futility.  Then again, maybe my problem with these digital Soderbergh projects is my own problem.  Have you liked these recent films of his?  For me, only The Informant! was a success, and a great one, because I finally understood the angle his filmmaking took on the subject. Same thing here, I feel and understand why he's shooting the movie in this way.  In the past, not so much.
KNIGHT: I do like Che and was surprised by how much I did like The Girlfriend Experience, but those are, I must admit, more of like essays than movies.  Then again, so is Film Socialisme, though that comparison is not one of value; the JLG film is more poem to GFE's prose, which is terse but largely univocal.  The Informant!, however, is just plain great.  For one, it's truly ironic, speaking two truths at once that almost sort of cancel each other out but also don't.  For another, it's hilarious.
It would be easy to dismiss as clever were it not so smart, which is the case of a lot of Soderbergh's work, which is, as we have discussed outside of this conversation, an odd problem to recur in conversations around his work.  I think the key is his politics, which is a subject I'm often loath to confront in public, but seems unavoidable here in part because Soderbergh's politics aren't Political but Philosophical (though, how do you separate those?).  His movies are out to document certain systems at work in this late capitalist world.  
One Deleuze and Guattari theory I'm drawn to, among so many, posits capitalism as schizophrenia. They wrote two books elucidating the idea—Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus—but, for the sake of speeding this along, I'd like to focus on the idea of capitalism as an assemblage (their word for any complex system) of simultaneous forces seemingly at opposite ends: maintenance and dissipation. That is, the world as we know it, as a capitalist system, with all its people (and their money) moving everywhere, is perpetuating itself by spreading out like your fingers from your palm; Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of a rhizome, a series of links where every link creates multiple other links, which is always growing and moving. Part of my enjoyment of Contagion was seeing this idea in action, seeing one person lead to another, one space lead to another, all these disparate locations pointing at each other and, as the plot turns, at another space and another group of people. I saw the movie multiply itself like the virus at the heart of it. 
KASMAN: "...his movies are out to document certain systems at work in this late capitalist world."  Interesting choice of words there.  That and "essay"—perhaps what Soderbergh is doing with these non-Ocean films is something akin to fictional cine-journalism?  But isn't that term something you've leveled in complaint against, for example, The Wire and Treme?
KNIGHT: Yes. But David Simon and his staff don't make images as well, and the things that tick me off about David Simon are largely issues with storytelling.  Those shows are aiming for some giant "truth" at the worst; at their best, the shows show people as people plain and simple; but these people are always couched in some NPR-HuffPo-safe argument.  And I'm sure you could use that against something like Che but I think that movie is fairly radical, almost as insanely ambitious and galvanizing as its subject, not to mention full of images that pop and sing.
Contagion, too, just looks great.  I skimmed Hudson's roundup yesterday and was shocked to see some people denigrate the digital photography as simply ugly.  A lot of it's gorgeous, and it's all designed to make your skin crawl. Those casino flashbacks, for instance, are elevated beyond exposition because of that weird tilt shift thing that makes the scenes explicitly about focus and detection, about where to look, which is a funny posit of what we're supposed to be doing as viewers.  But this isn't just a conceptual beat—it's folded into the storytelling, it's better than the script.  I think Simon is too stuck on the script, truly coming from journalism, from words, and Soderbergh's ballyhooed interest in painting (after cinema) speaks to his interest in forms and creating meaning through gestural relationships within frames.  There's more art at work in even the less successful movies Soderbergh has made, and a lot more art at work in his best.  David Simon does have a gift for casting, though, and that should always be praised and thanked.
KASMAN: I'm curious why you think Che is radical but I suppose that's a different conversation; funny you mention Simon's casting, as what Soderbergh was "known for" during his 1999-2000 resurgence was his "skill with actors."  And now we have this cast, this strange cast which absorbs Psycho's lesson until it's banal, dropping off female stars with normalized nonchalance.  You see Gwenyth Paltrow's face peeled off, for god's sake.  With so little melodrama, barring the Matt Damon thread of the story, Contagion has to rely on its cast to effortlessly carry human weight and character with such a process-fact based script.  Cotillard, a fleshy Fishburne (almost as good as he is in Predators), Winslet, that actress who I didn't recognize from the CDC...each has to contain something to lend these vaguely threatening places a sense of movement and nuance, a strange inversion of the Oceans movies where everyone has to be caricatures to give the movie meaning.  The blend between these two poles is Jude Law's blogger, the only force of conflict in the film, or the only one moving against the flow of the images and who's thus directed to weave between the cartoonish and the plausible.  I'm not sure how I feel about that impact on the film, but I suppose it ruffles Contagion's otherwise seamless textures, which is needed.
KNIGHT: Funny, is Soderbergh not "known for" his work with actors now? Did Oceans erase that?  Because I'm always drawn to the acting in his films. You began to name why, too: he relies on his actors presence, in some cases star power and others the absolute lack of it, to flesh characters.  This is more obvious in the Oceans films, but it's at play in Contagion, too, with his desire to upend expectations (about the actresses, yes) a clue into how much he thinks about his audience.  One of my favorite things about Soderbergh is his attention to rhetoric, to whom he's addressing.  Contagion is packed with ideas (about capitalism, information, "today," etc.) but it's also a totally effective thriller.  He's truly learned how to make a movie within Hollywood and place a stamp on it.  What's funny is he had to seek it out, to hone a skill at inhabiting a certain role, sort of inverting the auteur role as those Cahiers turks defined it by looking for a job that's largely lost to focus groups and name brand marketing.  That is, the director—known as a director—is a brand as much as the film.  It's no wonder they didn't put his name on any ads for this film.  It would be pretty hard to stomach a medical epidemic disaster movie "from the director of Ocean's Thirteen" so instead we simply have those actors, those other names, pushed to the fore.
KASMAN: Let me end this on a serious inquiry, since you baited me: what ideas is Contagion packed with in regards to "capitalism, information, "today," etc."?
KNIGHT: Some of the ideas, I'll admit, are rather on the nose.  But this film, as well as The Informant!, are certainly "of a piece" with a lot of later Assayas movies.  Both directors are very interested in how the world works, how capitalism moves people across the globe like objects, how it creates speed and how that speed begets speed, how everything is connected.
Sure, it can seem rote in some sequences.  The coda of Contagion is a big sticking point for a friend because he doesn't like how butterfly-effect-y it is.  But I like it for the fact that it seals the movie, contains it, much as the scientists have just sealed the virus, in the way a proof is contained.  It posits a world of logic amidst the chaos that speed can create.  Humans, after all, are only trying to contain or corral the unruly "natural" world with all our systems and laws and scientific breakthroughs.  Filmmaking, or a certain tradition of worldly filmmaking that I would argue Contagion is a part of (for all the breadth and expansion, this is no cosmic film), is an extension of that desire.  So to see this coda is to see—in literal retrospect—how a human (like, say, Damon's dad filling in the logical gaps between photos on his dead wife Gwenyth's digital camera) might narrativize this cause and effect of this mysterious happening.
It's that, and it's also just consistent with how I see the world: brutal, bigger than humans, perpetually at risk of collapsing, always-already decaying, webbed by people and by stories.  That we win may be charitable flattery for our understanding of our smarts (we rule the roost, but we're complicit in the decay), but that's the other main thing that motivates the best moments of the film, as it does a lot of great films: charity.  There are evil acts in the film, but we're left with a series of charitable acts and people trying to be better people.
KASMAN: I wouldn't say that's all we're left with. Those sinister, suggestive scenes of looting and derelict streets, the creation of a kind of menacing off-screen space far away from the shadow-poetry of Tourneur, because this is grounded, exponential—what we see hints of the film suggests is just the edge of a very sharp and precise drawing of chaos.  Also: the most frightening moment in the film for me, when the Chinese man kidnaps the French girl in Hong Kong; I had this horrible feeling he was doing it to suppress the potential source of the virus being Chinese, that this girl who was trying to help was going to be taken away and silenced for simply trying to communicate information.  The reveal of the true plot-line takes a different tack than this, but I wouldn't call it charitable.  The sidelines of the film funnel outward until they reach the near-caricature of Jude Law, who represents the malignant ambivalence of some sides of this film's "charity."  Just as the charity funnels outward to reach the near-caricature ending of the Matt Damon plot-line.  As in all recent Soderbergh, the film is "fair" above all, borderline ambivalent.  I've always been struck by the ambivalence of the director's recent work, and even after a film I like as much as Contagion, I'm not sure what I'm left to do with it.


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