Friday, September 9, 2011

Social Disease

Film Review - CONTAGION (2011)
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Yes, it was a generation ago when the film industry was all a-buzz about the forthcoming non-fiction bio-thriller The Hot Zone, Richard Preston's best-selling cautionary tale of the dangers of pandemic-causing viruses like Ebola and Hanta. A bidding war ensued, competing projects were announced, and the Spring of 1995 saw Warner Brothers' glossy thriller Outbreak, with a tony cast including Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. Pulpy and over-the-top, it provoked true unease only during a sequence where a cough in a movie theater disseminates the virus among the audience; when a flesh-and-blood patron coughed, my crowd broke into nervous laughter.

What a difference a generation makes. Now the same studio gives us Contagion, as serious and solemn a film as could be made on the subject. Unlike earlier disease-run-amok entries like The Andromeda Strain, there are no chromium-plated
laboratories constructed in desert enclaves, no no leaps of technological faith. This is plausibility of the present moment. The film is committed, often bracingly so, to presenting the spread of a heretofore unseen pathogen in detail that is both panoramic and intimate in scope. I give away nothing when I say that, no, the disease is not contained before it exacts a horrific toll on humanity, and accolades and Oscars will not save every member of this star-studded cast.

Even before the lights rise on Scene One, we are put ill at ease by the sound of a cough and the unsettling typeface that tells us we have already jumped to Day Two. Gwyneth Paltrow is on her cellphone, post-assignation, and looking more than a bit peaked. (The entire movie appears shot through a thin veil of mucous.) Through a rapid sequence of cuts, we are shown the exponential spread of the virus, and how within days it is infecting Hong Kong, London and, for those of us nationalists, Minneapolis and Chicago. Paltrow's husband Matt Damon is a widower before the first reel ends, and that's not the extent of the damage done his family. The MEV-1 virus is a terrible swift sword, and screenwriter Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) is also interested in the machinations that occur on the political, corporate and social network levels. It does not take long for Uncle Sam to discover that there are few protocols that are effective when the greatest enemy we face are the relationships that bring us together - along with our unfortunate tendency to touch our faces 3-5 times per hour.

That's what makes Contagion an odd endeavor, and ultimately one that's less than fulfilling. For all its attention to scientific jargon and intrigue, director Soderbergh struggles with the relationships that not only must power the plot but engage the emotions. There is much to accomplish here, and the film clips along briskly - perhaps too briskly - in an effort to mirror the spread of the disease. Jude Law is a blogger who stumbles upon footage of one of the first victims, and may or may not have found the cure in nature (think Laetrile). From his initial YouTube-spread home trial, we cut to a mob vandalizing a pharmacy unable to keep the substance in stock. The rhythm throws us off balance, and we struggle to connect to characters that are there to advance the thesis. When the film permits the audience a scene of emotion, it's as though it reminded itself that, yes, this is still about the human race and we wouldn't be in this mess if we didn't like to cuddle.

Considered as a pseudo-documentary, Contagion has greater impact. Many of the cast members have seldom appeared this fragile, even puffy, onscreen. Damon has taken on the additional heft of a guy who loves his Vikings and his bratwurst, and Kate Winslet is thoroughly de-glammed as a CDC employee assigned to keep a lid on a situation that has spun out of control before it has been recognized. And underneath my viewing of the movie, there is this amazement that it could be released on the same weekend as the decade anniversary of the inciting incident for years of national fear. How far we have come from the days when the Twin Towers needed to be digitally erased from Zoolander lest the audience be reminded of what it could never possibly forget. For such an abjectly grim look at global catastrophe, Contagion saves its most fearsome moment for the very end. It's the shoe-dropping Day One; the casual prelude to cataclysm has a more shattering impact than the scenes that precede it. Perhaps it's finally time to move beyond 9/11 fear. But then again, they never really did establish who mailed that anthrax in 2001, did they?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Your move.

Great Comic Book Covers - THE TWILIGHT ZONE #35 (December 1970)
Artist Unknown

By 1970 the entire world knew writer Rod Serling through his accomplished teleplays for such landmark dramas as Patterns, The Comedian and Requiem for a Heavyweight. But it was his five years as artistic powerhouse behind the incomparable Twilight Zone that affixed him permanently in the cultural zeitgeist. As the success of this Independence Day's TZ marathon on SyFy can attest, he has never left. A recent tribute column by Maureen Dowd went so far as to include this epitaph: "Everything is Rod Serling now." Television's original Angry Young Man was a man ahead of his time.

But in 1970 I did not know this. Due to the vicissitudes of syndication, I never saw an episode of Twilight Zone until I was into my college years. But it was my favorite television series, despite never having watched a single installment. I devoured the paperback books that adapted Serling's teleplays into prose (even the Bantam anthologies that were "edited" by Serling, Devils and Demons and Rod Serling's Triple W - Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves), and did the same for the Night Gallery volumes when released. No, my exposure to one Rodman Serling came as the man who introduced stories for Gold Key's Twilight Zone comic book. Gold Key made their mark on the industry by licensing virtually every TV property they could get their hands upon, and in addition to publishing a handful of originals like Doctor Solar and Turok: Son of Stone, they also brought young readers new tales from series like The Man from UNCLE, Dark Shadows and Star Trek.

Twilight Zone was an anthology comic, one of dozens that filled the newsstands in the 1970s, and I have to admit; reading the tales now, the writers at Gold Key (including such comic luminaries as Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and Arnold Drake) did an excellent job of nailing Serling's approach to the series. These were not standard "spook stories," but were mostly set in contemporary settings and dealt with workaday folks who somehow slipped between the cracks in reality. In one noteworthy tale, "Fortune and Men's Eyes," they blatantly cribbed from Serling's Night Gallery teleplay "Eyes," replacing Joan Crawford's imperious dowager with a male character who meets a similar fate. And check that title! "Fortune..." was lifted from a Shakespeare sonnet, but also inspired by a then-controversial 1967 Broadway show about homosexuality. Oh, what they got away with back then...

But what drew readers to Gold Key titles were the rich, lustrous painted covers by such artists as George Wilson and Morris Gollub. (GK did such a poor job of record-keeping that proper credits are missing for most of what they published.) They had the appearance of paperback books of the era, and made me feel very adult when I slapped down my 15 cents for an issue. Check out the composition on this stunner. It was a common approach to have a large figure that was symbolically dominating a smaller figure, not necessarily a literal depiction of a moment in a story from the issue. Gold Key meant for their books to stand out on the newsstand, and they did.

One more element to the story of this cover: In 2004, just after I had finshed a move down to Chicago, I happened to be browsing through eBay auctions, and lo and behold, the original art for this cover was up for bids, with a starting price of $900. That would not have been a deterrent at any other point in my life, but having just relocated, money was tight, and the artwork slipped away from me. I still sentimentally covet one of these Gold Key covers, but this striking chess-themed beauty went to another (hopefully appreciative) owner. File it under "M" for "missed opportunity" - in the Twilight Zone.