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Culture Warrior: ‘Contagion’ as 21st Century Global Cinema

By  · Published on September 13th, 2011

For the past few weeks, cinephiles, journalists, and critics have been grappling with the notion of what ‘post-9/11 cinema’ is, has been, will be, and/or looks like. What they’ve come up with are a group of wildly different, potentially specious, but ultimately quite fascinating explorations on the relationship between art, commerce, and life – and by ‘life’ I mean, in this case, that rare type of event whose effect takes on an enduringly profound, universally personal, omnipresent ripple.

The overwhelming conclusion that most of these observations end with is, rather appropriately and naturally, “I don’t know, but here are some thoughts.” Besides those works of audiovisual media that were directly inspired by, intentionally referenced, or somehow directly related to 9/11, it’s difficult to say exactly what a post-9/11 film is unless one allows for literally every film made afterward to potentially enter such a category.

But perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong question.

When it is asked what a post-9/11 film is, the answer typically veers off from texts directly dealing with the event to narratives resembling the event in feeling through their explorations of a culture of fear, and in turn the nominated event and date “9/11” encapsulates a broader understanding of what the event has directly or indirectly wrought, or at least has possessed in its shadow, throughout the decade since. It seems then, that instead of “what does ‘post-9/11 cinema’ look like,” we’re really asking, “what is 21st century cinema”?

It’s easy to argue, after all, that ten years and two days ago was, historically speaking, the beginning of this century as the event itself has maintained its status as the context in which we live in the United States, symbolically and practically. After all, cataclysmic events have often defined in one way or another the ‘era’ that proceeded them: WWI laid ground for industrial and chemical warfare which would define conflict throughout the twentieth century, and the end of World War II paved way for an era of American Exceptionalism. And to each event, its own cinema. Filmmaking, like warfare, became an industry in the early twentieth century, and America’s superpower status from the middle of the century onward was reflected in its cultural imperialism: the widescreen Technicolor vistas of Hollywood dominated screens around the world, even as Hollywood struggled against the competition of television, pop music, and other forms of middle class leisure.

Perhaps it was informed by the fact that I saw it on the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, but the notion of a post-trauma cinema marked also as a century-defining cinema lingered in my mind as I watched Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion – not because Contagion is some sort of astoundingly great piece of filmmaking (it’s merely quite good) or something altogether exceptional in form or concept (its premise and narrative mode are deceivingly familiar), but merely because of a simple, and perhaps timely, conflagration of factors that strongly suggest this is what uniquely 21st century cinema looks like.

We’ve seen Contagion’s mosaic narrative before. Popularized by films like Soberbergh’s own Traffic, Paul Haggis’s Crash, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, and the films of Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, fractured mosaic narratives have been the preferred mode of addressing the ripples of international and interpersonal conflict. But on the more mainstream front, this narrative mode has been closely tied to the disaster/pseudo-apocalyptic genre in a style popularized by Roland Emmerich in anything from Independence Day to 2012. One could hesitatingly refer to some of these films as ‘global narratives,’ reflecting the interconnectedness of an ever-shrinking world in the 21st century. But that’s the central flaw of much of these films: they too conveniently reduce the many implications and profound interconnectedness that globalization has brought, threading its characters instead through superficial coincidence, narrative shorthand, or (most frequently) the overbearing thematics of the film’s ‘message’ (be it on the drug war, the war on terror, racism, etc.). That these are the characters we ultimately follow is not without an air of arbitrarity hiding under the assumed logic of the mosaic narrative.

With Contagion, however, the clean-cut efficiency of the film’s narrative permits only the inclusion of characters directly effected by or related to the event. Like the streamlined organization of a given Wikipedia entry, the effects of a global epidemic are reduced here only to those players most essentially involved. It is with this precision that the film’s globalized narrative moves forward with an ease and naturalness that avoids much of the overblown, wandering pretense of the typical mosaic narrative. These characters aren’t connected because they predictably brush by one another, nor do they even directly effect one another. It is their actions that are essential to the story at hand.

It is no coincidence as well that a film narrative depicting the exponentially growing live of a virus features social media as part of its narrative as well. While Jude Law’s evil snaggletooth’d blogger (after all, not all of us have dental insurance) does get his comeuppance in the face of an accountable government, his earlier pronouncement that print is going the way of Gwenyth Paltrow’s character (I admit, I’m paraphrasing here) rings demonstrably true, especially in the ways we have responded to anything from groundbreaking news or potential catastrope in the years since.

That the proliferation of information characteristic of the 21th century thus far has carried the metaphor “going viral” with it is no act of hyperbole. In a recent interview of Marketplace with Fred Cale, law professor at Indiana University (holler!), the “privacy guru” proclaimed, in summary:

“…After 9/11, two independent trends dovetailed and reinforced each other. The federal government was investing hundreds of millions in surveillance technology and research to try and keep us safer. And companies like Google and Facebook were remaking the digital landscape. There was a data-collecting revolution.”

Many cultural commentators have seen the rise of social media as uniquely separate and/or more significant than 9/11, speculating only on what the day itself would have looked like had that technology been around then or suggesting ways the technology itself should be used as a means for remembrance. Cale, however, argues that there’s a causation here that we take for granted, and thus the notion of what we can directly consider to be ‘post-9/11’ media expands. Wikileaks and Twitter define the 21st century just as much as (and in direct relation to) the War on Terror and the Patriot Act.

While Contagion is indeed an effective thriller, there’s not exactly much mystery to it. The virus’s cure is the major concern of the characters, not its cause. Framed almost entirely by medium shots, information is delivered speedily and the narrative moves forward with ease, which perhaps gives the film the cold, clinical tone several critics have pointed out. But where is there room for emotion when we can’t stand, or have no time for, ambiguity? To fill in any gaps, a random newscast unconnected to any visible diegetic source expediently provides us any information we might need while we watch characters interact using words we can’t – and don’t need to – hear. Even the familiar faces of its all-star cast act as signposts to easily mine the film’s otherwise potentially overwhelming database of information. Globalization in Contagion does not provide some forced comment on our profound connections in a world dictated by the chaos theory, but instead acts as a simple reality of the ways twenty-first century technology and commerce are the means by which we understand and interact within an overpopulated world.

The prolific Soderbergh is something of an anti-auteur – a ‘pure formalist’ who, despite placing his hand in nearly every aspect of production, imposes little distinct stylistic personality connecting his films, preferring instead to choose one particular approach toward any given project. Unlike past experimenters with form, Soderbergh arguably possesses no ideology in his filmmaking. Even when his films are overtly political in content he prefers a calculated distance. Nor does Soderbergh, unlike many an academic, see ideology as implicit within the medium itself. He is no more prone to making a third Ocean’s movie than he is to minimalist no-budget filmmaking.

For Soderbergh, it’s largely the subject matter that leads to the approach, with filmmaker as mere channeler of the best technique. The digital Soderbergh is also, unlike the apparatus of filmmaking by and large, incredibly efficient, which pushes against the notion that the arduous and time-sucking task of making films is socially impotent in an era of immediate information-delivery. He is, in so many ways, the perfect filmmaker for a time overloaded with media but drained of cohesive messages. His contested retirement after a Liberace biopic (as appropriately arbitrary as any film he could end on) might mean an early departure for the only overt, high-profile 21st century filmmaker, but I sense that cinema by and large will be ever-more responsive to the mandates, characteristics, and values of the new century it’s found itself in.

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