Contagion in Cinema

25/02/2022

The Body Politic

Looking at contagion in cinema, one can choose to focus on the generic demands or the realistic expectations: to see whether a film wants chiefly to work with the conventions of horror and science fiction, or to capture an aspect of the medical or social reality evident in a pandemic situation. However, even in the most generic of viral films, is there so often something familial about contagion cinema? What was so striking about the Covid crisis in its early stages were the choices people were making over their loved ones. Should one stay or should one go might be the mantra of the newly minted couple who are undecided whether in the initial phase of the disease they should stay with their new partner or whether they should remain apart and wait to see when the virus is in abeyance or a vaccine found? If absence can make the heart grow fonder, then equally there is the saying out of sight out of mind to counter it. Atlantic magazine noted: “when the coronavirus arrived, many people involved in romances that were just starting to materialize found themselves thrown into what felt like an involuntary long-distance relationship—and then watched their promising new fling sputter and slow down, in many cases to a complete halt.” Absence there didn’t make the heart grow fonder. For those in long-established relationships where it was inevitable that people would share the same living space, domestic abuse numbers increased. Labour MP Yvette Cooper noted: “staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn’t safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse. There are already alarming signs of the rise in domestic abuse.” (Guardian) The political is the familial we might say and in quite different ways pandemic films acknowledge such a claim. 

In Outbreak, the film ostensibly concerns a town in the US and all its citizens killed in an attempt to contain a virus that has devastated the locale but more importantly, from the film’s emotional perspective, is central character Sam Daniels’ (Dustin Hoffman) ex-wife (Renee Russo) and fellow scientist is dying in a hospital bed in the town, having contracted the virus. Daniels has the serum that he thinks will save her life and that of others, but the head military honcho McLintock (Donald Sutherland) doesn’t want the public to know that it all started with a military bioweapon that got out of hand, and wishes to go ahead and bomb the town.  

What interests us here isn’t the military machinations involved but the emotional centrality of Daniels’ ex-wife Dr Roberta. When their friend and fellow military scientist Schuler (Kevin Spacey) dies this is a minor loss but his wife’s demise would be a major one. This rests on the film being predicated on familial values rather than broader ones concerning friendship or human life in the plural. Outbreak, like many a disaster film, understands the truth behind the claim that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic. Daniels is still in love with his wife and it seems she left him because he couldn’t get the work/life balance right, and there he is near the end of the film prioritising work yet again but this time the beneficiary of such workaholism is none other than Mrs Daniels as he works so hard to save her life as he works on an anti-serum. A little earlier in the film, with Roberta looking like she will die and Sam protected by a full body suit, he takes off his helmet and insists in putting her hand to his face. It is a reflection of the love he feels knowing that he would prefer to be dead rather than live without her. It is important that he saves the townspeople too, but the emotional heft lies between Sam and Roberta. Here we have the human interest story that journalists seek and few Hollywood scriptwriters dare live without. 

Outbreak does however offer us some horrible scenes of the disease’s impact when early on Daniels and his team take off to Zaire and witness the aftermath of an outbreak in the country. One of the younger members of the team (Major Salt, played by Cuba Gooding Jr), who has been well-warned of the horrors he can expect to face and looks like he will be unfazed, is very fazed indeed: yanking his helmet off and coughing and spluttering, horrified by what he has seen. Meanwhile, Daniels yells at him to keep the helmet on. Luckily everyone in the village has died from the disease; it is no longer an active threat: the team is safe. But within a couple of minutes, the film has shown us the terrible trace of this Ebola-like condition (called Motaba) and the potential threat to anyone who comes into contact with it. Later, Daniels and co are looking at it under lab conditions. Salt sits in front of a couple of computer screens and explains to Daniels and Schuler how quickly the virus spreads. On one side we see a healthy body and then witness how the disease attacks it. “in the space of an hour a single virus has invaded, multiplied, and killed the cell. In just over two hours, its offspring have invaded nearby cells…” After 5 hours it invades, replicates, and kills. Ebola takes days to do this damage Schuler says, struggling to believe the numbers. This is much more serious.

Though we have proposed that vital to most films focusing on epidemics and pandemics is the familial, few are willing to winnow that focus so completely that the bigger picture is irrelevant next to the smaller one. Outbreak doesn’t only focus on the need for Sam to win Roberta back, as well as a detailed explanation of how the virus kills, the film crosscuts between various parts of the States as it shows how people throughout the country are spreading it. One young man arrives at an airport looking poorly and hugs his girlfriend; another scene shows the military driving into town and the locals mobbing the vehicles. In one sequence, high-powered officials decide what to do with the viral epicentre, Cedar Creek: should they bomb the town and protect the country or is every American life sacrosanct? Here we have an example of what Gilles Deleuze and others call the Large Form. Deleuze (in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) describes a discussion between Mikael Romm and Sergei Eisenstein and how they would film Maupassant’s short story ‘Boule de Suif’. Eisenstein says he would take into account the burning town and the war that has taken place; Romm would concentrate on the carriage and the smaller details like the feet of troops marching. Deleuze distinguishes between the large and small form here (terms taken from Noel Burch), with the large form obviously the epic telling and the small form more intimate. 

Outbreak director Wolfgang Peterson makes the small story important but insists on an epic telling in which to contain it. This combination is partly what makes the film predictable as a mainstream entertainment: it doesn’t insist on the logistical that would remove the familial; doesn’t insist on the intimate that would eschew the helicopters, the chase sequences, and the against-the-clock moment when we wonder if Daniels can stop the town from getting blown up. We even have the explosion without a danger to the town: the bomb detonates in the sea nearby. The film gives us all the spectacle and drama we need without foregoing the fact that what matters is Sam and Roberta surely reuniting. There are many reasons why one might choose to be dismissive of the film: that Hoffman was miscast (Peterson originally wanted Harrison Ford in the role) or that the science was way off. “Outbreak was awful,” Laurie Garrett, writer of The Coming Plague proposed. “How in the world did they get enough plasma from a single monkey to save thousands of people from a deadly Ebola-like virus? How is it possible the original outbreak in an African village killed, apparently, 100 percent of the population, and yet there were survivors when it reached white folks in the U.S.A?” (Stat) The film possesses what we could call an epic timidity, and is thus paradoxically fearful of going big enough to be logistically precise or small enough to emphasize the emotional intricacies of life under a virus. There is one scene in the film when a mother in the town has signs of the disease and will be taken into hospital. We witness the father and their two children sitting around the table as she says her goodbyes, trying to convince them that she won’t be gone for long. One of the daughters starts to get up to hug her mum and her father holds her back as the mother looks distraught. The scene serves its function but doesn’t follow through on the mother’s absence. Why should it? The scene is there as an illustrative example of momentary manipulation. They are characters we haven’t known and characters we won’t get to know. There is no intrinsic reason why we are paying attention to this family over another, and other sick people will quickly prove more important: Schuler, who will die in the tradition of best buddies, and Roberta who will survive, as usually happens with immediate loved ones.

Outbreak is an entertaining enough film for all its bad science, and though Hoffman may be miscast, he pushes the film in the direction of vulnerability rather than heroism. When he tries to dissuade the two pilots from dropping the bomb on the village, the tone is beseeching rather than commandeering: he gives to the epic a human face and a nasal drawl. He might have wished to give it more. Peterson is a director known for large-scale productions like Air Force OneTroy, and A Perfect Storm, emotionally simple films that are based on strong and predictable motivations. Working with Hoffman he saw nothing but self-doubt: “I was very surprised about the insecurity of Dustin Hoffman. He's very much like a stage actor; he has always problems with very simple things like turning around and having a certain look on his face. You know, those typical movie star moments. He was very insecure about it.” (DW.Com) Yet what Peterson may be missing is that Hoffman is a small form actor much better with emotional intricacies and intimacies rather than scenes which demand very little of the actor because what matters is the surrounding mise en scene. A film much more focused on two scientists bonding over a disease they are trying to eradicate, based on scenes mainly in the lab and in the home as they try and rebuild their relationship, would have suited Hoffman’s acting much more than it would have suited Ford’s.  

Thus our main question is the form a film adopts in the context of a virus, the large or the small, and how much of its focus is on the remarkable or the quotidian, the spectacular versus the everyday. A film that ostensibly proposes the smallest of forms, I Am Legend, insistently tries to turn it into a larger one. Neville (Will Smith) is the last human in New York but rather than chiefly focusing on how he will cope alone, the film constantly generates shocks that indicate less a man trying to tolerate his own company than dealing with numerous threats to his person. He may be alone in the world humanly but there are many mutants out there, allowing the film to utilise numerous jump scares. Rather than emphasizing the solitude of a man alone in the world, the film plays up instead the generic trope that indicates if a person is on their own there is a very good chance that at any moment they will be threatened in some manner. The audience is primed not for solitude but for threat. In one scene, Neville goes into the basement and continues underground to his lab. As soon as he goes down the stairs, silhouetted against the light, the film announces its incipient startle, and sure enough it comes a minute later when Neville pulls away a screen and the rats in glass cages start thrashing around to amplified noises. The film wishes to earn its keep less as a conceptual S/F study in loneliness than as a series of startle sequences that puts Neville in potential jeopardy. It also wants to go big in flashback, with expansive scenes of numerous people leaving New York to escape the epidemic. There are shots of helicopters and helicopter shots to indicate that though this is mainly about one man alone in New York, it has at its disposal vast sums of money to indicate that, finally, it is a large form film.

In contrast, The Quiet Earth plays up the smallness and quiet of central character Zac (Bruno Lawrence) who wakes up one morning to find that he is alone, an energy scientist instead of the DNA specialist he happens to be in the book. The film may shift from pandemic possibilities to energy crises but one mentions it in passing because it chooses the smallest form within delusions of grandeur. As Zac slowly goes mad he thinks he is president of the earth, speaks to cardboard cut-outs of famous figures and dons a dress that has nothing to do with trans-liberation but a mind in meltdown. It is mentioned as a useful contrast to I am Legend and what one can do with the small form when the subject is ostensibly almost identical to the Will Smith film. Obviously, there have been numerous films focusing on a last man in the world scenario, from The Omega Man to 28 Days Later, the larger the form the more inclined it will be to generate action and emphasize the societal: 28 Days Later becomes a zombie flick; The Omega Man an action film that examines scientist Neville (Charlton Heston) trying to find a cure for the plague at the same time he deals with a Luddite gang claiming science is the problem and not the cure. These are viral films that nevertheless suggest, like The Quiet Earth and I am Legend, the apocalyptic. (The Omega Man and I Am Legend are both based on Richard Matheson’s novel). 

How large or small the form happens to be is an aesthetic decision but also an ethical, psychological, and epistemological one. If we think about the reality of the Covid virus we see from just how many different angles it can be viewed, evident in the numerous newspaper stories that haven’t only been about the virus and the determined need to find a vaccine but also the many tales that have been a consequence of it, many of which could be narratives in themselves. Detouring from film for a moment, let us look at a handful and see how they fit into potential cinematic expectation. First, we have the epidemiologist and government advisor Neil Ferguson resigning after he broke lockdown, conducting an affair with a married woman with kids, who was in an open marriage. Then we have government tsar Dominic Cummings who, while symptomatic, travelled with his wife and child from London to Durham to drop his son off at relatives. We also have Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro refusing to wear a mask and mingling with large crowds before coming down with the virus himself. We can think too of the armed alt-right covid-deniers outside the mayor’s office in Michigan. Finally, we can think of Donald Trump proposing injecting disinfectant as a Covid-cure. These are potentially all distinct narratives demanding different generic emphasis. The Ferguson situation could be a complex account of bourgeois mores, liberal in its sexual freedoms but aware that while an affair might be okay in normal times, during a pandemic it carries specific selfishness. Ferguson may be a single man but the woman with whom he is having sex will cross London and return to a husband and child who could be infected. The usual notion in adultery that the flesh is weak becomes all the more pronounced when that body can be weakened seriously by a respiratory illness. The film that might come out of such a subject would seem to demand a small form, with the larger issue in the background, but always pertinent to it in an ethically convoluted drama. 

The Cummings story could be a larger form but still remain small enough to play up the epistemological. For many, Cummings account didn’t add up. It isn’t for us to get into the details but merely to say that it could be an investigative story involving a high-profile government figure who doesn’t resign and who seems involved in a cover-up. The more conspiratorial might wish to make much of Cummings’ visit to Barnard Castle near Durham, where GlaxoSmithKline have an office. The form is larger than the Ferguson ‘film’ but remains focused chiefly around the investigator., while the Bolsonaro scenario might focus chiefly on hubris and denial; a man who reckons he is incapable of getting a disease he doesn’t believe in and reality increasingly suggests that he can no longer run the country. Again, a large form might be necessary as protestors and political opponents are factored into the narrative. 

The fourth could in some ways be the largest drama, with the US torn apart by extremist groups determined to undermine the rule of law and could also contrast it with Leftist groups who accept Covid as a reality but don’t accept the perceived oppressive measures the president uses to quell the protests. The film might invoke a form close to that of a civil war film. The final one concerning Trump could actually be a small form satire, showing a president who keeps changing his mind about the virus, proposes solutions that are actively dangerous, and seems more concerned about his ratings numbers than deaths from Covid. The film might never need to leave the White House; its small form utilised all the better to show a leader with ostensibly more power than anyone else in the world but who is powerless in the face of his own stupidity and others powerless in different ways all around him.

By looking at a few events that have been media stories we can see how various genres could be activated; whether large or small forms should be adopted. No event necessarily lends itself to one form or another, one genre or another, but some appear more thriller or comedy generating; some look like they can be usefully opened up; others benefit from closing down. A film could focus exclusively on Bolsonaro, struck down with the virus, slowly realizing as he half-heartedly self-isolates, that he has misread the public mood and knows that he is losing control of the country. The film could chiefly remain within the walls of Alvorada Palace or his gated community home in Rio de Janeiro, showing a man frustrated by his immobility and irritated that such a fate had befallen him as his mood gets darker and darker. It is the sort of film that could be directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain, a master of morose and claustrophobic atmospheres evident in Tony ManeroThe Club and Post Mortem. The Ferguson film could retain a small form too as it focuses on the hectic family life of Ferguson’s mistress Antonia Staats, the mainly solitary, workaholic existence of the scientist, and their escape from stress by regularly meeting up. It might be closer to a Pinter play like Betrayal but without the narrative rewind, and perhaps written by Ian McEwan. 

Let us not get too carried away creating films that don’t exist out of events that do. Nevertheless, imagining filmic scenarios for actual situations can be a useful way of understanding genre and also comprehending the size of one’s film. The problem with Hollywood money versus other countries’ cinematic impoverishment is that the US will usually adopt a large form even if the reverse might be more fruitful; while European and Latin American cinema, for example, is forced to work on lower budgets and thus produce smaller films even if a larger form might be more appropriate.

One reason why World War Z isn’t chiefly a viral film, one reason why people are unlikely to go to it when trying to comprehend an aspect of the Covid virus, rests on its big-budget determination to function as an action film. Near the beginning, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his wife and kids are caught in a huge traffic jam when they see an enormous ball of fire from a few hundred metres away. People start running in various directions as the film suggests an inexplicable but undeniable terror that might recall New York on 9/11. (It was filmed in Glasgow; the setting Philadelphia) The film skilfully leaves the viewer for a couple of minutes lost in the action rather than surviving the situation. When a cop shouts at Gerry from the latter’s motorbike, Gerry witnesses the biker crushed and yanked off his bike by a marauding garbage truck. Gerry, a former UN field agent, manages to get out of the jam and drive his family away from the city. Later we discover it is a plague that creates zombies and the only way to find the vaccine is to discover the source. 

The film earns its keep as an action movie in two distinct scenes. The first, which we have just discussed, manages to convey the horror of a situation that is awful but inexplicable, with Lane and his family knowing that they have to get the hell out of where they are even if they don’t exactly know why. The scene relies enormously on the largest of forms to show a city in chaos. In the later scene, the excitement, such as it is, rests on foreknowledge. Gerry finds himself at a lab in Wales after working out that ill people are ignored by the zombies — the humanly ill are antithetical to the flesh the zombies seek and thus a pathogen can work as a vaccine. He says that if he can access the pathogen within a section of the lab he might have found a means by which to combat the undead. The only problem is, that section of the hospital is overrun by zombies; can Gerry and a couple of others find their way to the room without first getting taken out by the living dead? The film offers little advice when it comes to dealing with a serious viral disease but its solution is a useful narrative cure to an action film that wants an exciting denouement. Whether World War Z is a very good action film is open to debate; that it is in an action film chiefly is unequivocal. Starting out as a book, becoming a film and ending up as a video game, World War Z has little to say about viruses in our world but makes clear to us what the conventions of a can-do-action movie happen to be as Gerry proves himself yet another American who can save the world. 

In this sense, Contagion is a relative masterpiece, managing more than any pandemic film to anticipate numerous details which have proved central to how people have been living in 2020. Whether it is making sure you don’t touch your face, or making sure you stay away from your teen boyfriend who lives elsewhere, whether it is possible miracle cures promoted by people with a blogging account, or the realisation at the end of the film that the source of the virus was a wet market in China, Steven Soderbergh’s film captures better than most the circumstances we are living through. Generically, the movie is part of a relatively recent genre, one that is not really a genre at all: what has been called hyperlink cinema, with various stories coming together and relying on numerous key characters rather than on a clear central focus. Whether producing great films of subtle interconnecting intricacies, like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, or clumsy contrivances, like Paul Haggis’s Crash, the films rely on multi-character focalization as they move from one story to another and dovetail various threads. In World War Z, there is no doubt who we are supposed to be following as the film rarely gives a broader context than the one Gerry negotiates. In Contagion, Matt Damon is probably more than most our leading character, the one who has to deal not only with his wife Beth’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) death but also that she was having an affair, not only with his daughter’s difficulties as she desperately wants to see her boyfriend, but also that his wife won’t be able to have a proper funeral. Yet there is too Erin (Kate Winslet) who investigates the situation as an officer for Epidemic Intelligence and Jude Law, an online blogger who helps create offline hysteria as people raid stores seeking the miracle drug he has promoted. We also have Larry Fishburne in charge of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention making some of the bigger decisions, and Paltrow, who promptly dies of the disease, mainly seen in flashback and whose trip to Asia brought the virus into the US. Even minor characters get to make important points that allow the film to anticipate the specifics of what we find ourselves living through. The Inland Security officer helping Erin says, “my wife makes me take my clothes off in the garage, she leaves out a bucket of warm water and soap, then she douses everything in hand sanitiser after I leave. I mean she’s overreacting, right.” Erin makes clear his wife is not, adding “stop touching your face.” 

In an online video (‘Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of 'Contagion' movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19’) several of the actors in the film, including Winslet and Damon, have offered advice on the virus. They can do so because Contagion is seen as realistic enough for the actors to feel they have something to say about it. True, Brad Pitt can also be found speaking of the virus indirectly, with a Covid video (‘Brad Pitt Praised Face Mask Use Before Coronavirus Pandemic’), utilising footage of Pitt saying that he was in Japan and wondered why, long before Covid, so many people were wearing masks. He saw that people who had colds and bugs were protecting others; wearing the mask meant they weren’t going around infecting people. This may be the reality of Pitt’s life and well-observed before the virus, but it is unlikely anybody will be looking at World War Z to comprehend aspects of the disease. When in Contagion a belligerent person at the Minnesota Department of Health asks questions after Erin scribbles on the blackboard the rates at which other illnesses spread, and needs to find out how susceptible people are to the virus, the woman says: “so far that appears to be everybody with hands, a mouth and nose.” The woman is someone determined to score a point, one more interested in keeping the shops open over minimising the risk. She is a woman who insists that America ought to be open for business even if it will be open season for the virus, and it brings to mind when watching it, during the pandemic, the remarks of the business-oriented Potus in the White House between 2016 and 2020. 

Though the film in numerous ways anticipates Covid, it also echoes numerous other Soderberg films. When Erin insists on confronting prejudice with facts as she takes on the Minnesota health worker, it may bring to mind another Erin in the director’s work: Erin Brockovich and the scene when Erin proves she knows more about the case she is investigating as a lay-person than the smug corporate lawyer. The scene in Erin Brockovich is a show-stopper, Soderbergh giving a star (Julia Roberts) a moment to show off. In Contagion it is a scene of anticipatory irony: we don’t doubt that the woman’s focus on consumption over contagion will later prove facile, but it isn’t a scene of unequivocal one-upmanship so evident in the Roberts film. The adultery at the beginning of Contagion recalls the surreptitious side of Soderbergh’s work from Sex, Lies and VideotapeSchizopolis and The Girlfriend Experience, while the structure of the film narratively and chromatically recalls Traffic, both films draw on blue and yellow depending on the mood and place. Here the scenes in Asia are usually yellow while the scenes in Minnesota blue, resembling the yellow tones of Mexico; the blue of Washington in the earlier film. The logistical nature of Contagion might bring to mind Ocean’s Eleven, weaving together strands of plot to give us the feeling that what matters isn’t character chiefly but situation: whether it is robbing a casino or determining to comprehend an epidemic, crosscutting intricacy has its uses. Just as a filmmaker might when making a film wonder which genre it needs to fit, just as the director might less consciously wonder whether a large or small form is best, so a filmmaker can look at their back catalogue and see what works for the given crisis situation. A director with no inclination towards the logistical will be likely to find a story that can bring out the intimate nature of a pandemic narrative, seeing in Ferguson’s affair more than enough of a narrative to work with, and Soderberg has that side as we have noted, most especially with his initial success, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But he has proved too that he can orchestrate complex situations in such different works as Traffic and Ocean’s 11, and adopts such an approach for Contagion. However, just because we can look at the film and see it as another fine work of logistical cinema, doesn’t mean it can’t reflect real-life scenarios; indeed, a logistical work demands an aspect of reality so that the details look right. A film that emphasizes emotion doesn’t ask us to suspend disbelief in the same way as a work that insists on the precise nature of events but for Contagion detail is important. “You worked with a lot of consultants to get the scientific aspect of film correct. Most audiences wouldn’t know the difference. Why was that important to you? ”the interviewer asks, and later in the interview Soderbergh, discussing filmmaking, replies, “I love process. I’m a process person. I like talking about how things were done as opposed to what they mean.” (Reuters

Process can take many forms but it seems unlikely that we would say process is what most interests the directors of I am Legend or World War Z, if we understand process to be more than technique. Process here seems also to suggest how a film is made, taking into account numerous variables at play: the genre chosen, the amount of characterization required, the point of view in a given scene, the use or otherwise of non-diegetic music, the lens length adopted. In the scene early in the film where Beth at the airport speaks to her lover on the phone, the foreground is in sharp focus but the background a complete blur, all the better to indicate the sense that this is a very private affair. When Erin phones Dr Ellis Cheever to say she is feeling sick, the film stays close on Erin, the blue filter pronounced and no music present. When it cuts to Cheever the colour shift is conspicuous: from dull blue to sharp yellow. In another scene, when someone is met off the bus with the virus, Erin and others move in slow motion as the music, mainly drums and horns, indicates the seriousness of the situation. Regular Soderberg composer Cliff Martinez said: “The sound palette for Contagion came by way of combining three very different approaches Steven went through as he was cutting the film. Back in October of 2010 he sent me a rough cut with music from The French Connection and Marathon Man in it. I loved this music and wrote a few pieces using that style as a reference. That is where the orchestra and some of the older composition techniques, like 12 tone writing, came from…” (Mubi) What Martinez likes about working with Soderberg is that the director brings him in early. While in many films the composer’s job is functional: “from repairing a performance, creating a pace and rhythm to the story, adding style and atmosphere, intensifying a certain emotion or reaction. I think if the music isn't functioning in some kind of support or repair capacity, then it probably doesn't need to be there in the first place.” Martinez adds,“one unique thing that he does that I think makes a difference is that he hires me and sends over a script long before the shooting even begins.” Equally, Soderbergh can see how genre can overtake a film and jokingly talks about this resistance in Contagion. “Matt (Damon) wanted a zombie. He kept asking for one. He kept saying we’d make a lot more money if we had zombies.” (Reuters) But just as the horror movie elements needed to be eschewed, so characterisation was no more complex than necessary for the logistical throughline. Fishburne speaking of his character said,“the personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiancée, soon-to-be wife, Sana Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That's really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think.” (Screen Cave

When Soderbergh discusses the process, what this seems to mean is that rather than falling into an established genre (“zombies”), rather than a purely generic approach to the problem, Soderbergh seeks instead a combinatory method that doesn’t deny the generic but also incorporates his own procedural preoccupations, insisting too on the resistance to certain conventions and the determination to play fair by the viral as a virus - and not as an inciting incident to set in motion plot. This might be why he returns to the beginning at the end of the film. The opening announces day two as Beth starts to feel ill but the conclusion returns us to the day before as we discover the source of the virus. It makes clear that Soderbergh isn’t only interested in the specifics of genre but also the cautionary dimension of public health, a theme Soderbergh has addressed several times before in various manifestations: not only in Erin Brockovich, where an oil company is poisoning the water supply, but also The Informant, which discusses additives pumped into livestock, and Side-Effects, which addresses the culture of anti-depressants — however contained the question happened to be within a convoluted plot. Side-Effects doesn’t play fair to the seriousness of its subject as it becomes a thriller of twists and turns but that is part of Soderbergh’s relationship with process. He has always been a director both dogmatic and pragmatic, a filmmaker who often insists on being his own cinematographer while also working on numerous commercial star vehicles — none more so than the Ocean’s… series. Contagion is a star vehicle too but perhaps closer to Short Cuts than to Ocean’s Eleven. While in the latter film Soderbergh wants to give his stars their glamorous close-ups and show off their handsome looks, in Contagion most are presented unflatteringly: when we first see Paltrow she is on her way to looking as bad as the famously healthy and vibrant actress and health guru can look. Winslet is fussy, busy, and bundled up in gear needed to cope with the Minnesota winter cold. Matt Damon is no less bundled up and also soon grizzled by grief. What Soderberg wants from the actors here is not so much a name brand as facial recognition — like Altman, he wants the viewer to be able to recognise people quickly as he offers us almost a dozen important characters. This is in the long history of logistical cinema going back at least as far as Z, Costa-Gavras’s conspiratorial thriller that cast numerous well-known European actors so one could follow the intricacies of the plotting without losing sight of the specific individuals involved. It seems both apt and ironic that some of those actors (Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Fishburne and Winslet) can then be utilised as celebrities all over again recommending that we wash our hands, wear masks and respect social distancing, returning to brand recognition as public health advice. This happens because of process: that Soderberg made a film that knew if it respected the reality of its situation, people would take the film seriously. Subsequently, the actors can be taken seriously all over again as informal health advisors. That wouldn’t have been likely if it had become the zombie film Damon joked of it becoming. Who wants World War Z Brad telling us what we need to do in a pandemic?

Few filmmakers more than David Cronenberg are preoccupied with viruses. "I came this close to becoming a biochemist," he says, as the interviewer adds, “after studying cell biology at the University of Toronto for one year before switching to an English major. Cronenberg reveals he eventually decided to use his scientific knowledge and imagination to make movies about human parasites, insect hybrids and other creepy obsessions.” (Hollywood Reporter) His initial features Shivers and Rabid are conceptually viral films interested less in the documentative reality that Soderbergh wished to capture, than in the suggestiveness of an idea. In Shivers, a doctor breeds a parasite that creates a liberatory response in the body, generating a chaotic promiscuousness. In Rabid, after failed emergency surgery, a young woman finds the only food she can digest is blood that she extracts from a strange protuberance in her armpit, which in turn results in a rabies-like illness. Cronenberg reckons it is only our anthropocentricity that has a problem with viruses. They are “very vital, very excited, really having a good time. It's really a triumph if you're a virus. See the movies from the disease's point of view. You can see why they would resist all attempts to destroy them.” (Nightmare Movies

In such an instance, one can ask philosophically what is the self, a variation of the Ship of Theseus notion that wonders what constitutes the ship. If a ship suffers such immense wear and tear that every part at some stage has to be replaced, or if on an axe you change the blade and then a while after that change the handle, is the ship the same ship and the axe the same axe? By the same reckoning is a virus a foreign body or part of the body? If initially a virus invades the person at what point does it become the person, so to speak; occupying a place of change that befits it? This is the underlying question so present in zombie films and so often ignored for the exigencies of generic demand. When your wife turns into a zombie, is she your spouse or just another member of the undead that you must eradicate? In World War Z there is a novel moment that exemplifies well the philosophical problematic of what constitutes the self and what is extraneous to it. The colleague’s wrist has been bitten by a zombie and Gerry lops off the forearm; better to have her with 95% cent of her own body than 100% a zombie’s. 

Nothing is made of this since World War Z quickly gets on with the action, though it is the sort of moment that Cronenberg could dwell on just as Danny Boyle in a non-zombie film, 127 Hours, did so to horrible effect. 127 Hours has nothing to do with contagion of course but it does ask what is essentially us and answers it by saying that the arm is an inessential body part (unlike the brain and heart) even if its extrication is constantly reminding you that it is unequivocally associated with the central nervous system. After getting his arm trapped by a boulder, our hero has no choice if the rest of him is to survive but to remove his forearm. But while in World War Z, Gerry removes half a limb in a clean chop, in 127 Hours it is an arduous and agonising severance taking the number of hours of the title as the central character picks away with a penknife. Cronenberg could probably have made far more of this story based on fact than Boyle does, with the Canadian attentive to the ironies of what constitutes our body. How far into its cellular structure do we go to announce what is ours? The further up the ‘essential’ scale the more ownership we are inclined to claim. It is our brain, our heart, and yes our arms and our legs, but can we say with the same confidence ‘our cells’? Our body may be made up of them but we cast them off with such frequency that ownership seems moot. Cronenberg notes that “I often wonder what it’s like to be a cell in a body. Just one cell in skin or in a brain or an eye. What is the experience of that cell? It has an independent existence, and yet it seems to be part of something that doesn’t depend on it, and that has an existence quite separate from it.” (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Comparing cells to ants and the construction of a colony to a societal structure, Cronenberg adds, speaking of the Romans, “Five people would incorporate and become a sixth body, subject to the same laws as they would as individuals” — and so a societal structure would develop.  

Cronenberg’s first features are in many ways ham-fisted horror films generating weak suspense and utilising tired tropes as he tried to make his way as a commercial filmmaker. Yet both Shivers and Rabid contain fascinating notions of the cell and the self, the organ and social organization. In Shivers, scientists reckon: “Why not breed a parasite that can do something useful. A parasite that can take over the function of a human organ.” In clumsy, yet fascinating exposition, one doctor says to another: “for example, you breed a parasite that you implant in the human body cavity and it hooks into the circulatory system and it filters the blood just like a kidney does.” The doctor reckons you might have a patient with a rotten kidney, so you put the parasite in the body and the parasite eats the kidney and replaces it, doing the work the kidney used to do but instead of a diseased organ you have a good parasite. Sure there is a foreign body living in your own but what do you care as long as the parasite is doing the same work the kidney used to do before it failed? Cronenberg however shows that it remains a foreign entity as it starts taking over people’s personalities as well as breeding in their bodies. The parasites multiply and go from person to person; their victims now highly sexualised and determined to pass the parasite on by sexual activity to others. In one scene a husband insists that he and his wife have sex but she shows reluctance, feeling that the desires aren’t quite his and sure enough it is the parasite determined to increase its number. If Cronenberg can talk in interviews about a triumph from the disease’s point of view, we can see that in Shivers it is a little like someone with an STD thinking that they want sex despite the disease but in fact that it is the STD itself which is motivating desire. Shivers is set in an upmarket development block that allows residents a much greater degree of safety and luxury they could expect elsewhere in the city. Cronenberg turns it into a trapped environment without easy escape and where infection can pass from person to person rapidly. The new organ promptly destroys the staid organizing principle of the apartment block as chaos takes over in this most ostensibly controlled of locales.    

There is nothing new in Cronenberg’s determination to show science as recklessly ambitious; after all, Frankenstein is now over 200 years old. But there has always been in his work an interest in suggesting close links between the mind, the body and the social body that are better exemplified in later films including The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome. Nevertheless, in his most obviously viral films, Shivers and Rabid, there is a burgeoning interest that even the generic demands cannot quite quash. Though unaffected herself, in Rabid Rose spreads a rabies-like disease amongst people she attacks and before long Martial Law is declared in Montreal and people’s rights become secondary to the quelling of the disease and the subsequent disorder. But there is also the sense that when we start making modifications to the body that it can turn against itself and doesn’t feel our own but belongs to the host that invades us. It isn’t quite an external enemy because it is now part of our body and we cannot easily expel it without endangering our life. When speaking of Jaws, Cronenberg said, it scared “a lot of people. But the idea that you carry the seeds of your own destruction around with you, always, and that they can erupt at any time, is more scary. Because there is no defence against it, no escape from it.” (Cronenberg on Cronenberg

While one senses for many filmmakers whether the horror is internal or external the point is the threat, Cronenberg is at his most interesting when suggesting that it isn’t the manifestation of the monstrous but the constant gnawing belief that everything is on the point of breakdown, collapse and deterioration. From a certain point of view, and this is close to Cronenberg’s, disease will always win: even if someone survives cancer they will die of emphysema; they survive Covid but years later succumb to a stroke. The body is waiting to fall apart; there can be no happy ending. We may have found a vaccine for Covid, and if a film chooses to stop there it can perhaps proclaim a cheerful conclusion, just as Outbreak and Contagion can more or less conclude on close affection between loved ones where respectively Dr Daniels (Hoffman) and Dr Ally Hextall (Ehle) are no longer in danger of infectious disease from their partner and father respectively. It is not a happy ending from the perspective of the virus.

In many contagion films there is a figure who is impervious to infection, including Damon in Contagion, Chambers in Rabid and various ill figures in World War Z, whose illnesses paradoxically protects them from the virus. In Blindness, the person is played by Julianne Moore, her character, like others in the film, unnamed. Her husband, the doctor (Mark Ruffalo), helps someone who suffers from an inexplicable and sudden blindness and in turn himself becomes blind. So do most of the people they come into contact with but not Moore. Recognising a contagion, the authorities lock all those afflicted in a high-security building with access to limited food and resources. Moore goes there with her husband as she pretends too to be blind. Based on a novel by the important Portuguese writer Joao Saramago, the film is far away from the can-do mindset of World War Z but also isn’t especially interested in the conceptual aspect to be found in Cronenberg. It instead opens up and pays special attention to an aspect of contagion films that is often seen as inevitable but secondary: the deterioration of the social fabric. Whether it is RabidWorld War Z, Contagion or I Am Legend, social disorder is taken as given but Blindness is more concerned than any of them with the ethical implications involved. That Moore escapes the blindness that affects everyone else around her leaves her in a caring role that Blindness amplifies as the problematic of the film. By focusing exclusively on the incarcerated blind, in what amounts to a concentration camp, so the film comes to ask questions less of what is the disease and how does one find a cure but what is it to be human and how easy or difficult is it to coordinate with others when the body has lost a vital aspect of that coordination: its sight. 

Though blind societies were offended by the film, seeing “a demeaning depiction of people's reactions to losing their eyesight," so stated Mitch Pomerantz, president of the American Council of the Blind, that seemed very far away from Saramago and director Fernando Meirelles’ intention. Nevertheless, Ronald E. Milliman noted in a press release that “the blind are portrayed as being unable to do anything for themselves. As food supplies diminish, one group of blind inmates, whose leader has acquired a gun and proclaims himself "the king of Ward Three," begins to terrorize the others.” He later adds, “From this description, it is quite obvious why blind people would be outraged over this movie. Blind people do not behave like uncivilized, animalized creatures. Admittedly, blindness can be a frightening experience to those who lose their eyesight.” It seems though that Blindness is less an attack on the blind than about the fear of blindness and what would happen if people were instantly struck down by an affliction they couldn’t understand and where there was deemed to be no help. Many of the blind in the film do wish to cooperate with each other, finding a method of organisation that works in everybody’s mutual interest rather than for selfish gain, but if the film has a purpose it lies in suggesting that collapse rests on predicating a survival of the fittest mentality on a condition that emphasises weakness. Instead of everyone negotiating their abilities from a position of vulnerability, the emphasis is on those who perceive themselves as stronger taking advantage of the weaker. Inside the camp everything thus deteriorates but when they finally escape from incarceration they see that broader society looks like it has gone the same way too. Everywhere is filthy, run-down and impoverished, with the power structure insisted upon inside the camp by implication replicated by the wider society outside of it. Yet it seems the blindness is temporary as a couple of them start to see again before the film concludes, suggesting in time they will all regain their eyesight. The contagion may ostensibly have been about people becoming blind but the actual contagion has been far more the panic that it induced in people who now have to rebuild a society that has collapsed when the vulnerable were exploited by the less vulnerable. Instead of the weakest link in the human chain being respected for their vulnerability, they are exploited and ignored (as in the camp). Instead of generating a stronger society, with a social Darwinian logic that suggests a species is at its best when the strong survive, it becomes appallingly weakened as the blind are treated as an underclass, as more and more people have clearly become blind, so subsequently the whole system appears to have fallen apart. 

Blindness takes the small form (focusing almost exclusively on the prison) rather than a large-scale dramatization of societal disintegration. . Meirelles isn’t interested in the various ways in which outside society has torn itself apart since he has shown it in microcosmic form already in the prison. Is this Meirelles saying such is human nature; that no matter the circumstances, people will descend into chaotic self-preservation as soon as fear manifests itself? This will surely depend on the societal values that are in place and the governmental policies adopted. It is all very well to insist that civilisation is but a thin veneer and hunger and need quickly erode it but we can think of the initial stages of the Covid pandemic in the UK when supermarkets were rapidly running out of key ingredients. “The coronavirus lockdown has seen many panicked shoppers head to the supermarket in a desperate rush to stock up on supplies, resulting in some shops running low on basic items. And as well as shortages on toilet roll, pasta and canned goods, a new nationwide interest in baking has resulted in a scarcity of flour and other cake ingredients too.” (NewsGuardian) Soon however, “Retailers…united with manufacturers, warehouse workers and supply chain operators to implement emergency policies to meet…skyrocketing demands.” (BBC) People were reassured and returned to a shopping approach that benefited everyone rather than stockpiling to protect themselves. 

In Blindness, people panic and government indifference, incompetence or individual self-preservation indicate that nobody has offered reassurance and society collapses. In one scene, late in the film, Moore manages to find some meat in a supermarket where there are no checkout assistants. As she is the only one with sight she has managed to find food where others couldn’t and, as she passes back through the supermarket to the entrance, numerous people smell the meat in her bags and start clambering for the flesh. The film moves to slow motion as she pulls away. The scene offers the further reaches of what was beginning to happen in the early stages of the virus as people began to ignore civic obligation and emphasized self-interest. Even if one were to accept that human nature given half a chance becomes base, why would anyone wish to give it that half-chance? Contagion films frequently segue into dystopian narratives but often the idea is that this is a failure of society rather than a triumph of the self. Blindness moves further than most into that failure, focusing on how quickly the uncooperative can become the apocalyptic. Yet the film is predicated on the cooperative and the selfless, evident in Moore feigning blindness so that she can remain with her husband, though it means incarceration. Even the meat she finds will be shared with a few others she has helped who were also in the camp. When Ruffalo first notices that he is going blind, we see Moore and Ruffalo in a tight two-shot ostensibly resembling an image from Ingmar Bergman. But while Bergman often focused on the psychological precarity involved in one person interacting with another, so completely explored in Persona, in Blindness togetherness is what counts. The shot shows us Moore on the left-hand side of the frame in focus, and Ruffalo on the right side a blur, before he realises that he is going blind. It is probably, he thinks, because he caught it from the man who had appeared inexplicably blind the day before. As he pushes her away insisting that the disease can be passed on, so she refuses to keep her distance. She doesn’t know of course at this stage she is immune; her focus is on consoling her husband. 

Throughout, the film offers a lacteal paleness to capture the nature of how blindness develops but it also gives to the film a softness reflective of its consideration and solidarity theme — a dove-like aesthetic that plays up the importance of peace over violence. The visuals suggest indeed the milk of human kindness. Am I my brother’s keeper the film asks, and the answer seems to be yes not because (or at least not only because) it is the moral thing to do; it is the best way to survive. When shortly before the end of the film Moore and Ruffalo take other survivors into their home it brings to mind the passage from Luke in the bible: “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” That society chose not to start from this place would seem to have led to its demise.  

At the beginning of this essay, we noted that family proves so important to viral film but Blindness proposes too that the bigger we can make that family; the more people that can be encompassed within its fold, the healthier the society will be. Moore and Ruffalo’s characters have no children but by the end of the film they do have an extended family, a family upon which they might hope to build again a society in which people can live and develop. Blindness is by no means a great film and is hardly the film to which one is likely to turn in understanding the impact of contagion on the world (Contagion is that film). But it does go further than any of the others in wondering what humanity ought to look like if it wants to eschew the horrors of Cain and Abel — where Cain cannot even be his brother’s keeper — for the compassion of the gospels. One ought perhaps to be wary of invoking the bible at the best of times, even more so when Saramago himself claimed: “The Bible is a manual of bad morals” (Independent). But he has also written books that play on the biblical, Cain and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Saramago seeks an ethos that is not religious but which cannot ignore texts that have influenced so strongly Western belief, just as for so long the family is deemed the central unit which at all times must be protected and nurtured. Blindness suggests that there isn’t much point unless the broader societal structure is protected likewise. Protecting the body is only as good as the body politic that protects it and the organism that Cronenberg sees not as one thing but many things working in conjunction is so clearly the case with a society. The small and the large form in this sense come together in the organism that is the body of the self and the broader organism that is the social body. If we can see the pathogen as a rogue figure determined to look after itself to the detriment of the surrounding cells, then by the same reckoning we must be equally wary of the individual who believes society an impediment to their freedoms. These are freedoms that only have value, surely, when viewed in the context of the societal body of which they are a part.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Contagion in Cinema

The Body Politic

Looking at contagion in cinema, one can choose to focus on the generic demands or the realistic expectations: to see whether a film wants chiefly to work with the conventions of horror and science fiction, or to capture an aspect of the medical or social reality evident in a pandemic situation. However, even in the most generic of viral films, is there so often something familial about contagion cinema? What was so striking about the Covid crisis in its early stages were the choices people were making over their loved ones. Should one stay or should one go might be the mantra of the newly minted couple who are undecided whether in the initial phase of the disease they should stay with their new partner or whether they should remain apart and wait to see when the virus is in abeyance or a vaccine found? If absence can make the heart grow fonder, then equally there is the saying out of sight out of mind to counter it. Atlantic magazine noted: "when the coronavirus arrived, many people involved in romances that were just starting to materialize found themselves thrown into what felt like an involuntary long-distance relationshipand then watched their promising new fling sputter and slow down, in many cases to a complete halt." Absence there didn't make the heart grow fonder. For those in long-established relationships where it was inevitable that people would share the same living space, domestic abuse numbers increased. Labour MP Yvette Cooper noted: "staying at home is an important part of the strategy to prevent coronavirus from spreading and save lives, but for some people home isn't safe. Urgent action is needed to protect victims and prevent perpetrators from exploiting the lockdown to increase abuse. There are already alarming signs of the rise in domestic abuse." (Guardian) The political is the familial we might say and in quite different ways pandemic films acknowledge such a claim.

In Outbreak, the film ostensibly concerns a town in the US and all its citizens killed in an attempt to contain a virus that has devastated the locale but more importantly, from the film's emotional perspective, is central character Sam Daniels' (Dustin Hoffman) ex-wife (Renee Russo) and fellow scientist is dying in a hospital bed in the town, having contracted the virus. Daniels has the serum that he thinks will save her life and that of others, but the head military honcho McLintock (Donald Sutherland) doesn't want the public to know that it all started with a military bioweapon that got out of hand, and wishes to go ahead and bomb the town.

What interests us here isn't the military machinations involved but the emotional centrality of Daniels' ex-wife Dr Roberta. When their friend and fellow military scientist Schuler (Kevin Spacey) dies this is a minor loss but his wife's demise would be a major one. This rests on the film being predicated on familial values rather than broader ones concerning friendship or human life in the plural. Outbreak, like many a disaster film, understands the truth behind the claim that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic. Daniels is still in love with his wife and it seems she left him because he couldn't get the work/life balance right, and there he is near the end of the film prioritising work yet again but this time the beneficiary of such workaholism is none other than Mrs Daniels as he works so hard to save her life as he works on an anti-serum. A little earlier in the film, with Roberta looking like she will die and Sam protected by a full body suit, he takes off his helmet and insists in putting her hand to his face. It is a reflection of the love he feels knowing that he would prefer to be dead rather than live without her. It is important that he saves the townspeople too, but the emotional heft lies between Sam and Roberta. Here we have the human interest story that journalists seek and few Hollywood scriptwriters dare live without.

Outbreak does however offer us some horrible scenes of the disease's impact when early on Daniels and his team take off to Zaire and witness the aftermath of an outbreak in the country. One of the younger members of the team (Major Salt, played by Cuba Gooding Jr), who has been well-warned of the horrors he can expect to face and looks like he will be unfazed, is very fazed indeed: yanking his helmet off and coughing and spluttering, horrified by what he has seen. Meanwhile, Daniels yells at him to keep the helmet on. Luckily everyone in the village has died from the disease; it is no longer an active threat: the team is safe. But within a couple of minutes, the film has shown us the terrible trace of this Ebola-like condition (called Motaba) and the potential threat to anyone who comes into contact with it. Later, Daniels and co are looking at it under lab conditions. Salt sits in front of a couple of computer screens and explains to Daniels and Schuler how quickly the virus spreads. On one side we see a healthy body and then witness how the disease attacks it. "in the space of an hour a single virus has invaded, multiplied, and killed the cell. In just over two hours, its offspring have invaded nearby cells..." After 5 hours it invades, replicates, and kills. Ebola takes days to do this damage Schuler says, struggling to believe the numbers. This is much more serious.

Though we have proposed that vital to most films focusing on epidemics and pandemics is the familial, few are willing to winnow that focus so completely that the bigger picture is irrelevant next to the smaller one. Outbreak doesn't only focus on the need for Sam to win Roberta back, as well as a detailed explanation of how the virus kills, the film crosscuts between various parts of the States as it shows how people throughout the country are spreading it. One young man arrives at an airport looking poorly and hugs his girlfriend; another scene shows the military driving into town and the locals mobbing the vehicles. In one sequence, high-powered officials decide what to do with the viral epicentre, Cedar Creek: should they bomb the town and protect the country or is every American life sacrosanct? Here we have an example of what Gilles Deleuze and others call the Large Form. Deleuze (in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) describes a discussion between Mikael Romm and Sergei Eisenstein and how they would film Maupassant's short story 'Boule de Suif'. Eisenstein says he would take into account the burning town and the war that has taken place; Romm would concentrate on the carriage and the smaller details like the feet of troops marching. Deleuze distinguishes between the large and small form here (terms taken from Noel Burch), with the large form obviously the epic telling and the small form more intimate.

Outbreak director Wolfgang Peterson makes the small story important but insists on an epic telling in which to contain it. This combination is partly what makes the film predictable as a mainstream entertainment: it doesn't insist on the logistical that would remove the familial; doesn't insist on the intimate that would eschew the helicopters, the chase sequences, and the against-the-clock moment when we wonder if Daniels can stop the town from getting blown up. We even have the explosion without a danger to the town: the bomb detonates in the sea nearby. The film gives us all the spectacle and drama we need without foregoing the fact that what matters is Sam and Roberta surely reuniting. There are many reasons why one might choose to be dismissive of the film: that Hoffman was miscast (Peterson originally wanted Harrison Ford in the role) or that the science was way off. "Outbreak was awful," Laurie Garrett, writer of The Coming Plague proposed. "How in the world did they get enough plasma from a single monkey to save thousands of people from a deadly Ebola-like virus? How is it possible the original outbreak in an African village killed, apparently, 100 percent of the population, and yet there were survivors when it reached white folks in the U.S.A?" (Stat) The film possesses what we could call an epic timidity, and is thus paradoxically fearful of going big enough to be logistically precise or small enough to emphasize the emotional intricacies of life under a virus. There is one scene in the film when a mother in the town has signs of the disease and will be taken into hospital. We witness the father and their two children sitting around the table as she says her goodbyes, trying to convince them that she won't be gone for long. One of the daughters starts to get up to hug her mum and her father holds her back as the mother looks distraught. The scene serves its function but doesn't follow through on the mother's absence. Why should it? The scene is there as an illustrative example of momentary manipulation. They are characters we haven't known and characters we won't get to know. There is no intrinsic reason why we are paying attention to this family over another, and other sick people will quickly prove more important: Schuler, who will die in the tradition of best buddies, and Roberta who will survive, as usually happens with immediate loved ones.

Outbreak is an entertaining enough film for all its bad science, and though Hoffman may be miscast, he pushes the film in the direction of vulnerability rather than heroism. When he tries to dissuade the two pilots from dropping the bomb on the village, the tone is beseeching rather than commandeering: he gives to the epic a human face and a nasal drawl. He might have wished to give it more. Peterson is a director known for large-scale productions like Air Force One, Troy, and A Perfect Storm, emotionally simple films that are based on strong and predictable motivations. Working with Hoffman he saw nothing but self-doubt: "I was very surprised about the insecurity of Dustin Hoffman. He's very much like a stage actor; he has always problems with very simple things like turning around and having a certain look on his face. You know, those typical movie star moments. He was very insecure about it." (DW.Com) Yet what Peterson may be missing is that Hoffman is a small form actor much better with emotional intricacies and intimacies rather than scenes which demand very little of the actor because what matters is the surrounding mise en scene. A film much more focused on two scientists bonding over a disease they are trying to eradicate, based on scenes mainly in the lab and in the home as they try and rebuild their relationship, would have suited Hoffman's acting much more than it would have suited Ford's.

Thus our main question is the form a film adopts in the context of a virus, the large or the small, and how much of its focus is on the remarkable or the quotidian, the spectacular versus the everyday. A film that ostensibly proposes the smallest of forms, I Am Legend, insistently tries to turn it into a larger one. Neville (Will Smith) is the last human in New York but rather than chiefly focusing on how he will cope alone, the film constantly generates shocks that indicate less a man trying to tolerate his own company than dealing with numerous threats to his person. He may be alone in the world humanly but there are many mutants out there, allowing the film to utilise numerous jump scares. Rather than emphasizing the solitude of a man alone in the world, the film plays up instead the generic trope that indicates if a person is on their own there is a very good chance that at any moment they will be threatened in some manner. The audience is primed not for solitude but for threat. In one scene, Neville goes into the basement and continues underground to his lab. As soon as he goes down the stairs, silhouetted against the light, the film announces its incipient startle, and sure enough it comes a minute later when Neville pulls away a screen and the rats in glass cages start thrashing around to amplified noises. The film wishes to earn its keep less as a conceptual S/F study in loneliness than as a series of startle sequences that puts Neville in potential jeopardy. It also wants to go big in flashback, with expansive scenes of numerous people leaving New York to escape the epidemic. There are shots of helicopters and helicopter shots to indicate that though this is mainly about one man alone in New York, it has at its disposal vast sums of money to indicate that, finally, it is a large form film.

In contrast, The Quiet Earth plays up the smallness and quiet of central character Zac (Bruno Lawrence) who wakes up one morning to find that he is alone, an energy scientist instead of the DNA specialist he happens to be in the book. The film may shift from pandemic possibilities to energy crises but one mentions it in passing because it chooses the smallest form within delusions of grandeur. As Zac slowly goes mad he thinks he is president of the earth, speaks to cardboard cut-outs of famous figures and dons a dress that has nothing to do with trans-liberation but a mind in meltdown. It is mentioned as a useful contrast to I am Legend and what one can do with the small form when the subject is ostensibly almost identical to the Will Smith film. Obviously, there have been numerous films focusing on a last man in the world scenario, from The Omega Man to 28 Days Later, the larger the form the more inclined it will be to generate action and emphasize the societal: 28 Days Later becomes a zombie flick; The Omega Man an action film that examines scientist Neville (Charlton Heston) trying to find a cure for the plague at the same time he deals with a Luddite gang claiming science is the problem and not the cure. These are viral films that nevertheless suggest, like The Quiet Earth and I am Legend, the apocalyptic. (The Omega Man and I Am Legend are both based on Richard Matheson's novel).

How large or small the form happens to be is an aesthetic decision but also an ethical, psychological, and epistemological one. If we think about the reality of the Covid virus we see from just how many different angles it can be viewed, evident in the numerous newspaper stories that haven't only been about the virus and the determined need to find a vaccine but also the many tales that have been a consequence of it, many of which could be narratives in themselves. Detouring from film for a moment, let us look at a handful and see how they fit into potential cinematic expectation. First, we have the epidemiologist and government advisor Neil Ferguson resigning after he broke lockdown, conducting an affair with a married woman with kids, who was in an open marriage. Then we have government tsar Dominic Cummings who, while symptomatic, travelled with his wife and child from London to Durham to drop his son off at relatives. We also have Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro refusing to wear a mask and mingling with large crowds before coming down with the virus himself. We can think too of the armed alt-right covid-deniers outside the mayor's office in Michigan. Finally, we can think of Donald Trump proposing injecting disinfectant as a Covid-cure. These are potentially all distinct narratives demanding different generic emphasis. The Ferguson situation could be a complex account of bourgeois mores, liberal in its sexual freedoms but aware that while an affair might be okay in normal times, during a pandemic it carries specific selfishness. Ferguson may be a single man but the woman with whom he is having sex will cross London and return to a husband and child who could be infected. The usual notion in adultery that the flesh is weak becomes all the more pronounced when that body can be weakened seriously by a respiratory illness. The film that might come out of such a subject would seem to demand a small form, with the larger issue in the background, but always pertinent to it in an ethically convoluted drama.

The Cummings story could be a larger form but still remain small enough to play up the epistemological. For many, Cummings account didn't add up. It isn't for us to get into the details but merely to say that it could be an investigative story involving a high-profile government figure who doesn't resign and who seems involved in a cover-up. The more conspiratorial might wish to make much of Cummings' visit to Barnard Castle near Durham, where GlaxoSmithKline have an office. The form is larger than the Ferguson 'film' but remains focused chiefly around the investigator., while the Bolsonaro scenario might focus chiefly on hubris and denial; a man who reckons he is incapable of getting a disease he doesn't believe in and reality increasingly suggests that he can no longer run the country. Again, a large form might be necessary as protestors and political opponents are factored into the narrative.

The fourth could in some ways be the largest drama, with the US torn apart by extremist groups determined to undermine the rule of law and could also contrast it with Leftist groups who accept Covid as a reality but don't accept the perceived oppressive measures the president uses to quell the protests. The film might invoke a form close to that of a civil war film. The final one concerning Trump could actually be a small form satire, showing a president who keeps changing his mind about the virus, proposes solutions that are actively dangerous, and seems more concerned about his ratings numbers than deaths from Covid. The film might never need to leave the White House; its small form utilised all the better to show a leader with ostensibly more power than anyone else in the world but who is powerless in the face of his own stupidity and others powerless in different ways all around him.

By looking at a few events that have been media stories we can see how various genres could be activated; whether large or small forms should be adopted. No event necessarily lends itself to one form or another, one genre or another, but some appear more thriller or comedy generating; some look like they can be usefully opened up; others benefit from closing down. A film could focus exclusively on Bolsonaro, struck down with the virus, slowly realizing as he half-heartedly self-isolates, that he has misread the public mood and knows that he is losing control of the country. The film could chiefly remain within the walls of Alvorada Palace or his gated community home in Rio de Janeiro, showing a man frustrated by his immobility and irritated that such a fate had befallen him as his mood gets darker and darker. It is the sort of film that could be directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain, a master of morose and claustrophobic atmospheres evident in Tony Manero, The Club and Post Mortem. The Ferguson film could retain a small form too as it focuses on the hectic family life of Ferguson's mistress Antonia Staats, the mainly solitary, workaholic existence of the scientist, and their escape from stress by regularly meeting up. It might be closer to a Pinter play like Betrayal but without the narrative rewind, and perhaps written by Ian McEwan.

Let us not get too carried away creating films that don't exist out of events that do. Nevertheless, imagining filmic scenarios for actual situations can be a useful way of understanding genre and also comprehending the size of one's film. The problem with Hollywood money versus other countries' cinematic impoverishment is that the US will usually adopt a large form even if the reverse might be more fruitful; while European and Latin American cinema, for example, is forced to work on lower budgets and thus produce smaller films even if a larger form might be more appropriate.

One reason why World War Z isn't chiefly a viral film, one reason why people are unlikely to go to it when trying to comprehend an aspect of the Covid virus, rests on its big-budget determination to function as an action film. Near the beginning, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his wife and kids are caught in a huge traffic jam when they see an enormous ball of fire from a few hundred metres away. People start running in various directions as the film suggests an inexplicable but undeniable terror that might recall New York on 9/11. (It was filmed in Glasgow; the setting Philadelphia) The film skilfully leaves the viewer for a couple of minutes lost in the action rather than surviving the situation. When a cop shouts at Gerry from the latter's motorbike, Gerry witnesses the biker crushed and yanked off his bike by a marauding garbage truck. Gerry, a former UN field agent, manages to get out of the jam and drive his family away from the city. Later we discover it is a plague that creates zombies and the only way to find the vaccine is to discover the source.

The film earns its keep as an action movie in two distinct scenes. The first, which we have just discussed, manages to convey the horror of a situation that is awful but inexplicable, with Lane and his family knowing that they have to get the hell out of where they are even if they don't exactly know why. The scene relies enormously on the largest of forms to show a city in chaos. In the later scene, the excitement, such as it is, rests on foreknowledge. Gerry finds himself at a lab in Wales after working out that ill people are ignored by the zombies the humanly ill are antithetical to the flesh the zombies seek and thus a pathogen can work as a vaccine. He says that if he can access the pathogen within a section of the lab he might have found a means by which to combat the undead. The only problem is, that section of the hospital is overrun by zombies; can Gerry and a couple of others find their way to the room without first getting taken out by the living dead? The film offers little advice when it comes to dealing with a serious viral disease but its solution is a useful narrative cure to an action film that wants an exciting denouement. Whether World War Z is a very good action film is open to debate; that it is in an action film chiefly is unequivocal. Starting out as a book, becoming a film and ending up as a video game, World War Z has little to say about viruses in our world but makes clear to us what the conventions of a can-do-action movie happen to be as Gerry proves himself yet another American who can save the world.

In this sense, Contagion is a relative masterpiece, managing more than any pandemic film to anticipate numerous details which have proved central to how people have been living in 2020. Whether it is making sure you don't touch your face, or making sure you stay away from your teen boyfriend who lives elsewhere, whether it is possible miracle cures promoted by people with a blogging account, or the realisation at the end of the film that the source of the virus was a wet market in China, Steven Soderbergh's film captures better than most the circumstances we are living through. Generically, the movie is part of a relatively recent genre, one that is not really a genre at all: what has been called hyperlink cinema, with various stories coming together and relying on numerous key characters rather than on a clear central focus. Whether producing great films of subtle interconnecting intricacies, like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, or clumsy contrivances, like Paul Haggis's Crash, the films rely on multi-character focalization as they move from one story to another and dovetail various threads. In World War Z, there is no doubt who we are supposed to be following as the film rarely gives a broader context than the one Gerry negotiates. In Contagion, Matt Damon is probably more than most our leading character, the one who has to deal not only with his wife Beth's (Gwyneth Paltrow) death but also that she was having an affair, not only with his daughter's difficulties as she desperately wants to see her boyfriend, but also that his wife won't be able to have a proper funeral. Yet there is too Erin (Kate Winslet) who investigates the situation as an officer for Epidemic Intelligence and Jude Law, an online blogger who helps create offline hysteria as people raid stores seeking the miracle drug he has promoted. We also have Larry Fishburne in charge of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention making some of the bigger decisions, and Paltrow, who promptly dies of the disease, mainly seen in flashback and whose trip to Asia brought the virus into the US. Even minor characters get to make important points that allow the film to anticipate the specifics of what we find ourselves living through. The Inland Security officer helping Erin says, "my wife makes me take my clothes off in the garage, she leaves out a bucket of warm water and soap, then she douses everything in hand sanitiser after I leave. I mean she's overreacting, right." Erin makes clear his wife is not, adding "stop touching your face."

In an online video ('Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of 'Contagion' movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19') several of the actors in the film, including Winslet and Damon, have offered advice on the virus. They can do so because Contagion is seen as realistic enough for the actors to feel they have something to say about it. True, Brad Pitt can also be found speaking of the virus indirectly, with a Covid video ('Brad Pitt Praised Face Mask Use Before Coronavirus Pandemic'), utilising footage of Pitt saying that he was in Japan and wondered why, long before Covid, so many people were wearing masks. He saw that people who had colds and bugs were protecting others; wearing the mask meant they weren't going around infecting people. This may be the reality of Pitt's life and well-observed before the virus, but it is unlikely anybody will be looking at World War Z to comprehend aspects of the disease. When in Contagion a belligerent person at the Minnesota Department of Health asks questions after Erin scribbles on the blackboard the rates at which other illnesses spread, and needs to find out how susceptible people are to the virus, the woman says: "so far that appears to be everybody with hands, a mouth and nose." The woman is someone determined to score a point, one more interested in keeping the shops open over minimising the risk. She is a woman who insists that America ought to be open for business even if it will be open season for the virus, and it brings to mind when watching it, during the pandemic, the remarks of the business-oriented Potus in the White House between 2016 and 2020.

Though the film in numerous ways anticipates Covid, it also echoes numerous other Soderberg films. When Erin insists on confronting prejudice with facts as she takes on the Minnesota health worker, it may bring to mind another Erin in the director's work: Erin Brockovich and the scene when Erin proves she knows more about the case she is investigating as a lay-person than the smug corporate lawyer. The scene in Erin Brockovich is a show-stopper, Soderbergh giving a star (Julia Roberts) a moment to show off. In Contagion it is a scene of anticipatory irony: we don't doubt that the woman's focus on consumption over contagion will later prove facile, but it isn't a scene of unequivocal one-upmanship so evident in the Roberts film. The adultery at the beginning of Contagion recalls the surreptitious side of Soderbergh's work from Sex, Lies and Videotape, Schizopolis and The Girlfriend Experience, while the structure of the film narratively and chromatically recalls Traffic, both films draw on blue and yellow depending on the mood and place. Here the scenes in Asia are usually yellow while the scenes in Minnesota blue, resembling the yellow tones of Mexico; the blue of Washington in the earlier film. The logistical nature of Contagion might bring to mind Ocean's Eleven, weaving together strands of plot to give us the feeling that what matters isn't character chiefly but situation: whether it is robbing a casino or determining to comprehend an epidemic, crosscutting intricacy has its uses. Just as a filmmaker might when making a film wonder which genre it needs to fit, just as the director might less consciously wonder whether a large or small form is best, so a filmmaker can look at their back catalogue and see what works for the given crisis situation. A director with no inclination towards the logistical will be likely to find a story that can bring out the intimate nature of a pandemic narrative, seeing in Ferguson's affair more than enough of a narrative to work with, and Soderberg has that side as we have noted, most especially with his initial success, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. But he has proved too that he can orchestrate complex situations in such different works as Traffic and Ocean's 11, and adopts such an approach for Contagion. However, just because we can look at the film and see it as another fine work of logistical cinema, doesn't mean it can't reflect real-life scenarios; indeed, a logistical work demands an aspect of reality so that the details look right. A film that emphasizes emotion doesn't ask us to suspend disbelief in the same way as a work that insists on the precise nature of events but for Contagion detail is important. "You worked with a lot of consultants to get the scientific aspect of film correct. Most audiences wouldn't know the difference. Why was that important to you? "the interviewer asks, and later in the interview Soderbergh, discussing filmmaking, replies, "I love process. I'm a process person. I like talking about how things were done as opposed to what they mean." (Reuters)

Process can take many forms but it seems unlikely that we would say process is what most interests the directors of I am Legend or World War Z, if we understand process to be more than technique. Process here seems also to suggest how a film is made, taking into account numerous variables at play: the genre chosen, the amount of characterization required, the point of view in a given scene, the use or otherwise of non-diegetic music, the lens length adopted. In the scene early in the film where Beth at the airport speaks to her lover on the phone, the foreground is in sharp focus but the background a complete blur, all the better to indicate the sense that this is a very private affair. When Erin phones Dr Ellis Cheever to say she is feeling sick, the film stays close on Erin, the blue filter pronounced and no music present. When it cuts to Cheever the colour shift is conspicuous: from dull blue to sharp yellow. In another scene, when someone is met off the bus with the virus, Erin and others move in slow motion as the music, mainly drums and horns, indicates the seriousness of the situation. Regular Soderberg composer Cliff Martinez said: "The sound palette for Contagion came by way of combining three very different approaches Steven went through as he was cutting the film. Back in October of 2010 he sent me a rough cut with music from The French Connection and Marathon Man in it. I loved this music and wrote a few pieces using that style as a reference. That is where the orchestra and some of the older composition techniques, like 12 tone writing, came from..." (Mubi) What Martinez likes about working with Soderberg is that the director brings him in early. While in many films the composer's job is functional: "from repairing a performance, creating a pace and rhythm to the story, adding style and atmosphere, intensifying a certain emotion or reaction. I think if the music isn't functioning in some kind of support or repair capacity, then it probably doesn't need to be there in the first place." Martinez adds,"one unique thing that he does that I think makes a difference is that he hires me and sends over a script long before the shooting even begins." Equally, Soderbergh can see how genre can overtake a film and jokingly talks about this resistance in Contagion. "Matt (Damon) wanted a zombie. He kept asking for one. He kept saying we'd make a lot more money if we had zombies." (Reuters) But just as the horror movie elements needed to be eschewed, so characterisation was no more complex than necessary for the logistical throughline. Fishburne speaking of his character said,"the personal stuff that I have as Ellis Cheever was telling my fiance, soon-to-be wife, Sana Lathan, to get out of town, to leave, to pack up, to not talk. That's really easy. Any human being in that situation is going to do that, I think." (Screen Cave)

When Soderbergh discusses the process, what this seems to mean is that rather than falling into an established genre ("zombies"), rather than a purely generic approach to the problem, Soderbergh seeks instead a combinatory method that doesn't deny the generic but also incorporates his own procedural preoccupations, insisting too on the resistance to certain conventions and the determination to play fair by the viral as a virus - and not as an inciting incident to set in motion plot. This might be why he returns to the beginning at the end of the film. The opening announces day two as Beth starts to feel ill but the conclusion returns us to the day before as we discover the source of the virus. It makes clear that Soderbergh isn't only interested in the specifics of genre but also the cautionary dimension of public health, a theme Soderbergh has addressed several times before in various manifestations: not only in Erin Brockovich, where an oil company is poisoning the water supply, but also The Informant, which discusses additives pumped into livestock, and Side-Effects, which addresses the culture of anti-depressants however contained the question happened to be within a convoluted plot. Side-Effects doesn't play fair to the seriousness of its subject as it becomes a thriller of twists and turns but that is part of Soderbergh's relationship with process. He has always been a director both dogmatic and pragmatic, a filmmaker who often insists on being his own cinematographer while also working on numerous commercial star vehicles none more so than the Ocean's... series. Contagion is a star vehicle too but perhaps closer to Short Cuts than to Ocean's Eleven. While in the latter film Soderbergh wants to give his stars their glamorous close-ups and show off their handsome looks, in Contagion most are presented unflatteringly: when we first see Paltrow she is on her way to looking as bad as the famously healthy and vibrant actress and health guru can look. Winslet is fussy, busy, and bundled up in gear needed to cope with the Minnesota winter cold. Matt Damon is no less bundled up and also soon grizzled by grief. What Soderberg wants from the actors here is not so much a name brand as facial recognition like Altman, he wants the viewer to be able to recognise people quickly as he offers us almost a dozen important characters. This is in the long history of logistical cinema going back at least as far as Z, Costa-Gavras's conspiratorial thriller that cast numerous well-known European actors so one could follow the intricacies of the plotting without losing sight of the specific individuals involved. It seems both apt and ironic that some of those actors (Damon, Jennifer Ehle, Fishburne and Winslet) can then be utilised as celebrities all over again recommending that we wash our hands, wear masks and respect social distancing, returning to brand recognition as public health advice. This happens because of process: that Soderberg made a film that knew if it respected the reality of its situation, people would take the film seriously. Subsequently, the actors can be taken seriously all over again as informal health advisors. That wouldn't have been likely if it had become the zombie film Damon joked of it becoming. Who wants World War Z Brad telling us what we need to do in a pandemic?

Few filmmakers more than David Cronenberg are preoccupied with viruses. I came this close to becoming a biochemist, he says, as the interviewer adds, "after studying cell biology at the University of Toronto for one year before switching to an English major. Cronenberg reveals he eventually decided to use his scientific knowledge and imagination to make movies about human parasites, insect hybrids and other creepy obsessions." (Hollywood Reporter) His initial features Shivers and Rabid are conceptually viral films interested less in the documentative reality that Soderbergh wished to capture, than in the suggestiveness of an idea. In Shivers, a doctor breeds a parasite that creates a liberatory response in the body, generating a chaotic promiscuousness. In Rabid, after failed emergency surgery, a young woman finds the only food she can digest is blood that she extracts from a strange protuberance in her armpit, which in turn results in a rabies-like illness. Cronenberg reckons it is only our anthropocentricity that has a problem with viruses. They are "very vital, very excited, really having a good time. It's really a triumph if you're a virus. See the movies from the disease's point of view. You can see why they would resist all attempts to destroy them." (Nightmare Movies)

In such an instance, one can ask philosophically what is the self, a variation of the Ship of Theseus notion that wonders what constitutes the ship. If a ship suffers such immense wear and tear that every part at some stage has to be replaced, or if on an axe you change the blade and then a while after that change the handle, is the ship the same ship and the axe the same axe? By the same reckoning is a virus a foreign body or part of the body? If initially a virus invades the person at what point does it become the person, so to speak; occupying a place of change that befits it? This is the underlying question so present in zombie films and so often ignored for the exigencies of generic demand. When your wife turns into a zombie, is she your spouse or just another member of the undead that you must eradicate? In World War Z there is a novel moment that exemplifies well the philosophical problematic of what constitutes the self and what is extraneous to it. The colleague's wrist has been bitten by a zombie and Gerry lops off the forearm; better to have her with 95% cent of her own body than 100% a zombie's.

Nothing is made of this since World War Z quickly gets on with the action, though it is the sort of moment that Cronenberg could dwell on just as Danny Boyle in a non-zombie film, 127 Hours, did so to horrible effect. 127 Hours has nothing to do with contagion of course but it does ask what is essentially us and answers it by saying that the arm is an inessential body part (unlike the brain and heart) even if its extrication is constantly reminding you that it is unequivocally associated with the central nervous system. After getting his arm trapped by a boulder, our hero has no choice if the rest of him is to survive but to remove his forearm. But while in World War Z, Gerry removes half a limb in a clean chop, in 127 Hours it is an arduous and agonising severance taking the number of hours of the title as the central character picks away with a penknife. Cronenberg could probably have made far more of this story based on fact than Boyle does, with the Canadian attentive to the ironies of what constitutes our body. How far into its cellular structure do we go to announce what is ours? The further up the 'essential' scale the more ownership we are inclined to claim. It is our brain, our heart, and yes our arms and our legs, but can we say with the same confidence 'our cells'? Our body may be made up of them but we cast them off with such frequency that ownership seems moot. Cronenberg notes that "I often wonder what it's like to be a cell in a body. Just one cell in skin or in a brain or an eye. What is the experience of that cell? It has an independent existence, and yet it seems to be part of something that doesn't depend on it, and that has an existence quite separate from it." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg) Comparing cells to ants and the construction of a colony to a societal structure, Cronenberg adds, speaking of the Romans, "Five people would incorporate and become a sixth body, subject to the same laws as they would as individuals" and so a societal structure would develop.

Cronenberg's first features are in many ways ham-fisted horror films generating weak suspense and utilising tired tropes as he tried to make his way as a commercial filmmaker. Yet both Shivers and Rabid contain fascinating notions of the cell and the self, the organ and social organization. In Shivers, scientists reckon: "Why not breed a parasite that can do something useful. A parasite that can take over the function of a human organ." In clumsy, yet fascinating exposition, one doctor says to another: "for example, you breed a parasite that you implant in the human body cavity and it hooks into the circulatory system and it filters the blood just like a kidney does." The doctor reckons you might have a patient with a rotten kidney, so you put the parasite in the body and the parasite eats the kidney and replaces it, doing the work the kidney used to do but instead of a diseased organ you have a good parasite. Sure there is a foreign body living in your own but what do you care as long as the parasite is doing the same work the kidney used to do before it failed? Cronenberg however shows that it remains a foreign entity as it starts taking over people's personalities as well as breeding in their bodies. The parasites multiply and go from person to person; their victims now highly sexualised and determined to pass the parasite on by sexual activity to others. In one scene a husband insists that he and his wife have sex but she shows reluctance, feeling that the desires aren't quite his and sure enough it is the parasite determined to increase its number. If Cronenberg can talk in interviews about a triumph from the disease's point of view, we can see that in Shivers it is a little like someone with an STD thinking that they want sex despite the disease but in fact that it is the STD itself which is motivating desire. Shivers is set in an upmarket development block that allows residents a much greater degree of safety and luxury they could expect elsewhere in the city. Cronenberg turns it into a trapped environment without easy escape and where infection can pass from person to person rapidly. The new organ promptly destroys the staid organizing principle of the apartment block as chaos takes over in this most ostensibly controlled of locales.

There is nothing new in Cronenberg's determination to show science as recklessly ambitious; after all, Frankenstein is now over 200 years old. But there has always been in his work an interest in suggesting close links between the mind, the body and the social body that are better exemplified in later films including The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome. Nevertheless, in his most obviously viral films, Shivers and Rabid, there is a burgeoning interest that even the generic demands cannot quite quash. Though unaffected herself, in Rabid Rose spreads a rabies-like disease amongst people she attacks and before long Martial Law is declared in Montreal and people's rights become secondary to the quelling of the disease and the subsequent disorder. But there is also the sense that when we start making modifications to the body that it can turn against itself and doesn't feel our own but belongs to the host that invades us. It isn't quite an external enemy because it is now part of our body and we cannot easily expel it without endangering our life. When speaking of Jaws, Cronenberg said, it scared "a lot of people. But the idea that you carry the seeds of your own destruction around with you, always, and that they can erupt at any time, is more scary. Because there is no defence against it, no escape from it." (Cronenberg on Cronenberg)

While one senses for many filmmakers whether the horror is internal or external the point is the threat, Cronenberg is at his most interesting when suggesting that it isn't the manifestation of the monstrous but the constant gnawing belief that everything is on the point of breakdown, collapse and deterioration. From a certain point of view, and this is close to Cronenberg's, disease will always win: even if someone survives cancer they will die of emphysema; they survive Covid but years later succumb to a stroke. The body is waiting to fall apart; there can be no happy ending. We may have found a vaccine for Covid, and if a film chooses to stop there it can perhaps proclaim a cheerful conclusion, just as Outbreak and Contagion can more or less conclude on close affection between loved ones where respectively Dr Daniels (Hoffman) and Dr Ally Hextall (Ehle) are no longer in danger of infectious disease from their partner and father respectively. It is not a happy ending from the perspective of the virus.

In many contagion films there is a figure who is impervious to infection, including Damon in Contagion, Chambers in Rabid and various ill figures in World War Z, whose illnesses paradoxically protects them from the virus. In Blindness, the person is played by Julianne Moore, her character, like others in the film, unnamed. Her husband, the doctor (Mark Ruffalo), helps someone who suffers from an inexplicable and sudden blindness and in turn himself becomes blind. So do most of the people they come into contact with but not Moore. Recognising a contagion, the authorities lock all those afflicted in a high-security building with access to limited food and resources. Moore goes there with her husband as she pretends too to be blind. Based on a novel by the important Portuguese writer Joao Saramago, the film is far away from the can-do mindset of World War Z but also isn't especially interested in the conceptual aspect to be found in Cronenberg. It instead opens up and pays special attention to an aspect of contagion films that is often seen as inevitable but secondary: the deterioration of the social fabric. Whether it is Rabid, World War Z, Contagion or I Am Legend, social disorder is taken as given but Blindness is more concerned than any of them with the ethical implications involved. That Moore escapes the blindness that affects everyone else around her leaves her in a caring role that Blindness amplifies as the problematic of the film. By focusing exclusively on the incarcerated blind, in what amounts to a concentration camp, so the film comes to ask questions less of what is the disease and how does one find a cure but what is it to be human and how easy or difficult is it to coordinate with others when the body has lost a vital aspect of that coordination: its sight.

Though blind societies were offended by the film, seeing "a demeaning depiction of people's reactions to losing their eyesight, so stated Mitch Pomerantz, president of the American Council of the Blind, that seemed very far away from Saramago and director Fernando Meirelles' intention. Nevertheless, Ronald E. Milliman noted in a press release that "the blind are portrayed as being unable to do anything for themselves. As food supplies diminish, one group of blind inmates, whose leader has acquired a gun and proclaims himself the king of Ward Three, begins to terrorize the others." He later adds, "From this description, it is quite obvious why blind people would be outraged over this movie. Blind people do not behave like uncivilized, animalized creatures. Admittedly, blindness can be a frightening experience to those who lose their eyesight." It seems though that Blindness is less an attack on the blind than about the fear of blindness and what would happen if people were instantly struck down by an affliction they couldn't understand and where there was deemed to be no help. Many of the blind in the film do wish to cooperate with each other, finding a method of organisation that works in everybody's mutual interest rather than for selfish gain, but if the film has a purpose it lies in suggesting that collapse rests on predicating a survival of the fittest mentality on a condition that emphasises weakness. Instead of everyone negotiating their abilities from a position of vulnerability, the emphasis is on those who perceive themselves as stronger taking advantage of the weaker. Inside the camp everything thus deteriorates but when they finally escape from incarceration they see that broader society looks like it has gone the same way too. Everywhere is filthy, run-down and impoverished, with the power structure insisted upon inside the camp by implication replicated by the wider society outside of it. Yet it seems the blindness is temporary as a couple of them start to see again before the film concludes, suggesting in time they will all regain their eyesight. The contagion may ostensibly have been about people becoming blind but the actual contagion has been far more the panic that it induced in people who now have to rebuild a society that has collapsed when the vulnerable were exploited by the less vulnerable. Instead of the weakest link in the human chain being respected for their vulnerability, they are exploited and ignored (as in the camp). Instead of generating a stronger society, with a social Darwinian logic that suggests a species is at its best when the strong survive, it becomes appallingly weakened as the blind are treated as an underclass, as more and more people have clearly become blind, so subsequently the whole system appears to have fallen apart.

Blindness takes the small form (focusing almost exclusively on the prison) rather than a large-scale dramatization of societal disintegration. . Meirelles isn't interested in the various ways in which outside society has torn itself apart since he has shown it in microcosmic form already in the prison. Is this Meirelles saying such is human nature; that no matter the circumstances, people will descend into chaotic self-preservation as soon as fear manifests itself? This will surely depend on the societal values that are in place and the governmental policies adopted. It is all very well to insist that civilisation is but a thin veneer and hunger and need quickly erode it but we can think of the initial stages of the Covid pandemic in the UK when supermarkets were rapidly running out of key ingredients. "The coronavirus lockdown has seen many panicked shoppers head to the supermarket in a desperate rush to stock up on supplies, resulting in some shops running low on basic items. And as well as shortages on toilet roll, pasta and canned goods, a new nationwide interest in baking has resulted in a scarcity of flour and other cake ingredients too." (NewsGuardian) Soon however, "Retailers...united with manufacturers, warehouse workers and supply chain operators to implement emergency policies to meet...skyrocketing demands." (BBC) People were reassured and returned to a shopping approach that benefited everyone rather than stockpiling to protect themselves.

In Blindness, people panic and government indifference, incompetence or individual self-preservation indicate that nobody has offered reassurance and society collapses. In one scene, late in the film, Moore manages to find some meat in a supermarket where there are no checkout assistants. As she is the only one with sight she has managed to find food where others couldn't and, as she passes back through the supermarket to the entrance, numerous people smell the meat in her bags and start clambering for the flesh. The film moves to slow motion as she pulls away. The scene offers the further reaches of what was beginning to happen in the early stages of the virus as people began to ignore civic obligation and emphasized self-interest. Even if one were to accept that human nature given half a chance becomes base, why would anyone wish to give it that half-chance? Contagion films frequently segue into dystopian narratives but often the idea is that this is a failure of society rather than a triumph of the self. Blindness moves further than most into that failure, focusing on how quickly the uncooperative can become the apocalyptic. Yet the film is predicated on the cooperative and the selfless, evident in Moore feigning blindness so that she can remain with her husband, though it means incarceration. Even the meat she finds will be shared with a few others she has helped who were also in the camp. When Ruffalo first notices that he is going blind, we see Moore and Ruffalo in a tight two-shot ostensibly resembling an image from Ingmar Bergman. But while Bergman often focused on the psychological precarity involved in one person interacting with another, so completely explored in Persona, in Blindness togetherness is what counts. The shot shows us Moore on the left-hand side of the frame in focus, and Ruffalo on the right side a blur, before he realises that he is going blind. It is probably, he thinks, because he caught it from the man who had appeared inexplicably blind the day before. As he pushes her away insisting that the disease can be passed on, so she refuses to keep her distance. She doesn't know of course at this stage she is immune; her focus is on consoling her husband.

Throughout, the film offers a lacteal paleness to capture the nature of how blindness develops but it also gives to the film a softness reflective of its consideration and solidarity theme a dove-like aesthetic that plays up the importance of peace over violence. The visuals suggest indeed the milk of human kindness. Am I my brother's keeper the film asks, and the answer seems to be yes not because (or at least not only because) it is the moral thing to do; it is the best way to survive. When shortly before the end of the film Moore and Ruffalo take other survivors into their home it brings to mind the passage from Luke in the bible: "But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind." That society chose not to start from this place would seem to have led to its demise.

At the beginning of this essay, we noted that family proves so important to viral film but Blindness proposes too that the bigger we can make that family; the more people that can be encompassed within its fold, the healthier the society will be. Moore and Ruffalo's characters have no children but by the end of the film they do have an extended family, a family upon which they might hope to build again a society in which people can live and develop. Blindness is by no means a great film and is hardly the film to which one is likely to turn in understanding the impact of contagion on the world (Contagion is that film). But it does go further than any of the others in wondering what humanity ought to look like if it wants to eschew the horrors of Cain and Abel where Cain cannot even be his brother's keeper for the compassion of the gospels. One ought perhaps to be wary of invoking the bible at the best of times, even more so when Saramago himself claimed: "The Bible is a manual of bad morals" (Independent). But he has also written books that play on the biblical, Cain and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Saramago seeks an ethos that is not religious but which cannot ignore texts that have influenced so strongly Western belief, just as for so long the family is deemed the central unit which at all times must be protected and nurtured. Blindness suggests that there isn't much point unless the broader societal structure is protected likewise. Protecting the body is only as good as the body politic that protects it and the organism that Cronenberg sees not as one thing but many things working in conjunction is so clearly the case with a society. The small and the large form in this sense come together in the organism that is the body of the self and the broader organism that is the social body. If we can see the pathogen as a rogue figure determined to look after itself to the detriment of the surrounding cells, then by the same reckoning we must be equally wary of the individual who believes society an impediment to their freedoms. These are freedoms that only have value, surely, when viewed in the context of the societal body of which they are a part.


© Tony McKibbin