Steven Soderbergh Says We’re Killing Ourselves in Contagion

Currently the fifth-to-last film on Steven Soderbergh’s ever-expanding pre-retirement slate, Contagion opens on day two of a global viral epidemic. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, an American employee for an ominously unspecific multinational corporation who returns from a business trip in Hong Kong to her wintry Midwestern home feeling like crap. Twenty-four hours after she’s written off her sickness as jet lag in a phone call to her never-seen lover, Beth starts convulsing and foaming at the mouth. She’s pronounced dead at the hospital, and before her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), can make it home to break the news to their young son, the kid follows suit. Soon jet-setters the world over are literally breaking into sweats simultaneously.

Beth is fingered as Patient Zero of a virus previously unseen on earth that kills its victims within hours of the onset of symptoms and defies cure, containment, or scientific understanding; as one researcher puts it, “It kills every cell we put it in.” Hospitals and streets fill with the zombie sick, and the social order breaks down almost instantly.

In fine Irwin “Master of Disaster” Allen style, Soderbergh deploys a cast of thousands to help sketch the epidemic as a global, class-blind, all-encompassing event. Marion Cotillard is the adorable WHO epidemiologist assigned to trace the origins of Beth’s illness by piecing together her last hours, as captured in multiple locations via apparently omnipresent surveillance cams. Laurence Fishburne is the CDC chief who sends deputy Kate Winslet to manage the crisis on the ground while he hunkers down at headquarters and tries to manage the message—a fight thwarted when conspiracy blogger Jude Law posts a video of a Japanese businessman collapsing on a city bus, which feeds a global panic that turns survivors like Mitch into hyper-paranoid shut-ins. Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, and Demetri Martin appear in small but crucial roles; Jennifer Ehle has a career-making part as the quietly brilliant researcher whom Soderbergh frames like an ingénue as she reels off jargon at an impossibly fast and mellifluous rate.

Speed itself is both a key Contagion theme—the virus that multiplies faster than it can be tracked, the technology that allows not only the quick transport of data and people over vast distances but also the constant tracking of that travel—and the film’s defining aesthetic characteristic. Crafting staccato montages to a coolly insistent drum, bass, and piano score, Soderbergh transitions between his interwoven stories at a rapid-fire pace, allowing a couple of seemingly major characters to disappear for long stretches and one to die with a startling lack of sentimentality. That character’s burial is presented as a matter-of-fact marker of how bad things have become: The only ceremony over the mass grave in the center of a city is a dialogue exchange between bored workers about when the local government ran out of body bags.

Contagion is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie—as self-conscious a Hollywood entertainment as his Ocean’s trilogy, and as microscopically attuned to its moment as his 2009 experimental sketch of the economic crisis, The Girlfriend Experience. It is also part 1970s star-studded and story-bloated disaster movie and part 1870s satire-as-serialized-soap-opera, a pulp-pop confection with an unusually serious-minded social critique at its heart. Think The Towering Inferno, as done by Anthony Trollope.

Trollope’s 1875 doorstop novel, The Way We Live Now, is an apt point of reference not just because its title could sub for the one Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns chose—their film might take place in a bizarro-world present, but it’s all the more terrifying because of the methodic realism that makes it impossible to distinguish that bizarro world from life on earth circa now. But also, Trollope’s masterpiece turned a pop-culture craze—serialized novels that used real locomotive crashes as the starting point for ensemble soap operas—on its head. There’s no actual train crash in The Way We Live Now; instead, the “railway disaster” is perpetrated by a con artist who convinces all of London society, high on the 19th century’s ultimate symbol of “progress”—the steam engine—to invest in a railway that will never be built. Greed and hypocrisy spread, well, virally, in the wake of technological change, and before you know it, society has collapsed on itself. Soderbergh similarly takes on pop Hollywood forms specifically to make them his own, and like The Way We Live Now, Contagion exists to trace the chain reaction caused by isolated acts of selfishness, unchecked power, and a never-sated culture of newer, faster, better.

An act of promiscuity might cause the virus’s initial spread across continents, but Contagion implies that risky sex has nothing, long-term-consequences-wise, on the risky high-speed transfer of information. In a world in which grief is expressed via texted emoticon before the body is buried, and Web celebrities cause riot-panics as stocks spike with their blog hype, meme control becomes the official form of damage control. “Social distancing,” the name given to the CDC’s policy of virus containment via forced isolation of the healthy, is not just the literal opposite of “social networking,” but its potential endgame. At what point in the near future will we all stop leaving the house?

As prolific a worker as any in contemporary Hollywood, Soderbergh claims to be on the verge of packing in his own career, which gives his movie a pretty interesting subtextual twist: Work, in Contagion, is fraught with mortal peril. The first victims are business travelers, while Damon’s stay-at-home dad is spared and even turned into one of the film’s least ambiguous heroes. If Contagion truly is the first leg of Soderbergh’s retirement victory lap, this harrowing film is a potent reminder of what we stand to lose.


A Tale of Two Fannys

Fanny is the portrait of two ladies erased by history. In 1829, Frances “Fanny” Wright was the most controversial woman in America: the first female to speak out against slavery, a leading labor activist, a proto-suffragette, and the founder of a utopian commune. Rather than resurrect her forgotten life in a biography, Edmund White has chosen a more playful route—a radiant historical novel presented under the guise of an unfinished manuscript written by Wright’s erstwhile friend, Frances “Fanny” Trollope.

Trollope is best known—if at all—for her anti-U.S. screed, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and for being novelist Anthony Trollope’s mother. (She also wrote 35 minor novels of her own.) White fashions her as a supremely unreliable narrator. As she languidly declares on the first page, “I am too burdened with other literary projects to be able to track down the minutiae or verify even the main dates of her passage on earth.” Trollope’s account is curdled by her personal disappointment with Wright, which sometimes leads to hilarious cattiness (“she gave off, in truth, the smell of a wet collie when she was sweating”), but is usually softened by lingering affection and admiration.

By the time the two Fannys meet, Wright is already notorious, a young Scottish firebrand smitten with American democracy. In comparison, Trollope is a frump: mother of six, wife to a downwardly mobile waster and drug addict. Wright befriends her, regaling Trollope with wondrous tales of the American republic, even inviting her to travel there. Wright’s attentions electrify Trollope. “I understood that I’d allowed my life to be fettered to the ground by Lilliputian cares, that I’d forgotten that people could live for an ideal and not just against the tribulations threatening survival,” Trollope admits, though she’s equally excited by Wright herself: “her way of addressing such lofty ideas to me, as her hand held mine or as her fingers massaged away a pain in my shoulder . . . this physical attentiveness and extreme proximity somehow convinced me I was capable of understanding her, or at least worthy of her words.” This isn’t one of those revisionist books in which the historical heroines are outed as lesbian lovers (though White can’t resist a running joke about the sexuality of Trollope’s fey son, Henry)—more like a complicated and compulsively entertaining glimpse of a passive-aggressive friendship between two remarkable women.

Wright sometimes resembles a 19th-century Great Man groupie who uses men to further her causes. First there’s Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, whom Wright and Trollope accompany on his triumphal return to Washington. Wright quickly becomes disillusioned with this grotesque old ex-revolutionary, now feted like a king by an America obsessed with wealth, convention, and religion. She next sets her sight on Jefferson as the man to help her end slavery, but he’s evasive on the questions of abolition and miscegenation, even as he is helped upstairs by two mulatto men with distinctly Jeffersonian features. Eventually Wright sets off on her own to found the commune of Nashoba deep in Tennessee, where she plans to help slaves buy their freedom, and encourages free love, atheism, and equality between the sexes.

Sounds good, but as Trollope discovers on her arrival at Nashoba (with three of her children in tow), the place is a desolate, disease-ridden heap. Feeling betrayed, Trollope realizes that Wright sees her not as a friend but as “another warm body she had ‘recruited.’ ” And so the Trollopes flee Nashoba for their own American adventure, which Fanny documents in great jaundiced detail. The novel resounds with Trollope’s indignant observations of American manners (or lack thereof): “Every man in America spits, and when one visits the White House, for instance, one sees that the hems of the women’s gowns are all soaked in the brown expectorations as are the little Aubusson carpets.” Yet underneath Trollope’s snobbery lurks genuine curiosity. She absorbs the tales of “peasants” she meets, unlike Wright, who crusades on behalf of the people but rarely listens to them.

Fanny is a departure for White, best known for his elegant autobiographical novels—A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony—and for his Francophilic bent (biographies of Genet and Proust, and an extended essay, The Flaneur). White has always cast a watchful eye on mores and manners, whether of gay men, aristocrats, or expats. Only this time he assigns the observer role to Trollope, who lets rip with withering sketches of ordinary Americans as well as famous figures like Stendhal, James Fenimore Cooper, and Lafayette. White probably researched this novel as thoroughly as his proper biographies, but he doesn’t let that bog him down. As he explains, “My usual method has been to take an occasion only briefly presented by Mrs. Trollope and to reimagine it entirely.” His imagination only fails him on a few occasions, as in the episodes that have no basis in reality, like Trollope’s corny romantic interlude with a runaway slave, a contemporary fantasy projected onto the past.

Although she sets out to write a biography of Wright, Trollope ends up telling us most about herself. Where Wright is a humorless ideologue who neglects her personal life while nursing an as yet unfulfilled dream of America, Trollope just battles her way through the years with staggering chutzpah, snatching pleasure where she finds it. For all her pettiness, she’s an immensely likable narrator who observes society with an Austen-like acuity. And Fanny turns out to be an immensely likable novel about two women who briefly found—and then lost—their places in the annals of history.