Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion: Bats and Pigs

A bulldozer takes down a group of fruit trees; the disruption causes a bat to fly out who takes the fruit; the bat flies to a pig pen and a pig eats the bat’s feces that drop into the pen. That pig is taken to a restaurant.
TRANSLATION: A corporate world has knocked out Christianity (group of trees represent the tree of life, the Cross [Psalm 92: "The just will flourish like the palm-tree and grow like a Lebanon cedar]) and the fruit of Christ’s victory, love. The bat represents Satan (please see For the Dead Travel Fast: Dracula) and the bat taking the fruit and defecating is the stealing of our birthright (the fruit of Christ’s victory) and us getting the “filth” of sin instead. The pigpen represents the lower passions and our appetites. What is most important about this scene, is that it’s the very last one in the film; the first scene is "Day 2" of the virus' incubation, and we don’t get back to "Day 1" until the end.
What was Day 1?
The Garden of Eden, the eating of the forbidden fruit and the committing of Original Sin, the "ground zero" of the virus' birth, as Contagion calls it.
The breakdown of society and the buildup of a virus.
The film itself invites us to this kind of analysis because the virus is “broken down” and analyzed, translated, graphed and discussed in hopes of a cure. This is why symbols are essential to art: symbols can say what society censors us from saying, what we don’t have the courage to say, and what we don’t have the desire to see and hear.
The film emphasizes this through the use of noise, silence, blurs and sharp focuses: director Steven Soderbergh artistically trains the camera to blur some images while sharply focusing on others; the background noise might be excessively loud while an important conversation is taking place and we don't hear a word of it. All this translates to, "We won't see what the film wants us to see (we see things only blurred instead of "in focus"), and we won't hear what the film is trying to tell us (because we are listening to pleasing noise instead of the urgent, important call being made to us)."  (Please refer to my post Gestures: the Significance of the Insignificant and the example of The Exorcist).
Next, the symptoms of the disease verify the symbolic translations: coughing, fever, head pounding, swelling of the throat. The “fever” represents “burning,” and I don’t want to say burning in hell, but burning with passion. Elizabeth’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) is obvious, she's having an affair on her husband Mitch (Matt Damon), but Dr. Mears' (Kate Winslet) "burning fever" is her passion for getting the epidemic under control and the film itself, through her boss Ellis (Laurence Fishburne) keeps reminding her of this (for the dangers of being a workaholic, please see my post Se7en and the Eighth Deadly Sin). The swelling of the throat symbolically represents the opening of the mouth to “take in” what our appetites crave and then our throats (symbolically) swell to not be able to take in anymore and choke us on the very appetite that infected us (rather like a drug addict who has to keep taking more drugs and then dies of an overdose because he can't take it anymore).
When the trash isn't taken out society breaks down.
The pounding head is a reference to the distinction made between faith and reason, and when one doesn't have faith, they lose reason as well. There is a rather graphic autopsy done on Elizabeth. I've never seen the top of the head shaved/skinned off a person in a film, and this "looking inside" her brain is important: the virus has eaten it away. When the film first opens, "Day 2" of the virus lifespan, there is darkness, coughing and background noise. When it fades in, Elizabeth already coughs and her phone rings; we find out that she has just been with a man named John Neil with whom she had an affair before her marriage to Mitch.
Mitch (Matt Damon) realizing that society has broken down when mobs start attacking government vehicles after they run out of food to distribute. Mitch is immune in more than one way: he doesn't give into the fear and panic (he gets upset, but that's human) but he remains civilized and that's what he's determined his daughter will do, too.
The darkness opening the film is quite literal: not only is the audience in the dark about what is going on, but Elizabeth, too, not just about the disease she has, but the darkness of sin, and in that context, her coughing takes on the "sickness unto death" which weaves its silent way throughout the entire film. Elizabeth is in a casino when she makes the call to John Neil with the proposal of renewing their affair: the environment of drinking, gambling, and who knows what else provides her with the proper incubation "temperature" to renounce faith and go with her appetites instead; what destroys the brain destroys the soul.
Faces of infection and disease.
Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) plays a blogger who may or may not be telling the truth. The film intentionally presents us with "unreliable narrators" and ambiguous information which makes it difficult to know what is true and what is not. Krumwiede claims to have had the disease and then been cured of it by a medicine called Forsythia the government is holding back; the government does tests on him and claims that he never had the illness but made millions by saying he had. There is a startling trait Krumwiede has, reminiscent of another Jude Law film, Sherlock Holmes, where villain Lord Blackwood has a crooked front tooth; the same physical deformity is given to Jude Law, suggesting that Krumwiede isn't "talking straight."
Jude Law as blogger Alan in Contagion.
The handshake becomes almost obsolete during this time and Ellis (for Ellis Island and the difference between freedom and licentiousness) points out that you offer your hand to show that you aren’t hiding a weapon and that you mean no harm. When Elizabeth “shakes hands” with the cook in the restaurant where the pig is being prepared, she does mean harm: she’s renewing an affair and hiding her sin is hiding a weapon. The trailer for Contagion makes it look like the virus is passed via birds, and there is serious suggestion that it is passed by "one touch transmission," which invokes the 1998 Denzel Washington film Fallen where a demon is passed person to person through touch.
Dr. Ellis Cheever.
What about the cure?
Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) provides it for us. She goes to the father, the divine physician, and reminds him that he had taken on the illness for us and suffered what we suffer so we might be cured... Okay, Soderbergh doesn't mention Jesus as the Divine Physician that directly, however, Ally realizes that one of the vaccines developed has saved one of the monkeys; to save time (on research and development) she gives herself an injection and goes to visit her father, a doctor, who himself became ill with the disease while tending the needs of his patients. Ally's vaccine--more symbolic than literal in the film--is what arrests the spread of death in the world.
So much breakdown that a call to 911 automatically goes to a recording.
The vaccine is inhaled through the nose, because we have “a nose for trouble,” and can “be led by the nose” to do what we shouldn’t do. Those who take the vaccine wear a blue wrist band, blue representing the “wisdom” not to commit the sins that led to the disease and the wrist band (which might be a traditional sign of "bondage" or a "shackle") here seems to represent the discipline not to commit the sins which will spread death, destruction and mayhem in our souls and throughout the world.
Jude Law as Alan Krumweide. His blog site is called "truth serum" and, for being the first to recognize that an epidemic was starting, his readers started calling him a "prophet." When, however, the government alleges he faked his illness to send the stock of the medicine up, the government reveals how he "profits" from his readers by giving them a serum with less than the truth in it. "A blog is graffiti with punctuation," and that is certainly the case...
Steven Soderbergh directed the hit film Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) when a man having an affair with his sister-in-law ends up losing everything, so him now lending his talent to a major film about a woman having an affair and getting a deadly disease isn't a big leap. Through artful use of noise and silence, focus and blurs, Soderbergh and cast create an important social document filled with traditional symbols employed as a warning about the contagious nature of sin and the death that our "private" sins spread throughout the world.