I just got back from watching Contagion (there’s a dollar theater in Plano—I didn’t know those were still a thing): it’s been on my list of movies to watch since I heard about it, and I went tonight instead of waiting for the DVD release because I’m going to be teaching the film in the spring. A colleague and I are putting together a writing course on disasters, and Contagion is one of the texts.
One of the things that means is that there will be more posts about this movie, from a more critical/pedagogical perspective, as I actually teach it—and so for now, I’m just going to talk about how awesome it was. Also: there will be spoilers.
The film opens with Gwyneth Paltrow, coughing, and we know very quickly that she’s going to die (if, in fact, we didn’t know that going in). When she gets home to Minnesota from Hong Kong and hugs her son, who is about seven, we know he’s going to die, too—and we might expect her husband, Matt Damon, to die as well, but he doesn’t. There’s a fair amount going on during the opening minutes—we’re introduced to some other major characters, we see the early spread of the virus—but the mini-arc involving Beth (Paltrow), Mitch (Damon), and Clark (the kid) is one of the best parts of the film. Beth is sick, sure, but then she collapses at home, is rushed to the hospital, and dies—very quickly. Damon’s performance as he’s being told of his wife’s death is … well, excellent: it is not excessively (obviously) emotionally manipulative, and it gives a personal, individual weight of grief to the sufferings of countless millions that the film gives us. And when Clark dies while Mitch is at the hospital, well, you know that the film isn’t fucking around.
The cast was uniformly good. I was particularly impressed by Kate Winslet—which reminds me that I should watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind again soon—and by Jennifer Ehle (though I must say that Regency-era dress is more flattering than an orange biohazard suit). I am always impressed by Matt Damon.
Jude Law did well with a shitty character—my initial impression is that the blogger he plays is an antagonistically-written caricature, but I may change my mind. The character is used to make some interesting and salient points about the way misinformation spreads virally (get it?), but he also feels one-dimensional in a way that even more minor characters don’t. That’s one of the film’s strengths: despite the large cast of characters, and the ensemble cast, everyone feels like a real person—except Law’s Alan Krumwiede, despite his admirable efforts. I mean, what the hell kind of name is Krumwiede? The next stupidest name in the film is “Cheever,” and that’s not stupid at all.
I’ll end by saying that this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen—even though it ends better than one might expect—and now I feel compelled to stockpile canned goods and bottled water and vegetable seeds and ammunition and batteries, and et cetera, so that I can quarantine myself and my family when this shit actually happens, because we’re overdue for an epidemic.
Also: apparently chefs in Asian casinos don’t wash their hands after handling raw pork. So, watch out for that.
Imagine yourself in early 18th century London. You’re a domestic servant in some inn or other, and one of your duties is emptying the chamberpots. Where are you going to empty them? Into the streets, down the centers of which ran open gutters.
In 1710, Jonathan Swift published a poem — titled “A Description of a City Shower” — which describes the “Filth of all Hues and Odours” that rainwater running down a gutter carries with it: “Dung, Guts, and Blood, / Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, / Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.”
As filthy as all this is — and it’s definitely filthy, and a paradise for infectious diseases of all sorts — it’s preferable to littering.
Shit, piss, vomit, blood, guts, kitchen scraps, dead animals: all of this is organic, part of the enormous and perpetual process of decay and growth that we call life. Shit in the open sewer is going to be eaten by whatever it is that eats shit, and eventually that shit is going to end up in some sort of plant, which will be eaten by some sort of animal, and at least some of it will — after a long and transformative journey — end up eaten by a human being.
(As an aside: anytime you smile while eating, you have a shit-eating grin on your face.)
Think about the litter you’ve seen recently: what was it? Piles of excrement, dead animals, discarded entrails? Probably not. Rather: beer cans, glass bottles, wrappers of various food-shaped substances, styrofoam, cigarette butts. Diapers. Pieces of tire on the highway. Plastic. Rusted metal. Things that aren’t food for anything.
The fact that we throw away so much that isn’t edible — so much that, being inedible, just accumulates — is only part of the problem with littering. I’m not sure I can go in to the rest of the problem, though, because — at least as I look at it — littering is a synecdoche for everything (or most things, anyway) that are wrong with this country.
Laziness. Apathy. Disrespect. Self-centeredness. Vapidity. Stupidity. Cupidity. A total lack of concern for one’s fellow humans, and — worse — a complete and fundamental failure to realize that there are things on this planet other than human beings that have as much right to live and thrive as we do. People who litter are the same people that kick puppies. People who litter urinate on babies. People who litter are like Stalin or Pol Pot, except worse. People who litter should be forced to eat the shit they throw on the ground, and then they should be forced to eat actual shit.
In all seriousness: I don’t like people who litter. I especially don’t like people who litter deliberately. They are bad people.
And, for the record, I did actually pick up some litter today, in addition to writing this tirade.
I have nothing to say to you.
You’re all either living in thatch-roofed huts and scraping by on squirrel and wild apples, because society collapsed under its own weight between us and you, or you’re all cybernetic super-people with no senses of humor, and you won’t get any of my jokes, which are both numerous and quite funny.
If you’ve all been swept up by the Singularity and turned into prosthetic-enhanced Nietzschean super-people, good for you, I guess. It doesn’t sound all that awesome to me, but I’m a Luddite and I don’t like things that are fun or exciting, either.
My guess, though, is that you’re all living in huts, because western civilization is probably going to crumble any day now. Too many people, too much stuff, not enough vegetables, bad television, ugly shoes, poorly-designed cities, and not enough beer. It’s like someone built a model of the Empire State building out of dominos, and then put it on top of a slightly-rotten orange: it doesn’t make sense in the first place, and it’s a pretty bad idea on top of that, and there’s no way it’s going to work. So in light of your post-disaster existences, I have some advice for you:
- Build your hut near running water.
- Don’t shit upstream.
- Skin the squirrels before you cook them.
- If you don’t have a gun with which to defend yourself — and you’ll want one, because you’re living in a Hobbesian state of nature, and everyone is trying to kill everyone else — I say, if you haven’t got a gun, kill someone who does and take theirs.
- You should have stockpiled seeds and gardening tools.
- Enjoy yourself while you can, because you’re probably going to die in your early thirties (if you make it that far) from a minor infection that is totally treatable now, but not in the future — your now — because there are no antibiotics.
- Nobody likes you.
Alright, that last bit isn’t really advice, in the traditional sense, but it’s still a good thing for you to keep in mind.
I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to stop the collapse while there was still time — but honestly, there’s not really anything I could have done, and I had better things to do, anyway, like drink beer and watch bad television and look at pictures of cats on the internet.
Those cat pictures aren’t going to look at themselves. Speaking of which, I’ve wasted as much of my time on you as I’m going to, future people, and now I’m moving on to something more important: sitting at the airport, staring into space, thinking about how awesome and meaningful my life is.
Some dude from the past.
I will note, however, that regular bowel movements, at 8 points, are worth almost as much as being alive, which is a mere 10 points – and those two things alone put one nearly halfway to 40 points, at which point one is “luckier that 90% of the human race.”
It’s that “luckier than 90% of the human race bit” that makes the checklist pointless: I already know that I’m ridiculously lucky. I’m happy. I have a good life: a wonderful, beautiful wife; children who only drive me to drink some of the time; good friends; cars that run; more than one bicycle; an adequate amount of books; &c, &c.
I have some problems, sure, but all of my problems are #firstworldproblems.
All of your problems are first-world problems, too. Do you have indoor plumbing? Yes. Do you have to shit in a hole in the ground outside? No. Could you shit in a hole in the ground outside if you wanted to? Yes, and that’s the fucking definition of luxury, right there.
Do you have access to clean water? Yes. Do you have to worry about dying from a treatable, preventable disease? No, not unless you do something stupid. Do you have to worry that the café where you have your morning coffee is going to blow up, with you inside? No. Do you have to worry about rotting in prison for no good reason? Only if you get caught with weed.
Do you have to worry about finding an endless, impossible, constantly-changing, minotaur-concealing room in your house? No, because nobody has to worry about that. Do you have to worry about dying in a zombie apocalypse? You would, if one was ever going to happen, especially if you live in an urban area.
Your life is pretty great, so quit your bitching. Get yourself a beer – or a glass of wine, or a scotch, or whatever – flop down on your couch, put your feet up, watch some TV, and pretend that there aren’t people out there suffering and dying right this very minute. It’s your duty as an American.
Of course, this is partly because there are things which other people eat that I don’t classify as food, like balut and stinkheads. And brains. And pig feet. Octopus. Cheez-whiz. Hot dogs. These things don’t scare me, they disgust me. Maybe I’m sophisting my way out of something, but I don’t think so. Or care.
I will admit that I find baby corns uncanny – in the Freudian sense – for reasons I can’t explain. I eat them, on occasion, usually when my dad puts them in stew, but it always feels a bit odd, like the baby corn might attack me.
You know what scares me? Raw ground beef. Undercooked pork. Raw fish from the local fishin’ hole. Leftover pizza that’s been on the counter for a few weeks.
In short: food that will fucking kill me, or at least give me a nasty parasite. And you know what? I’m not eating anything like that. Sorry, dear Book. I like my guts the way they are. I’m not introducing any foreign flora, not for you, not for anyone. Not if my life depended on it.
I did eat a turkey sandwich for lunch today. That was pretty scary.