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Agents of Destruction | The Nation

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Agents of Destruction

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Call it an immunization. Before Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion could hit the theaters, audiences had already been desensitized to epidemiological drama through exposure to the summer’s nimblest and cleverest crowd-pleaser, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That film, too, had its viral infection—not to mention characters (I include the humans) more nuanced and engaging than any in Contagion and at least half a dozen more feats of cinematographic brio. Not to overdo the comparison, let’s just say that the Apes virus, under Rupert Wyatt’s direction, progressed with the propulsive globalism that sometimes marks Soderbergh’s filmmaking, and almost outperformed him at it.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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But then, to Wyatt, unstoppable disease was a sardonic punch line to his movie, not the main event. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns have assigned themselves a tougher job in Contagion: not merely to chortle at biomedical disaster but to turn it this way and that, examining its many dimensions. They mean to show disaster suffered almost uncomprehendingly, for months, by lonely citizens; studied and worried over and never quite managed by networks of professionals; manipulated, sometimes with dazzling conviction, by self-promoters; amplified, on an urban scale, by mobs who no longer feel they have anything to lose, decency included.

And the filmmakers want to have fun, too—which leads to the contradiction in Contagion between purpose and style. Cautionary in tone, largely tech-procedural in plot and virtually metaphor-free in subject matter (its likening of epidemic disease to viral social media being too blatant to require explication), Contagion seems less a contemporary Panic in the Streets than an extended, high-gloss CSI: Everywhere. It skims back and forth across Hong Kong, Guangdong, Geneva, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis to give a panoptical view of the catastrophe as seen by ordinary people—or, rather, people who are frequent guests at the Oscars.

Here’s Gwyneth Paltrow, having the top of her head sawed off so her famously pretty face can be peeled away. (I spoil nothing by revealing that she’s autopsy bait; she’s already coughing on the soundtrack before the first image appears.) Here’s Laurence Fishburne, relying on his take-charge Nemo manner to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Kate Winslet, tamping down her fires to portray a CDC field agent exerting perfect self-control; and Marion Cotillard, smart as always in her tailored suit, dressing up beyond need the role of a World Health Organization functionary (or rather function of plot exposition). And here’s Jude Law. His dental work and wardrobe both distressed for the part of a vociferous blogger, he runs away with the movie as quickly as his fast-twitch actor’s reflexes will carry him.

One of the morals Contagion imparts is that an energy level as high as Law’s (or the movie’s) can be attractive in itself to a wide public, even without substance; whereas the patient, responsible goodness of Minnesota householder Matt Damon (here presented in his chubby, unshaven mode) may possibly abide but is surely destined to be neglected. It’s a hard lesson to absorb—especially for an entertainment whose principal moral is that our planet’s web of interdependence is drawing tighter all the time. Contagion valorizes the human concern of medical workers who understand they’re only a couple of handshakes away from multitudes on the other side of the globe; it mocks and demonizes the multitudes who think of themselves singly, as if their interests were separable from those of their fellow creatures (including nonhumans). Side with the heroes—those solemn stiffs—Contagion keeps telling us; but tacitly, the movie keeps allying itself with the fleeting, the carefree, the viral, made manifest in the brilliant rush of images that Soderbergh has shot in a perpetual motion of glowing colors and ominous points of contact.

Among the reasons Soderbergh is one of the most vital moviemakers of his generation is that he’s so quick to work in different situations, from the quasi-guerrilla Full Frontal to the strictly commercial Oceans series to the big-budget but agenda-driven Contagion. (Participant Media, the film’s socially aware co-presenter, clearly helped define his theme.) To him, it seems, all filmmaking is experimental. I respect this latest test; in large part, I enjoyed it. But I also feel he’s worked at cross-purposes here. In Contagion, you pay to see the known world wiped away, as surely as it will be in Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and against the script, you mentally unite with the agents of destruction.

* * *

To understand why we need The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, the compilation documentary by Swedish director Göran Hugo Olsson, it might be useful to watch a contrasting, studio-made fantasy about the American racial struggle at a slightly earlier moment. Give in, if you haven’t already done so, and see The Help, the most adorable drama ever made about the civil rights movement, and also the most cloacal.

By now, you will know that this highly popular film version of Kathryn Stockett’s novel is a just-so story, relating how the black domestic workers of Jackson, Mississippi, gained their voices in 1963 through the intervention of a young white college graduate so spunky that she had to be played by Emma Stone. Freckles, flyaway hair, a tomboyish carriage and the androgynous nickname Skeeter all single out Stone’s character as being frankly and endearingly juvenile amid her more petulantly childish peers. The only fully adult women in sight are the housemaids—principally the grave and deeply centered Viola Davis, and broad, blustery, centripetal Octavia Spencer—whose labors allow white society to remain forever infantile, and whose confessions, volunteered for a book, enable Skeeter to grow up.

It’s a familiar scheme for a social-problem movie—sturdy, reassuring and sentimental—providing ample potential for comic relief and in the present instance no surprises at all, except for how well The Help plays and how deeply it’s concerned with pee and poop. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to complain, as some have done, that The Help uses a white point-of-view character to shove aside the black women who are ostensibly the film’s subject; the voiceover narration belongs to Davis, and the climactic scene is hers alone. The more problematic aspect of The Help, I think, is the strange turn it takes in expressing the perennial fascination of white people (such as Stockett and writer-director Tate Taylor) with black people’s bodily functions. It is not enough for The Help to take the integration of toilet facilities as its exemplary cause, showing how black women bridled at being denied the simple use of a water closet. The Help also brings you into the closet’s overheated confines, and dwell on what emerges there from the black women, and spin an entire plot out of the career of this dark material. A chocolate smear, shall we say, is the telltale trace of The Help’s white origins. You might, in a bad mood, think of it as evidence of patronization; but excrement is also the redeeming mess in this movie, whose scenes could otherwise have been captioned, one by one, with the points they were so neatly constructed to make.

And that’s why it’s good to have the jumble of The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975. Assembled from a trove of rediscovered field reports for Swedish television, the film disguises neither the disparate forms of its source materials nor the somewhat haphazard character of its subject matter (basically, whatever was happening in black America that caught the producers’ eye). Context is often lacking, or is supplied by the strained editorializing of the period’s reporters. (Angela Davis “is more intelligent and knowledgeable than most people,” one of them gravely informs his listeners.) Random but not unilluminating detours abound.

But even though The Black Power Mixtape faithfully preserves the discontinuity of its materials, it is an exaggeration to claim, as Olsson does in an overly modest opening title, that the film merely represents the Black Power movement “as perceived by some Swedish filmmakers.” In fact, Olsson has aimed for something more generally retrospective by patching in new footage of key locations and (more important) soliciting voiceover responses to the archival footage from present-day commentators. We are dealing with a complex artifact; and anybody who does not have complex feelings about it is just not sentient.

My own feelings, listed in no particular order, include beguilement, admiration, empathy, horror, shock, gratitude, hunger and dismay.

Beguilement by the humor and charm of Stokely Carmichael in 1967, who seems at his best not when posturing before assemblies of foreigners but when visiting his mother’s home, where he borrows the microphone from the Swedish crew so he can interview her on the sofa.

Admiration for the rhetorical suppleness of Angela Davis (interviewed in prison in 1972), and instinctive empathy for her fervor when she speaks of the white brutality she has known all her life, as she declares herself incredulous at questions about black violence.

Horror at the sight of Black Panthers in 1969 teaching little kids to shout slogans in exchange for a pancake breakfast, and to sing a suicidal little ditty I had all but forgotten, “Pick Up the Gun.”

Shock at the delusions of Eldridge Cleaver, in exile in Algeria in 1970, as he spins out the fantasy of forming a provisional revolutionary government. (“A spring within him is a bit broken,” intones the Swedish reporter.)

Gratitude toward Robin D.G. Kelley for his reasoned historical commentary on the soundtrack, and a hunger to hear more of it.

Dismay at many of the other soundtrack remarks—blandly self-justifying in the case of the era’s political figures, or too often unreflectively celebratory in the case of the younger commentators, a bizarrely high percentage of whom are musical artists.

These are the responses of a white man, raised on the South Side of Chicago, who in 1970, to his shame, went about telling people that the Panthers were the vanguard of socialist revolution. I am uncomfortably aware of the cheaper side of the allure that the Black Power movement had for Swedish onlookers; aware as well of the movement’s blowhard tendencies, its willingness to mistake mass lip service for mass organization, its enthusiasm for painting a bull’s-eye on its own back in the name of self-defense, its manifest failures. This is what I know; and however my ideas may be qualified by race, age and experience, I will not pretend that truth is all a matter of viewpoint.

But neither will I ignore the differences in viewpoint that still make Americans mutually unintelligible in so many ways, inflaming our social relations and maddening our politics. The worst thing about The Help is the way it soothes; it’s a movie that almost everybody today can comfortably agree with. The best thing about The Black Power Mixtape is that it plays out our disagreements, then and now, and plays them loud. Listen.

* * *

Imagine that a semi-pagan society quietly survives in the heartland of Russia, amid the leftover Soviet-era factories, the old shops and stores strung along the roadsides, the new concrete towns with their shopping malls. Imagine that the people of this half-forgotten tribe have themselves all but forgotten their folkways, except for an uncommon love of the rivers running through broad, forested plains. Imagine a quizzical effort to recover some of the tribe’s words and beliefs; a fragmentary family memory; a funeral rite for someone deeply loved, who in life was deeply frustrated. Imagine a journey strung together from bridge to bridge to bridge.

This is Aleksei Fedorchenko’s whimsical, melancholy and utterly beautiful Silent Souls. Ostensibly a film version of the novel Ovsyanki (which seems not to exist) by the author Aist Sergeyev (who also has left no trace, although a character of that name is central to the movie), Silent Souls is like Fedorchenko’s previous work in being the droll invention of a lost world. (His First on the Moon claimed to document a Soviet moon landing of the 1930s.) But Silent Souls is more elemental than political, more sweetly brooding than satiric, and takes the road movie to places I never anticipated. It was one of my favorite selections in last year’s New York Film Festival. I’m thrilled that it is going into theatrical distribution—for real—at a few places along the American road.

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