My first experience of the 2011 London Film Festival was attending 360, the instantly derided new project from Fernando Meirelles and Peter Morgan, who were in attendance for the movie’s second screening following the opening night gala. Sadly the second experience of the festival was watching a fight almost break out between the guy sitting next to me and the couple sitting in front of us who conducted a phone conversation with an unseen third party through the first five minutes of the movie; a little gift to the audience that included some calisthenics from the guy who stood up, turned around, sat down, got back up, all while chattering away as if he was the only person in the room. I’ve whined about the unusually poor behaviour of festival attendees before, but this was on a whole new level. It didn’t bode well.
One miserable consequence of this was that I missed the opening of 360, in which Mirkha (Lucia Siposová), a young woman preparing to begin work as a high-end escort, is photographed by a sleazy pan-European pimp. As this happens we hear a voiceover which I suspect is from her sister, Anna (Gabriela Marcinkova) who, as far as I could see past Mr. Inconsiderate Twirling Guy, was talking about things coming full circle which, if you think about it, is super-apt considering the fact that the movie, named 360, is a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. Annoying that I couldn’t see the subtitles, but then I knew, just from the format of the movie, that I would get another chance to read them again at the end of the film, when it inevitably finished with the same speech. And what do you know, I was right. This is not a movie that contains a multitude of surprises, then.
Maybe it’s delayed fatigue brought on by exposure to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, which hopped around the globe from story to story, showing how connected we are, or maybe it’s my belief that this kind of linked anthology story has already been written definitively by David Mitchell (dedicated Cloud Atlas fan here), but 360 felt tired almost from the very first shot. Mirkha leaves the Grimy Room of Depravity™ to begin her escorting career by travelling across Europe to meet with Jude Law, a seemingly inept businessman hoping to have a sexual encounter while away from his wife. An unfortunate encounter with one of the pushy men he has travelled to see stymies his sexcapade, and from this moment on, a wave of accidental meetings, misunderstandings and revelations sweeps across the globe, changing the lives of a number of otherwise unconnected characters.
Meirelles’ critical stock appears to have fallen precipitously over the years, and for a while it felt like I was the only person still banging a drum for him. From critical adoration (City of God) to bemused grumbling (Blindness), his reputation has lost its lustre. Personally I liked Blindness, thought the performances were strong and the movie’s aesthetic appealing enough that I ignored the obviousness of the tale’s metaphorical conceit, but there’s hardly any way to defend 360. It’s a disappointingly ugly movie, rendered in washed-out tones, while the sludgy pace caused by its stop-start anthology structure means Meirelles struggles to generate any tension. The final scenes attempt to create some suspense but so little time has been spent with the characters the only way to make it work at all is to throw some pretty cheap melodramatics at the audience.
It’s possible that the version we saw was incomplete; it’s so flatly shot there’s a chance it hadn’t even been colour-coded, and the subtitles contained spelling and grammatical errors. And I’ll admit 360‘s plotting is mostly drum-tight, with only an occasional unrealistic fudge to help the narrative along. It’s also a surprisingly optimistic film, which gives it an edge over the modish, unconvincing dourness of Iñárritu’s work. In the Q&A following the movie Morgan happily admitted that he’s a jolly person at heart and didn’t feel it necessary to add any bleakness to the tale. It’s refreshing to see something so cheerful and life-affirming, especially considering the stream of huge downer movies I subjected myself to over the next two weeks.
Unfortunately it also means that 360 has little bite, except for a mid-movie sequence sullied with the most startling tonal inconsistency imaginable. Most of the movie’s indiscretions involve adultery, here seen as a chain of infidelity that spreads across Europe. Through a number of linked events we see heartbroken Laura (Maria Flor) leave London to head back to her native Brazil. On the plane she meets kindly Anthony Hopkins, a lonely bereaved father who helps her out, and during a layover in the States she encounters Tyler (Ben Foster), a sex offender struggling with an almost overwhelming urge to rape her and who may have been responsible for the death of Hopkins’ daughter and eh what hold on?
Foster (on admittedly fine form) is just dropped into the movie without any previous connection. A quick discordant scene establishes that he has been released to travel across the States to a halfway house thanks to the intervention of an apparently blind and delusional care worker. That’s very nice, but considering how jumpy he is, how easily tempted he is and how much he is still struggling to overcome his urges, it seems utterly inconceivable that he would be allowed to do this alone. Upon meeting this twitchy, unpleasant, antisocial mess of grunts, Laura is instantly, insanely smitten and drags him back to her room, thus brushing off Anthony Hopkins, who has agreed to meet her in the airport diner because he’s such a lovely and friendly old man but fuck that, eh? Who wants to hang around with someone like that when you can attempt to get over your heartbreak by trying ineptly to seduce a redneck whose body language screams “rapist/murderer” (or should I say “Actor who thinks rapist/murderers act like rapist/murderers”)?
The upshot of this is that we see a ridiculous split-screen suspense sequence seemingly directed by a mogodon-dosed De Palma in which a number of bureaucrats and jobsworths slowly realise that maybe letting someone as transparently dangerous as Tyler out to roam the world might not have been a good idea after all. We also, in the middle of a movie that gaily skips between light drama and broad comedy, get to see Foster in a bathroom frenetically masturbating and miming violent abusive sex acts in an attempt to stop himself from accosting poor oblivious selfish Laura. It’s so bizarrely inappropriate, compared to the rest of the movie, that I felt like asking if the reels had been switched. The fact that this is the only sequence in the movie to generate any kind of frisson complicates matters further. It’s desperately manipulative, almost comically so, but I guess it worked. Insert sadface here.
This wasn’t my favourite sequence, however. I will not hide the fact that I’m a fan of every single one of Anthony Hopkins’ brilliant acting tics; the gabbled run-on sentences, the oddly creepy smile, the constant leaning, and that rich, commanding voice. In drunken moments I have attempted to imitate him, so dearly do I love him. This has been a great year for fans of the thespian colossus. He was brilliantly unhinged in the otherwise unwatchable exorcism movie The Rite, magnificent in Kenny Branagh’s vastly entertaining Thor, and endearingly dopey in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger where, sadly, he had to share a lot of screentime with Lucy Punch, hammily playing the worst chav caricature imaginable. Yes, worse than Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and Patricia Clarkson in Whatever Works. Nice work Woody, you massive fucking snob.
In 360, however, we get to see what happens when a writer and director completely indulge him. Morgan gives him a long speech about his dead daughter, delivered at an AA meeting, that goes on for what feels like about five minutes. I’m not sure what guidance Meirelles gave him, but the result is a long, unbroken slice of pure Hopkinia, and it took all of my power not to hoot with joy throughout. There is SO MUCH ACTING in this scene. The great man throws in every single tic and technique you can imagine, but goddamn it, the scene works like gangbusters, at least for me. Hell, I’d watch a whole movie of this. Someone get on that shit immediately.
It would certainly be more entertaining that this bitty hodge-podge of promising but underdeveloped short stories. For something that supposedly spans the globe and pays tribute to the hoary old idea that we’re all part of the same great human melange, 360 feels small and inconsequential. There’s no great truth here, and while it passes the time well enough, it’s disconcerting to see something so half-hearted come from Meirelles, who previously seemed to have a better grip of what it is to be alive in the modern age. This is a pick-and-mix bag compiled by someone who doesn’t understand you; there’s probably something in there you’ll like, but there’ll also be far too much licorice, and some of those unappetising-looking fried egg sweets with that nasty foamy texture.
I feel bad saying any of that because 360 is kinda sweet, and both Meirelles and Morgan were utterly charming in the post-movie Q&A. While looking for info about this movie online just now, I spotted here that Morgan’s inspiration for 360 includes the viral contagion that also, regrettably, connects us with each other. Jude Law also showed up in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which takes that idea and runs with it, and though Contagion wasn’t included on the London Film Festival roster, I saw it while the festival was happening and it struck me as such a perfect companion piece with 360 that I have to talk about it. Also, because I think Soderbergh’s movie has been given an unfairly rough ride by critics.
Contagion has been described in the same damning way as David Cronenberg’s superb A Dangerous Method; too clinical, too sterile, not fluffy and crazy and melodramatic enough. Just as I strongly believe that such criticism of A Dangerous Method is wide of the mark, and will eventually be consigned to a dustbin once people have seen it more times and have come to appreciate its subtlety, I think Contagion will be treated with greater respect over time (coincidentally, the critic who seemed to value Contagion most was Amy Taubin, whose incisive and similarly enthusiastic review of A Dangerous Method can be found here). Nevertheless, it irks me to hear this gripping, serious drama compared negatively to Wolfgang Peterson’s ridiculous — though admittedly entertaining — plague movie Outbreak.
Written by the brilliant Scott Z. Burns (who was responsible for the exquisitely scripted The Informant!), Contagion follows a number of people affected by a global outbreak of a deadly new virus, MEV-1. Burns and Soderbergh focus mainly on the scientists struggling to find a vaccine, but also show the effect of the pandemic via bereaved citizen Matt Damon and blogger Jude Law. There are multiple strands here, but unlike 360, which parcels its stories out in discrete lumps, Contagion‘s stories run parallel to each other as the virus flourishes, triggering vast societal changes as humanity struggles to cope with impending disaster.
And yes, it is clinical. Soderbergh avoids melodramatics — there are only a couple of histrionic flare-ups during the movie, mostly from poor, terrified Damon, struggling to protect his daughter from the fate that befell other members of the family. But this approach, eschewing easy drama, is entirely appropriate for a movie dedicated to celebrating the best of the human intellect. What might seem like an oddly subdued movie about apocalypse is teeming with suppressed emotion, most of which is tamped down in order to maintain scientific objectivity to prevent the death of almost 10% of humanity. This is a paean to the great minds toiling away to prevent global catastrophe, a testament to the unsung experts who try to save us from our hostile world.
Many years ago I was lucky enough to read Laurie Garrett‘s The Coming Plague, which triggered a fascination with epidemiology and virology. Contagion is the first movie to successfully channel these fascinating subjects in an a serious fashion, but then this is probably because Ms. Garrett was one of the consultants who helped Burns write his authoritative screenplay (Dr. Larry Brilliant and Dr. Ian Lipkin were also among the contributors). The movie screams authenticity; there’s no synthesis of barrels of vaccine in a couple of minutes, there’s no temporary stupidity gaps among the scientists in order to generate fake tension or emotion, there’s no plucky maverick saving the day, and no applause for anyone who isn’t a professional. This is a movie that loves the intelligent, objective elites that know their shit. For this novel approach alone Contagion should be heralded as a major success.
I may rail against Aaron Sorkin as often as I praise him, but his love of the smartest of the smart — most often expressed by giving his characters speeches where they reel off their CVs to a clearly stunned audience of drooling lesser-folk — is refreshing, when not distorted by his personal bias against anyone who dares to question his brilliance. Too often the template for movies is to provide a little man to cheer on as he does battle against the know-it-alls who dare to order the rest of us around. It’s this glorification of the plucky ignoramus that has led to the rise of ideologically motivated idiots like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, Jon Gaunt, Amanda Platell and the rest of their malevolent small-minded ilk. This is most definitely not a good thing.
Meanwhile the quiet brains that make the world better or safer are drowned out by this frothing torrent of anti-knowledge, best shown in Contagion via Jude Law’s financially-motivated blogger Alan Krumweide. There have been some grumblings that Contagion is tarring all bloggers with the same brush, but I don’t think Soderbergh and Burns mean to use the vile Krumweide as a critical tool against those of us who write online without the seal of honour provided by a paid job by the official media (see also: Sorkin and his mean-spirited complaints against amateur writers). There are a number of comments made by Krumweide that plainly show their satirical target is the kind of corrupt individual who seeks to alter public perception of scientific endeavours for financial gain.
Their target is almost certainly Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who campaigned against the MMR vaccine. There is dispute over whether his now-discredited claims about links between the vaccine and a rise in autism diagnoses have caused a surge in measles cases around the world, but nevertheless his motives for arguing against MMR closely align with the motives of Krumweide, who promotes the use of Forsythia as a cure for the MEV-1 virus in order to capitalise on the inevitable run on the false remedy. He is a pitiful, unpleasant character, but he is at least given a few moments of what seems to be doubt and pity. I usually react negatively to unrepentant villainy in movies, but my own sense of anger at such venal behaviour in the real world meant Krumweide seemed almost insufficiently evil.
Contagion doesn’t deny that there is a political element to public health provisions, governmental disaster response, or the financial, social and religious reactions to outbreaks, but it strenuously lobbies for a cessation of needless complicating actions when faced with the death of millions. There is a sense of great anger against such behaviour in this movie, and the way in which attempts to capitalise on crisis inevitably obstruct the nobler work of scientists. This is a hero-worship movie, and how you respond to that will be linked to how much you think the CDC is trying to help humanity or exploit it. As someone who thinks these guys are to be trusted, Contagion is the movie I’ve been waiting for since discovering their humbling, courageous work.
And for those who feel Contagion is a heartless movie that denies any expression of emotion, I direct you to the final act of the movie, where we see the assorted characters get a moment to pause for breath. It is in these final scenes that we see them find time to react to the global — and personal — shift caused by the pandemic. There is humanity here in spades. It just had to be put on hold for a while. How rare it is to see something in popular culture praise reflection and professionalism, to take a break from severing Gordian knots with an slashing knife instead of taking the time to unravel it, before exhaling and embracing the horror that the characters have survived.
360 may have tried to tell a story about the wonder of humanity in the connected 21st Century but it rarely rises above the level of potboiler. Contagion is the movie that eulogises the best of our species, by showing how, even when the majority panic and try to make things worse, we were once at least smart and civilised enough to have prepared the safety net that will save us. There is fear here, and raging frustration, and Soderbergh and Burns dramatise both brilliantly, but they also offer a vision of hope. Their cleverest trick comes in the very last minute, in which we see just how fragile we are as a species, and how much we can jeopardise ourselves if we’re not careful. We can be almost entirely undone by the smallest fluke moment, but still we prevail. That last note is haunting, but even as it hangs in the air we can still hear the minimalist symphony of hope played just before. We will prevail, no matter what gets thrown at us. We’re going to be just fine.