“Contagion”–Infects Us All

Contagion

With the tagline: “Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone”, this B-rated movie “Contagion” (2011), directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is eerily prescient nine years later.

A pandemic–“a novel virus”– is about to create havoc, beginning with the opening scene where Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the Hong Kong airport, waiting to catch a plane back to Chicago.  Her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) will soon discover that his wife is patient zero–the  original carrier of the deadly virus which begins to get out of control in a matter of days.  The CDC’s principal investigators,   Dr. Mears (Kate Winslet)  and Dr. Cheever   (Laurence Fishburne),  attempt to identify the virus and develop a vaccine while analyzing the exponential rate of growth.  Everyone worldwide is advised to stay calm, maintain social distancing (yes, they use that term) and wear masks to avoid touching their own faces.  It is unsettling to hear terms now commonplace such as fomites (the surfaces to which viruses cling) and R0 (“r-naught”)–the number of people a single carrier infects.   

Contagion movie

Several days pass before anyone realizes the extent or gravity of this new virus. In Contagion we see hospital workers with insufficient protective equipment,– some without N95 masks,– succumb as first responders. Do you hear the Twilight Zone theme song yet?  The Centers for Disease Control, led by Dr. Cheever’s investigative team, is villified and accused of conspiracies.  An unethical journalist profits from a homeopathic “cure” which creates mobs at local drugstores.  Looting and panic ensue.

As the contagion spreads to millions of people worldwide, societal order begins to break down as people panic in the uncertainty that a vaccine will be developed. 

The second time around, viewing Contagion is a chilling déjà vu. No longer a film of science fiction, depicting a dystopia in the distant future, Contagion is a cautionary tale right now… for all of us.

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!