Sunday, September 11, 2011

Comfort Video: Epidemic-Style

Epidemic movies, how do I love thee? For some reason, when the going gets tough, I like to curl up with a disease movie—even a bad one—where some poor schlub brings a virus back from overseas. Before long, a lot of people are red-eyed and sweaty, and a character we care about dies in a plastic tent, and some clumsy pathologist infects himself by breaking a beaker or ripping a hole in his hazmat suit. Why, oh why, is this all so entertaining? I mean, if anything like that really happened to me, I’d hate it. The insurance paperwork alone would ruin my week.

Today I saw Contagion, the latest epidemic movie, and an all-star one to boot. I fully expected to love it—I mean, it’s got Steven Soderbergh with his signature glowy lighting, and Matt Damon in his everyman mode, and scary-smart Jennifer Ehle. But I can’t decide whether I love this movie or merely like it—because it’s too good. Specifically, it’s too real, and it lacks the all-important cheese factor: There’s no villain who gets fired by the indignant president; nobody has to rappel out of a helicopter onto a heaving cargo ship. No, this one unfolds slowly, letting us get attached to the characters and creeping us out with the garbage piling up in the streets and looters overrunning a small Minnesota town. And the mysterious virus doesn’t look like some preposterous bug we’ll never get, but in fact it looks a lot like the Spanish Flu (see below), which was very real, and very, very bad. Contagion hits too close to home, which, for me, takes all the zip out of a disaster movie. This could actually happen? Not fun at all!

Here, then, are some of my favorite fun disease movies—scary-fun in some cases, and campy-fun in others.

Outbreak (1995). No disease-movie list would be complete without this cheesefest starring Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr., both of whom chew the scenery like bulimics at a buffet. It’s got everything: an infected monkey roaming the countryside, a helicopter chase, a young and wry Kevin Spacey, and a nuclear detonation. And, as a big added bonus, it’s got my former 4-H friend from Westfield, Mass., Michelle Joyner*, playing a housewife who gets infected and is then hustled off to quarantine, which, in this movie, means certain death. And we get Hoffman and Gooding trading dialog that they seem to have made up during the walk over from the makeup trailer. Not that it matters.

Quiet Killer, a.k.a. Black Death (1992). Never heard of this one? You’re not alone—it was a TV movie starring Kate Jackson at her sensible best, and it disappeared so quickly and completely that you can’t even get it on Netflix. (A “collectible” copy lists on Amazon for almost $200.) It involves a young woman who comes back sick from a trip (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and infects most of New York City with pneumonic plague, a deadly sister disease of bubonic plague. The highlight, aside from the usual pleasures of people coughing up blood and packed like sardines into hospital hallways, is epidemiologist Jackson peering into the corners tenement buildings with a flashlight and declaring in her flat Alabama accent, “This is the same disease that infected half of Europe during the Middle Ages. Haaaff.”

Children of Men (2006). Sci-fi and a disease movie? Shoot me now, ’cause I’m in heaven already. But this is a disease movie of a different stripe, with the mysterious illness long past. The story is about the disease’s aftereffect: No one on Earth can conceive children anymore. That wonderfully simple premise drives this scary plot, and no one is more scared than our reluctant hero, Clive Owen, who gets dragged through terrorist bomb-blasts, riots, and anarchy that’s hammering away at the foundations of civilization, looking all the while like he just wants to go home. This movie is right up there with Minority Report and 12 Monkeys in its depiction of an unhinged, dystopian near-future.

American Experience: Influenza 1918 (2006). Okay, this one isn’t comforting at all. It’s a genuinely frightening documentary about one of history’s worst pandemics—one so recent that my late Aunt Helen remembered it. (She was fond of saying that she didn’t know if she lost her sense of smell during the Spanish flu pandemic, or when she poured a bottle of perfume up her nose.) This flu, of course, was the mother of them all, and the prototype for many a disease-disaster movie. This was the flu that infected a third of the world’s population, killed more than 50 million people, and caused such high fevers that it turned Katherine Anne Porter’s hair white for the rest of her life. Influenza 1918 scared the socks off me, mostly because of the punchline: No one ever figured out how to cure the Spanish Flu, and then it just went away. Meaning that it could just come back.

*Double bonus: Michelle Joyner was also in Cliffhanger, where she got killed off in the first reel. She’s a rock climber who gets stuck, and Sylvester Stallone tries to rescue her on some sort of improbable zip wire, and then he drops her. The accident then haunts him through the rest of the movie. (I think that’s “haunted” he’s playing; it’s hard to tell.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Poem: Boy with a Lost Shoe

for Mason

Already she mourns the summer,
the creek riding past, waving,
looking back over its shoulder,

her son with a tentative stick
in sand, uncertain of what to draw,
his pants a bunched elastic.

Already the swings have emptied
of the pushy girls. The dogs drag
their late-day leashes home.

She brought so few raisins,
impractical apples he dropped,
bothered by bees.

Madrones gripping their leaves,
the light on its August slant—
when did the trunks go red?—

and her son has lost a shoe
somewhere in the long afternoon
and he peers for it deep

in the cold-breath blackberries
lining the path he walks
so carefully, looking back
to see if she is watching.

Posted for OpenLinkNight #8, dVerse Poets Pub

(appeared in Alehouse)