Sunday, June 14, 2015


Western interest in Ebola has been eradicated;  the disease itself  has not:

The chances are there will be a new wave at some point, some months or years down the line;  by which time, the beast may have mutated.   And this, in ways that might make it more fearsome, or less.
For:  Ebola, like any pathogen, doesn’t really want to harm us:  we are, after all, their playground, their womb.  They’d like us to remain alive as long as possible, so that they can frolic in our rich system.  Their only purpose in what viruses call “life”, is to reproduce, and reproduce, and reproduce some more.  (Actually, they sound like teenagers;  although these only wish to practice the preliminaries of reproduction, and not actually change diapers.)   One way of expanding their reach is to invent new pathways of transmission (the dreaded “airborne” route);  but another is simply to learn to live with the host, which many many organisms have (over the eons) learned to do.

Who knows?  By the time that ebolavirus has settled into a merely commensal relation with ourselves, it might confer such advantages as immunity to the dreaded Stuxnet worm, which by then (having escaped the confines of the thumb-drives) will have evolved into epizoötic forms, and be decimating the planet.
So, while awaiting the release of “Ebola III”, here are some suggestions for summer viewing and reading.


As a rule, I avoid disaster flix;  and shun movies about diseases ‘like the plague’.  Thus, a fortiori, disease-disaster flix.

But out of interest in the psychological dimensions of global climate change, I did watch “Take Shelter” -- which, to my delighted surprise, turned out only to pretend to be a meteorological disaster flick, but in reality is a psychological thriller.  At least, that was my take on it, in an intricate essay here.

And now ebola, elbowing much else off the front page these days.

* “The Andromeda Strain”  (novel: 1969;  movie: 1971)

Michael Crichton’s novel is differently focussed from the works that follow, being about big science and extraterristrial organisms and spooky military stuff.   And it has no psychology whatsoever, just a workmanlike plot  laid out in a wooden style, interrupted from time to time by edifying mini-lectures in biology (Crichton began as a physician).

*  “The Cassandra Crossing”.()

The opening scene, in which terrorists insinuate themselves into the World Health Organization in Geneva (our own WDJ headquarters are just down the street, as it happens), and one of them gets infected in a secret lab, is a masterpiece of economy and timing.   The fact that the rest of it takes place on a train, is also to the good;  trains go with movies like peanut-butter with jelly.   And the collateral-damage/government-conspiracy plot towards the end, is even more plausible now than when the movie came out.
So, a fun watch;  but no real food for thought. 

 * “12 Monkeys”.

* “Contagion”  (2011)

This one I really looked forward to, since it comes highly praised by critics, and is from the director of the excellent “Traffic” (2000);   but it turns out to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen.   That being so, there’s no point in even listing its demerits.   Just skip it.

Leaving the best till last.

*  “Outbreak” (1995)

Early on, purportedly at Fort Detrick (a site not far from where some friends of mine live), there is a useful review of the different levels of bio-hazard.  
While still in the Level-3 room, she casually takes off her mask;  and walks out, leaving the door open behind her.
Now:  As a cinephile, you ask yourself:

(a) Is this meant to be a foretoken of some horrible events that follow from this negligence?
or is it
(b) just some stupid movie sloppiness that banks on the inattentiveness of viewers to overlook? (Hitchcock famously defended this latter view.)

Having seen the movie, I can report:  (b).

OK, so, the movie is sometimes cinematically sloppy, much as that researcher was sloppy.  But over all, it repays what you spent on the popcorn.

The film has extended sequences at what purports to be the CDC.  These days, that is roughly the equivalent, in terms of tense attention, as the CTC of “24”.

Dustin Hoffman is excellent in this, at least when not bogged down in an uninteresting human-interest subplot about an ex-wife and some freaking dogs.  (Whereas Matt Damon was wasted -- in both senses -- in the wretched “Contagion”).
Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman are suitably icy in chilly roles.  (Sutherland even manages to look like ice.)
The monkey is wonderful.  This must surely rank in cinematic history among the all-time greatest performances by a capuchin.

The movie then slides off into a whiz-bang finale, basically reprising Crichton’s plot-device of a secret government plan -- there called, aptly, “Cautery” -- to simply incinerate any area harboring the otherwise unstoppable infection.  In the novel, that eventuality is avoided by a ridiculous turn of events, whereby all the virions simultaneously, in the lab and outside of it, suddenly ‘evolve’ to a non-virulent form.  In “Outbreak”, some stab is made at verisimilitude, as the immune monkey’s blood provides material for a serum.  In practice, it would be quite some time before such a serum could be developed, tested, manufactured in quantity, and distributed: by that time, everyone you had seen on the screen would have died.  But whatever.

It goes back, arguably, to 1950’s “Panic in the Streets,” in which heroic doctor Richard Widmark saves New Orleans from an outbreak of pneumonic plague carried by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel.

No comments:

Post a Comment