Friday, March 27, 2020

“Outbreak”: Monkeying Around With a Pandemic

A pal who knows my movie-watching habit suggested I take a gander at Outbreak, on which her colleague had worked as a scientific advisor. Now that we’re all in a state of panic over COVID-19, this all-star 1995 thriller certainly seems timely. The question for me was this: would a movie about a raging viral epidemic freak me out?

Fortunately for the state of my nerves, Outbreak takes a very Hollywood approach to potential real-life disaster. Yes, it deals with a mysterious and terrible illness that begins overseas (in the jungles of Zaire) and then --through a series of mounting missteps -- begins spreading through the general population of a California town. The culprit is a particularly ugly, particularly nasty monkey who turns out to be the host of the mutating virus. It’s smuggled out of a science lab by a feckless employee (Patrick Dempsey) who tries to sell it to a pet shop. But then, of course, he ultimately Gets What He Deserves.

That’s Hollywood Rule #101: people get what they deserve. The Good Guys include a dedicated team of medical researchers, led by stalwart Dustin Hoffman (lightyears away from his iconic performances as underdogs Benjamin Braddock and Ratso Rizzo). He’s got an eager young sidekick, Cuba Gooding Jr., who freaks out at first but of course will eventually rise to the occasion. He’s got an acerbic scientist-buddy, played by a red-headed Kevin Spacey, who cracks jokes but is true-blue all the way. (I suspect this character is meant to be gay, which helps explain why he’s the one Good Guy who succumbs to the disease’s ravages, while everyone else mourns his loss.) Hoffman also has an estranged wife, Rene Russo, who is a fellow scientist. At the start of the film, their marriage is ending, strained beyond endurance by their competing careers, but you just know they still love one another.

In the Bad Guy camp, there’s creepy Donald Sutherland, a Major General who has his own nefarious uses for the deadly virus. Hollywood knows full well that a force of nature doesn’t make a good on-screen villain: you also need a human bad-guy on whom to fix all blame. And Sutherland, with his white mane of hair and his icy blue eyes, fills the bill perfectly. So fixated is he on keeping to his scheme that he’s ready to bomb the citizens of Cedar Creek back to the Stone Age. Lower down on the chain of command is a Brigadier General played by Morgan Freeman, who has a warm though feisty relationship with Hoffman’s Colonel Sam Daniels. When Hoffman pushes for a strong medical response to the budding crisis, Freeman stonewalls him.  It’s not that he’s a genuine Bad Guy, but he’s under orders from Sutherland to keep the evil secrets under wraps. Still, he IS Morgan Freeman, so you know that at a critical moment he’ll Do the Right Thing.

And how, we wonder, does the epidemic end? Well, fortunately, it’s just a matter of tracking down that one host monkey and using its antibodies in a serum that instantly solves everyone’s problems (too late for poor Kevin Spacey, alas). Meanwhile, Major General Donald Sutherland is still out there with his bombs. And so a movie that purports to be about a medical crisis ends up with a big action sequence involving a whole lot of helicopters. That, of course, is Hollywood Rule #102: when in doubt, end with a chase scene

So this movie has it all: blood, guts, romance, diversity, helicopters.  Spoiler alert: they all live happily ever after.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Life as We DON’T Know It: “The Great British Baking Show”

I have been known to sit down with family members to play the board game rather modestly called The Game of LIFE. This particular amusement has been around for decades: the copyright on my version is 1985. Even ‘way back then, I knew that the game had little to do with life as I knew it. If you recall, you start out making the choice of attending college or going into business. If you go the college route, you are assigned a profession (law, medicine, journalism) and thereafter can count on a regular salary every time you pass Pay Day (It’s not a lot of money, but still!)

I should mention that your individual game piece is a small plastic car. You travel alone until, inevitably, you get married (which generates monetary gifts from the other players) and then add children, represented by small plastic pegs that are either pink or blue. Naturally you and your growing family face a few ups and downs, like business reversals and relatives moving in when least expected. But I certainly don’t recall anything drastic, like (let us say) war, tornado, earthquake, or global pandemic.

How do you win at LIFE? I just went back to the game to check. I had thought that all those tiny cars, with their teeny plastic passengers, might be heading toward something like Happy Acres (a rest home, or – shall we say? – final resting place). I looked hard, but couldn’t find this End of the Road destination on the gameboard. Instead, the rules on the box told me the following: “If there is no TYCOON, the game ends when the last player reaches BANKRUPT or MILLIONAIRE.” I should have known: in a game that sanctifies a capitalist outlook, the goal is to wipe out everyone else economically and stand alone, secure in your millions.

Particularly these days, that’s a message that has little appeal for me. Which is a long way of getting around to my favorite TV program to binge-watch. While sheltering in place, no longer allowed to drive my little car through the highways and byways of LIFE, I find myself really keen on seeing who can turn out a perfect kouign amann (for those not in the know, that’s a sweet and buttery Breton pastry) in three hours flat.

The Great British Baking Show serves a slice of life that is warm and comforting, if perhaps a trifle sugary. The contestants (carefully chosen to represent a wide swath of ages, races, and geographies) are given baking tasks that are increasingly challenging. As the clock ticks down, they follow cryptic recipes, make up their own inventive blends of flavors, and try to outdo one another with razzle-dazzle presentations. One thing that’s lovable is the show’s setting: the kitchens are set up in a big white tent, nestled on the verdant lawn of an English country manor. But it’s also heartening to see the genuine affection between the various contestants. The judges, the warm-hearted Mary Berry and the impishly acerbic Paul Hollywood (where do they get those names?) may be strict in their kitchen standards, but you sense that they’re fully on the side of these talented amateurs.

I’m not a baker: my  biggest baking successes involve a boxed cake mix with a few added ingredients. So I’m not about to be inspired to try baklava with homemade filo dough, or that German cake made up of twenty thin layers, each grilled to the perfect shade of brown. But it’s refreshing at this troubled time to lose myself in uplift of the delicious kind. 
This post is dedicated to Hilary Bienstock Grayver, whose sourdough loaves are to die(t) for.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thoughts on a Closed City

So have you watched Contagion yet? At this time of social panic, there’s much to be said for seeking out feel-good movies, in which we’re reassured that it’s a small (and healthy) world after all. But there’s another instinct at work, one that encourages us to locate the grim flicks that mirror our own current mood. Which means that films like Blade Runner, in which the social fabric has been rent asunder, seem all too appropriate.

European and Asian filmmakers have long been deft at showcasing a society gone mad. After reading about the horrors afoot in today’s Italy, my mind flashed back to a classic of Italian cinema, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City. This neo-realist masterwork, released in 1945, deals vividly with the life-and-death clash of Nazis and members of the Resistance on the streets of  Occupied Rome. Today, however, Rome (like all Italian cities) is hardly open. Because of fears of COVID-19, total social isolation is now the law. Any film set in today’s Italy would be better titled Closed City.

As we Americans are increasingly living in Closed Cities of our own, I’m reminded of foreign-language films that run parallel to our current situation. These dark (though sometimes darkly comic) movies capture the paranoia that goes with our current need to shelter in place, sometimes alone, sometimes with others whose fear and anxiety can easily trigger our own. Days and weeks (and months?) cooped up with a spouse or partner can certainly help us identify with Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous stage play, No Exit (first produced in France in 1944 and filmed several times since). Its most celebrated line, “Hell is other people,” certainly sums up what we might begin to feel after a few weeks of conjugal isolation.

The motif of claustrophobia –a sense of the walls closing in--surely asserts itself in many art-house films. I can argue that it’s an element in Bertolucci’s notorious Last Tango in Paris. And it’s certainly present in a Japanese film from 1964, Teshigahara’s eerie, powerful Woman in the Dunes (based on Kobo Abe’s great novel), in which a man is trapped in a sand pit from which he can never escape. After a few weeks of what seems like house arrest, I suspect we’ll all start to know exactly how he feels.

Then there are the films that trade on our fears of the unknown, on a sense of lurking danger that’s coming to get us at any moment. There’s more than one paranoia classic I could cite, but a prime example is Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. This surrealistic 1962 Spanish-language opus posits a group of well-heeled guests who find themselves terrified to leave the mansion in which they’ve all just dined. I understand their panic: I feel something of the same when I go out to move my garbage cans.

Perhaps the film that best addresses the current moment dates all the way back to 1957. I’m thinking of Ingmar Bergman’s Black Plague drama, The Seventh Seal, starring the late Max von Sydow as the medieval knight who plays a chess game to save his soul. I doubt that anyone is entirely clear on what Bergman was after, but his Dance of Death finale is hard to forget. It certainly wasn’t forgotten by my former boss, Roger Corman, who borrowed from Bergman’s visual imagery in adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). The Poe tale of a castle full of masked revelers who think that in their sanctum they have outwitted the plague seems all too relevant now. And, alas, all too plausible. 

The Dance of Death from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"