It is with great anticipation that we go to see many films. We’ve seen the promotion, heard of the stellar cast, know we’re in the hands of an A-list director. We have an idea of the story and perhaps have read some reviews. It was with these high expectations that I went to see Steven Soderbergh’s CONTAGION the other night. So, what went wrong? Where did this high-tech, high-speed train go off track?
Ironically, CONTAGION is about an unknown, indefinable and almost unstoppable virus that can be transmitted just by human contact and will kill you within a couple of days. But on a deeper and more profound level this film exposes a much more dangerous virus. This virus in not spread by contact but rather by power, arrogance and the feeling of invulnerability that is fueled by success.
This is a virus that affects our best and our brightest. It will blind you, render you deaf, numb your taste buds and allow you to smell only the odor of profit. It will not kill you, but it might kill the best part of you. This is the virus that can destroy within any writer, actor, director or producer the urge to tell a compelling story, the commitment to credible and engaging characters, and the obligation to honor the audience with a meaningful exchange of ideas and insights.
It’s name? The Royal Virus.
How could the man who brought us ERIN BROCKOVICH make CONTAGION? If Mr.
Soderbergh had made CONTAGION first, then followed years later by ERIN BROCKOVICH then I would say “Bravo, a filmmaker who is developing and deepening his craft of storytelling”. But the opposite seems to be the case. And it can only be explained by the Royal Virus.
And what about Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the ever so talented Kate Winslet? I watched this film in wonder. I am wondering “what could they all have been thinking? What has compelled these enormously talented actors to agree to be in this film?” They are all bright. They’ve all read hundreds of scripts. And they have most likely turned down most of them because of the lack of compelling story or a lack of credible and engaging characters. So why did they all sign on for this ride that was so clearly pointless (the movie has no message or point-of-view whatsoever), lacking in story (there is not one character who has a meaningful arc) and was doomed for disaster from the beginning. (Note: We’ll talk later about Creative Success vs. Commercial Success. And the difference between Creative Disaster and Commercial Disaster.) The only credible reason that all of these enormously talented and successful artists allowed themselves to be involved in this project is – the Royal Virus.
So few of us know what it is like to live in the creative stratosphere of the A-list artists. So many of us dream of it, strive for it and some would sacrifice family and friends for it. Most of us will never even taste it. So who are we to judge or even conjecture about what it is like to live in that rarefied state?
I know what it is like to be treated like a celebrity, a rock star, a visiting Prince when I travel to some of the most remote regions of this earth spreading my experience and wisdom. I have had a taste, a whiff, even just for a few days, of what it must be like. But then I return to reality, I go home, back to the truth of who I really am. I know how seductive it can be in that atmosphere and I know how my reasoning gets warped, distorted and realigned. I know how I can lose sight of some of the most basic tenets I live by. Am I being touched by the Royal Virus? Is it possible that I, vulnerable for a moment, could become infected? Aren’t I, in these moments, a bit blinded? A bit deaf? Haven’t I possibly lost my ability to taste and touch and am only following the odor of success? Of course I am thinking none of this at the time. In fact I am thinking quite the opposite. I have arrived. I have been acknowledged, validated. And with this validation comes the responsibility to plow forward fearlessly with banners flowing, trumpets blaring and standards held high as my royal procession moves forward through the throngs. I am trusted, rarely questioned, often elevated or embraced without hesitation. So why should I question myself? Isn’t that what validation is all about? Haven’t I finally earned the right to do or say whatever I want simply because everything I have been doing up to this point, got me to where I am now. Validation. The Royal Virus.
When, as storytellers and filmmakers we base our success on the quantity of personal or financial return rather than the quality of our story, we are no longer storytellers of the highest order. We have dropped to the bottom of the barrel. We have hi-jacked an art form for profit and personal gain. The Royal Virus has won not because there’s no cure, but because we haven’t even looked for one. In fact we haven’t even acknowledged that we are ill.
My only advice to those suffering from the Royal Virus:
“Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t touch anyone.”