'Contagion' Cinema in the Age of AIDS

Jude Law in
Jude Law in "Contagion," a Warner Bros. Pictures release

Epidemic illnesses play out quite differently in the movies than in real life: The stories move faster, easily identifiable heroes and villains emerge, and just enough people survive to ensure the continuation of the kind of scintillating culture that produces things like Facebook, expensive coffee drinks, and these very films. The upcoming release "Contagion" seems to be a movie Mad Lib of everything we've seen since Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain -- a team of scientific specialists racing to deflect a rapidly mutating, highly contagious virus that threatens human civilization (though they have thrown a curve-ball by killing off Gwyneth Paltrow in the trailer, leaving us to wonder whether a world without her GOOP newsletter is one in which it's even worth living).

These films are meant to tap directly into our fear of all the sexy new diseases that keep popping up in the news -- which is funny, because that attention is so fickle. We'll stop at nothing to protect ourselves from trendy illnesses such as Avian Flu, but we feel fairly comfortable ignoring a disease such as AIDS, which has killed more than thirty million people worldwide since the early '80s, and which in our lifetime will outpace the Black Plague as the history's worst recorded pandemic.

Part of the disconnect surely has to do with timing. In a scenario like "Contagion" or Stephen King's The Stand, death occurs quite rapidly. HIV, however, can have a relatively long period of latency after the initial infection (during which someone may potentially infect many others) and if properly diagnosed, patients may survive many years. The public simply can't maintain a sense of urgency for a disaster that transpires this slowly -- call it "disease hype-fatigue." That's even before you consider the groups who are at greatest risk: homosexuals, blacks, Latinos, sub-Saharan Africans, and drug users, i.e., people who fall somewhere just outside the mainstream. Most Americans just don't feel particularly at risk. Incidentally, this is why filmmakers deploy white suburban moms like Paltrow's character as evidence of their disease's devastating power: This one could happen to literally anybody, they're saying.

While we thrill to imaginary outbreaks, the real-life situation is worsening, and not just in Africa. This past year, one AIDS news resource described Washington, DC -- in which three percent of all adults are infected -- as “the strongest, most complete example of a domestic urban epidemic in the U.S." Author Jacob Levenson has pointed out that half the people in the United States who are diagnosed with HIV are African American. The extent to which this is underrepresented in film and literature is kind of staggering. One can't help wondering whether future generations will look back at us in incredulity -- where was the public outcry? Were Americans really so concerned about being turned into zombies or vampires instead? (Perhaps our descendants will appreciate the subtext in those supernatural examples, in which witnessing the dehumanizing effects of disease made us dread becoming actual monsters.)

You may recall  Poe's Masque of the Red Death (the actual story, not the Vincent Price film): A rich prince invites all his most splendid subjects into the castle and seals it off from the world, so they can amuse each other in safety as the plague rages outside. Anyone who thinks themselves to be above such concerns, Poe warns, has probably got another thing coming. In the thirty years since the first AIDS cases were discovered, we've allowed a curtain of silence to be drawn around areas of real concern, even within our own communities and entertainments. It's perfectly fine to go to the movies and get goosebumps imagining extreme scenarios, but let's also give a thought to what particular graveyard we're whistling past -- a truth which is stranger and slower (though no less extreme) than fiction.