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Contagion

by Jake Mynatt

When an invasive organism infiltrates a vulnerable system and there is little or no resistance, it spreads quickly. So it was a good thing that Gary had years of soul-corroding fights with Penelope under his belt before they decided to live together.

Gary had asked Penelope to move in with the best of intentions. During the brief span in which he believed she was pregnant following an impromptu drunken “lovemaking” session and her refusal to “you know… take care of it”, a whirlwind of emotions had swept through him. I must admit my admiration both for the skill she had demonstrated in engineering his request for her to cohabitate and the brazenness at which she informed him of the negative pregnancy prognosis immediately following his acceptance.

The first of their fights was over the location of Mr. Snugglepaws’ scratching post. Penelope wanted it near the TV. Gary was hesitant, as he feared the dozen or so other cats Penelope had brought to live with them might also be tempted to use it, causing a much larger distraction. A fear which I shared.

It was sometime between Penelope calling Gary a “mamma’s boy queer-mo” and Gary muttering something about a “shallow grave” under his breath that Penelope suggested they watch a movie to test out the new arrangement. Thanks to this unprecedented detour from the usual rapid-fire evisceration of each other’s self-esteem, I was finally able to see the Steven Soderbergh suspense thriller Contagion.

And so it begins: the coughing. The first symptoms of a disease that’s already in progress. Gwyneth Paltrow is at an airport, the sickness already presenting itself. From here, the film does a masterful job of introducing us to the simplicity of the spread of the infection. Soon, people on different continents are dropping dead and those who bear witness are merely the next victims. The paranoia of what is safe to touch or even which air we can breathe sets in and society begins to crack.

Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns weave many different storylines, from the grieving widower played by Matt Damon, immune to the disease while loved ones die around him, to the scientists across the globe fighting the virus itself as well as political pressures and mass hysteria. One of the stand-outs in the cast is Jude Law, playing one of the slimiest villains since Aaron Eckhart’s cold-blooded douchebag from In the Company of Men. His egomaniacal profiteer has one of the most fitting names ever: Alan Krumwiede.

Speaking of names, Penelope was especially enamored of the name “Cheever”, a CDC doctor played by Lawrence Fishburne. So much so that she vowed to name one of the kittens Rachel Meowdow would soon be giving birth to after him. Of course, this was the first Gary was hearing about the pending birth of their grand-kitties; he thought the cat was just fat.

As Gary fired up his laptop to look up how much a standard litter of cats would yield, the film continued to do an impressive job at providing the scientific information needed to understand the threat. To defeat the virus, you need to understand it. You need to be able to watch it thrive without it killing the host too soon. Set to this task is an enormous cadre of scientists, including Elliot Gould, Kate Winslet, and Demetri Martin, just to name a few. A lazier movie would have combined these characters for ease of narrative. Soderbergh manages the players nicely, and nobody ever feels lost in the shuffle.

The stakes of Contagion continued to ratchet higher and higher. The threat of imminent death by disease or falling victim to the desperation and panic of others hung heavy in the air, like the thickening stench of cat urine to which I was growing accustomed. It had me so tightly wrapped that I was doubly startled when Penelope pounded her fist on the coffee table after seeing Gary looking up “animal shelters” online.

Gary had been quite open with his dislike of the creatures, so the offensive he was mounting did not come as a complete surprise. On more than one occasion, he had “accidentally” left the front door wide open with bowls of food just outside, the result of which being the acquisition of three more neighborhood cats that were promptly adopted. The validity of Penelope’s grievances was slightly undercut by her refusal to ban the cats from their bedroom during their intimate moments. At first, the judging eyes of Mr. Bonkers and Miss Bigglesworth were a hindrance to Gary’s performance, but soon it seemed like he could not complete the carnal act without a symphony of meows cheering him on.

As the film’s scientists grew closer to a cure for the insidious sickness, Gary and Penelope’s argument took them to uncharted territories of personal assault. Each professed revulsion of the others grotesqueries of both physical appearance and personality. The thin crust of compromise which had briefly covered this pie of acrid contempt had been broken through and the horrors inside were spilling out in steaming hunks. Words were said, regrettable yet inevitable, that caused both of their jaws to drop in shocked wonder at the depths they had mutually plunged. And it is a testament to the film’s strength that I was drawn to its resolution even as Gary and Penelope’s relationship went nuclear.

Contagion is not a story of the heroics that prevented a catastrophe, but rather the human response once it has already occurred. Amidst the panic stricken and the opportunists, there is a self-sacrifice and a goodness at work. It strikes a perfect balance of the frustration and inspiration that comes from tragedy. Through the constant shuffle of cat tails passing back and forth across the screen and the watering of my cat-piss ammonia scorched eyes, I had seen one of the best movies of the year. Here was a story that managed to engage a worldwide cast facing a global threat while still remaining intimate.

Less intimate was the grudge-sex that spontaneously erupted on the couch. Something in the way she challenged his manhood and he questioned her sanity had turned this bout into foreplay. As Lady PawPaw and Raymond Purr watched the beastly act, it occurred to me that as much as Penelope filled a void in her life with these cats, Gary had filled his own void with her.

I would never be so cruel as to deny a man relief from his suffering. But with Lord Scruffington and Purrt Reynolds going tag-team on Claw-dia Schiffer, another fresh batch of kittens is inevitable. Something needs to be done, but it would have to wait. In the fevered throes of a sickness, sometimes the only thing that matters is living to fight another day.

Jake Mynatt is a writer as Charles Manson is a singer/songwriter. By trade, he's a computer guy. He's married, and loving it so much he hopes to start dozens of secret families all over the country. That's just a joke, unless you're interested. Send headshots and a signed pre-nup to