From the Archives

From the Archives: Out of Sight

Editor’s Note:  As a way to respond and attempt to make sense of life in the coronavirus era, Film Quarterly is introducing “From the Archives,” a curated selection of FQ articles made newly relevant by the present moment.  In the Winter 2011 edition, FQ columnist Caetlin Benson-Allott explored the limits of visibility in Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film that begins with a wan-looking Gwyneth Paltrow coughing into her peanuts at an airport bar, unknowingly spreading a deadly disease–a horror image for our time. — Rebecca Prime

Caetlin Benson-Allott

From Film Quarterly, Winter 2011, Volume 65, Number 2

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Since Marey’s motion studies at the end of the nineteenth century, film has been a tool for providing visual evidence, a record of things seen.  The development of digital imaging technology over the last twenty years has transformed that original empirical function.  Advancements in CGI enable convincing depictions of things impossible to see in everyday life: dinosaurs, hobbits, viruses.  It has become necessary to speak of “hypervisibility” to describe the way movies can realistically render such previously hard-to-envision phenomena.  Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion tries to contest this prevailing logic by insisting on the limits of visibility.

Contagion begins with a black screen and a cough; someone somewhere is sick–and spreading it–but we cannot see who.  Characters spend much of the rest of the film staring into monitors, feverishly studying computer-generated models of the mysterious virus or digital video of its victims, but however hard they look, their screens reveal only biological explanations for the epidemic.  They inevitably exclude macroeconomic and social forces, which are even harder to picture than the microscopic disease but causally every bit as important.  To represent the limits of visual inquiry, Soderbergh’s movie keeps its computer-generated models on monitors and within frames.  By separating digital video aids from the rest of the characters’ environments, Contagion indicates that seeing the virus–or even the moment of its transmission–can never fully explain the catalysts behind the epidemic.  Digital models may help halt the spread of an outbreak, but they cannot convey why the virus entered the population.  Ironically, Soderbergh does try to show us the forces behind these images, but in doing so, he runs into the same explanatory limitations as his characters.


The article can be read in its entirety here.