Issue #13: We're A Bundle Of Nerves 🦋
Saving Face + Contagion
You know what they say: You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both and then you have some Emmy noms. That's right! No pandemic could stop TV from celebrating itself —at least, this year; who knows what next year's Emmy's will be like. It's such a weird time to have them be released, when the rest of us are so deeply uncertain about what the state of the world is/will be.
That's the subject we're talking about this week: How do anxieties of the time creep into our media? How do they reflect back our own mental states? To examine, Zosha looked at Saving Face, and Cate stomached Contagion — yes, that Contagion. Read on to help soothe your own apprehensions of the moment (if you dare...). Happy Friday!
Zosha on Saving Face
Written and Directed by: Alice Wu
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
I don’t really want to get in the business of comparing Alice Wu’s two films, but they sat very close in my mind as I watched Saving Face, her feature film directorial debut from 2004.
The movies occupy a strange—if not unheard of—gap in her career: After getting to make her first film, she was not allowed the opportunity to make a followup until 2020, with The Half of It. Her story is like so many other female directors, granted a chance only to somehow “fail” in ways that plenty of white male directors have before being granted big blockbusters. So with a 16-year gap between her works, you see some real growth told across decades—and, importantly, across institutions.
To compare the two films is to see the success of a movement across timelines. On paper they look similar: Both are coming out stories about young women who are first-generation Chinese American, struggling to make sense of their sexuality with their role in their family. Both movies encourage a fluidity of identity, ultimately bringing their leading ladies to a newfound acceptance of self. And both films take a little bit of an emotional shortcut to their final confrontations.
But Saving Face is deeply rooted in the Bush-era queer representation it was made in—coming out is a pained process, one in which you risk potentially everything with your family. This is still true for many LGBTQ folks around the world, no doubt. But with something like The Half of It, you see that logic shuffled around a bit; much of pop culture now has been laced with an implicit acceptance of queerness.
Saving Face situates so much of its gay anxiety in relation to those around them. Wil (Michelle Krusiec) and Vivian (Lynn Chen) both struggle with their family’s acceptance of their lesbianism and so their plot is all culture comedy about struggling to “live free” while also abiding by the traditions and norms of their culture.
But even the coming out stories these days tend to situate the anxiety closer to the person themselves, an internal dialogue that doesn’t rise and fall with your family’s understanding, but rather with your own acceptance of self. Something like The Half of It never really entertains that Ellie (Leah Lewis) might have a falling out with her dad over her queerness—it’s that she is stagnating in other ways.
This ultimately makes for a richer and more thoughtful story. Like Schitt’s Creek’s “Meet the Parents” (oh yeah, baby!), it’s not that there isn’t tension around Ellie’s gay feelings, it’s that she is learning to accept so many other parts of herself as she comes into her own. Queerness feels like just one part of an identity, and Ellie’s journey—devious as it may be, at times—can wind through so many emotions and scenarios and feel fresh.
By contrast, Saving Face feels rather mild. There’s a staccato rhythm to the film meant to reflect the sort of stilted communication between all the characters, but the movie only rarely manages to actually paint a picture of honest to god connection within that. Too often it relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks, and even the ending is built on an implied growth: Though we saw Wil come out and start to make a case for following your heart, her resolution with Vivian does nothing to really address the issues between them. It does a disservice to what is supposed to be the heart of the film. After all, if you want the movie to be about a simple love story, then that love story deserves to feel uncondensed compared to the rest of the film.
While The Half of It can almost be too leisurely in its efforts to build relationships, Saving Face moves fast, often leaving meat on the bone of a scene or a premise. There’s a case to be made for how everyone in this film is always talking but never really saying anything, but that doesn’t ultimately make for a satisfying watch when it feels like these relationships don’t add up to much. Especially when held up against The Half of It, which uses the silence of Ellie’s life to wax and wane as she allows herself to hope and grow.
To return to the era-politics of it all, where Saving Face wedges its non-traditional story within a classic, three-act, hetero rom-com structure, The Half of It queers the narrative, looking at the trappings of a rom-com as a bouncing off point. Sure, it makes it feel a little slammed at the end as it rushes to catch that ball it threw way in the air. But it bucks any easy mold in a way that feels aligned with a movement no longer trying to be “just like you!” in its appeal to straights.
This is the direction a career should hope to move, especially when it’s (forced to wait) 16 years between feature installments. Wu’s careful eye for framing, an unfussy but lived in—and love-worn—direction style serves her well in both films. That it feels just as at home in the bustling streets of New York as it does in the soft, mossy forests of the Pacific Northwest is absolutely lovely. Her constant edging towards tidiness seems softer now, and doesn’t do as much to dull the legitimately revolutionary focus of her work. In both movies she captures an ache, a longing to be a more complete version of yourself; it’s just that in the later on it feels a little more mature about the whole thing. She shouldn’t have to wait another 16 years to get her next film—god help me if she does. Hopefully what this false equivalency we’re forced to make between her works demonstrates is that she’s a keen mind with a contemplative heart and the spirit of a newcomer. If she’s this sharp now, imagine what the next offering will be like.
Cate on Contagion
Written by: Scott Z. Burns
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
It was probably not the smartest idea to finally rewatch Contagion on the same day that the USA hit a new record for new cases of the novel coronavirus and LA County recorded a new spike. But the film has been on the to-do list since the pandemic was announced, and it finally felt like the right time. The good news is that it was oddly calming to see the same issues play out on screen and have there be a relatively happy ending. The bad news is that in the film, a vaccine is found in 133 days. We’re well past that, and our administration does not appear to be in a position to come anywhere close to that success. Yikes.
Contagion is stacked to the rafters with recognizable faces. Any film that can kill off Gwyneth Paltrow inside 15 minutes is not particularly short on star power. But the most fascinating thing about the movie—now that I have personal experience to compare it to—is recognizing how entirely predictable human nature is.
In the movie, several small clusters of illness develop simultaneously in Hong Kong, Chicago and Minneapolis—places Paltrow’s character had visited on and after her trip. But almost immediately, conspiracy theories spring up (fueled by a seedy “blogger” played by Jude Law) that the was virus both a biological weapon in service of a terror attack and also an attempt by the CDC, WHO and the pharmaceutical companies to bilk the common man of their hard-earned money via vaccinations. Even now, it feels ridiculous to watch, despite seeing concrete proof that this is in fact how people would behave.
Steven Soderbergh, though, is a master at relaying the paranoia and fear that comes along with an event like this. A physical enemy can be fought, but illnesses can only be avoided, treated or, if you’re lucky, cured. Suddenly I was familiar with terms like “social distancing” and “community spread” and “contact tracing” and it did feel a little surreal. But it also felt reassuring that even the movies know that these are the measures that save lives. And their novel virus wasn’t even airborne!
Throughout the film there are several tight shots of touch—coffee cups, elevator buttons, glasses—it is unthinkable how much contact we come into with foreign surfaces in any given day. But watching these scenes on the other side of a pandemic made them doubly terrifying. The murky mood and tone of the film is effective all on its own—I remember being freaked out seeing the film back when it was first released—but it has new resonance now. I have been lucky enough that COVID-19 has been mostly an abstraction to me so far. I am both at increased risk and privileged enough to not be forced to venture out into the world. But rewatching Contagion made me realize that I have still been far too cavalier about taking precautions. This virus is not an abstraction.
The most notable performance is Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever. Tasked with managing the viral outbreak, he bends the rules and tells his fiancée early that Chicago will be going into lockdown to help stop the spread and that she should leave the city. She, in turn, tells a friend. It’s a decision that leads to an investigation of his conduct by the film’s end, but it’s such a natural impulse that it’s hard to find fault. As a janitor who overhears him says, “we all have people.” Tasked with information that might save those you love, wouldn’t you share it too?
There are so many narrative threads that make up this movie that it’s hard to cover them all, but the most interesting to me was the public response to the news of an unseen threat. Barring reports of over-shopping in the early days and the necessary protests against police violence, society has not crumbled the way the film predicted. To my knowledge, there is no garbage piled in the streets or homes being raided for food. There is altogether a far more apocalyptic tone than seems to exist for those of us not touched by the virus directly.
In the end, what struck me most about Contagion was my very impulse to watch it. When quarantines first began, the film shot up the digital charts as people grasped for anything that would help them make sense of this unprecedented moment. It signaled to me once again that media matters, and even in times of great public urgency, we turn to stories to guide us.
¡Viva la Revolución!
This week we're asking for assistance for the journalists in Portland. Many of them are freelance and don't have the institutional support to go up against the police. We also want to boost this fundraiser for a writer in Chicago looking to offset the medical bills for her family. Every little bit helps.
There's also been a lot of calls for support in Chicago, one of the other cities Trump has targeted with federal agents. Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brave Space Alliance, Assata's Daughters, and Chicago Freedom School are all good places to start.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: I have spent a lot of time wondering what we're going to do with only opaque tech companies to keep us warm, and this "Rise of the Netflix Hit" piece is — well, not a balm, but certainly informative in that respect. Also, and I cannot stress this enough: This pandemic is costing people money, and arts organizations are no exception. Found this piece about how the DHS was always destined to become a secret police service chilling and informative. I've also been taking deep comfort in reading about how my experiences of the pandemic are not alone; things like social awkwardness and confusion around cleanliness standards besiege us all!
Cate: This week has felt like a bit of an existential fever dream so my reading this week has reflected that. Here's an essay on Why Men Won't Apologize and another on the cultural issues that go unaddressed in Netflix's Indian Matchmaking. There's also this great piece from The Cut about a star at odds with her stans, this one about The End of Discourse™, and lastly, an examination of how consent functions in a time loop.
Next week, we're taking a mulligan. What turns up in your inbox will be a (hopefully delightful!) surprise. As usual, let us know how we've been doing, or just tell us what you thought about these movies! We hope you have a great weekend.
Deep breathing between yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3