Sunday miscellany: Spinoza, website ads, and a viral outbreak

A possible goal: non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere (not to laugh, to cry, or to condemn, but to understand). From Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

From something that happened earlier today: It’s funny but kind of stupid when a timed pop-up ad gets in the way of a timed display ad on a web page. If I were one of those clever smarty-pants web writers who’s always talking about things that happen on the web, I might try to work up an essay about this. I’d say how I think it’s sort of impolite to click the pop-up ad out of the way immediately, because the site might lose money that way, and also I don’t want the advertiser to think that their ad is boring or anything, because that could be rude, so I sit and watch it even though it is pretty boring. When the cursed thing finally goes away, I catch the end of the timed display ad, and sometimes I think it looks pretty interesting, like the one I just saw, which had Domhnall Gleeson and Sienna Miller and was kind of glamorous, and I think maybe I should replay it, so the advertiser knows I’m not just watching out of politeness but really liked it, or thought I might like it if I saw it all the way through, but surprise, it’s one of those things that reduces itself to a mere banner, a magic shrinking ad, and there’s no replay button, so I don’t know what to do, and by now I’ve forgotten why I came to this page to begin with, so I just close the tab.

What happens when a person who’s been infected with a virulent new virus gets on an intercontinental airplane flight? We know one answer, thanks to the 2011 film Contagion: a slew of interconnected events involving scientists, journalists, members of the government and military, international health organizations, and ordinary people. Contagion is uninvolving for some viewers, including a friend who’s a film writer, because it spreads its attention around—it doesn’t allow us to see any single character as central. That’s one of its virtues for me—its complexity has real-world resonance. It’s a type of film that a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay described this way:

Network films like Syriana that present multiple singular plots which gradually build atop each other to create a much larger interwoven one are particularly apt for thinking about emergence: how far-flung structures of connection only become visible when perspectives are made to expand. Syriana separately follows an energy analyst, a CIA operative, a Saudi prince and would-be reformer, a corporate attorney, and a Pakistani migrant worker, each of whom seem to operate in separate realms, but come into unforeseen direct or indirect contact with each other. The simultaneous development of transnational capitalism and terrorist network may to some, at first glance, seem coincidental, but the film’s networked narrative, made possible by its quick cuts between apparently unrelated plots, draws out the connectedness of these two features of the 21st century to show that they are impossibly intertwined.

Now, what happens when a single person in the middle of a big city gets infected with a never-before-seen superbug, one that appears to be fatal to absolutely everyone who catches it? That question is answered by a limited series called Containment, which ran on the CW channel earlier this year, and which I stumbled across a few days ago. (It’s available for streaming from Netflix.) Initially, the hospital where its first victim dies is locked down, but it emerges that others had come into contact with him, and soon—as the title suggests—an entire section of Atlanta surrounding the hospital is subjected to a cordon sanitaire in the hope of containing the outbreak. No one goes in, no one comes out, to quote a mantra that’s often repeated; food supplies have to be lifted over the top of the barrier by crane, more people die each day, and the few policemen and hospital workers who happen to be inside must make do.

Though the group of characters is geographically limited compared to Syriana and Contagion, this too is to some degree a network drama, eventually tying together a schoolteacher, a handful of policemen inside and outside the containment area, a doctor, a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend, a data-retrieval specialist, a muckraking journalist, a federal official, and a number of others. If the show finds little to surprise us in the connections among these characters, that may be only because we already know—but usually ignore—how intertwined the lives of city dwellers are. And if it relies pretty heavily on love affairs young and old (the lovers range from 18 to seniors), that may be only what you’d expect from the CW, and alongside those it presents a variety of work relationships.

Containment broadly resembles Contagion, but this series was in fact modeled on a Belgian TV show called Cordon, and the overall situation diverges from Contagion when it’s discovered that the virus didn’t emerge from nature but was created—somebody made it, thus giving the show an enemy, beyond the virus itself, to be identified and defeated. There’s more than one reason why someone might deliberately devise a superbug, and yet, in the show, this and a few other things strike me as a little less than fully plausible. Nonetheless, Containment got under my skin. The more I saw of it, the more I expected to see, every time I left the house, people wearing surgical masks and gloves, litter in the streets, scavengers, and a few armed gang members capitalizing on the lack of police presence.

It doesn’t hurt at all that Containment includes in its cast an actor who possesses much of the quiet firmness and moral authority of Denzel Washington. His name is David Gyasi. I hope to see more of him.


2 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany: Spinoza, website ads, and a viral outbreak

  1. Good article, haven’t seen Containment but I did see Contagion, and Containment actually sounds more plausible, and possibly more gratifying. (I’ve got to say that the most gratifying moment of Contagion for me was the exclamation of disbelief uttered by the autopser of Gwyneth Paltrow’s brain.) A superbug devised by a villain sounds a whole lot more realistic than the rabies flu developing from a pig eating a banana dropped by a fruit bat. (What was a rabid fruit bat doing trying to eat a banana? For that matter what was a pig with swine flu doing trying to eat a banana?) Beyond that, I found Contagion’s various characters and their situations fairly Hollywood-obvious, though interestingly linked, as you say. Containment sounds more involving, and has clearly involved you. I just might check it out, thanks!


    • You’re right that a high point for many viewers of Contagion was the Gwyneth-Paltrow’s-brain moment. As for the animal behavior, well, we all know animals do the darnedest things, just like kids.

      I had the usual morning-after second thoughts about my description of Containment, but if it evoked anything for you at all, I’m glad. Thanks for the comments!


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