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The Virtue of Ambitious Failure…

When I was compiling my “top twelve” list for 2011, there were a lot of films contending for a place on that list. I felt bad about having to leave off stuff like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Preludio and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. However, I didn’t find myself trying to justify the inclusion of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, despite the fact that I found the film completely and utterly compelling. I’ll be the first to concede that Soderbergh’s disease epic had some fairly considerable flaws, too many for me to legitimately rank it “one of the best of the year”, and yet I think it’s one of those movies I couldn’t stop thinking about. What it is it about an ambitious failure that makes it so much more fascinating than a modest success?

Figuring out the formula...

I think there were a lot of films in the past year that probably worked more consistently than Soderbergh’s societal horror film, and offered a more satisfying overall experience. These films weren’t necessarily exceptional, but they avoided any major pratfalls, making for a more even movie-going experience. Contagion, on the other hand, tended to fluctuate between the two extremes – when it was working, it was really working; when it wasn’t working, it was falling apart. I think that almost makes the movie a less satisfying film than one that manages to be fine the whole way through, if only because it spares the audience the frustration of knowing it might have been great. And yet, I still think of Contagion a lot more than I think of many of the other films of the year.

I note that, when I tend to write about film, I typically have more to write about a bad film than a good one, so perhaps it’s the same force at play here. Perhaps in finding a film that isn’t really great, but has moments of greatness, it makes for a more fascinating study of the finished project. I’ve always subscribed to the somewhat romantic ideal that watching a movie should be akin to a magic show – if it’s really good, it leaves you wondering howit did that. You can typically spot a great movie because it manages to trick you into avoiding the mechanics of the film – it engrosses and engages you so much that you don’t spot the obvious audience manipulation at play, the narrative tricks, or the director’s slight-of-hand. All you’re left with is a wonderful experience that requires conscious effort to break down.

Fish(burn)ing for answers...

In contrast, it’s easier to explore the mechanics and techniques when the film doesn’t work. A great film has all its ingredients firing on all cylinders – it’s hard to isolate any individual instrument in the orchestra because they all blend so perfectly. When it comes to a weaker film, the flaws are more obvious – we can immediately zone in on the one musician who is playing ever-so-slightly off-key. It’s easier then to discuss that musician and compare and contrast with the rest of the group, making for a more satisfying experience thinking about or dissecting the film.

However, I think there’s something more than that. While “bad” films are a lot easier to criticise, and a lot easier to break apart in an effort to examine their constituent elements, I wouldn’t describe a film like Contagion as “bad.”I would certainly recommend it as well worth a look, with a caveat or several. I will buy it, and I pride myself on owning very few truly terrible films. (Or, at least, films I consider to be truly terrible.) I think it was a good film with flaws, or a great film with very serious flaws – flaws that perhaps cancel out some of the stronger elements of the film when weighing it up, but still can’t quite invalidate them.

Too many moving parts...

I’ll forget a bad film, even after writing a lengthy essay listing the attributes I didn’t like, and conceding one or two that I did. All I can remember of Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that it featured Optimus Prime committing war crimes against weakened and retreating enemies. All I remember thinking of Green Lantern is that Peter Saarsgard and Mark Strong deserved to feature in a better film. I could making passing reference to them in a conversation, but I feel no real hunger to revisit or discuss them. They are two of the very few major releases that haven’t been considered for family viewing.

Contagion, and films like it, are very different animals. It isn’t just that I think about them more than bad films, it’s that I think about them more than I think about so good films. Ironic that films falling just short of greatness should be more interesting because of it. It isn’t the fact that their shortcomings render them more fascinating of themselves. I think it’s the nature of the failures in question that makes them seem much more deserving than the typical failures we see in other less satisfying films.

Paltrow concerns...

The weaknesses in Soderbergh’s Contagion don’t arise from blindly following a formula. They don’t come from a failure to understand basic storytelling techniques, or an inability to coherently edit together a motion picture. They are mistakes very much unique to this particular film, and mistakes that I might not see replicated for years. Contagion is an ambitious project, and I think that most of the film’s failures stem from that ambition. If I had to put a name to the fact that makes failures like that so much more interesting, perhaps “ambition” is as good a word as any.

Perhaps that sense of ambition, and a willingness to attempt something new, somehow mitigate the fact that Soderbergh didn’t always accomplish what he set out to. I find it harder to fault a film for trying something new than I do to get excited about a movie meandering through a tried-and-tested formula. Of course, it’s possible for a great movie to follow a rigid formula and structure and technique, but usually the execution must be exceptional to make the finished product truly stand out. On the other hand, it takes a certain courage to try to do something new, and it’s a lot easier to misjudge when you’re not rigorously conforming to an already-established blueprint.

The film has its Damons...

Contagion isn’t truly like anything I’ve seen. Soderbergh’s film has an epic scope and an incredible ambition. He essentially pitches the first society-wide horror film, one providing a cross-section of a globalised response to a globalised crisis. More than that, though, his film isn’t afraid to be clinical in its approach to characters and situations – treating individuals as cogs in some invisible machine, rather than designing them to conform to stereotypes or cutouts. I think I admired the boldness of that approach, and I think that the brave approach to the material immediately makes me more forgiving of the fact the film occasionally stumbles.

I’ve always found that ambition is a vice that deserves to be encouraged, and I think I’ve always admired an ambitious failure over a cautious success.

8 Responses

  1. “Ambitious failure” is what I’d use to describe “The Tree of Life.” Does the C+ it got from me mean that it’s on par with “Captain America” or “Pirates 4.” Absolutely not. But I judge them respective to their relative ambition and success.

    • Yep, that’s it perfectly. Tree of Life was another film I was thinking of, though I think Malick succeeded more with it than Soderbergh did with Contagion. For me, it’s like that really dreaded word, “Interesting.” Whenever people ask for an opinion, their faces always drop when I offer an “interesting” instead of a “good” or “bad.”

  2. This article would have been much more interesting and informative if the author had pointed out the flaws he was talking about. I could care less for a critic’s internal thoughts and feelings.

    • Thanks Jeffrey. That is why I included a link to the review in question, where I elaborate on the flaws in the film in question. This is more about the general feeling rather than the specific example. Talking to people, it’s a common enough feeling, and I wanted to talk about that, rather than getting tied to a single film, where not everybody will agree in that case.

      As for the fact you couldn’t care less, I’m disappointed, but you can’t please everyone. Still, the stuff you ask for is linked to in the first paragraph of the post.

  3. I know what you’re getting at. I’ve had several ‘almost’ masterpieces catch my attention over the years. One I always remembered was “The Fifth Element”. Certain-ahem-elements of the movie were so wonderfully achieved, followed by such abysmal clunkers. I’ve never quite loved it, but I adored the non-conventional risks that Luc Besson took. Like you, I’d rather see someone overreach and fail than hardly reach at all.

    • That’s it exactly, perfectly. The film, overall, is a mess, but there are moments that are almost pitch-perfect, and then moments where it all falls apart. Ambition is a vice that I find asy to forgive.

  4. Very interesting article. I suppose the points you mentioned delineates my understanding of films and my particular liking for Soderbergh and his work. Its a great feeling when you notice something different in the narrative of a film and walk out wishing damn if only he could have taken it a step further.

    • Thanks.

      That’s exactly it. It engages me and people I’ve talked to, turning the movie into a much more active and engaging experience. It’s as if the filmmaker grabs our attention by flouting the expectations and the comfortable formula. I didn’t think Contagion was a great film, but I appreciated it. And, truth be told, that appreciation means I’m more excited about returning to it when it’s out on DVD or blu ray over here.

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