March 2020, Week 3


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 		 [The 1938 Oscar-winning “That Mothers Might Live,” about the
groundbreaking work a 19th century hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis,
explains how this man of science saved millions of lives, through the
simple suggestion: wash your hands!] [https://portside.org/] 




 Noel Murray 
 March 13, 2020
Los Angeles Times

	* [https://portside.org/node/22419/printable/print]

 _ The 1938 Oscar-winning “That Mothers Might Live,” about the
groundbreaking work a 19th century hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis,
explains how this man of science saved millions of lives, through the
simple suggestion: wash your hands! _ 

 1939 "Pacific Liner:” The film’s central conflict is between two
very different men: a doctor who wants to implement drastic
quarantining and sanitation measures as soon as the outbreak begins;
and a burly tough guy who refuses to believe in science., Turner
Classic Movies 


Back in 1939, RKO released the movie “Pacific Liner,” about the
chaos that ensues when a cholera-infected man stows away on a cruise
ship bound for San Francisco. As the disease spreads among the working
men in the boiler room, the paying passengers party on as usual on the
decks above, kept intentionally unaware of the bacterial time bomb
ticking down below.

Sound familiar?

In times like these — with the world reeling from the COVID-19
[https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-13/coronavirus-what-you-should-know-right-now-friday-afternoon-edition] —
we’ve all found ourselves flinching every time our phone buzzes or
our smart watch dings. Each news alert drags us deeper into the
unprecedented, be it the cancellation of major sporting events or the
dizzying drops in the stock market.

But as anyone who watches a lot of old movies can tell you, the
looming specter of a devastating plague isn’t as novel as some may
think. If anything, Hollywood has been preparing us for this moment
for over a century.

Again, just look at “Pacific Liner.” The film’s central conflict
is between two very different men: a doctor (Chester Morris), who
wants to implement drastic quarantining and sanitation measures as
soon as the outbreak begins; and a burly tough guy (Victor McLaglen),
who refuses to believe that anything he can’t see can hurt him. By
the time the doc is proved right, it’s almost too late.

Clearly, pandemics and their aftermath are subjects a lot of us are
interested in at the moment. Over the past month, the 2011
thriller “Contagion”
[https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-11/coronavirus-contagion-outbreak-accuracy-movie] has
been near the top of the digital streaming bestseller lists, ever
since news of the current novel coronavirus strain became impossible
for Americans to ignore.

Yet even during the best of times, we’ve had a fascination with
stories about the superbugs bent on depopulating our planet. In 1971,
audiences turned out for “The Andromeda Strain,” an adaptation of
Michael Crichton’s entertainingly wonky science-fiction novel, about
the efforts of some brilliant doctors to defend against a microscopic
threat from outer space. In 1995, “Outbreak”
[https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-03-10-ca-40909-story.html] became
a surprise smash with its heavily fictionalized take on the
Ebola-themed Richard Preston nonfiction bestseller “The Hot Zone.”
We’ve long been fascinated by the big-screen spectacle of sick
people spreading their infection.

Movies about pandemics tend to fall into three categories: the kind
that, like “Pacific Liner” and “Contagion,” deliver a
blow-by-blow description of how a real outbreak might spread; the kind
that are more fantastical, and use the spread of disease more as a
metaphor — think zombies and aliens; and, finally, the kind that
take place in the wake of the catastrophe, and suggest how we might
start over.

More than 60 years before “Contagion,” Elia Kazan directed an
early example of the first kind of epidemic movie, 1950’s chillingly
realistic “Panic in the Streets.” Richard Widmark stars as a New
Orleans-based public health official who’s trying to piece together
the identity and the history of a disease-ridden corpse. Before long,
he finds himself at odds with the gangsters who killed his John Doe.
He also riles up the press, the local government and several
working-class ethnic communities.

Kazan borrows stylistic elements from neorealism and film noir to put
viewers in Widmark’s shoes, letting us experience what it might be
like to be the voice of reason in a society that sees no upside to
confronting or even acknowledging the threat that could decimate it
— be it crime, poverty, political subversion or, yes, plague.

For an even more nightmarish version of this scenario, watch George
Romero’s 1973 horror film “The Crazies,” which imagines a
medical crisis devolving into a standoff between an irrationally
panicked citizenry and the armed government officials who stand ready
to use extreme measures to terminate an outbreak at its source. Romero
is best known for his zombie classics “Night of the Living Dead”
and “Dawn of the Dead” (which, in a way, are pandemic movies too).
“The Crazies,” though, may be his most primal howl of despair over
humanity’s tendency to self-destruct. It’s a dark but instructive
vision of how bad an epidemic can get.

If you prefer your microbial monsters to be more way-out and weird,
there are options aplenty beyond Romero’s fanatics and ghouls. For
example, American cinema has produced multiple adaptations of novelist
Jack Finney’s pulp classic “The Body Snatchers,” which considers
what might happen if the world were stealthily invaded by alien seed
pods that absorb human personae. It’s also been hard lately not to
think about John Carpenter’s 1982 version of “The Thing,” about
an extraterrestrial parasite that tricks humans into becoming a host,
and is thus all but unstoppable unless people go into complete
isolation — radical “social distancing,” as it were.

One of the most unusual of the science-fiction/horror plague stories
is 2008’s “Pontypool,” starring Stephen McHattie as an Ontario
talk radio host who can’t stop himself from stirring up trouble with
his words — even after he discovers that the people in his
quarantined small town are being driven mad by language itself. The
sickness spreads through conversation. How unsettling is that?

None of these films are about real-world concerns — at least not
overtly. They’re more about distrust and paranoia. They’re not
meant to show us the nuts and bolts of how we might behave during an
actual epidemic; they’re cautionary tales, warning us to be aware of
how our deeper flaws could make an awful situation worse.

And where does this all lead? For answers to that, turn to movies like
“28 Days Later” and “28 Weeks Later,” which show people racing
to reconstruct some kind of functioning society in the midst of a
viral contagion. Or watch “The Omega Man” (or any of the
other big-screen versions
[https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-dec-13-et-francis13-story.html] of
Richard Matheson’s novel “I Am Legend”), where one of the only
survivors of a pandemic struggles to keep himself entertained —
mostly by killing the mutated humanoids who’ve overrun the Earth.

Better yet, watch 2006’s “Children of Men,”
[https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2007-jan-07-ca-crust7-story.html] set
18 years after a plague of infertility reduces humankind to a
dwindling species, mired in despair and riven by economic disparity
due to a lack of human resources. The movie’s plot is about the
world’s frenzied and potentially dangerous reaction to the first new
pregnancy in nearly two decades. But what really lingers about
“Children of Men” — and “The Omega Man” and the “28
Days” movies as well — is the portrait of how we might spend our
days in the possible world to come. If we’re alive, we should do
something productive to occupy our time. But what?

The point is that the people who make motion pictures have been
thinking about the potential for some kind of global viral disaster
— be it natural or supernatural — for a long time. We have lots of
movies to consult about this subject, with lots of possibly helpful
dos and don’ts.

Not all of them end in a hopeless place, either. “Pacific Liner”
has a happy ending. So — in a way — does “Children of Men.”

Then there’s perhaps the cheeriest disease movie of them all: the
1938 Oscar-winning short “That Mothers Might Live,” about the
groundbreaking work of the 19th century doctor Ignaz Semmelweis. The
film explains how this Hungarian man of science saved countless
millions of lives, through the simple suggestion he shared with his
colleagues that anyone can follow.

He told people to wash their hands.

	* [https://portside.org/node/22419/printable/print]







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