Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bravo Mrs. Mubarak

I'll preface this by saying that under some situations, I'm no cultural relativist ....

Among many others who have campaigned for a ban on female genital mutilation, Mrs. Mubarak has taken a very couragous stand against the practice. Egyptian officials have now banned the procedure from taking place anywhere, leaving a loop-hole for certain, "exceptional" circumstances, although I can't imagine what kind of situation would require such a horrendous practice. Anyway, this is a HUGE step forward for the millions of future generations of Egyptian women who will no longer have to endure the atrocity committed against their mothers and grandmothers. According to recent statistics, approximately 90 percent of Egyptian women have been circumcized.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Spoken Exams?

Good idea or bad idea. Just a clip I found on youtube.

Outbreak Follow-up: Nature Revenge?

It's very likely that Outbreak was one of if not the first film to focus on an containing and dealing with an infectious disease on a global scale. A possible exception could be And the Band Played On (Roger Spottiswoode, 1993), a TV movie aired on HBO--based on Robert Shilts's book--about a group of doctors that identified the HIV virus.

Wolfgang Petersen is also responsible for helming films such as Das Boot (1981), The Neverending Story (1984), In the Line of Fire (1993), Air Force One (1997), The Perfect Storm (2000), Troy (2004) and Poseidon (2006). What do we have here? A WWII film about a German U-boat, a fantasy, a political thriller, an action-thriller involving a hijacked plane, an action film on the high seas based on a true story, an epic, and a remake of Ronald Neame's 1972 disaster film The Poseidon Adventure.

As David A. Cook explains in his book Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam 1970-1979, "the transformation of science fiction from B-genre into big-budget, special-effects laden spectacle was coincident with the rise of the disaster film, a closely related genre that originated in the 1970s and remains popular today. In disaster films, manmade systems failure or a force of nature, often monstrously perverted, threatens to destroy a group of characters brought together more or less by chance (as passengers on a jet or ocean liner, for example or vacationers at a resort), and while many of them die, a few prevail through their courge and resourcefulness" (251).

Outbreak possesses the same sense and scope of epic danger or peril as a disaster film, but can it be considered part of this genre under the guise of a nature-revenge disaster film? Think of all those films (of the 70s) where toxic waste has turned otherwise harmless fish, amphibians, and reptiles into swarms of killers.

If i were going to analyze Wolfgang Petersen's body of work in support of his being an auteur, I would probably try to make an argument that Outbreak does not lie outside the director's propensity for fear of impending doom that may or may not be inspired by real events. For instance, one could read Outbreak as a variation of the nature-revenge disaster film because it all "started" with a monkey that should never have been allowed to be illegally sold to a pet store in Califorina. Rather than the monkey ending up in a zoo and infecting other primates that then go on a killing rampage, the "revenge" is carried out through microscopic means from human to human (after the initial exposure from animal to human). Moral of the movie? None of this shipping cute animals from other countries to be pets in America. It's OK for zoos because they know how to take the proper precautions.

View the trailer of Outbreak:

A clip of And the Band Played On (I'm not sure if the Elton John song was in the original or not; I haven't found the trailer):

View image of Wolfgang Petersen:

View this post with all the pictures that were supposed to be included but couldn't be because I can't figure out how to make pictures appear where the cursor rests--here:


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Outbreak: Ethical Questions for the Next Great Plague

YiQi asked me to write something about Outbreak. You might have heard of it. The film takes place in Africa where a dreadful disease could be the next great plague of humankind. There are naughty little monkeys in it....and Dustin Hoffman. I haven't seen it in a while, but to be honest, movies like that always make me cringe beause 1) That kind of thing probably would never happen and dramatizations are always so sensationalistic, and 2) I'm terrified of the off-chance that it could.

The film, to my knowledge, was the first Hollywood attempt at discussing some tough issues related to national security and where the right for the healthy to survive supercedes that of the sick. Outbreak's timing was pretty important too... it came out about 6 years after the US had its own epidemic of Ebola, now known as Ebola Reston.

I was about 8 at the time, so I don't remember much about the mood of the nation or even how the media publicized the fact that the Ebola virus had been imported into the United States from the Phillipines via cynomolgus macaques and infected 12 people (thank you Tara's Ebola Site). The good news is that the version of Ebola the humans caught did not make them sick.

They say there are no atheists in fox holes and I tend to believe there are no atheist virologists. Say what you like, but the fact that the benign Ebola Reston and wicked Ebola Zaire are virtually indistinguishable under an electron microscope leads me to believe there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

But Ebola's, ahem, fatal flaw is that the virus is exceedingly good at what it does. Ebola replicates too quickly and kills too quickly to have any real staying power. So it comes out every once in a while, takes lives, and goes back into hiding. Even the unfortunate tourist to catch the disease on safari and bring it outside of its natural habitat to Europe or somewhere else in Africa, so far, have not assended to Patient Zero status. They are usually ushered into a cold hospital room, quarantined as much as possible, and most often die.

Let's not forget, while we're talking about this that there are real people faced with the resurgence of this dreadful disease every day. They have lost loved ones to one of the most horrible deaths I can imagine. It's easy to talk about things in such a detached way, living in an industrialized country, as I do, where a victim would have a chance in hell to survive given our excellent acute and infectious disease care.

But Outbreak, and many other films after it, have raised an uncomfortable question about how we, as Americans may be asked to deal with a dreadful plague that could happen at any moment. Now more than ever, as we share airplane rides with patients infected with XDR-TB, clean up cruise ships from norovirus, and pray our spinach is safe from cattle and pig waste, we are keenly aware we may one day need to decide what should be done if an epidemic is serious and pervasive enough to threaten our homeland security.

Most people, when faced with the terrifying threat of your entire body (cells, tissues, organs and all) hemorraghing in one final bloody death shudder--see Richard Preston's Hot Zone--would probably say "Lock them up, kill them! I don't care, just don't let them near me!!"

And if that person clutching at life is your neighbor, your best friend, or your spouse? What then?

Sadly, the United States learned an awful lesson about humanity with the 1918 flu epidemic. Partly becuase Americans had no information about the disease, thanks to gag orders on the press by President Wilson and partly because people were literally dropping dead in the street, many ill people died because their friends and family members literally abandoned them to dehydration and starvation among other things (Thank you John Barry).

Mary Mallon
, doomed forever to be known as "Typhoid Mary" never understood why she was forced to spend most of her life exiled to an island and publicly shamed for the deaths of her employers. Living in the late 19th and early 20th century, when even the greatest scientists had a limited understanding of typhoid, Mary couldn't comprehend how she could carry a disease that made people sick if she wasn't ill herself. Perhaps if her legacy has taught us anything, it's that the same moral obligations and concerns we have about genocide and slavery apply to how we treat victims of disease.

Is humankind really worth saving if we don't value human life? Is one life or a town of a hundred people worth potentially 10,000 of lives? Is the quick and painless death of an innocent at the hands of a well-meaning government, truly in the best interest of the people?

And if we are ever damned enough to one day look at spreading cases on a map and compare numbers with our vaccine or drug stockpile, we will have to ask ourselves the real questions--the ones where statistics and numbers are no longer a useful tool for calculation. Whose lives should we value? Should we save the weakest first, the children and the elderly? Or should we save the ones who know how to turn the lights back on and protect the public?