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Cinematic Prophylaxis: Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health

by Kirsten Ostherr
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2005
288 pp. illus. 98 b/w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3635-9; ISBN: 0-822-33648-0.

Reviewed by Martha Patricia Niño M.
Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
Facultad de Artes Visuales


Ostherr’s book deals with the multiple relations among cinema, hygiene, disease, moral infection, race, sexuality, globalization, and national consciousness. It chronologically analyses the discourse of world health in numerous movies including early productions such as The Science of life, co-produced by the Public Health Service, 1940s public health and post war films, 1950s alien invasion movies, and finally some blockbuster films of 1990s such as Outbreak. It also analyses in detail how ideas in the movies have a negative effect on their American public or even the whole American culture. In particular, when they define "foreignness" in which groups of different nationalities become merged under the figure of the alien that comes from exotic locations in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the far East. Interestingly, these particular exotic locations have an ill-defined geography, and this helps the commercialization of the movie in contrast to the stereotyping practice. The book also signals how the discourse of US public health becomes questionable when it is related with fears of global contagion as with the movie The Eternal Fight (1948) in which the problem of racial difference and international exchange is represented through medical checks being held at airports, one of the most vulnerable points of national and border penetration surrounded by en emphasis in information and communication technologies. The book also suggests some parallelisms not only between globalization and contagion but also as the figure of the immigrant and that of the malevolent virus always trying to penetrate a frontier at any cost.

Other anxieties regarding technophilia, homophobia, globalization, and the universal threat of infection are also discussed. The book also points to terrorism, the anthrax attacks and the search for Osama Bin Laden and how the anxiety of an invisible invader has been fostered half a century earlier in movies with several works, including The Day Earth Stood Still, The War of the worlds, Invaders from Mars, It came from Outer Space, Them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Conquered the World, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, and Invisible Invaders, among others. Inside the book you can also find interesting analysis of the relation of computer viruses and former American science fiction films in the 50s. The chapter entitled Indexical Digital: Representing Contagion in the Post-Photographic Era also points out to dystopic movies in which nuclear war is the only solution to global contagion such as the Andromeda Strain that discuss bio-war "solutions". The book highlights how both Cyberspace and contagion are very difficult to represent or track inside a body or a network not only because their "invisibility" but also because since they are objects that don’t exist anywhere but inside their own mental image.

Contagion and globalization are huge topics, so it is up to readers to make their own connections with another the contagion examples from outside the screen, such as modern super bugs at hospitals, mad cow diseases, and bio-war in Vietnam or current bio-war experiments. It might be interesting to compare the invisibility of contagion with computer transparency. Although the book is not highly political, it criticizes, as in chapter four about conspiracy and cartography, the moments in which educational films mix ideology and end up serving as propaganda. The essays do not mention Poltergeist film series and the representation of middle class suburban deep fears in American society an important topic for Douglas Kellner analysis on American suburban middle class society. It will be also interesting to relate the ideas on this book with alternative conceptual studies on viruses and contagion, such as memetics theory or other types of viral information processes. It will be interesting to find why the persons who enter illegally into USA believe truly in the American dream and few expect to be entering a modern way of enslavement with lower wages, uncertainty about medical condition, and fear of facing deportation.

Most of the text is comprised by an extensive and original research of the cinematic representations of contagion in both educational and commercial movies. This book is very relevant for artists, academics, or readers interested in cinema, contagion, history, race, sexuality, and globalization. Ostherr has been working with the topic for some years and is assistant professor of English at Rice University.




Updated 1st March 2007

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