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Cinema Junkie Podcast 190: Using ‘Contagion’ And Pop Culture As Teaching Tools

What can we learn from films and books about current coronavirus pandemic?

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Kate Winslet plays a scientist in the 2011 film "Contagion" that UC San Diego professor Joel Wertheim uses to teach a class every fall in epidemiology.

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UC San Diego professor Joel Wertheim uses the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film "Contagion" to teach a class every fall in epidemiology because it is so accurate in depicting a global pandemic. I talk to Wertheim about viruses and what we might be able learn from pop culture about dealing with the current coronavirus pandemic.

Aired: March 25, 2020 |

The film "Contagion" and the book "World War Z" are fictional accounts of global pandemics, but can they teach us something about the real coronavirus pandemic that we are currently facing?

The answer is yes if you ask Joel Wertheim, a UC San Diego assistant professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health in the Department of Medicine. He uses the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film "Contagion" to teach a class every fall in epidemiology.

I excerpted a part of my interview with Wertheim for Midday Edition on Monday, but here is my full interview where we talk in-depth about what we can learn from a film like "Contagion" and why fictional works warning about global pandemics didn't help us prepare better for our real, current one.

To start my discussion, I asked Wertheim to explain what exactly we are fighting when we face a virus.

"Viruses are just tiny packages of genetic material and maybe a little bit of protein that can get into your body, take over its machinery and replicate themselves so they can take over more cells and just keep replicating. And as they do this, that can cause harm to their hosts. They don't have plans. They don't have intentions. They just replicate because replicating helps them infect more people," Wertheim said.

That description made me think of John Carpenter's "The Thing." A virus, like the thing in Carpenter's film, is not anything you can reason with, it’s just looking for a host. It’s a parasite that needs a living host but unlike other parasites that have the ability to grow and live on their own, a virus can only survive by getting into a host cell. That’s horror.

"The Thing" is a work of science fiction, but "Contagion" plays out like a blueprint for what we are dealing with today with the coronavirus.

Here is the trailer for "Contagion." It is currently streaming on multiple services including Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and iTunes.

'Contagion' (2011) Trailer


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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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