I Can’t Stop Watching Contagion

One aspect that sets the (video) essay apart from other modes – such as the academic or journalistic ones – is the opportunity it provides for a more personal form of expression. This freedom however is too rarely used. Most video essayists choose to use a tone that is more akin to the objectivity of journalism or academia. Even video essay makers that dedicate their output to criticism or analysis often keep themselves out of the picture: they present their analyses as depersonalized facts or dress up their opinions as if they were the result of rational deduction. There’s nothing per se wrong with that, but a more openly personal approach can yield results that are difficult to attain in other ways.


This not-a-video-essay by Dan Olson of Folding Ideas is a great illustration of the power of the personal. Under quarantine due to COVID-19, Olson watched Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion on repeat. Not entirely by choice, it seems, but at least in part as a form of addiction. A useful addiction, because he describes these endless viewings as “emotional inoculation”.


Olson uses the movie and the thoughts and doubts, the fears and hopes it triggers in him as a jumping off point for a wider rumination on the coronavirus pandemic. He ties the film’s plot lines to the headlines of the news, he likens the movie characters’ actions to those of the real life actors in this health care emergency. The confessional nature of this video is striking and powerful, for it gives the viewer the space and confidence to respond in kind. It creates an emotional bonding around a shared viewing experience and a shared lived experience.


The peculiar form that Dan Olson chose for this video is remarkable as well. It is uncompromising and radical: for a quarter of an hour we are looking at Olson lying lethargically on his couch as images of the movie are projected on his body. It’s a literal visualization of the personalized nature of his viewing experience, of the way the film touched him. He is a man “marked by an image”, as Chris Marker would put it. (As a bonus, this inventive presentation also protects Olson from any copyright claims).