“From the perspective of the virus, the human being is irrelevant” – ANTIVIRAL (Brandon Cronenberg, 2012)

I have in my (very odd) library a title called The In Vitro Meat Cookbook. It has a series of recipes, none of which you can cook, because they require as their main ingredient meat grown in the laboratory rather than cut from the quivering corpse of an animal who probably lived her whole life in horrendous conditions. When this lab meat becomes commercially available, it will doubtlessly be great news for the billions of animals who die in terror for our plates each year, but these recipes go beyond the meats you might see at a butcher shop to such suggested dishes as Dodo Nuggets and Dinosaur Leg and, yes, Celebrity Cubes:

“Forget autographs and posters. Prove that you’re the ultimate fan of a celebrity by eating him or her.”

Pop stars in whiskey glaze. If that isn’t intimate enough, how about “IN VITRO ME”? Yep, it’s grown from your own stem cells, and it’s “best shared with a lover as the ultimate expression of unity”.

I digress, but it is relevant to this week’s movie. Antiviral is a film even more relevant now than when it was released a decade ago. For a start, the daily news speaks of little else than viruses and antivirals, and when they do turn to other issues, these usually involve celebrities. This film covers both. It is set in an alternative present, where the obsession with celebrities has moved past adulation and stalking (and occasional cannibalism) to a lucrative business – selling their diseases. For a lot of money, you can suffer the same symptoms and weeping, bleeding pustules as your favourite star!

The movie is the first work by Brandon Cronenberg, the son of body-horror pioneer David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Dead Zone, A History of Violence, etc), sometimes known as “the King of Venereal Horror” or “the Baron of Blood”. Quite a legacy to live up to, but Brandon Cronenberg does it brilliantly in this work, which features cannibalism among its panoply of abjection. The imagery is stunning – bleak scenes in monochromes, then a flash of crimson – blood or lipstick. Needles sticking in arms and gums, lumps of meat grown from celebrities and sold to customers desperate for a touch and a taste of their favourite star.

The protagonist of the film is Syd (Caleb Landry Jones from Get Out, Nitram etc), an employee of the Lucas Clinic. Syd sells customers the dream of being close to their favourite celebrity. What does the avid fan do after already seeing all the movies, reading the magazines, collecting the images? In this world, they pay to get the same diseases as the celeb. Syd knows how to sell, he talks a fan into a dose of herpes simplex, collected by his employer from the superstar Hannah Geist, whom he describes as “more than human”. She had the pus-filled blisters on the right of her mouth, so you really want to be infected on the left, because

Syd is a trusted employee of Lucas (where the archivist is played by Lara Jean Chorostecki, who played Freddie Lounds in Hannibal!), but he is ambitious, hoping to sell the virus that is killing Hannah on the black market. He takes some of her blood (Lucas Clinic has exclusive rights to Hannah’s diseases) and infects himself, then waits, taking his temperature, doing things with cotton probes that we all now understand.

He is hoping to sell the new virus through the specialist butcher Arvid (Joe Pingue), whose business Astral Bodies does a thriving trade in celebrity cell steaks – edible flesh grown from the cells of celebrities.

Syd tells Arvid “I don’t understand how this is not considered cannibalism”. Arvid is more philosophical. What does it mean to be human, he asks – is the human “found in its materials” or is it something more religious, as the law currently tends to assume – a soul perhaps?

“But we’ll see what happens when we go from growing celebrity cell steaks to growing complete celebrity bodies.”

When Hannah’s death is announced, Syd’s diseased blood is suddenly in demand – those who have already eaten Hannah now want to either watch him die the way she did, or buy the virus and die along with her. Syd has to escape the virus coursing through his body, and the various business types who want it.

Anything related to a celeb is valuable. Lucas Clinic is even planning to sell ringworms from Hannah’s dog. Or if you don’t want a disease, you can get a skin graft from your favourite celebs, as Hannah’s doctor, Dr Abendroth (played by the magnificent Malcolm McDowell) shows Syd.

What does it mean to “go viral”? This humble blog has gone viral (a very mild, non-toxic one) in that it is viewed thousands of times a month, presumably because wonderful readers like you share it (please?) on social media, or perhaps (socially distanced) word of mouth. But a celebrity who goes viral has his or her impact measured not in the thousands of views but in the millions. Celebrity becomes the message in itself; as the head of Lucas Clinic says, when asked if the current crop of celebs deserve to have the levels of mania surrounding them,

“Anyone who’s famous deserves to be famous. It’s more like a collaboration that we choose to take part in. Celebrities are not people. They’re group hallucinations.”

Hannah’s doctor Abendroth is more metaphysical, musing that

“there is a power, something in the thrall of the collective eye, that can be consumed and appropriated.”

Certainly we devour our celebrities, with the paparazzi as the hunters and the rest of us sitting with a magazine or a tablet and consuming them – think of Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and many, many more. Unlike most of us mere mortals, the celeb who has gone viral remains consumable after death, perhaps more so. So it is with Hannah.

The marketing of Hannah’s “afterlife” expresses the vulnerability of humans, the paragon of animals, to a virus, a type of genetic code so tiny that we are not even agreed on calling them “alive”.

“From the perspective of the virus, the human being is irrelevant. What matters is the system that allows it to function. Skin cells, nerve cells, the right home for the right disease.”

But no spoilers – go get this one out and watch it (if you’re not the squeamish type) – it is well worth it.

We long for connection. Cronenberg mentioned a moment of inspiration:

“A friend of mine said he was watching Jimmy Kimmell one night and Sarah Michelle Gellar was on the show. She said she was sick and if she sneezed she’d infect the whole audience, and everyone just started cheering.” 

The philosopher Blaise Pascal said that there was, in every human, an “infinite abyss [which] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object”. He suggested that this infinite and immutable object should be God. Humans are big on eating gods – Dionysus was torn apart and reborn by means of his mother eating his heart, which made her pregnant. Christians eat the Eucharist – the body and blood of Jesus, according to John 6:55-66

“For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.”

We live vicariously, by eating our gods. But in our culture, the celebrity is god. The viral, consumable, more-than-human celebrity.

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