Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuarón)
No pun intended in the following sentence: this past spring I was in my local music shop, Gravity Records, where my buddy Doug was blasting the new Kanye West record Yeezus, which we both thought was/is pretty brilliant. Doug made a remark, kind of a trailed-off sentence, that stuck with me: “It’s weird, I’ve been waiting so long for this to come out, and now it’s out.” He wasn’t registering disappointment, just the strangeness of something that had existed in his mind as an unknowable entity for so long now becoming something else — a piece of art to be appreciated or rejected. Along similar lines, I (along with a host of other movie dorks) have been waiting for Alfonso Cuarón’s next film for seven years now. After seeing the masterpiece Children of Men theatrically, it seemed as if this director whose career I’d been watching and supporting for the prior near-decade was beginning to assert himself as a true internationally known maverick. I did not expect for the gap to stretch quite so long, but when Gravity finally was announced and went into production only to be delayed and then delayed again, it became what felt like the culmination of my renewed movie obsession. Gravity has been the golden ticket for as long as I’ve been running this blog, and here it is. Weird, right?
Chances are you’ve seen the film, so I won’t take up your time telling you that it’s excellent or imperative to see; those go without saying and smarter people have been saying them for weeks and for fuck’s sake go see it, preferably in IMAX (not because it is crucial to the narrative but because you should take any opportunity to have to see a really splendid movie in a large format). I will mention that it has me positively giddy to realize that at last we have a big-budget genre picture made by someone whose cinematic ideas closely mirror the things I most love to see in film — that is to say, extremely long takes and intense identification with a lead character. It’s by no means a naturally wrought experience; planned to the smallest detail in pre-vis, filmed by robots with special cameras (please, let’s say that again because it’s so much fun: “filmed by robots with special cameras”), shading provided by Emmanuel Lubezki’s ingenious series of strategically placed LED lights, and with every shot in the entire picture an effects shot, but its ambitions and ingenuity hark unmistakably back to the silent film era, when possibilities were endless and there was no resistance to invention for the sake of cinematic storytelling.
For the sake of completeness, let’s mention at bare minimum that this is a survival story set in space starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut who has lost her crew and means of returning to the earth in a violent cloud of debris, with George Clooney as a mansplaining tagalong. Is it really even a science fiction film? No doubt it plays fast and loose with a few laws of physics, but by the very nature of its sound design (which makes eerily brilliant use of the silence of space) it’s more realistic than almost any mainstream sci-fi picture save 2001 — it operates in our own time with the technology we already have. So in essence, it’s a straight thriller, and a lean one at that. The fact alone that it runs just ninety minutes (that includes credits, folks) is cause for celebration in an era of unchecked Hollywood bloat. The fact that it’s a full-on studio picture (note the presence of just one logo, Warners’, before the opening sequence; that’s two less than the fucking Dark Knight even) with a distinct auteurist vision at the wheel is cause for utter jubilation. That’s before you even know that it opened to sold-out screenings all across the country and the devastating commercial ambivalence afforded Children of Men won’t be repeated.
Oddly, one film that springs to mind in embracing this one is Back to the Future Part II — also ostensibly a science fiction film with strong, sophisticated sci-fi elements but in most respects not much of a genre picture, in this case mostly a comedy. An alarming proportion of BTTF 2 consists of effects shots, including one of the most complicated (up to that time) in film history: a 360-degree take of three Michael J. Foxes seated at a table. But the director, Robert Zemeckis, didn’t wish to stop the narrative to flaunt his new toys, and he cut the shot by more and more until it was only a few seconds long, and barely registers with anyone seeing it as anything but a story-driven establishing of several characters’ essences and relationships. Never once in the Back to the Future films or, now, in Gravity does the technology interfere with the narrative. Everything we see is integral to the story and free of excess or boastful flexing of budget muscle (except perhaps the closing credits, which are unusually long and feature a horde of previously unheard-of positions).
Thriller, sci-fi or whatever it is, Gravity is a brilliant film by one of the best directors working and a rare modern example of the studio system working the way we wish it always did. From where I was sitting, it didn’t seem like a film that was made strictly as a demonstration piece for modern technologies, and it would take a special kind of cynicism to claim that its sole profundity is in effects popcraft. It’s a depressingly boxed-in view that suggests that the same people in 1927 would probably have dismissed Sunrise as pretty pictures with a facile, generic plotline, and anyway, I’m hesitant to agree with the already conventional wisdom by even the film’s champions, by even its director, that it will lose most of its appeal without 3D or on a smaller screen. Of course it’s best on a large screen because all films are best on a large screen — but its artful chutzpah, its essence, the absorption it generates will translate across all imaginable platforms for some time to come. Stunning cinematography by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, the explosive lead performance, and the acrobatic brilliance of Cuarón’s long takes (three of which occupy a third of the film) won’t stand for the reductive prognosticating that they “require” IMAX.
I’ll concede that there’s clunky dialogue. The conversations at times sound like Alfonso Cuarón talking to himself; in interviews he zeroes in on the word “adversity” like Sarah Polley did last year with “story.” The comic relief, mostly provided by George Clooney, is standard Hollywood fluff, and Bullock’s astronaut Ryan Stone talks to herself almost as much as I do. While the characters are vividly presented, weighty, believable and well-developed, the dead-kid back story that falls upon Stone does seem extraneous. However, it’s integral to remember that most of these complaints are coming from the standpoint of sophisticated, seasoned movie watchers. In order for a film this elaborate to be made by a studio in 2013, it has to make concessions to as broad a mainstream audience as it can; it’s either that, or no interesting and ambitious and director-driven films from studios at all. I think the right choice was made. How many times do we ever get the opportunity to see wildly new, expensive technological advances meaningfully applied to a film that’s actually a coherent artistic statement? As recently noted here, Toy Story may be the only prior instance in my lifetime of that happening.
Besides, what Ryan is really doing when she delivers monologues to herself, says a billion variations of “holy shit!”, and participates in one of the more deviously well-mounted dream sequences in recent memory is giving reassurance to herself and to a far-flung international audience that may well have been alienated by the deeper existential turmoil of Children of Men. This is in the end as straightforward a tale of survival as 127 Hours, with a similar catharsis at its center, and a simply astonishing elegance of structure that keeps the pace up in a curved unbroken line from a disrupted mission all the way back down into another kind of weightlessness and the first evolutionary steps away from disaster. Bullock is not just playing a part or giving us a vessel, she is representing all of the human race, engaging in the womb imagery carried from 2001 and finally movingly suggesting the improbability of our continued survival as well as her own. “Rebirth” is Cuarón’s apt phrase.
Ryan’s victory is based in part on luck and chance but more directly on the same ingenuity that got Dave Bowman to Jupiter all those years ago. As in 2001, Sunrise and any other great allegorical film, the bare-minimum dialogue exists to hold our hand and distract us from the scary and earth-shaking thing that’s really happening: that a story is being told to us in an entirely new yet entirely old way, free from the boundaries of language. Again, Gravity is in every meaningful sense a silent film, and not simply because sound does not travel in space. It does more with the medium’s essence than The Artist or any other reductive “revival.” (Besides, at its worst the dialogue is twice as smart as anything in Inception or Looper, which earn little flack for their endless exposition and unnecessary fat.) Bullock’s expressiveness, never once stilted or forced, is part of what makes this so seamless. She is truly astounding in the lead, and it’s a relief that the film not only makes no apology for her gender but straightforwardly mocks anyone who would.
But inevitably, my favorite thing about this is that it’s beautiful, and Cuarón’s continued infatuation with long takes is one I happen to share; he doesn’t quite top the car ride in Children of Men here, but he easily matches it more than once. The first shot is wonderful, but my favorite comes later on, with background chaos registering with us before Ryan sees it, and the camera just continuing to follow her movement as steadily it can, a truly unblinking robot-eye controlled as sensitively as though we were at the wheel. It helps that Cuarón knows when to implement stunts like this, opting for traditional film grammar in fits and starts when it’s warranted and not tripping himself up with arbitrary rules like some say Hitchcock did in Rope. All the way through, Cuarón and Bullock both provide the element most central to movies like this: that of identification. From first frame to last, we are in her corner and in her situation and the emotions generated are as though we are viscerally fucking there. With all this in mind, I tend to believe that one’s reaction to Gravity may be one of the quickest indicators we have for what one really wants out of a movie in the first place. It is purely visual, nonverbal, and driven by the recognition of emotions above and beyond any rational, measured response to the action; at the end, we feel as if we ourselves have gone on the journey, we feel the fire and the sand and the water and the power of standing up. It celebrates physicality and awe over explication, streamlined essence over exhaustive articulation, mystery and cinema over the tired-and-true devices of literary-driven screenwriting.
In other words, this is pretty much the definition of pure cinema — its narrative is the least cluttered we’ve seen from Hollywood in years, and like Children of Men, it ends when it properly should end and makes no superfluous concessions to comfort. I cannot call it Cuarón’s third masterpiece, simply because it really is a direct survival story that takes us for a tumble and then tastefully departs. That doesn’t mean it’s superficial — it succeeds at pretty much everything it aims for — just that it has more immediate, primal goals than Y Tu Mama Tambien or Children of Men and thus simply can’t reach the heights of either film without being a different movie. But it’s difficult to see how one can now deny that Cuarón is one of the three or four strongest directors in the American film industry, probably the world. And maybe Gravity will be successful enough that he can do what he wants from now on — and will have reached that point without even the smallest concession.
Please see this if by some chance you haven’t. We don’t often get the chance to actually go and see a movie and leave with the awareness that things are different now than before we came in; this is likely to be the most integral cinematic building block of this decade, in terms of its effect on Hollywood cinema, cinema in a larger sense, cinema marketing (a biggie; the trailers all used footage from the first half-hour and featured little to no fast cutting), and the career of one of the most inventive filmmakers currently working. Some will walk away bewildered, but for the right kind of weirdo or true believer, faith in the movies could be restored.
[This is illustrated with publicity stills because what do you want from me, people!]