Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Law of Gravity

Gravity is both an incredibly useful, interesting and worthwhile film, and one of the most terrible movies I've seen in a long time. It is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and graceful use of 3D I've ever encountered: It feels like the camera is floating and spinning around in outer space and its long choreographed takes, though none come near as breathtaking as that one shot in Children of Men, can be vertigo inducing, beautifully evocative of space's emptiness and silence, or intensely fucking action packed. But that riveting, absurd and almost constant action, combined with the embarrassingly inept characterization and dialogue make it feel like Tarkovsky co-directing a Michael Bay film.

So, for the terrible first. Sandra Bullock's character: what a fucking mess. She's the least probable woman scientist since Denise Richards in The World is Not Enough. Bullock spends the majority of the film panting in fear, which, fair enough I suppose, but her actions point to her being a total bad ass. I mean, she's installing electronics she personally designed onto the fucking Hubble in open space as the movie opens, and yet later, in the film's climax, we see her bleating, moments before giving up all hope, that she doesn't know how to pray because no one ever told her how. She gives an unbearably inane, abject and pathetic speech asking the absent George Clooney to visit her four year old daughter in heaven and tell her that she found her favorite red shoe while she is performing an insanely complex and clever emergency procedure on a space capsule she's never piloted before. In Russian. And yet, she required an inspiring vision of George Clooney--a cowboy alpha-male with whom she has completely unnecessary sexual tension--to figure out the trick and convince her to not give up but to go on. Despite her ostensible brilliance, she can't do anything without someone else (preferably a man) tellin' her, she's single and pointedly sad about it, and she's a total emotional wreck due to her daughter's death some time before. She's the exact opposite of cinema's greatest space bad ass, Sigourney Weaver's Ripley.

I watched the film with my partner-in-crime Sophie, and she pointed out that Gravity has the geopolitics of Independence Day. The Indian doctor working on the Hubble in the opening scene, upon completing his work, sings a little Bollywood ditty and manages the dubious feat of doing an orientalist jig in a space suit. To which George Clooney quips "Can you believe he went to Harvard?" Haw haw haw. It's foolish Russians, irresponsibly using ballistic missiles (yes, seriously) who set off the chain of events that dooms the spacecraft. Despite having proven herself a Russian-speaking telescope-inventing spaceship-flying capable-of-Lara-Croft-like-physical-feats type genius, when Bullock gets into a Chinese shuttle, faced with a control panel covered in pictographs, she actually says "No hablo Chino". And when Bullock finally arrives on Earth, she lands down in a jungle in Tahiti, or Indonesia, some South-East Asian tropical paradise, and weeps with joy to be holding the beautiful orange mud of the beach. To paraphrase Sophie here, we're meant to recognize this space as the communal bounty of the Earth, the birthright of all mankind, some sort of unspoilt Eden: this is Orientalism 101, the perfect colonial gaze.

Despite the obvious drama of the premise (total space disaster with only current technology) the film insists on making our protagonist, flying in the face of everything the context suggests should be true about her, an ingorant, weak-willed, emotionally traumatized single woman almost unable to do anything without having it mansplained to her. It pivots the entire emotional drama not on the fact of her survival--which we as an audience are assured of, I mean, after all, we paid £14 to get into the damn IMAX--but rather on the meaning of her survival in the face of her loneliness and maternal failure. In other words, the drama is transposed entirely within the bounds of bourgeois subjectivity, the family, and patriarchy: a drama which is completely and utterly not contained within the images of the film.

In fact, most of the characters' dialogue is spoken over headsets, from within space masks: you could almost completely redub the film and make it a totally different movie, because the psychological drama is entirely external to the film's visual narrative.

And this is exactly why Gravity is so interesting. Rob Horning said about Victorian novels that we should pay extra attention to the long, boring sections whose presence makes no sense to us now--this excess is precisely the ideological content of the novel. What is interesting about Gravity is that it reveals the extent to which the psychological centrality of family structure, the heterosexual desire between protagonists (aggressively instituted by the man), but most crucially psychological back-story itself is ideological excess. It is precisely the need--the economic imperative--for 'characterization' and 'relatability' no matter what it means or at what costs that makes Gravity a totally shit film.

If Gravity were better written, it would be an exceptionally beautiful and entertaining action film--the content of the images, the story of survival against the odds doesn't allow for much more than that, but honestly, that movie would be great. But its sloppiness, the way it insists on beating you over the head with Bullock's feminine weakness and reproductive failure, not to mention its totally overbearing and manipulative soundtrack, contrast tellingly with the overall grace and inventiveness of the visual film making. It's so pretty, so well shot and edited, the camera is so fluid and so capable of both putting you within the total chaotic terror Bullock is going through and capturing some beautiful ideas and images that contextualize that horror, that the script's total failure has an almost schizophrenic effect. The extreme contrast between the two experiences, and the fact that all of this dialogue is wildly, violently extraneous to the narrative, clarifies precisely what kinds of narrative moves are ideological.

After watching Gravity, you might ask yourself: why must every film feature a legible back story, clear-cut psychological motivation for action, the centrality of love and family to everyone's experience, weak women and strong men, racist caricature? Just like gravity, in Hollywood, ideology is a law.

1 comment:

  1. Ahem...

    The compliment of "Gravity" is "All Is Lost," a minor Hollywood story of survival against all odds with very little psychology, characterization, back story, or familial subtext. Its ideological content resides not in its textual depths, but on the surface of its images: it's about a rich white man yachting (with hom we presumptively identify). Too bad it's not nearly as formally interesting as 'Gravity.'