Rhetorician

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On Gravity

Gravity opened this weekend and everyone is all abuzz.The film is big and intense, a masterful piece of spectacle. It is gripping and gasp-inducing thrill. To the extent that the film is an experiment with form and with the technical craft of image-making, it is bold and nearly flawless. It is easy to marvel at Gravity as a majestic feat of engineering. It is a Hoover Dam of a movie, something that accomplishes its task so stunningly that it begins to gesture beyond that task, pointing toward the very idea of human effort and achievement. It becomes an experiment with scale, magnitude, fragility, an experiment with the sublime. 

Gravity explores sublimity — dizzying awe in the face of grandeur — both with its form and its content. In that sense it’s a film that is about itself, a film that echoes in its structure the same ideas it explores in its substance. The experience of the characters in the film parallels the experience viewers are invited to have of that film. All of us are together in the dark, asking the same questions: What are we looking at? How did it come to be? What does it mean?

And we start to wonder: Is this thing somehow bigger than meaning? What do we miss about the other things, the other ways, we have seen?  Is it possible to see on this scale and at the same time to recall having seen on a different, more human scale, a scale more suited to meaning-making? What is capable of reaching us, of penetrating us, in our darkness? Do we want to be reached? Do we want to be penetrated? Do we want to have our bubble burst? (The film asks the viewer to consider this question even before it begins: first you must decide if you want to see it in 3D or not, if you will allow the film to come out at you.) 

Clooney’s character keeps insisting that Bullock talk about what she misses on earth. When she can’t do this, when we realize that she and the earth don’t necessarily miss each other all that much, we know we’re in trouble. It’s a problem of motivation (Why bother fighting to get back?) rooted in a problem of scale (Can the little things that make life matter on that level keep life mattering here, at this distance, on this massive level?). 

In several ways at once, the film’s greatest liability is Sandra Bullock, playing accidental astronaut Ryan Stone. Sandra Bullock is always difficult to care about; her suitability for the roles she plays often comes from the fact that she is forgettable. Since this is her art, the better she performs, the less we care. If Gravity depends on an audience’s emotional investment in whether Ryan Stone will make it out alive, then the film is in the same sort of trouble the character is in: no one is sure it’s worth all the fuss. 

But this time, Bullock’s character is in on the joke. She, too, isn’t convinced she should care about surviving. This central ambivalence is well structured and well acted. Too well, maybe; we’re so convinced that it could pretty much go either way that when a decision is reached, it feels empty and arbitrary — to her, to us, and indeed to the whole endless, empty universe depicted in the film. We see and hear that nothing in all of earth or space is really all that concerned. 

Clooney is alone in showing much interest in Bullock’s survival, but his (short-lived) concern is ultimately self-concern. Though the film sets him up as the good guy who gives a damn, it’s possible that he really doesn’t care so much about her as he is simply obligated to fight her lack-of-concern because her indifference is a threat to his own survival. She’s slowing him down, she’s killing his buzz. He needs for her to function as an audience for his stories (‘This one time, on Bourbon Street…’), a witness to his accomplishments (a record-breaking spacewalk), and of course as a woman who desires him (‘You find me attractive, right?’). If she does not perform these duties, he himself may cease to be.

One way to read Gravity is as a sort of extended dream sequence taking place in Ryan Stone's head. Clue #1: a smart lady with next-to-no astronaut training suddenly finds herself in space because she’s the only person on earth who can…wait, what is she doing there again? Clue #2: Stone experiences space as a mashup of Apollo 13 (Ed Harris is back as the voice of Mission Control) and Toy Story (George Clooney is basically playing Buzz Lightyear). Clue #3: in true dream fashion, she keeps having to read writing that isn’t in a language she understands. Clue #4: George Clooney is there, being a flirt. Clue #5: Where is that dog barking coming from? And that sound of water? 

It doesn’t really matter if it’s a dream; it’s a movie, which is the next best thing. It’s certainly meant to be a kind of parable. But I’m not sure what the parable is about. Sure, it’s easy to read it as a parable about the human spirit, about soldiering on, about never quitting. Except that it is in exactly those moments where this message to keep on fighting and keep living should be most intense and most clearly articulated that this idea comes across as most hollow and pointless. At SB’s big moment of revelation, when it has ostensibly become clear to her that the fight is worth fighting even if that means she may die trying, her exclamation is “No harm, no foul.” Really. She says that. This worn out idiomatic expression barely means anything to begin with; here it means even less. Instead, it seems only to highlight the emptiness at the ostensible center of Gravity.

Perhaps, then, this is a parable about speech and language, the impossibility of articulating the necessary sentiment that would give all the rest of the film something to orbit around. The film is full of references to complexities of speech, language, and communication. Early in the film we’re told very explicitly that there is nothing to carry sound in space (is that news?) and that SB’s favorite thing about space may be the silence. But there is hardly any silence at all in the film. Clooney is yapping on and playing music and every moment of what could be silence is filled with a (really gorgeous) space-y soundscape. At one point SB is screaming inside a spacecraft, feeling utterly alone and, well, kinda screwed, and the camera jumps to the outside of the craft looking in at her through a little window. The scene is perfectly set up to be this ironic moment of observing her screaming mouth and seeing not just that there is no one around to hear, but there is nothing even to be heard. Instead, we still hear her screaming. She’s constantly addressing an audience who may not be listing or may not speak her language, and her most satisfying conversations are with 1) a dog, and 2) a dead guy. 

Another big concern in the film is the weakness of narrative; this idea, too, may be central to the parable that unfolds. As a film that seems to be aware of and about itself in some ways, the theme manifests as the film’s awareness of and anxiety about its own weakness as a narrative. Gravity is, to be sure, not a “good story.” An awful thing happens for no reason, in a context we can’t relate to, to people we don’t care about. Then some more arbitrary and awful things happen as resolution is sought by characters who would really rather not be bothered (If SB gets home, what will she have come home to? If Clooney gets back to the ship, he’ll blow his chance at a record-setting spacewalk).  If resolution comes in the form of fighting on and making it out alive, that resolution never quite seems like the right resolution, or at least not the resolution to the right problem. And ultimately it’s not clear on what level any of it really makes a difference or if anyone, either in the movie or watching it, cares.  

Clooney tells a number of little stories in the movie (Did I tell you the one about the Corvette?), which are maybe supposed to make these astronauts seem more human, but which come across as more noise to ignore so SB can get her work done. (Wait, what is she doing again?). There’s the disembodied voice of Houston, talking about itself in an authoritative (almost deranged and dissociative) second person as it gives Clooney permission to keep talking and tells SB to wrap it up and go back in the house. Houston serves as the arbiter over which stories are old and which get told, and insists to SB that she’s probably not feeling well. (She says she’s fine, then confesses she’s not, then I guess forgets that this was an issue as she gets on with the business of singlehandedly saving the world, or whatever it is she’s supposed to be doing). 

This battle over who gets to tell what story is, in some sense, the most recognizably human moment in the film — much more so than the great triumph-of-spirit at the ostensible center. It is also the most meta moment; the film exposing its awareness of itself as a story that may or may not be  good or new. Sandra Bullock as the Little-Astronaut-Who-Could seems boring and cliche before its even happened. But here’s Clooney being open about the fact that what is being thrown at audiences (audiences in the film and audiences of the film alike) is another tale in which he has been cast as lead whitedude. Houston/Hollywood wants to have the authority to decide whether we’ve seen this before and whether it needs repeating (hint: yes, and yes). And there, in that moment, that sentiment is both in this film and of this film. This is real 3D — it’s a question leaping off the screen about whether this time something is going to be new, if this time the story will be worth our attention. The interesting twist is that Clooney this time starts to tell a story that will not be finished, at least not by him. Instead, SB is the badass who makes the story her story, even though she doesn’t really seem to want to. She learns from Clooney that, if nothing else, she’ll at least come back with “one hell of a story,” and that this may be all that matters — or perhaps this is just enough to keep us going when mattering as such fails. Clooney’s character gets to keep looking like a real nice guy when what really seems to be going on is that he is so threatened by her taking over the storytelling (which is what he thought he wanted), that rather than become a character in her story, rather than be the one she rescues, he prefers instead to be no character at all. 

Perhaps the film’s great anxiety is not whether the astronauts make it home, but whether the story will have an audience and just whose story it will be. SB keeps narrating her own story as it unfolds to a “Houston in the blind,” which is a Houston that may or may not be listening to, and may or may not be able to intervene in, the story. Perversely, and this is Clooney’s revenge, she becomes most enthusiastic about the possibility that her story may reach a dead audience (“tell my daughter…”). Perhaps SB’s forgettability as an actress and the ambivalence she shows for her own survival as a character is exactly what makes it possible for her to serve in this kind of kickass role where she hijacks the Hollywood narrative, confesses the meaninglessness of the universe, rescues everyone (worth rescuing) just cuz, and doesn’t give a crap if anyone is going to help or (unlike Clooney) even listen to the story. This movie will be allowed to be SB’s story, but only if the authority she’s granted is diffused by being presented as no big deal, and then further diffused by directing it to the least threatening audiences possible — a dead girl, a dog, a Houston that’s of no use but still commands genuflection, and of course  a roomful of people in the dark wearing ridiculous glasses and marveling at the magnitude of it all.