Monday, October 7, 2013

floaty people

         Alfonso Cuaron's been getting Stanley Kubrick comparisons since he chose to employ several audaciously long and logistically complex shots in Children of Men (2006), a very, very good dystopian action movie, and those comparisons have ramped up further with Gravity (2013), an even more technically sophisticated thriller that occurs almost entirely in zero-G, and so inevitably must be compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Reactions to the movie have been mostly very positive, though its failure to match 2001 in metaphysical reach and structural originality is a common refrain. I don't think it has to be, because beyond the fact that Cuaron wants to impress with technical gambits, his sensibility could hardly be less Kubrickian. While Kubrick during his lifetime was the subject of far too much tut-tutting about chilliness and misanthropy, the man was no humanist. Cuaron is, and that changes everything:
  1. His stories are driven primarily by the agency of his characters, rather than the operations of social/technological/metaphysical systems to which his characters are subject. 
  2. His movies originate not from a grand abstract idea, but a high concept with an immediate emotional hook.
  3. The acting is naturalistic rather than baroque, stilted, or caricatured.
  4. He mainly uses music to complement or underline the emotional content of a scene rather than provide ironic counterpoint to it. 
  5. There's a realist earthiness to the way he and DP Emmanuel Lubezki film actors and environments. This quality is less manifest in Gravity due to the sheer amount of CGI involved, but it's very much present whenever we're given a closeup view of the actors, especially Sandra Bullock (seemingly half the movie happens on her face). And the last shot of the movie is nothing if not earthy.
  6. His virtuosic long takes work in sympathy with his protagonists, alternating between following their movements and assuming their point of view, whereas when Kubrick is following a character with his camera, he often does so with such mathematical precision as to create a sense of otherworldly displacement.
         If we simply compare Cuaron to Cuaron, there's some cause for legitimate disappointment in Gravity. Both it and Children of Men are survival stories, but the latter is also an emotionally convincing if not especially coherent allegory for the endurance-against-all-odds of leftist-humanist hope during the Bush administration, thick with all manner of loaded if undergraddish cultural signifiers (Abu Ghraib, a T.S. Eliot citation in the end credits, the pig balloon from the cover of Pink Floyd's Animals, John Lennon's "Bring on the Lucie (Freeda People)," Jarvis Cocker's "Cunts Are Still Running the World," much religious iconography). Gravity has no such allegorical ambitions, and politically Cuaron limits himself to a couple easy One World-type gestures (a postcard Rublev in the Russian space station is doubled by a Buddha statue in the Chinese one). The dialogue is cliche-heavy and relies a bit too much on cornball astronaut humor, the musical score is tin-eared and intrusive, and the emotional meanings are way overstated.* Bullock's character has the exact same Tragic Event in her past as Clive Owen's did in Children of Men, and it felt much less like a cheap shortcut to character depth the first time around, maybe since it dovetailed more neatly with the movie's premise.
         But I far prefer it to James Cameron's Avatar (2009), both because it's shorter, simpler, and never quite flat-out idiotic, however improbable Bullock's last-second escapes get, and because Cuaron is venturing slightly outside the expected visual grammar of mainstream cinema in search of a grammar better suited to 3D. A movie getting an audience in a megamall theater to sit in silence for over ten minutes watching a single shot unfold is a sign of some kind of progress, even if half of that shot involves things going zip and woosh and boom. The society of the spectacle has produced much worse.

*At one point, while Bullock's character, grief-stricken for some time over the loss of her young daughter, is trying to keep George Clooney's character from drifting out into space and certain death, he says to her, "You need to learn to let go." Aaaand boom goes the metaphor.

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