Friday, February 12, 2016

856. Mock Squid Soup: February 2016 - Gravity

The monthly meeting of the Mock Squid Soup film society, hosted by Armchair Squid and Mock! (and excited bloggers everywhere), occurs yet again!

Here were my clues:

1) Directed by someone who helmed a Harry Potter movie.  Alfonso Cuaron, who was responsible for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  And if you haven't already, definitely see Children of Men

2) Something about LEGOs.  There was a LEGO International Space Station.  I still need this.  I still don't have it.

3) Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain were in similar movies, together.  Yes, first as supporting characters in Interstellar, and then enjoying Damon's hysterical hijinks in The Martian.  All three movies highly recommended.

So, I finally saw Gravity.  My sister fell asleep, but I was absolutely riveted watching it.  The 2013 blockbuster was warmly received by critics and audiences alike, but it took me a couple years to catch it myself.  As I assumed I would be at the time, I was impressed with the results.  In it, Sandra Bullock endures a series of unfortunate events, in space (with no snarky narrator), and in the process blows up the remainder of NASA's assets (more or less), but she makes it back, darn it, and that's what counts. 

I may be sounding flippant, but that's just because it makes me easier to read (hopefully).  It really is a great movie, and a sad statement on the state of space exploration affairs, in which disaster really is the best we can hope for these days, as we wait for something better in the future.  Fifty years ago we saw man walk on the moon, and yet in all the time since we've been slowly floating away from such ambition (if you'll, ah, pardon the allusion), with one disaster after another, in real life, curtailing the public's interest and the program's budget, one at a time.  We have more nations in space than ever before (the ubiquitous box office attraction these days, China, makes a cameo in Gravity, naturally), but all we're doing is place-holding.

It's depressing, but Gravity, strangely, isn't.  It's one of the big hits Bullock has had in recent years, a whole string of them after a long period where it seemed like she, too, had been left behind (not quite like, say, Mark Watney, but still).  Although we experience her journey far more than follow her along (she doesn't do a ton of talking to herself), she's far more hopeful about her prospects than the grim suggestions of her fate and inexperience suggested before anyone actually saw it.

It doesn't hurt that George Clooney appears. He sat through a dry spell, too, but nowadays people kind of like him, and for good reason.

Another space movie you should probably see is Moon, in which Sam Rockwell discovers there's more to him than he knows (heh).  The proliferation of astronaut movies in recent years, regardless of their subject matter, has been very good to see for someone like me whose childhood was filled in part by fantasies of going into space.  Even if everything does go wrong, we've done enough so that we aren't completely lost.  I'd call that hopeful enough to think the future still looks bright.

Now, going back to Gravity itself, this is a prime example of filmmaking at its finest, a director firmly in control of his craft, not needing anything more than a relatively simple subject, two characters, and for considerable periods of time not even needing either of them to speak.  Survival cinema (Cast Away, All Is Lost, The Revenant) isn't even where I would classify Gravity.  I'm of the school where if I'm going to be impressed with a movie, it's because there is something sensational about it, not so much special effects (because at this point any movie can do something flashy with that and not necessarily stand out because of them), but simpler things like dialogue (though, oddly, I've never really cottoned to someone like Aaron Sorkin, who's supposed to be the Greek god of banter; my examples from The West Wing and The Social Network suggest he's better at having characters bandy about talking points but never really getting anywhere, with the ambiguity not so much being an asset as an indicator that, really, Sorkin has nothing to say, which is to say, I'll always be more of a Tarantino guy, who builds entire scenes of seemingly inconsequential conversation to speak volumes about the characters involved) or how something is shot (which is why Orson Welles is the Greek god of cinematography).

And the mastery Cuaron displays in Gravity is different from the splendid tracking shot that is Birdman (Cuaron, it should be remembered, still holds the mark for tracking shots in the aforementioned Children of Men; seriously, if you haven't watched it, what are you waiting for?), in that following Bullock in her dilemma is totally different from following Damon in his during The Martian.  We aren't given any prelude material, but rather we're dropped right into the midst of the crisis.  A lot of viewers have assumed that Bullock is simply incompetent, but the disaster began before she had to deal with it, virtually on her own.  Clooney talks her through the early panic, but most people would panic in that situation.  It should be noted that Clooney in fact sacrifices himself to save her.  That's a completely different mindset from the one we follow.  Because Bullock does settle down, and figures out how to survive, just like Damon. 

Like Apollo 13, this is all about damage control.  And maybe it is metaphor, but it's also about resilience and trusting the systems that have been set in place around you.  By the time Bullock is hurtling to earth, we're once again in that scenario where we kind of expect to see her happy ending through to conclusion.  Except the conclusion isn't always what we expect.  When Cast Away settled on Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt not happily reconciling, it tainted the whole movie's legacy, so that the only thing people remember about it now is Wilson.  Which is fine, but it's also basically exactly the same as The Martian, all things considered, or half of Robinson Crusoe.  I've suggested elsewhere that Matt Damon essentially becomes Tom Hanks in The Martian.  I mean, I like it, think it was one of 2015's true pleasures. 

But Gravity is better.  Maybe not for everyone.  I mean, as a spectacle, because we love spectacles, it is, but I think more people would happily rewatch The Martian than Gravity, just as fewer people are willing to give Interstellar its due, much less something like Tree of Life, which is like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a million times better.

Which, by the way, is what I'd also say of Oz the Great and Powerful over The Wizard of Oz.  The China Girl is a thousand times more fulfilling than the Scarecrow.  James Franco, who fits this material better than, say, the horrid mess that was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, makes a better career statement than Judy Garland connecting with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  And that's cinematic heresy for you right there.  But what are you going to do?

As an art statement, Gravity is exactly in the direction film should be going, letting great filmmakers make great films.  Not comfortable films.  Not small intimate films or big historical dramas.  We've latched onto Star Wars because it reached further than any big idea had gone before, and did it in as simple a way as it could, given the circumstances.  George Lucas had previously made American Graffiti, the cultural predecessor to Happy Days.  So basically Luke Skywalker is Richie Cunningham and Han Solo is the Fonz, and the Millennium Falcon is a set of hot wheels.  Pure and simple. 

Gravity is pure and simple, but it's also big and complex.  If we're not exactly looking like we're making progress in space anymore, or as a culture in general, if you want to be expansive about it, this is a film that says all is not as bad as it looks.  We follow Bullock home.  Pure and simple.  And we let the character worry about the rest.  Because the rest belongs to us, not in the sense that we will use our imaginations concerning what happens next, but we in all our seemingly stagnant progress will have something else to experience tomorrow, even if all the important pieces of the story, of history, have already happened, all the International Space Stations and Chinese units gone.  But not forgotten. 

That's our advantage.  Our wonderful, terrible, inspiring, limiting, source of all our abilities.  Memory.  Like gravity.  It's an anchor.  It brings us home every time.


Birgit said...

Can I say this is one movie I can't stand! I find it Yes, great special effects but, take that away and you have this woman who is up in space for the very first time and doesn't even know what she is supposed to do but we are to believe she can take a space craft and work it. On top of that she goes to a Chinese ship and knows how to work that even though it is in another language! On top of that, when she finally crash lands on earth, she can pretty much walk within 30 seconds of getting on the beach! The last shot made me laugh because it reminded me of Attack of the 50 ft woman:) Bullock looked huge from the angle they shot at. You can tell I am not a fan:) Your write is is well done even though, to me, The Martian is, by far, a much better my humble book:)

Tony Laplume said...

She fell back on her training, remembered to reference the manual, and then...became the 50 Foot Woman. Either way, thanks for stopping by.

Pat Dilloway said...

It was awesome in 3D fake IMAX. I never thought she was incompetent. She wasn't one of those military astronauts; she was a scientist who got some training and then was blasted into space. Of course it's not believable that she could survive all of these disasters one on top of the other, but that's not really the point.

The Armchair Squid said...

James Franco over Judy Garland? That's just crazy talk.

MOCK! said...

Saw this on my flight home from Doha. I really enjoyed it. I think it is one I will be visiting again!

Cherdo said...

I liked this movie! The camera angles, the story line, the Clooney...what's not to like? All movies are fantasy to me, so I don't expect total logic. My whole life is full of logic; I can take a vacation day when I watch a movie.

Great choice!

Tony Laplume said...

Squid, I'm of the opinion that most of Hollywood lore as we currently view it will make an excellent footnote when we have a little better perspective about the business of filmmaking.

The Armchair Squid said...

Perhaps. But there are a few indelible moments in cultural history: Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, the last episode of M*A*S*H, "No, I am your father," etc. Judy Garland owns one of them, too.

Tony Laplume said...

There's a persistent belief that precedence in film means great filmmaking, that the early marks must be maintained as great in spite of film technique moving well past them. It started with Orson Welles, who was undoubtedly more talented than his contemporaries, being actively buried by the industry despite being a talent who would have been richly celebrated and rewarded, say, in our own times. Critics began observing a split from the old days, like the culture at large, in the '60s, but somehow we still argue that the best movies are ones that would look better on the stage today than being held up as the best work of the medium. The Beatles-on-Sullivan, "Goodbye, Farwell, & Amen," the end of Empire Strikes Back, these were moments carved in a maturing entertainment medium. Hawkeye Pierce pointedly identified himself as a more nuanced Groucho Marx. There's no taking away from the greats as they were understood in their day, but context is everything. To say we still haven't seen anything better than Gone with the Wind would be a harsh critical failure on the whole culture, and yet that's basically what everyone says when they trot out the "adjusted for inflation" nonsense, to make sure everyone remembers just how beloved that movie really was and seems to technically still be today.

("Adjusted for inflation" never accounts for everything, the number of releases, for instance, or the number of movies becoming blockbusters during the same relative span of time. It's a form of analysis that seems to have slipped everyone's attention in the rush to prop up old figures.)

Anyway, art is subjective. It's a very fine line to discuss truly timeless art. Some of our most beloved art stood unappreciated for decades (Shakespeare, Melville). This is a theme I keep returning to, seemingly irrelevant to the interests of the now. But I try and keep myself open to what tomorrow will be saying, not just yesterday or today. And yes, I am a little crazy.

The Armchair Squid said...

Oh boy, so much to say...

There are many points where I agree with you. I don't think one can truly love any art form if one cannot be excited for what's coming next. I highly recommend this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts. It's an unusually strong crop this year, with varying glimpses of directions for the medium to take.

I have spent my career in the music world and I don't know if there's any art form more stuck in its own past than Western art music. That said, in 200 years, no one has topped Beethoven. It's difficult to imagine anyone ever will. True genius is transcendent.

Improvements in technique and technology, while considerable, do not necessarily make for superior work. Too many 21st century filmmakers rely heavily on the bells and whistles, losing sight of the fact that their ultimate responsibility is telling the story. One area where the best films of the '30s and '40s run rings around the 2010s is in screenwriting. Case in point: I finally watched Winter Soldier recently. It is a visually stunning film. The buildup to the brawl in the elevator is nothing short of genius, and relatively low-tech genius at that. But the writing's just plain awful (apologies to Mock if he reads this). Redford's lines in particular are appalling - a far cry from the early '70s when he was working with material from the best writers in the biz. I would consider Winter Solider to be a well-made film: a low 4, whereas I would call Sullivan's Travels a high 3. But Sturges's writing is in a league far beyond, barely worth comparing.

There's a John Lennon quote I love: "Elvis was my idol, and Chuck Berry was my teacher." Every art form is a history of each generation learning from those who came before. The films best remembered by the public and those best remembered by the creators are likely divergent. Both legacies are important for understanding the medium as it stands today.

As for Judy Garland... A 16 year-old girl, a relative unknown, catapulted herself to cultural immortality with one single word, one octave leap. The magic of "Over the Rainbow" has nothing to do with camera tricks or sound engineering. It's all her. Such a mess of a life overall but for two minutes in 1939, she was perfect. I don't know if there's any actor in the history of film who owns a moment so completely.

As for James Franco, I'll take his Carlos the Dwarf D&D campaign in Freaks and Geeks (a show I hope creative minds are still rediscovering 50 years from now) over anything he did in Oz.

Nancy Mock said...

Gravity sounds intriguing, and your write-up is incredible. We just watched Interstellar a couple of days ago. I really enjoyed it (except for Matthew McConaughey's drawling mumbling... we actually had to turn the captions on!) so I have 'space' on the brain now.

Tony Laplume said...

I think I'll have to watch Interstellar again when I get back from my vacation. I guess I associate the voices of it more with Michael Caine.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Sandy fan and like George's twinkle and charm so this movie also held me riveted. I liked it surprisingly well given its sparseness.

Tony Laplume said...

This was a whole movie betting it could let their charm work on you in very extreme circumstances. Clearly it worked.


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