Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kessler Syndrome: Gravity and the Fear of Entropy

So George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are astronauts. The camera floats in a beautifully realized 3D space. George Clooney is very confident and Sandra Bullock is very high-strung. The Russians, those motherfuckers, blow up a dead spy satellite with a missile, which triggers a chain reaction in which a cloud of bullet-like space debris knocks out most of the satellites over North America, cuts off connection with Houston and kills all the astronauts but George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. George Clooney eventually dies in a freak accident. Sandra Bullock grits her teeth and makes it back to Earth.

Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's new movie, has inspired what seems to be an inordinate amount of boilerplate criticism. Not that boilerplate is anything new, obviously, but criticism of Gravity has been exceptional in both its laziness and its reverence. The few negative reviews, by and large, are no less lazy for being condescending; Vanity Fair calls it a "chick flick" and Bret Easton Ellis attacks it mainly by spoiling its ending. An interesting exception to this, though, is Richard Brody's recent article on the movie on the New Yorker's blog. His argument doesn't lend itself very well to summary because it coalesces around a series of concepts whose meanings become more subjective the more Brody tries to define them, but a reduction of it for Spook purposes is that Gravity's dedication to material realism, and the worldview that accompanies that realism, render it strangely flat. I'll quote him at length: Gravity is "a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—which they define in terms of physical phenomena and everyday people—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue."

Brody's is far more perceptive criticism than the film has been getting, but it's worth noting that giving reality a "quasi-political virtue" is nothing new in cinema. (Brody uses "quasi-religious" in another article, which demonstrates how precisely he's using his terminology.) Reverence for a mystical idea of preserved reality is at least as old as Andre Bazin; Bazin himself said it was as old as the Pharaohs. Across his articles on liberal cinema, Brody argues basically that it's the business of political filmmaking not to record reality but to pass it through human subjectivity. Realism is a "musty, mild worldview"; it needs an injection of, you know, libidinal/visceral/intuitive/subjective/fantastic/imaginative energy to be compelling. The example he cites in support of this, bizarrely, is not a movie but Bill Clinton, who embodied in "the same great man" both the high-handed compromiser of 1990s consensus and, well. The fact that Brody is almost certainly aware of this Bazinian pedigree, that he seems to be using it as a way to claim classicism, does not make it any less flawed; moreover, it misses the extent to which Gravity really does focus on what he'd call "the inner life."

It seems futile to look for a developed sense of subjectivity in a movie that basically functions as a tech demo, but there is a clear narrative of personal growth in Gravity. Sandra Bullock's feelings of helplessness and abandonment find objective correlatives in the void, and like a success story in some cosmic Scared Straight program she finds the will to live again. Lingering shots of Chinese Buddhas and Russian Orthodox icons on the dashboards of spaceships draw a symbolic connection between self-control and salvation; the theme of rebirth is not so much suggested as screamed. Sandra curls up like a fetus in the International Space Station while umbilical hoses curl in zero-g around her; she swims out of a womblike escape pod in the last scene. The symbolism is both so specific and so pervasive that the entire movie looks like the protagonist's hallucination. The extravagance and triteness of this internal narrative doesn't make it any less internal; depicting the Inner Life isn't a sure path to aesthetic success.

Brody's article links to another one in which he briefly discusses Steve McQueen's movie Shame, which is an instructive comparison. I reviewed Shame a few years ago for this blog; you can go back and read the review if you want to, but the relevant takeaway right now is that Shame, like Gravity, is an exercise in astounding cinematic and dramatic technique that looks at its characters primarily as collections of problems. "Drama" is too strong a word for a movie like Shame—it's more like a case history. Gravity is the same way; the self-discovery and growing confidence of its hero read like a cure rather than an epiphany. These are stories told from a clinical point of view, preoccupied with both the material and the subjective as sites where things can go wrong. You can be addicted to sex, you can be trapped by the memory of your dead daughter, Carey Mulligan might attempt suicide in your bathroom or George Clooney might drift off into the void. If these two movie are afraid of anything, it's collapse: cascades of mechanical failures, personal neuroses, descents into the grotesque. The possibility of entropy is what's really scary. Their redemption narratives are really normalization narratives—Sandra Bullock and Michael Fassbender struggle to be socialized, not reborn, in spite of all of Gravity's fetus imagery. Of course, the re-establishment of normality is one of the oldest plots in the world, but in classical comedy the threat is simply conflict, not absolute unraveling.

Gravity, in filling its objective reality with subjective symbolism, simply unifies psychological collapse with material collapse. If The Wire, Syriana, Zero Dark Thirty and other pieces of analytic realism dramatize the operation of a complex system, then Gravity dramatizes the disastrous collapse of such a system; unlike the The Wire and friends, it insists that such a system only becomes dehumanizing when it collapses. What's really disappointing about Gravity, then, is its inability to imagine possibilities outside of the reestablishment of order. Bret Easton Ellis noted (albeit spitefully) that we never really think Sandra Bullock is going to die; this is probably because, symbolically interlinked with imperiled order itself, Sandra Bullock would be a vote of no confidence against the concept of complex, diversified society if she were to die. This doesn't seem to be something we're ideologically prepared for. So it's ideologically imperative that Sandra Bullock emerge a stronger person; it's likewise imperative to at least imply that the mechanical failure that drives the plot (which entails the breakdown of world communication) is more a nuisance than a death blow. Brody complains that Gravity reduces "the spectrum of human life to a narrow consensus of decency"; maybe that's because outside this narrow (and narrowing) consensus, all we can see is the void.

1 comment:

  1. Cheers for spoiling the movie in the first paragraph, no warning or anything, douchebag.