Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gravity is Raymond Carver in Space

My advice to you: Don't take Gravity literally. Director Alfonso Cuaron is an extraordinarily writerly director whose films, from Children of Men to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban demand their audiences think symbolically. If you watch Gravity through the lens of a thriller set in space, it's predictable, prosaic, and a bit trite. But if you watch it through the lens of parable, it unfolds like a lotus flower.

The cast list and screenplay of the film are spare. Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Matt Kowalski are among the only faces you'll see and certainly the only ones you'll recognize (though you might also catch a clever intertextual bit of voice casting), and there are stretches where no one speaks at all. That might lead one to believe that the visuals are the real focus and contribution of the film, because they are masterful and startling. I am a firm anti-3D-ite, but this is one of the few films where it makes sense, not because of how far the scene extends towards the audience, but because of how far it recedes. The disorienting and infinite depth of space is crucial for exploring the film's primary concerrn: grief.

Ryan Stone's character has suffered a loss as devastating as it is random, and the catastrophic debris field that untethers her from her ship and sends her reeling into the abyss is an externalization of the way grief unmoors the human mind and heart. Understanding the film as a meditation on mourning makes every scientific fact about space becomes a way of literalizing the airless and groundless isolation of suffering. And also a way to think about returning to life.

Which is where Raymond Carver comes in. Stories like "A Small, Good Thing" and "Cathedral" suggest that our salvation and our healing comes from living in this world, with other human beings. That the things we make and the things we say have the power point towards a grace that is expressed materially but experienced interpersonally, in the space between one struggling soul and another. Though the scope of Gravity is vast in comparison to Carver's intimate bakery shops and dining room tables, the intimacy remains the same. I won't reveal the conclusion of Gravity, but I will say that, to paraphrase the opening title card, life is impossible in this space, and it is desperately important to find someone to tether yourself to, and to make it to a ship that will take you home.

It makes sense, then, that this is a movie that makes you want to talk. The subtlety and elusiveness of the subject provokes further articulation and investigation. Most of what is written above came out of a marathon post-mortem I had with contributor Jonathan Alexandratos, my favorite date to the movies. Gravity gives you room, and and an invitation, to fill the space between with language and thought and wonder.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men Is an Appalling and Disgusting Farce

Note: I have not read the David Foster Wallace collection on which this film is based. But even my admittedly beginner's knowledge of Wallace (his subtlety, his empathy, his unwillingness to rely on crude stereotype) leads me to believe that this "adaptation" took some very, um, hideous liberties. 

It is rare that I feel compelled to actually verbalize "Oh, fuck you" to a film I am watching. It is also rare that I think to myself, "John Gray [of Men are from Mars, Women are From Wherever "fame"] makes this movie seem sociologically complex." Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009) has the dubious honor of invoking both these responses.

A brief (pace director John Krasinski) primer on the film's wholly unironic categorization of desire:

Heterosexual Men: Disconnected from and terrified and ignorant of their own sexual needs, smug to the point of figurative auto-erotic asphyxiation, psychologically violent to themselves and women, emotionally handicapped, and weaponizers of intimacy.

Heterosexual Women: Mute and wounded.

Homosexual Men: Invisible.

Homosexual Women: Same.

Trans or Bi Men or Women: See above.

Oh! And nearly everyone is white.

This film, which assumes a self-satisfied and omniscient tone about heteronormative sexuality from minute one and, in its one and only admirable quality, consistency, doesn't drop it for the entirety of its 80-minute run-time, manages to import all the most noxious aspects of toxic masculinity and normalize them. Men and women are mutually suspicious of and aggressive towards each other, to the point that infidelity is figured as a moral high ground and rape a path to growth and enlightenment. Truly, this movie must be seen to be believed. (Author's Note: Don't ever see this movie.)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men unbelievably stakes its ground on the argument that sexual, emotional, and psychological violence must be met with violence, and in fact, that such violence is the only path to empathy. The film takes the most clumsy and half-assed stereotypical "differences" between men and women and makes them the structural premise of the film. The movie revels in not only the objectification of women, and men, but the institutionalization of remarkably prejudicial and dangerous assumptions about the nature of gendered identity. I honestly can't believe it exists.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man Is Nonfiction Magical Realism

*NB: The film's promotional materials reveal a plot point that the movie's chronology withholds. If
you'd like to be surprised, read no further, but by all means, rent.

There are some documentaries that unsettle you to the deepest core of your being, putting you right off your brunch. I'm looking at you, Capturing the Friedmans. There are others that remind you that though the world can be a place fraught with suffering, it is also replete with miracles. Searching for Sugar Man is definitely in the latter category.

The 2012 film (and that year's Best Documentary Feature winner) chronicles the rise and fall and unexpected re-rise of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter with all of Bob Dylan's poetic lyricism and righteous anti-establishment rage and none of his success: Rodriguez. After a couple of years in the late 60s and early 70s playing gigs in places named thing like, unironically, The Sewer, Rodriguez returned to a job in construction and a brief flirtation with local politics, surrendering his hopes of a musical career. Haven't heard of him? You must be American.

What neither he, nor his producers, nor (probably) his record label knew was that while he was demolishing buildings and doing whatever one does with drywall, his music was fueling the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, and the artist himself had become a quasi-mythical figure around whom rumors of a spectacularly gruesome onstage suicide were as widely and ferociously traded as the bootleg copies of his two albums.

Because of the nature of a dictatorship, South Africans had very little unsanctioned information about the world outside their borders. But even though his fans (which, it seems important to note, seem to be largely white) didn't know who or where Rodriguez was, they did know that his lyrics criticizing unjust economic and social practices (inspired by his native Detroit) gave them a vocabulary with which to resist and begin to dismantle the cruelties and perversions of human dignity they were witnessing. And when a couple of musicians and writers try to hunt down the true biography of their poet and prophet, a pretty magical reunion takes place.

One of the journalists interviewed by the filmmaker describes this unlikely series of events as sounding like "a bad PR campaign" because it was so unlike how he understands the world to work, and Searching for Sugar Man feels like a myth while watching. Rodriguez remains an elusive figure throughout, even after he is rediscovered. He slides through different names and identities as purposefully and smoothly as he walks through the largely abandoned streets of the working-class neighborhood where he still lives in Detroit, and is clearly uncomfortable talking about his remarkable story. But it's a story that makes poets of his his fellow construction workers and family as they marvel at how their unassuming friend and father lives a dual life as a South African rock star. Though not quite reaching the heights of exuberant aesthetic grace achieved by Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man will make you believe in fairy tales.