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.

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