The Arc Between Two Deaths: Dissecting ‘Gravity”s Acrobatic & Spiritual Dance

GravityIn case you were worried if our lack of Gravity related articles was a sign of disinterest towards it, let it be known that we here at Film Misery are not neglectful or negative about Alfonso Cuaron’s latest. Alex has openly expressed his astonishment here and there, and Justin’s not so chilly on it either. For my part, though, I’ve been hesitant to write at length about it, partly out of a selfish urge to keep this experience for myself. In a business where your pay is marked by how much you talk about movies, it’s a luxury not to, one which I felt particularly safe within due to Gravity‘s wildfire success.

However after nearly a month of release the film’s passing over from the phase of exhibition to intense scrutiny within the awards circuit. The film’s an undeniable technical powerhouse, with its visual effects and cinematography wins practically locked in already, though I’d rather we not overemphasize that. The field is still resplendent in less obviously acrobatic wonders of cinematography as Emmanuel Lubezki’s gloriously free-flowing work, such as vigorous work of Barry Ackroyd in Captain Phillips, the unflinching, clear-as-day work of Sean Bobbitt on 12 Years a Slave, or the gorgeously wintry detail of Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis. It’d be an injustice to any of them for one to drift easily through the season towards a win.

Outside the obviously astonishing tech on display, it’s no secret the film has its more intense detractors, nor is it an unwelcome surprise. Unanimous praise blows and I’m happy to see a more combative conversation taking place, though it does mean I have to get off the sidelines and actively discuss what I thought of the film. It’s something I’ve been reluctant to talk about, particularly because it’s too easy to fall into synthetic hyperbole when discussing Gravity. The more eloquently you wax on about the film’s existential elements, the more you risk sounding faintly like a pretentious ass.

GravityThat’s largely because the film makes no attempts to hide those elements, placing everything clear on the surface as the Earth’s finest textures are from space. There’s few subtle, buried textures, but that goes further to fortifying the dynamism of its visual elements than it does to discount its intellectual depth. It’s less a piece of thought than it is of feeling, devoting every detail of the space to raising an emotional reaction, and there’s never a dull moment. Whether we’re invested or in disbelief of its narrative, we’re never left outside of the experience. Lubezki’s camera carries us in and out of the characters’ vicinities with impeccable grace in its choreography.

Dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey coined the term “the arc between two deaths”, meaning the space between two points of solid balance is often more exciting than either the launch or the landing. Gravity is ultimately one elaborate, uninterrupted arc, often with two partners colliding and leading one another. In this case George Clooney’s unfailingly showboating Matt Kowalski is the holder of power in this relationship, with Sandra Bullock’s tremulously withdrawn Ryan Stone stumbling as she’s carried frightfully alongside him. Were it a wordless dance we’d assume the exact same thing about their relationship, though the dialogue is a forceful, not overly obtrusive concession for studio audiences. It also helps convey Stone’s irritation with Kowalski’s everyman charms and his damned country music. Steven Price’s by turns soothing and jarring score is a welcome substitute.

GravityDelving into spoiler territory from here on, though I doubt many remain who haven’t come along to it at this point, the film changes over between acts with a searing rush of auditory pressure being released. Before we get to the first of these, Matt and Ryan find their tether severed and their roles nervously reversed. Stone now holds the power position over Kowalski, but she cannot balance his gravity with her slackened resolve. She can barely hold herself together, and Kowalski submits to the weight pulling his arc to its death, though in truth his fate is ultimately the opposite. His exciting, untethered arc through space has no end and no death. If he has a single death scene in the film, where it is could be debated a number of ways.

Of course for Stone the second death of her arc may mean death. As we get to know her it becomes pretty clear there’s little keeping her from crashing her car after returning to Illinois. In that sense Gravity is the most drastically physical counseling session for severe depression, repeatedly vouching for the unmatched experience of life, even as it whizzes by inches away from your face. Much as the desperation present in these viscerally pounding disaster sequences ignites a frantic fight to live, it takes subtler acts of sustained isolation to ignite a passionate fire for perseverance. This 2nd act of Stone fending for herself ends with the airlock blasting open, something which should kill her but, for reasons I’m still reticent to explain even under the spoiler veil, doesn’t. It does the opposite, showing her the impossibility of survival as a dare too damn enticing to pass up.

GravityThat’s not to sidestep the spiritual elements, something I have occasional difficulty reconciling with my own complex position of a film. You should hear me rant against Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life one day, a film whose religious convictions are so strong as to hit some viewers the wrong way. However while Gravity may be undeniably spiritual, it is not overtly religious. It’s a film dealing with life and death in emphatically existential ways, its fears about both being equal and balanced. Life can be just as hazardous as death, though both have their virtues. The former has the promise of continuation; the latter, the promise of closure. It’s damn near impossibly to discuss either without questioning a resonance of spirit in the afterlife. Is their life after death? Cuaron makes no certain claims, but what matters is the feeling that, in spite losing all tethers to the world, Stone isn’t alone.

That gives the proper surge for a final sprint to the finish, with Stone floating on her own convictions (and WALL-E-esq fire extinguisher) to make it back to Earth, bringing her arc towards a death, one way or the other. It’s the final scene that achieves the trickiest shift in balance, with us no longer in the eerily beautiful void of space, but in the closely packed environment back on Earth. After this spectacular journey, it can’t be shown as just a dull, pared down environment. There’s an otherworldly quality to it, the light a little brighter, the mud with a little more pigment in it. The future’s been practically obliterated in its orbital apocalypse, leaving only the emotional, physical rush of present resolve. Who cares if the rescue party’s coming when the solid ground she’s landed on is so rich with life? Rarely has death felt so stellar.

What did you think of Gravity? Reply below!

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  • Hilary Kissinger

    I love the Humphrey connection you draw here, Duncan! Especially given so much of her work focused on gravity’s effect on the body – fall and recovery. ‘Gravity’ as a parable of depression would also be an interesting read (holding onto anything you can in a vast emptiness until the possibility of rebirth).

    ‘Gravity’ is a dance, indeed – I wish they hadn’t blunted so much of its grace with words.

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