by Elias Tezapsidis
I was tardy for Adria’s 24th birthday celebration at The Golden Unicorn, an endearingly tacky dim-sum restaurant in Chinatown. To celebrate her somewhat belated transition towards a no-training-wheels adulthood (successful acquisition of an affordable apartment and a job away from coffee machines and people who want their bagels scooped out), she had decided to throw a large party.
My public excuse for my tardiness was “getting lost,” but privately the truth was linked to my inability to leave my apartment in time. One of Adria’s birthday presents was the shaving of my beard, leaving a gross moustache reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros or 70s gay porn. This DIY present contributed to my lateness. The reason my public humiliation as a stache-wearer would give her joy is rooted to the beginning of our friendship: I had made a joke about her carb-consumption at a fancy literary party for the 2010 National Book Award Awards. I felt comfortable making a callous joke only because there was no way she would be offended, in my head. Then I joked about her literary journal totebag, as she loudly announced: “Elias, you don’t know me well enough to say that!”
Since then, we have gotten to know each other very well. So when Adria expressed her wish to watch a film at the cinema on her birthday, I immediately agreed. The circumstances gave her full liberty to choose the film, and soon enough I was trying to place 3-D glasses on top of my prescription glasses, in anticipation of the film Gravity, an outer-space thriller named in honor of the physical force.
“What an experience!” is the consensus of the dithyrambic reviews the film has garnered. Starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and with Alfonso Cuarón on the director’s spaceship, it was the opposite of experience, as least as we live it.
There is a Greek saying: “When you hear about lots of cherries, bring a small picking basket.” That is, in the face of overwhelmingly positive sentiment, it’s best to lower one’s expectations. Regardless, we equipped ourselves with the largest popcorn basket available, SourPatch kids and a DIET Coke that weighed more than an Olsen twin.
The absolute worst of all unfortunate events that accompanies watching Gravity: you cannot even enjoy your traditional snacks during the film, unless you are 100% space-proof, and/or an alien who does not get nauseous. Be advised that the intensity critics refer to is purely physical. By purchasing tickets to this innocuous saga, you are signing up for the mundane version of Disneyland’s Space Mountain your mom would not decline riding with you.
In Gravity, the entire script can be predicted by anyone familiar with the transparent techniques blockbuster screenwriters employ. The “story” that unfolds is a non-story. Specifically, our main cast of three, then two people is doomed in space after their spacemachine gets hit by evil galactic residue. The blatant absence of artful storytelling in the film promises to offend those who know that it’s small intricate details and a gradual buildup that create intensity in a viewer.
[GIGA SPOILER ALERT!]
Early on, we comprehend the infuriating inadequacy of Ryan Stone — which by the way is Sandra Bullock’s character, in case you assumed otherwise — in any and absolutely all space activities. If there is any way for Dr. Stone to sabotage the endeavor of staying alive, she WILL find it. Additionally, Matt Kowalski — the George Clooney character — WILL suffer the repercussions of her incompetence. And he will do it with a charming smile even though this was supposed to be his last flight as an astronaut before retiring. His sweetness and patience towards Ryan are almost as infuriating as his eventual self-sacrifice for her survival.
[THE END OF THE GIGA SPOILER ALERT!]
A couple of years ago, when a terrible break-up left me desperate to fill up all of my newfound free time with social interaction, I went over to a friend’s house and watched him play Grand Theft Auto. After I saw him drive through a bunch of beautifully-designed streets, rob some girls with digits-in-all-the-right-places, and shoot a rocket launcher at a fleet of cop cars, I went home. I learned a valuable lesson that mind-numbing night: No matter how perfectly-orchestrated the sound, no matter how artistically-chiseled the graphics, no matter how hair-trigger the gameplay, watching someone else play a video game is boring.
My primary issue with Ryan was her total lack of backbone: how did this weakling ever manage to become a medical engineer who is needed outside of our stratosphere? Is she not an ideal candidate to be scooping out people’s bagels? (Probably not, she’d drop them, burn them and cut herself.) In reality, my issue is not with Ryan, but the writers who assume I would be willing to care for and empathize with a soulless person with no nerve or gut.
Viewers need not know everything. Audiences don’t require much from storytellers: simply give us some idiosyncrasies that humanize the character. It is important to specify that by “humanize,” I don’t mean turn to realism or incorporate real-world accuracy. A Jerri Blank crooked smile or even an unidentified substance in a canister (ala Frank Booth in Blue Velvet) would work tremendously well. We, the audience, do not even need those quirks to make sense. We came here to be distanced from our reality, not to be hyper-consciously reminded of said-realities as a result of our absolute failure in relating with your creation(s).
The selective revelation of information to the audience can be a powerful technique in reaching a broader audience. Manipulating the gaps that can emanate mystery within stories is effective. In film, Terrence Mallick’s Tree of Life has been recognized as a triumph of subjectivity: the viewer can decipher the meaning s/he chooses. In prose, Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance in its entirety serves as an example of powerful narrative manipulation. The multitude of ways in which a reader may interpret Davis’ “Lonely” has everything to do with the reader: it may be a sarcastic farce, a cry for attention, the expression of insecurity and even be seen as the result of fear.
The biggest problem with the film Gravity is the creators’ inability to enable the universality of the characters without making them totally empty. In a clear attempt to birth individuals whose individuality is not the point, the creators fail in breathing tactility in their project, resulting in the production of characters without characteristics.
EMPATHIC TRANSFERENCE: IS THE TRUTH OUT THERE?
An analytical comparison of Gravity to the 90s science fiction show “The X-Files” emphasizes its weakness. The contrasting approach of “The X-Files” unfolds on a dual level. First, the show’s refusal to be confined within the constraints of the suffocating realism Gravity strives to achieve. Second, its depiction of paranormal phenomena functions as a means to maximize audience curiosity and foster empathy.
Gravity is primarily concerned with the idea of recreating an otherworldly experience in a realistic manner, which remains faithful to the scientific circumstances. The intellectual requirements it imposes on audiences are very limited, along with the provocations it triggers. The viewing experience itself, and letting oneself indulge fully in it, is the most this film has to offer. By creating a realistic simulacrum of being in space, as a 3D film that is also highly fact-driven in representing current technology, the film’s fatal flaw is its accurate depiction of a reality so complete that it becomes dull.
“The X-Files” is fixated with the quest of an absolute truth too, often rationalizing the occurrence of surreal phenomena in an attempt to construct a reality that resembles, or brings the characters closer to, “The Truth.” But rather than focusing on accurately presenting the most current methods employed by the FBI, the show’s creators succeed in giving breath to the characters, the villains, the layered conspiracies and even the aliens.
When following the adventures of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, one finds it easy to believe surreal, unrealistic and flat-out absurd events. That is because these characters have managed to invite audiences to project in them meaningfully, forging an empathic transference. When Scully’s puppy got eaten by a prehistoric dinosaur in a lake the duo was investigating for paranormal phenomena, I felt sad for the character. I even caught myself willing to follow the narrative tangent in which this puppy was named “Queequeg” after the harpoonist in Moby Dick, keeping up with a Scully family tradition of picking nicknames from the classic novel (in which Herman Melville masterfully neglects the rules of realism in favor of the rich language of symbolism and allegory).
Of course, one can make the case for Gravity being an allegory in its entirety: despite its loyalty to realism in regards to technicalities, the broader goal is the immersion in a concept totally subversive. Personally, I find it much easier to relate to Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, as well as the entire Sex & The City cast. That includes both film versions.
Before exiting the movie theater, the birthday princess quickly decided to sneak into another film. Insidious: Chapter 2 was much, MUCH better. At least in that one the annoying people died, too!
Much like a one-night-stand partner whose performance is ranging between poor and mediocre, I would advise you to refrain from indulging in the physical experience Gravity offers. If you want to feel a similar intensity, just ride the L-train during rush hours, or watch “The X-Files” until you are late to your friend’s birthday celebration.