If seeing is believing, then feeling is understanding. Film is the unique art form which combines virtually all others. It uses the visual, the spoken word, and heavy incorporation of music, all assaulting the senses to produce emotion. Gravity uses these tools to construct an atmospheric representation of a base human feeling. The film throws you into an environment that allows you to feel physically what the character has been feeling emotionally. It is this effect that gives Gravity such a special place in my heart.
Gravity as Inception
When JRR Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings, many saw the story as an allegory for WW2, with the role of Hitler being played by Sauron. In an effort to prove this and various other parallels, fans and critics pried into Tolkien’s personal life. This is what we’re taught to do in school: decipher the author’s intent or message.
To Tolkien, however, this represented a complete misunderstanding of his work. The magnificent, expansive, and engaging world he’d created was meant to stand on its own. He felt that for the reader to seek out his intentions was to blind them to the real magic. To reference Inception, his aim was to bring the subject into the world and allow them to fill it with their subconscious.
Why is it that we constrain world building to reality or imagination? A very interesting point was raised in a comment on “Erasing the Checklist” by my good friend Justin:
By using reality as its location, the movie had to abide by the laws of this universe, and it didn’t… it was too unrealistic for the type of reality it portrayed itself to be in. The intense focus of the rest of the movie was hard to take seriously because of these flaws.
Many have made the argument that certain parts of Gravity defy physics, and even a number of astronauts have weighed in on the subject. If Gravity were a documentary about space, professing to put you inside the helmet of a real astronaut, I would agree with these criticisms. However, I find the fantastical events of the film and the personal focus abundant evidence that depicting physical realities is not the prime directive. If this were meant to emulate Apollo 13, it would hardly make sense to place the characters in circumstances unlike anything faced by astronauts before.
Erasing the Checklist
What do we want people to feel? This is the question that drives the Apple design process. It represents a focus on the experience of the product that has long been their greatest source of both praise and ridicule. Where many prize the simplicity, others decry the omissions. This same principle applies in film.
All stories are about taking a ride. There are a multitude of ways a filmmaker can go about this, each with its own merits, uniquely suited to the purpose of the film. Gravity places a great deal of focus on the visceral experience , on physically transporting you to space. However, to say this film is about the special effects would be misguided. They’re employed to create the environment, a tool used to fascilitate the ride.
This criticism tends to be accompanied by an objection to the plot of the movie, which many have said is weak or flawed, while still others have suggested that it doesn’t have a plot at all. To consider this, we have to answer the question: what is plot, and what is it there for?
The Gravity Project
When I started this blog I had two goals in mind: to spark discussion around movies and to help others appreciate them more.
Reflecting on the effects of my posts thus far, I find myself pleased, albeit not quite satisfied. I noted in my first post that I needed an outlet, and I believe that writing down ones thoughts has intrinsic value. However, my greater intention was to open the doors to conversation. Though I’ve gotten very few comments on my actual posts, I have had numerous invaluable conversations with friends arise from this blog. These conversations have proven to be some of the most insightful I’ve ever had about movies.
I recognize it is more challenging to measure if I’ve achieved my second goal, of helping others to greater appreciate films. Feedback would certainly help (hint hint), chiefly to get a greater understanding of where others are coming from. Regardless, my priority is on sharing my perspective, which feeds my love for movies. What we seek from art has a profound impact on our appreciation of it.
Many were surprised by the initial announcement that the single Hobbit book would be divided into two separate movies. Most argued that the studios were simply trying to “milk the franchise for all it’s worth”. Then when Jackson announced that they would be extending the Hobbit into a full trilogy, much of the internet lost its marbles. I can’t say I was among the furious, but I was by all means curious to see how Jackson and his team would justify the eight or nine hours of screen time. It was clear that this was going to be much more than just Tolkien’s Hobbit. As someone who welcomes filmmakers taking these kinds of liberties, I was excited. Then again, as one of those weirdos that enjoyed The Hobbit more than The Lord of the Rings books, I was apprehensive.
It wasn’t until The Desolation of Smaug released last December that Jackson’s vision for the trilogy really started to reveal itself. New characters were introduced and original story lines developed. Many fans decried the embellishments as blasphemy, an affront to Tolkien’s work. Yet, I don’t think there can be any denying that the films demonstrate a remarkable, in depth examination of Tolkien’s universe. Having said that, I have no desire to fill up this post defending the films underlying consistency with the world presented in the books (see this great podcast by The Tolkien Professor for more qualified commentary on the subject).
I do have problems with the movie (focusing henceforth on Desolation of Smaug), issues which prevented me from fully enjoying what I saw on the screen. These gripes, however, could not be attributed to greed, or anything sinister for that matter. In fact, I would contend the reverse: the films greatest flaws arise from unchecked enthusiasm. The love for the source material, which has produced such magnificent work in the past, has morphed into their ultimate bane. In seeking to tell so much within the context of Bilbo’s adventure, they have stretched the original story too far. I couldn’t help recalling Bilbo’s classic line about feeling like butter spread over too much bread.
About two months ago, I went to the midnight premiere of Catching Fire. I’ll admit, I entered the theater moderately terrified about how I’d feel coming back out. My angst could in part be attributed to my lackluster experiences with midnight premieres, as well as to the fact that I adore the source material. As such, I couldn’t be more pleased to say that I found Catching Fire to be almost perfectly satisfying.
Adapting young adult franchises to the screen is always tricky. The fickle nature of the fan base makes it exceedingly difficult for filmmakers to realize any sort of unique vision. One term in particular we young, clingy readers often use when judging such films is “compromise”. We love to highlight all the parts of the books that are left out of the film adaptations, and to condemn the films based on omissions that are made. Though I used to do this all the time, I now tend to think of “compromise” as a dirty word. I’ve come to feel that we do everyone involved a disservice when we identify omissions or diversions from the books as compromises made in the adaptation process.
Opening the Gates
The time has finally come. After years of bombarding my friends and family with my commentary on movies, I have resolved to find a new home for my thoughts. Considering how much I love movies, and how much I tend to talk about them, it seems crazy that I didn’t start this a long time ago. If I had to give a single reason for my hesitancy it would be that I was unsure what value my thoughts could offer. The reality is that I have no professional experience in the realm of cinema. I am not studying film, nor have I ever been officially involved in making one. I have seen a lot of movies, and find joy in researching them extensively in my own time. But that’s all I can claim.
If I am not a critic, or a qualified columnist, then what is there to be gained from my writing? I battled with this for a long, long time. During that time I’ve kept ranting to friends and family, learned a ton, and developed even stronger opinions. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that my taste in movies has changed/evolved rather drastically as a result of this (did Phantom Menace seriously used to be my favorite Star Wars movie?). I now appreciate and enjoy movies that might once have lulled me to sleep, and doze off in movies I once found thrilling or hilarious.
What I’ve been forced to recognize is that the mastery of film I once sought is unachieveable. I will always be learning and constantly changing. The only thing that will never change is my passion for movies. That same adoration that grew in me when I was four, ignited by dozens of repeated viewings of The Iron Giant, will be the driving force of this blog. I will reflect on films, offering up my own perspective, whatever that may be worth. I won’t be reviewing movies, but I will strive toward the critics chief aims: to help you better understand and appreciate films, and perhaps discover a few new ones as well.