Gravity: The Weight of Water


Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem…]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

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A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)


[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…

Destination Moon: It’s Rocket Science.


Destination Moon Italian Poster

[This is a revised extract from my book, Performing Illusions, mixed with fragments and notes not included in the book. The broader context of this section, which looks at Destination Moon, is a discussion of science fiction cinema in the 1950s, drawing a distinction between the subversive excesses of low-budget exploitation, which treated the military-industrial agenda of “big science” with some disdain, and the big budget tales of space exploration that aligned science with spectacular imagery and limitless potential for human gain in the form of national pride and military advantage.]

While tales of alien invasion were finding their place as a staple of the science fiction B-movie circuit, a few major productions were entertaining the possibility of a future lunar mission, and in the process espousing the value of the technologies denigrated by their low-budget imitators. In the 1950s, inspired by genuine rocket research and concerted efforts to reach and explore outer space, a few films offered predictions of what the space race might achieve, sometimes smuggling in militaristic propaganda. This visualisation of capital-intensive science stands in sharp contrast to the half-hearted attempts at astronautical engineering shown in the B-movies of the time, and show up even more starkly the divisions between the high and low budget cinema of the time, the one aggrandising the military and scientific establishment with meticulously constructed effects held up for spectatorial contemplation, and the other besmirching the worth of multi-billion dollar space program with depictions of the cosmos as a site of plastic toys wobbling through a worthless void.

Read on…

One & Other: But is I Art?


GeraldC

As the time for my own turn on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square approaches, I’ll add the occasional post on the subject here. You can catch up with all of my updates with this link.

Announcing the first day of the Antony Gormley’s One & Other, which, for the unaware, puts members of the public atop the Fourth Plinth for an hour each, 24 hours a day for 100 days, Sky News asked the headline question: “Is it art, or just a highbrow Big Brother?” It’s a tired refrain by now. The question of whether or not something is art is such a blind alley: what it really seems to ask is “what is art?” or worse, “why isn’t it speaking directly to me?” That there is disagreement over whether something is a worthwhile piece of art should never be a surprise. It should probably be a requirement.

I don’t know if Sky News ever communicates with Sky Arts, but if One & Other is a “highbrow Big Brother” (i.e. highbrow because none of the participants have been manouevred into positions where there’s an increased chance that they’ll punch or shag each other), then Sky must bear some of the responsibility. What started out as a intervention by the ordinary into the ceremonial, dragging and dropping people from their habitual environment into the most public of spaces, has been turned into rolling news to be examined from every angle, tweeted about and photographed. Their weekly round-up of the “best of the plinth” suggests an attempt to turn it into a competition, with each plinther compelled to be more entertaining or eye-catching than the last.

Although I’ve dipped into the live feed from the Plinth and found it occasionally compelling, even when “nothing” (slang term for moments where people stop dancing or shouting through a megaphone) is happening, it has raised the question for me of where the “space” of the plinth is. Is it a spontaneous relationship between the material reality of the plinth and the people passing by, an ephemeral, unrepeatable performance or a hypermediated spectacle that can be paused, rewound, re-examined and catalogued? I can’t help feeling that the physical space of the plinth is affected by its parallel existence in multiple “virtual” spaces around the world, though this doesn’t have to be a negative effect. This morning I enjoyed Michelle, who took a very contemplative approach. To many observers, I suppose she “did nothing” or “just stood there”, for the hour, but she seemed to be having a serene, private moment in front of all those cameras. And surely that’s fascination enough, right?

Having said all that, the sight of Gerald dressed in a Godzilla suit playing swingball and stomping on a cardboard Houses of Parliament at 8am made me smile for almost a full hour. I think it was the mixture of personal, self-absorbed enjoyment and focus on the chance to play around, and the awareness of a very public spectacle that made it completely charming. If you have to ask whether or not its art, then please adjust your definition of art.

From the Earth to the Movies


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This blog has become a bit obsessive about Georges Méliès lately, after a lengthy discussion of Le Voyage dans la Lune and a much shorter one about his vanishing lady illusion. It’s a phase I’m going through. After this, there’ll be one more post about his appearance in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and then I’ll give the old guy a rest for a while. But my latest GM-related discovery has been an interesting one that I wanted to share. I’m not sure how I missed out on this one for so long, but thanks to Gareth for the loan of the DVD boxset, I’ve now been able to catch up with the 12-part HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. With its twinkling, near-constant fanfare-for-the-common-man style score and misty-eyed nostalgia, this show lays it on a bit thick for my taste, but there’s genuine meticulous craft in its reconstructions of landmark moments in the Apollo Space Program. That’s partly the problem, though: it’s too reverent to allow much soul-searching about the bullishly patriotic rhetoric that fuelled those rockets and risked those lives to stick a flag in a distant rock, and just about every character portrayed is tiresomely noble. Maybe NASA was really like that, but it’s a lot of nobility to take on board over the course of an eleven-hour series. As a NASA assistant said in an episode of The Simpsons: “The public sees our astronauts as clean-cut, athletic go-getters. They hate people like that.”

I’m being facetious, of course. There’s plenty of room for a sciencey historical series that doesn’t generate artificial conflict for the sake of crowd-pleasing drama. It shows the minutiae of moonwalks as if it was all just another engineering job. I once shared the boyish, slack-jawed fascination with the moon and space flight, so I know why these guys are so passionate about what they do. I just never needed a full-blast trumpet section to make me feel it.

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What piqued my interest in From the Earth to the Moon was the final episode, Le Voyage dans la Lune. Nice title, and an unusual way to end a series so firmly rooted in a particular period of American history. Intercut with scenes of the Apollo 17 moon landing and exploration (the last moonwalk to date) are recreations of the shooting of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon. Now, the parallel is obvious – the end of the Apollo program is viewed through its opposite bookend of an imaginative “beginning” seventy years earlier. They could’ve gone back to Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or German rocket scientists in the 1920s and 30s (whose discoveries fed directly into American rocket science of the postwar period), but Méliès’ film is positioned as a thought experiment that made conceptual room for the later excursions into space (cynics might say that GM is a “safe” antecedent to the space program that avoids formalising the debt to Russians and Germans). Executive producer Tom Hanks, who also wrote the episode, could have given himself any role in this series, but chooses instead to humble himself with the part of Melies’ long-suffering assistant Jean-Luc Despont. He clearly takes seriously the link between the making of a fiction about a distant dream of space flight and the hard science involved in its achievement – whatever the technical obstacles, his NASA boys are filled with enough wonder to keep trying every trick to get those rockets into space.

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I like to see reconstructions of actual movie sets at the best of times. Even lesser films are elevated for me when they include these scenes, as in the making of Nosferatu in Shadow of the Vampire, Citizen Kane in RKO 241 and a whole bunch of crap in Ed Wood. I love to cross-reference these scenes with the real thing; I find it riveting (usually) to see a well-known two-dimensional filmed image from different angles, so I was especially keen to see From the Earth to the Moon’s version of Le Voyage dans la Lune, a film with which I am minutely familiar, and even more excited to find that the whole thing was shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on his trilogy and the monumental Comrades.

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Tchéky Karyo (in a rather dodgy skullcap) plays Melies as a passionate shouter on set, gesticulating fulsomely and talking his actors through the scenes as they play out, semi-improvised but always emphatically directed (thus capturing that nice contrast in Melies’ work between meticulous control and rather chaotic crowding in the busier scenes). There is little interest in the finer points of his life and psyche – he’s really a cypher for the dream of space flight, and the 1902 sequences are much jauntier in tone than the Apollo sequences. There are some direct comparisons between these two distinct timespaces: the making of A Trip to the Moon is juxtaposed with the broadcast of the Apollo 17 mission, showing the disparity between the wonderment of first imaginings to the bored, overfamiliar indifference of sated audiences in the twinkling of a match-cut; the rehearsal of a volcanic eruption on the 1902 film set is followed by the search for evidence of previous volcanic activity on the Moon’s surface in 1972, playing off a pyrotechnic fantasy against the long-form legwork of full-on geological investigation; a shot of sleeping astronauts is matched to the scene of Melies’ moonwalkers dreaming of stars. If you want to compare the modern reconstruction of A Trip to the Moon with the original footage, check out the images on my earlier post.

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Seeing A Trip to the Moon performed “live” and in full colour is a pleasure, and will do nicely until a proper biopic (I might even waive my distaste for this silly little genre in the case of a Melies film) comes along. The conclusion that Melies was ruined by Edison agents copying his film may have a slight basis in truth (he was never really able to keep up with dupes of his films and the ever-evolving production methods of his competitors), but it wasn’t as immediate as suggested here. Positing A Trip to the Moon as a false-start highpoint of his career just makes for a convenient parallel with the close of the Apollo space program – both events are made to seem like wasted opportunities, thwarted by executive interference. Melies is a useful icon for the show’s rhetoric of progress and glorious exploration, ignoring the possibility that his intentions might have been satirical, mischievous and less starry-eyed. Accounts of Melies’ life and career dote on the fact that he ended up selling toys in a train station. Knowing that this purveyor of fantastic stories of flights to the heavens was eventually stuck on the peripheries of a more mundane mass transit system lets us congratulate ourselves for recovering an under-appreciated genius, or lets us imagine that we too are neglecting a chance that future generations will gladly revive decades from now. But aligning one’s enterprise, whether its a Space Program or a TV programme about space, with one of cinema greatest pioneers is the quickest route to romanticising it by claiming that you yourself, unlike those earlier fools, recognised the importance of fantastic cinema all along.

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  • Edward Bowen has written a fine analysis of this episode, which you can read by following this link. He has also edited and uploaded the footage of the reconstructed Le Voyage dans la Lune to YouTube, and you can see the two-part video below:


2001: A Space Odyssey: This Way Up


[You can now hear this post as an audio podcast via this link. It is also available in video form here.]

There are many baffling (let’s go with the critical consensus and call them “enigmatic”) aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it’s going to take a lot more than a rapidly knocked-off blog entry to solve them. Like the blank, featureless monolith at its core, its mysteries cannot be definitively resolved no matter how hard you stare at them. Once you come to terms with that, you can enjoy the movie without it seeming like a space opera that fails to deliver the requisite thrills and resolutions. In some ways, disorientation is one of the film’s central motifs, whether it is created by the vast narrative ellipses, emotionally pale characters or the ambiguous, sometimes abstract spaces it depicts. Watching it again, I noticed numerous shots where Kubrick imposes a strict horizontality on the mise-en-scene. Let me explain what I mean.
2001 is about progress, the development of technologies that precipitate paradigm shifts in human life and relationships. The opening section famously shows the shift by apes from hunted, cowering scavengers into weapon-wielding territorial carnivores. The apes hold their bodies low to the ground, hunching their shoulders and scraping around in the dirt for food. One day, a large black monolith appears in their midst. Fearful at first, they seem to subject themselves in awe to the inert and inscrutable block. In return, it appears to stimulate a major evolutionary leap, inspiring one ape to to notice that the bone of a dead animal can be used to smash the bones of living creatures, providing plentiful meat, but also assisting with the subjugation of rival tribes. They become hunter-clobberers. All the apes are played by actors in suits and heavy prosthetics, except for one or two real chimpanzees to differentiate them from the new breed of enlightened beasts that will presumably evolve into homo sapiens. It will be those who dare to stand upright who will advance. Oh, and those who dare to take up arms and beat the crap out of something.
If the monolith’s appearance is significant in triggering the paradigm shifts that enable the evolution of humankind (and it is not certain that this is the case), then its power is signified by its presence at moments of cosmic order. It completes a pattern, becoming aligned with planets and moons and unlocking (?), sign-posting (?) or simply observing (?) a powerful coincidence of objects. The emergence of patterns becomes important as a graphic motif throughout the film. For the apes, the monolith represents a startling interruption of routine by straight lines and symmetry. From that point on, humans assume a new relationship with objects and tools. The match-cut which elides millions of years of history makes plain that this shift in perception is all you need to know about humans to understand how they went from picking fleas off each others’ backs to putting a space station into orbit.
In zero gravity, it becomes a moot point which way is up or down, with only the distantial relationships between objects making any sense. Hence the blissful docking of spacecraft which have mastered the dance and found a common orientation.  In 2001 interplanetary travel is not just for those with the “right stuff”, but rather a smooth, Club Class jaunt; all of the troubles of weightlessness have been circumvented by the innovations of various corporations whose logos pepper the onboard instruments. At various points, the set’s spatial clarity can be upset by a change of direction, a remix of the lines of action you thought were in play. An air hostess steps carefully down a corridor before turning and walking up the walls; later, Frank Poole jogs around the interior of the ship, seeming, from one perspective, to be running perpendicular to the floor. The next shot gives us a different point of view, as if to remind us that the orientations suggested by these interiors are denials of the actual relations between objects loosed from any gravitational pull.
Kubrick’s compositions in interior shots are decidedly horizontal for the most part. The spacecraft, cockpits, docking bays and patterned lines cumulatively depict the imposition of order, straightness and an anthropocentric levelling-out of the inconceivable, directionless emptiness of outer space:
The technologised subjection of space to measurement, alignment and re-orientation is also seen in the focus on the navigation screens which show wireframe drawings of spacecraft on rigid grids that segment and demarcate the blackness. This equipment enables pilots to bring floating craft into a more co-ordinated and stable state:
There are ecstatic moments when clarity and alignment occur, as in the quasi-mystical lining-up of planets in the opening salvo, as if their rare order switches on the film with a cosmic, curtain-raising overture. There are threats to humans’ attempts at universal horizontality. The monolith inserts a resolute vertical into proceedings, and its apparently deliberate placement on the moon is a shocking discovery to a species who had previously believed themselves to be the only beings capable of the careful positioning of things.

Now, although I’ve offered one way of reading 2001 as a depiction of human endeavour as the taming of space and distance, and I’ve done this just by looking at the arrangment of certain shots, this is not the only way to read the film. It would be even more difficult to pin down an editorial attitude to questions of technology coming from Kubrick or Arthur C. Clarke. There are plenty of moments of awed contemplation as the camera lingers over its spacecraft, ejecting people from the frame and decentring dialogue to an indistinct babble of small-talk in several scenes. Elsewhere, the beautiful machines turn menacing, either by their sheer scale or under the control of the artificially intelligent computer HAL, whose impermeable logic cannot be reasoned with once he decides on his own course of action. Is this late insertion of a lethally flawed computer supposed to undercut the preceding tech-fetishism? It is difficult to say, since the final shots are impossible to reduce to a closing comment (a reading of Clarke’s story The Sentinel will provide some clues, but the film’s version is not easily assimilable with it in many respects). The transformation of Dave Bowman into a gargantuan “starchild” (the film’s most dramatic reconfiguration of notions of relative scale) overlooking the surface of Jupiter is an evolutionary leap of which we cannot conceive. It moves humankind beyond a trifling interaction with levers, switches and big mechanical toys into a new arena of unbounded space where the rules of up, down, forward and back no longer need to apply. Maybe. That’s the brilliance of 2001. It defies explanation, but manages to give the impression that it is not a surreal refusal of sense, but a distant, advanced form of representation that will only be interpretable the next time a monolith appears to help with the next stage of consciousness.

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