It’s just a few minutes in to the film Gravity, and hurtling space debris shit is about to hit the motherf*ckin fan. Will Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney) make it?
Of course they will. Do the math. The film is 90 minutes long. It’ll get bumpy, like the very worst turbulence on the very worst flight you’ve ever had, times shitzillion. But Rudy and Matt are going to make it through because you—cinema goer—have paid for 90 minutes and what else is going to happen for the next 80? It’s not like Actual LifeTM where tragedy will mercilessly cut short someone’s earthbound existence irrespective of where it is in his or her own advertised running time. Dead at 15? Sure. Struck down at four years of age? Happening all the time. Within ten minutes of being born? Sadly, yes.
However, in Gravity, where there are only two characters to start with (I’m not counting Shariff with the racist accent), we are sure that early adversity will be overcome. It has to. For the sake of the film. For the sake of your entertainment.
Question. What would a film be that stayed true to Actual LifeTM? To its contingent and brutal suddenness?
Answer 1 would be a film that doesn’t last 90 minutes, but however short the amount of time it takes for the protagonists to pass away. Ten minutes. Twenty. It would be brutish and fast, over before you’ve made yourself comfortable. House lights on. Exit to the right. What do you do with the extra 80 minutes given to you?
Answer 2 is found at the end of Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1961). Alain Delon and Monica Vitti’s desultory affair anti-climaxes in a way that has never been done before in cinema—and maybe, never since. After making love for the last time, they agree to meet “at the usual place” that evening, 800pm. But their (empty) eyes tell the true story of what is (not) about to happen. Come 800pm, and the camera turns up at the rendezvous point. However, neither Delon nor Vitti appear. Instead of zooming out and fading away (what any conventional film would have done), Antonioni’s camera continues to film the non-meeting meeting. We see: a woman with a child. A man crossing the road. The flayed sides of buildings. Tarmac. Factory smoke. It goes on for some seven minutes. No flashback or forward. No voiceover. No resolved comfort. Delon and Vitti’s parting opens up this pregnant space, full their vital absence. The film continues without the characters.
Answer 2, then, is a film that fills the remaining 80 minutes with the world without its glittering protagonists—and not in some sentimentally cathartic way (depictions of bereaving family, a husband that can’t cope, Autumn leaves shedding, etc). It would show how radically same the world continues to be when someone is no longer part of it. A kind of limpid thrust forward into the near future. Newton’s Second motherf*ckin Law.
Antonioni is summoned again in Gravity. This time, the end of Zabriskie Point seems to make a cameo appearance.
It’s the only other sustained piece of cinema I can recall that shares Gravity’s relentless anti-gravitational derangement. We are stranded with Ryan and Matt, tumbling and spinning with them, against the vast widescreen of Mother Earth. Home. Gravity is, paradoxically, bereft of its title. It is “anisotropic”—the usual axes of top, bottom, left and right, which we measure by our own perpendicularity against the surface of the earth, all this is gone. The cinema screen (and the inside of Rudy’s helmet visor) is a well of black void in which things—pens, decomposing bodies, tears—float. Most space movies get around the finnickiness of zero gravity by taking place in battle-ship sized space-ships where gravity works just fine. Space, phenomenologically speaking, is just earth further away.
In the Zabriskie Point clip here, the compositions of exploded matter become more and more unmoored. They attain the quality of gestural abstract painting, with the blue of the sky taking the place of the white of canvas. In Gravity, the sky is black; Earth is blue. The screen isn’t flat—and neither is our fear of being lost in the beyond. It’s a shame, then, that Gravity loses its nerve quickly. It succumbs to the necessity to join the dots of personal salvation. In doing so, it becomes the “ultimate problem solving” movie (says Sophia Al Maria). A vast and expensive first person POV video-game puzzle with instructions in Russian and Mandarin. Whereas 1970s “existentialist” sci-fi film would leave its characters lost in the forever emptiness of space (the way Sartre said man was banished to his/her own freedom once God vanished), Gravity ultimately needs the stable ground of narrative closure. Ryan struggles to stand up. It’s primeval mud. But she does stand. She walks.
And that’s … ninety minutes. PING!