It’s the first day of Lent and I’ve decided that my practice this year will be to write daily on this blog. I have let it slip, and I miss the discipline of thought that it requires.
I made mental notes about Gravity back last fall when I found the one showing in San Francisco that fit between my drawing class and my time to take my daughter to music, at a small theater that only showed it in 2D. It being Monday afternoon, it was practically a private showing. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to skip this post, because here be spoilers.
I loved this movie. I know it drives people crazy who know and care what astronauts do. I’m sure I would froth at the mouth about all the mistakes in a movie about ministers, but since I am not particularly interested in astronauts or the proper procedures for maintenance of space telescopes or the International Space Station, I just enjoyed what the movie was really about, to this viewer. It isn’t supposed to be a documentary about space. To me, it’s about grief, and how difficult it is to return to daily life when all you want to do is float away and never feel anything again.
And before I even knew that, at the very first shot, I started to cry. There they were, little tiny people floating in this unimaginably large, indifferent expanse. As the introduction says, life in space is impossible. And then the moviemakers show us people in space. I thought, “That’s us! We’re all floating here in space for a tiny amount of time and then phut,” and I just stayed in that existential crisis for the following two hours. I thought that that was a different emotional issue than grief–me fussing about my own mortality instead of my never-absent dread that my daughter might precede me into death–but several months’ rumination on Gravity have made me realize that maybe they are really the same sorrow.
In the end, ironically enough, it is a very small movie, in the sense that it isn’t epic in scope but about a single person coping with a single event that is not newsworthy or noteworthy to anyone much except her. (I like small movies.) A woman’s young daughter has died. The woman, Ryan Stone, doesn’t know how to go on, or how to want to; she hasn’t touched the ground since. On earth, she achieves this by driving as much as possible, always moving. In space, maybe it’s easier to float, but maybe not; when we first see her, she is fighting nausea, and clearly her distress is not just physical. By the close of the movie, however, she wants to live. She digs her hands into the earth, grateful just to be here, and when she stands up on those shaky legs, the camera looks up at her as if at a colossus. With that shot, Cuarón is saying that Stone is heroic, and she is.
One critic couldn’t resist the pun, and wrote (safely after the winner was announced) about the Academy’s choice between “Gravity and gravitas,” the latter being represented by 12 Years a Slave. I can’t compare this movie to 12 Years a Slave or any of the other Best Picture nominees, because it’s the only one I’ve seen so far, but I cannot agree that Gravity lacks gravitas. The writers named it well. “Gravity” stands for one of the weightiest, most serious losses a person can endure. It is what tethers us to reality and all the pain it brings, rather than our floating in a half-existence. If you wanted to demonstrate gravity in the most prototypical way, you might drop a stone, the main character’s name. And, of course, “gravity” evokes the grave, in this movie about death and coping with loss. The daughter even died of gravity. The writers could have made the cause of her death drowning, or poisoning, or a car collision, but in one of their subtler details, they tell us: she fell. She fell to earth. It is a small movie, as I say, but a grave one, and a joyful one, too, because in the end Stone chooses life and is glad that she has.