Gravity

Gravity is a movie that has to be seen in cinemas and in 3D if one wishes to get the best possible experience. As an active disliker of the current 3D cinema experience, I was originally sceptical. The friends I saw it with insisted, and I am glad they did. Never before have I ever seen 3D used so effectively as a dramatic device. Gravity does a lot to lend credence to the format.

There is a reason the 3D is so effective. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) composes every shot of Gravity with such care and intent that it becomes so much more immersive a film than one would expect a 3D movie to be. Previous high water mark Avatar used 3D as a way to give its richly imagined world a “reach out and touch it” immediacy. Cameron painted the screen with lush visuals for the purpose of transporting the viewer to another world. He didn’t really use his camera, his 3D, or his visuals to add to the film’s narrative richness.

In Gravity, Cuarón utilises the entirety of his frame to tell his story. Events happen in the background that cause ripples that affect what happens in the foreground in sometimes catastrophic ways. Background events drive characters to perform actions. This deliberate framing makes full use of the 3D format. The added depth increases the audience’s immersion in the scene, and it is incredibly powerful to see something small happen in the distance, only to have it grow in scale and menace as it moves towards Sandra Bullock’s character, and by extension, towards the audience, in the foreground.

I can’t help but feel the affect of huge chunks of broken machinery careening towards the camera would be dampened by a 2D screening.

The attention to visual story telling extends to the way the characters interact. There isn’t much in the way of character development, and the screenplay spends little time in establishing them before all hell breaks loose. However, characterisation is strengthened by the way the characters act more than by what they say. A particular scene involves George Clooney’s character attempting to calm another down as he tows them across space. The dialogue in this scene feels forced. Based purely on what is said, what is meant to be a poignant scene that sets up an entire character arc would feel flat. Being in a space suit, Clooney cannot directly look behind him, and instead gives a concerned glance into a mirror attached to his arm, while maintaining his cool tone of voice. It is a tiny moment, but one that breathes personality into a character the way the words they say could not.

Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, is the more thematically rich film, with a much more meaty narrative. It also boasted some very impressive sound design and cinematography. However, the technical intelligence on show in Children of Men is nothing compared to what is to be found in Gravity. Being freed from the constraints of terrestrial, practical film making, Cuarón orchestrates some of the most amazing long take shots I’ve ever seen. Additionally, Cuarón often frames the audience as part of the action. Often during some of the most dazzling moments, the film cuts to a first person point of view shot of Bullock’s character. It is us and not just Bullock trapped in an impossible situation. It is us fighting for life in an alien, incredibly hostile environment. And it is us who experience the majesty of the images Cuarón subjects us to. We are participants in the action rather than passive observers.

The sound design is equally impressive. Space in Gravity is soundless, and this soundlessness is played for maximum tension. Collisions occur silently in the background while characters remain oblivious, focusing on more immediate concerns. It is haunting to see such large scale destruction without hearing it. Positional audio is also incredibly well utilised. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening, when we see the earth and hear a voice in the rear right. The voice slowly moves towards the centre and then to the left as the setting of the film slowly drifts into view. It speaks to the incredible immersive quality of good sound design when you are given a sense of your place in the scene before seeing any of the principle players.

Cuarón played with diegetic and non-diegetic sound in Children of Men. An early series of scenes features the main character standing next to an explosion and a secondary character taunting him about a ringing in his ears. The very next scene makes it obvious to the viewer that ever since the explosion, a ringing simulating tinnitus was part of the soundscape of the movie, and this ringing continues for another couple of scenes. This experimentation continues in Gravity. Sound will often, and deliberately cut in and out, whether it is diegetic or not. During sections of Gravity, when a character is expected not to be able to hear anything, all sound, including the film’s score, drops out, only to reappear when the character is expected to be able to hear again. It’s another technique that Cuarón uses to not just frame his characters within the scene, but the audience.

Away from the technical side of things, the screenplay isn’t great, but is light and has enough character to provide some laughs and get the audience rooting for Gravity’s characters. The performances are amazing, and both Clooney and Bullock excel in their roles.

The film moves at a brisk pace and is over in under 90 minutes. It definitely does not overstay its welcome, a problem I seem to be noticing with more and more of its contemporaries. It is a movie that knows it has not earned 2 and a half hours, and so does not try to be 2 and a half hours long.

I found Gravity to be the most intelligently staged film I have seen in a long time. It’s not weighty in its themes, but is a show of pure film making talent. It is also a film that concerns itself with telling a story and ratcheting up tension above being scientifically accurate. While it’s depiction of a Kessler syndrome is chilling, the actions undertaken in the film are impossible given the orbits and locations of the places the characters visit in their journey towards salvation.

A suspension of disbelief is strongly advised.

I found it a case where the film was so well made and so exciting, that real life implausibility was of little concern. I found myself in a similar situation with a particular sequence in Jurassic Park. The sequence in question was staged with such skill at building tension and excitement, that the discrepancy in the height of the T-rex pit when the car is eventually pushed over the edge was inconsequential. There are times when one shouldn’t let fact get in the way of enjoying incredibly well made fiction.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN

I do believe that something has been made of the fact that Bullock’s character is made to appear incompetent and reliant on the men in the movie to keep her alive. While this is true to an extent, it is moderated by context. Bullock’s character of Dr Stone is a civilian noted as mission specialist. She is on the mission because she has specialist understanding of the upgrades being done on Hubble. She was not an astronaut, she was not in the airforce, and she was given very minimal training (six months) in preparation for her mission. She is a medical doctor, a profession not generally known to be comprised of incompetent or unintelligent people. In fact, the entire mission required her to be there in space making very specific upgrades to Hubble, based on her research into medical technology.

Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is a seasoned Astronaut who has conducted a number of space walks. It is to be expected that if something were to go wrong, Clooney would be the one to remain calm, while Bullock would panic, having never been in that situation before.

Throughout the rest of the film, Bullock shows a level of resourcefulness and quick thinking that ultimately gets her back to earth in one piece. Had she been a truly incompetent character, she would not have been able to manage piloting a craft with controls labelled in Chinese. She would have died off before getting to that point.

On the other hand, there is the low oxygen hallucination scene where Clooney returns to magically explain to Bullock how to get out of her situation. This scene can be read as problematic, where even in death, the male character is required to move the action forward for the hopelessly disheartened female character. I will not begrudge anyone for viewing this seen as such. It was a point in the film, where just for a moment, Bullock was taken from being resourceful and quick thinking back to being reliant on a man. It was a bit jarring and undercuts her development into a powerful agent free from male intervention.

I tried rationalising this through the use of psychological schemas, but I was unhappy with the outcome of the exercise as it was still problematic. I shall explain the thought process for those interested.

Schema are mental frameworks used by individuals to reduce the amount of information the brain is required to process in day to day life. You can think of a schema as a script. You have a specific schema for ordering pizza, for example. You know what the transaction involves, and you act it out in accordance to the schema, or script, contained in your mind.

Applying this to the mission depicted in the movie, it is fair to say that Bullock’s character would develop a schema that had Clooney, as commander of the mission, being the source of information about what to do in emergencies. Thus, when low on oxygen, and with higher level cognitive functions presumably close to shutting down, her brain resorted to her schema related to this particular mission: New survival information will come from a commander as a commander is naturally more knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. This lead to the hallucination of Clooney that facilitated Bullock’s brain in making her aware that she herself knew of a solution to her current predicament. Ultimately, it was her own ingenuity that saved her life, but filtered through her schema that told her she should expect survival advice to come from a more experienced source.

All well and good until you realise Clooney is still a man! Her brain’s shorthand for the context of the mission involved a man being in a position of power over her, thus it is still a problematic scene.

So much for that fix, eh?

Shame, Sexuality and Video Games: A personal account

Recently, I have been both looking forward to and dreading Vanillaware’s upcoming Dragon’s Crown. Vanillaware have developed one of my favourite Wii games, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. So when I found out they were developing a game for the PS3, I began to salivate. Those familiar with Vanillaware’s games know that they are absolutely gorgeous. The thought of seeing amazing 2D artwork in HD and having a fun game underneath thrilled me to no end.

Then I saw the game…

It definitely is a gorgeous game, with beautiful environments and creature design, and amazingly smooth animation. I did, however, find myself deeply uncomfortable when I saw the player character art. The character design pays homage to the artwork that adorns low fantasy novels; muscular men and barely dressed women representing the pinacle of “masculine” and “feminine” virtue (from a certain perspective). Impossibly sculpted bodies one would expect of some deity and not a mortal. These physiques were representative of an ideal. It was not an ideal I really subscribed to, but it was nevertheless an ideal of some sort.

If you have a look at the character art for Dragon’s Crown, however, it appears the pulp covers of low fantasy were but a starting point. The end result being grotesquely exaggerated caricatures of an idealised human body that is at times disturbing and at others strangely fascinating. It is something that has already attracted commentary from both detractors and supporters and it is not my aim to parrot opinions in this piece.

What I want to do is work through having a game that I want to play because the gameplay looks genuinely fun to me, and a game that makes me feel uncomfortable due to its representation of the human form.

Through various events and thought experiments, a realisation has been dawning on me: I have an aversion to things related to sex and sexuality and I am confused and ashamed of the fact I am a sexual creature.

I have been confused about my sexuality for the past couple of years. Prior to this confusion, I had untreated depression and anxiety and so my libido was effectively suppressed. Life was easy and I could ignore any issues that may have cropped up.

However, after getting treatment, I must say I am feeling a lot happier more frequently, and for the most part, my anxiety is manageable. This has also come with an increase in my libido and a confusion about being attracted to people both romantically and sexually. I guess you could say I am dealing with teenage sexual identity issues in my mid 20s.

Having not really dealt with my libido much before this time, it feels alien and unnatural for me to feel any sort of sexual attraction to anyone, and the mere recognition that certain things can be viewed through the lens of sexuality makes me uncomfortable. I just haven’t had the time to work through these issues and I find myself on the back foot. I have been too embarrassed to raise these issues and concerns with my parents and my mental health professional, and I think I am beginning to view sex related topics as something to be embarrassed by and ashamed of.

I find I play as a female character in most games that allow me to customise my character or play as a pre-made female character. I have been jokingly asked if I do this so I can stare at the character’s ass while I play (something that seems both silly and counterproductive to me). I am also pretty sure that it’d be pretty hard to do so in a first person game =P

Anyway, ogling is not why I play female characters, in case that wasn’t clear.

I’ve finished Mass Effect 2 only once though I have attempted two playthroughs of it. The first run through, I played as Male Shepard and I did not feel at all connected to my character. However, playing through as Female Shepard allowed me to invest much more into the game. I felt more attached to my Shepard, and I wanted to see her story through to the end. Any moment where my Shepard was taunted or insulted, I felt personally insulted and any moment of triumph was similarly personal. I got none of this with the Male Shepard.

I’ve been wondering why I feel uncomfortable being around men in real life and why I dislike being reminded of my male-ness. I’ve cringed in the past at being called a man by a friend, yet my pronouns are still He/Him/His. It feels like I am cheating a little, but I’ve concluded that I’d rather be seen (by myself at least) as a genderless, or at the very least, not male entity. In video games, the easiest way to be non-male is to be female. I feel much more comfortable playing as a female character because I am not reminded all the time that I am male. In virtual spaces, a female avatar is what I feel most comfortable representing myself as, even though I don’t feel like I am female myself.

The gaming landscape is a strange place that handles sexual identity and gender identity in a number of ways, whether intentionally or not. The “everyone is bi” of Mass Effect, the homoerotic undertones of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, the male default of Minecraft’s Steve or the power fantasy that is Duke Nukem.

As a person confused, intimidated and ashamed by my own sexual identity, gender identity and by sexuality in media, it can make things more complex when choosing what to engage with. Coming back to Dragon’s Crown, if I were to ever pick up the game, I would play as the Elf. She is the least stylised of the female characters, a fact that has been co-opted by users of the internet to ridicule those who took offense at the portrail of women in the game (something that many feel strongly about given the prevalence of sexism in the industry. Use google if you need reading material). “She exposes her ears! Strumpet!” ring the cries o those who mock the offended. Insinuations of homosexuality sprout forth from the character designer. “You do not like exaggerated women? Then you must like these exaggerated men I drew in response to your (admittedly, not completely defensible) article! Ha!”

And everyone who wanted to have a discussion about the role of sex, sexuality and gender in games is reminded that for the most part, they won’t be able to find one.

And I am reminded that not only will I have to deal with personal anxieties and shame related to the subject when picking up a game such as Dragon’s Crown, but I will also be drowned in an ocean of writhing, wailing bodies unable to back down from their stance if I ever attempt to seek clarity or opinion online.

PS:

I thought I should put this here. It is a description of myself through the way I behave in an attempt to strip labels away. I seem to have only succeeded by the very end of it:

if we go by what we do, I am a cat-like self hating Indian man that is a biromantic heterosexual and kind of feels more comfortable not thinking of himself as male and if possible, representing himself as female in virtual spaces, because there doesn’t really seem to be a sex/gender-less avatar in most virtual spaces

Children of Men, or a powerful commodity?

So like Children of Men is one of my favourite movies of foreverrrr!!!!!

I was so very happy when it came out. It was a brilliantly bleak soft science fiction film, not without an odd sense of optimism that explored something I think is a very interesting topic.

So let’s set the scene. It is 20 minutes into the future and women have all become infertile. The world collapses and the last bastion of civilisation is an increasingly xenophobic and totalitarian UK. The UK has shut its boarders to foreigners and refugees are rounded up into camps and may/may not be executed. Also there have been no babies born for 18 years.

18 YEARS.

Also the film starts off with everyone being depressed because the world’s youngest person (who really came off as kind of a prick) is stabbed to death.

So far so interesting, no?

The *really* interesting part comes when our main character is introduced to a woman who, beyond all odds, turned out to be pregnant. This is a huge shock to him. Bigger than Ben Hur, and that was pretty dang big to begin with. What complicates issues is that said woman is a refugee.

Being the world’s first pregnant woman in 18 years and being a refugee in a totalitarian, xenophobic country makes things complicated for the poor woman. People start moving to utilise her and her body for their own political, social, or monetary gains. Our hapless main character is tasked with escorting her to a safe haven that may or may not exist.

The real meat of the film comes in the form of these sociopolitical tussles between an extremist group that wants to use the woman and her baby as a symbol of hope to help topple the government, and the looming threat that if the government finds her, they will make her deliver the baby, kill her and claim the baby is born of a local woman.

The idea that a woman can be reduced to nothing more than a biological function in the eyes of various political factions is a scary one indeed. The situation is one opposite of abortion, where the woman just wants to give birth to her child in peace, but there is an underlying unifying issue here. The issue the film is getting at is the lack of decision making power the woman has regarding to the functioning of her own body.

With abortion, the woman’s choice in the matter is often overlooked because the issue of murder comes in. The issue becomes a political, social, and religious matter first, and a matter of an individual’s choice in how their body functions second. It becomes a matter of whether taking a life is ever permissible or morally justifiable. Once this question is resolved, the issue of the woman’s choice of what to do with her body can then be addressed. The woman’s choice is already shifted back in favour of the consideration of the nature of death. It is a political issue because governments are afraid of offending potential voting demographics with unpopular decisions. It is a social issue because if taking a life is murder in all cases (i.e. immoral and unjustifiable) then the woman is a monster. It becomes a religious issue because life is sacred and it goes beyond a mere moral wrong. It becomes an affront to God to go against his design.

With the movie, the woman’s choice in the matter is overlooked because of the important political and social implications of a woman who is a foreigner being pregnant. It becomes a political issue because ascribing the level of importance a pregnant woman would have to a foreigner would fly in the face of the government’s stance on foreigners. It becomes a social issue because people fighting for social change want to use the woman and her body and her status as a refugee as a catalyst for said social change. It becomes a monetary issue because some people want to sell her and her baby to the highest bidder. Never is the woman’s opinion considered. In all cases these people want to use her body for their own ends and they view her as an entity that performs a specific biological function first and a fellow human being never.

Really, rights are nebulous things and I do not think there are any ‘natural’ rights or laws that make humans particularly special or human life particularly worth protecting. By this I mean there is no objective worth to human life. There will always be subjective worth. I know I was personally struck hard when a friend of mine committed suicide, so I know that life can mean a lot to people. I am just afraid of the ‘value’ of life being perverted and used by groups to push their agendas upon others.

So a good, thought provoking, depressing and hopeful soft science fiction film. Well done all involved.

On Fans and Mr Lucas

Appeared on Youtube not too long after Mr Lucas announced his desire to retire from making big budget movies. I do feel sorry for the man, but surely he must be able to see some of the incredible tonal and structural changes such tiny edits to the film have made. Han Solo is now missing character development because of him not having shot first, for example. The Hitchcockian suspense built when we see Han kill Greedo relatively unprovoked before taking Luke and Obi Wan on board is also lost. In the original version, Han is an unpredictable criminal in it for the money. In Lucas’ update, his attempt to clearly delineate light and dark sides causes him to make Han’s action reactionary and undercut any of the tension to be found in Han’s early relationship with the other characters. In attempting to make Han a more clearly good character, he made Han a less interesting character, and made the film less interesting as a result.

So, this just impacts on the early portion of the film, right? So what? Small change to an event of the film results in small change in the tone of the beginning of the film. At least we still have the iconic trench run at the end, right? The original Theatrical cut of Star Wars had presented Han as a self interested criminal up until the very end of the film. He only helped Luke save Lea because she was a princess and he wanted a reward. He only flew them back to the rebel base because he was saving his own neck. Hell, when the Death Star arrived, he left them because his job was done! Why unnecessarily endanger himself after he’s finished with his obligations? His sudden return to the aid of Luke is exactly that, sudden and surprising. Just when all hope was lost, Han had a change of heart and wanted to fight for these people he had come to know during the course of the movie rather then leave them to die. This marks the end of his character arc, moving him from self interested smuggler to jerk with a heart of gold.

In Lucas’ update, Han is always good. Why should we be all that surprised when he returns to help Luke at the end? Why is this scene as significant in the movie? What does it say about his character? If anything, I think it undermines Lucas’ message more than it serves to help it. If Han was always good, he would never have learnt the value of fighting for friends and loved ones as he did in the Theatrical edition because he would never need to. In the Theatrical edition, Luke’s conviction and purity, along with his belief in upholding the ideals of the light side rub off on Han, illustrating that people can have a positive influence on others through their actions and beliefs. This message is much more evident in the theatrical version where Han was of grey morality rather than white.

One small change to an event in the movie had far reaching consequences. It changed the tone of the movie and undermined its message of inspiring change and bringing out the goodness in others. I believe it was foolish for Lucas to change Han’s character in such a way for the benefit of children because really, a more important lesson for children is being diluted in the process!!

Let’s not get into how he was initially against film makers making post release revisions to films they made. I do not have the details to do it justice and I am sure that has been covered many times before.

Also for those of you wondering why my definition of Hitchcockian suspense seems to sound more like “Suspense is when there is a discrepancy between the knowledge of the audience and the characters” rather than “If it’s suggested and left up to the audience to imagine, it is scarier”, you can check out this lovely article which has a wonderful illustration of the point. (I suggest you read the article before watching the videos I linked).

Paraphrasing: Suspense is knowing something that the characters don’t know, e.g. the person who runs the motel they checked in is really a murderer. Us and the characters not knowing and then being surprised by an unforeseen event is exactly that, a surprise.

Getting back to Mr Lucas’ announcement regarding his retirement from big budget movies. I would very much like to see what he is capable off with a smaller budget and less technology backing him up. Let’s hope he can see beyond the visuals and into the heart of the film. ❤

I shall sign off, for I have taken up enough of your time with these musings. Bye!