Talking Movies

February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

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I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

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August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

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