22 Jan 2014

Gravity’s Pull

by Peter Krämer and Rupert Read

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

The true miracle is not walking on water or walking on air, 
but simply walking on this earth - Tich Nhat Hanh

Let’s begin by acknowledging that Gravity is a very unusual Hollywood blockbuster (here's the trailer). Basically it is a story about a single character, cut off from the rest of humanity for most of the duration of the film. And this character is a woman (unlike Robinson Crusoe and his Hollywood descendants, including the character played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and the Robert Redford character in All is Lost). The film itself acknowledges that its focus on a female character is unusual. The character is called Ryan Stone because, she explains to mission commander Matthew Kowalski, her parents wanted a boy. In other words: the woman at the centre of this movie is taking up a place usually reserved for men. She may have been ‘unwanted’ - but there she is.

The fact that Ryan Stone is female is crucial for the story because it makes it possible for her once to have given birth to a child. She is (was) a mother. This allows the film to focus on the primary and most primal bond between two human beings - that between mother and child - and on the sense of loss that comes with the severance of that bond. At the same time, Gravity’s dialogue refers to our planet as ‘Mother Earth’, so that Stone, cut off from other people, appears as that Mother’s daughter who is herself about to be lost. We can go even further: Earth is a giant rock in space, and the woman at the centre of this story is a ‘stone’ circling around it (and if she were to die up there, she would, after a while, be as inert and cold as stone). This intimate character study and the spectacular space adventure are thus presented in close parallel with each other.

Let’s take a look at the character study first. Ryan Stone’s daughter Sarah died in an accident when she was four years old, and Stone has never been able to process that loss. In some ways her life has been suspended ever since (could we say that she has almost turned to stone?) She says that since Sarah’s death her life has consisted of nothing but work (as a doctor in a hospital) and driving from and to work (while listening to music - never talk - which fills the void surrounding her).

On two occasions during the film (in conversation with Kowalski at the beginning and in a monologue towards the end) Stone states explicitly that she does not have any intimate bonds with anyone. There appears to be no boyfriend, nor does she seem to be close to the father of her child. She does not mention her parents or any siblings - presumably because the former are dead and there aren’t any of the latter (or, if there are, she isn’t close to them). Nor does she appear to have any friends. Perhaps she intentionally keeps her distance from people because she does not want to experience another devastating loss.

Now, what better way could there be to keep one’s distance from other people than to go into space? Indeed, Stone hints at this motivation when she responds to Kowalski’s question what she likes most about space with ‘silence’ - that is, one presumes, the absence of the noises made by human beings (rather than the absence of the sounds of the natural world, although, as we will see, on some level she might long for the absolute silence of death). Of course, at this point, there is no silence, because she is talking to Kowalski, and even when he is silent, the tinny music he listens to can be heard. There is a tension, then, between Stone’s desire for silence (she isn’t keen, early in the film, on Kowalski’s constant verbal burbling) and her need nevertheless for verbal communication (and perhaps music). The need for verbal communication – for connection with others – is something that becomes clearer as the action of the film proceeds.

Intriguingly, there might be a parallel to this in Kowalski’s entire story: he is a raconteur in space, relaying tales about life on Earth, which revolve around failed human connections (an ex-wife who cheated on him, a Mardi Gras date that is over before it even begins). His ambition in life is to go on the longest space walk in history, floating around the Earth all on his own. And he gets to realise this ambition. The circumstances are tragic, but also slightly ambiguous: He has saved Stone after a terrible accident in space, and she ends up holding on to a tether that prevents him from spinning off into space - and death. He argues that she won’t be able to pull him in because her own ties to the space shuttle are too tenuous; instead he will pull her with him into space - unless he severs their bond, which he does very quickly, indeed possibly almost eagerly. Is this just a noble sacrifice, or does it also have a tacit semi-suicidal dimension?

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

In any case, it is a crucial moment. Ryan Stone may have gone to space to keep her distance from people and to find silence; if that is the case, she gets more than she bargained for. The accident in space cuts off all communication with Earth and kills all crewmembers of the space shuttle except for her and Kowalski - who now leaves her behind (although he will be able to speak with her for a little while longer). At the same time, Kowalski’s almost-eager noble sacrifice points to his willingness to cut his links with humanity for good - and to die all alone. Importantly, Stone refuses for a while to accept his apparently inevitable loss.

The film does not fill in all the psychological details, but it does suggest that space - and eventually death - is a void that some people, especially those who have lost loved ones, may want to escape into so as to prevent further suffering arising from their bonds to others. Stone herself suggests this when she later imagines Kowalski’s magical return which, in a powerfully-filmed scene that one experiences largely from Stone’s point of view, is not initially signalled as her fantasy but is eventually revealed to be just that. In this fantasy, Kowalski gently accuses her of wanting an easy way out of life’s struggles by giving up the fight to survive, instead peacefully going to sleep until she is poisoned by carbon monoxide. This is indeed what Stone is trying to do - but it is also, one might say, what Kowalski has already done.[i]

Stone’s will to live is revived by her fantasy of Kowalski’s return. On some level, perhaps, this fantasy establishes the kind of link to another person, which, she says, she no longer has on Earth. She feels connected to Kowalski who (in her fantasy) knows her well enough to identify her wish to die and who cares about her enough to confront her about it so as to change her mind. At the same time, of course, this very fantasy ensures that, at least in her mind, in her soul, Kowalski is still alive; death is not the end. (We will return to this point.)

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

Not coincidentally, we think, her last words to him (to the person she remembers) concern her daughter; she asks him to look out for her in the afterlife. Earlier on she seemed to believe that only death could re-unite her with Sarah, but perhaps now she knows that her daughter is with her, just like Kowalski, as long as she can imagine her. Some of the dialogue in this sequence (which is in fact the monologue of a woman who secretly wants to talk herself out of committing suicide) might be claimed to be all too clichéd - but the central idea seems valid, and indeed deep: We can accept the loss of loved ones better if we think that, because we have shared so much with them, they do live on in us, which in turn gives us a reason to go on.

Later on, Stone is reminded of such bonds when she establishes radio contact with a man on Earth - not someone from the space centre in Houston, as she had hoped, but a radio amateur who speaks in a language unknown to her, but manages to communicate something important anyway by bringing a dog’s voice to the microphone and then (closer still) a baby. Stone is (ambiguously, tenuously) delighted when she hears him singing to the baby, perhaps because it reminds her of her singing to Sarah and also her having been sung to by her own parents. This temporarily renews her sense of human interconnectedness and perhaps undergirds her decision, after an internal struggle, to struggle on.

Gravity, then, deals with grief. And here our argument is supported by the wonderful fact that the Latin root of our word grief is the same as that for our word gravity. ‘Gravis’ is the common root of gravity, heaviness, and grief. Grief and gravity, in our historical subconscious, are the same thing: the grave, the heavy, that pulls us down and grounds us. Grief, we would argue, centrally concerns a refusal to allow that the world no longer includes the dead person.[ii] Both phenomenologically (i.e. in terms of our lived experience) and logically (i.e. conceptually), grief is the pain of a ruptured life-world. Grief is the lived refusal to accept that someone important has been taken from us. For when that person was a constitutive element of our world, an over-hasty acceptance of their exit would mean that we were not really denizens of that world, but merely observers of it, merely passing through rather than living, inhabiting.

Grief is rational, for it is rational to have a world, and to care about those in it. Indeed, we would suggest that grief is essential to our humanity. One would have to be some kind of inhuman monster, and/or disabled in a profound way, not to feel grief under appropriate circumstances. However, grief can be pathological if it becomes permanent, turning into depression. Stone is letting go of that depression, at last, when she overcomes her desire for death and realises that, due to their shared experiences, their influence, their values, her daughter (and also Kowalski) lives on in her. Thus, grief - and Gravity - is a forceful reminder of the ‘fact’ (that is deeper than any mere fact) that we are not separate from another, but always connected, even beyond death. (In this sense, to vary William Faulkner: The dead aren’t dead. They’re not even past.)  The film is thus about accepting (inter)dependency, rather than striving for independence (this striving being so closely associated with American culture). Interdependence - and none more so than the relationship between mother and child - makes us vulnerable but it also ensures that we live on in each other.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

Gravity adds another dimension to its renunciation of depression and its plea for life, which is to emphasise and make palpable the sheer excitement life can generate. Right from the beginning of the film, we find ourselves moving around in space high above the Earth, enjoying breathtaking vistas but also soon experiencing extreme danger and utterly disorienting movement. Initially, the film’s largely computer generated imagery creates the illusion of a camera’s continuous movement around spacecraft and bodies, and also into the very positions from which characters view the world around them (such subjective point of views being signalled by the clouding of space helmets which partially obstructs our vision). The deployment of director Alfonso Cuaron’s trademark ultra-long tracking- and panning-shots in Gravity is a technical tour de force, which may draw attention to its own virtuosity, but also adds to the film’s thematic concern with the connectedness of inside and outside, character study and space adventure. (Later on, conventional - and less noticeable - editing, moving from objective to subjective shots, achieves the same effect.)

In any case, spectacular views of Earth and space, and rapid camera movement provide us viewers with (the illusion of) a visceral experience, especially when watching the film in 3D. As first Kowalski and then much later Stone says: ‘It’s a hell of a ride!’ ‘Ride’ here initially refers to space travel, but, more generally, to human life - and also to the film we are watching. In other words, the film takes us on a ride, which is meant to remind us of the thrill of being alive. This continues for most of the story, which moves from exterior space to the interiors of various spacecraft until, finally, Stone plunges back to Earth in a small capsule.

Before we get to this point, the film examines the ambiguities of space exploration. Stone is in space because a device she developed for use in hospitals can also be used in the Hubble space telescope that, we are told, is designed to reach out to, and gather information from, ‘the edge of the universe’. Thus, exploring and healing the human body is connected to the exploration of the whole universe; looking inward and looking outward are two sides of the same coin.

The film never mentions the physical exploration of outer space - manned and unmanned spacecraft escaping Earth’s gravity altogether so as to go to the Moon and beyond. This is part of its much-greater realism than most of its predecessors as to the nature of life in space – which is likely to be virtually impossible for healthy human beings for periods longer than a few months, or at most years. Instead, in this film, people and their craft remain in Earth’s orbit, which provides them with spectacular views of the planet’s surface. Indeed, Kowalski’s last words - while drifting off to his death in space - concern the beauty of Earth and thus, it is implied, of life, and they are spoken precisely so as to give Stone a reason to go on. He speaks of the beauty of the sun shining on the Ganges in the hope that this great, glorious, grave beauty, together with Earth’s gravity, will pull Stone home.

However, the view from space has another dimension. Where there is night on Earth, the artificial light resulting from human habitation looks like a slow burning fire destroying everything in its way (like lava flowing off a volcano). In a tradition going back to the first widely disseminated pictures of the Earth in space (notably the ones known as ‘Earthrise’ and ‘Blue Marble’ from the late 1960s and early 1970s), seeing the globe reveals both its beauty and its vulnerability.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth" - Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, Apollo 8.  'Earthrise', 1968, NASA 
Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
'Blue Marble', Apollo 17, 1972. Harrison Schmitt/Nasa

At the same time, near-Earth space is shown to be a new habitat for humans, who fill it up with various spacecraft. Two permanent space stations (an international one and a Chinese one) are pioneering outposts of humanity, with, possibly, significant waves of human migration to follow so that we might imagine that, like all the continents of Earth before, space as well may be colonised. Yet, this, and more generally the human use, the ‘development’, of space, is by no means unproblematic, because with human habitation comes environmental destruction (through new forms of pollution) - even in space.

When a Russian rocket destroys one of the Russians’ own satellites (a spy satellite with sensitive technology it would seem), a chain reaction is triggered, whereby debris from the first satellite slams into other spacecraft creating more debris etc. This (a realistic potential scenario) is the cause of the accident that kills all members of the space mission Stone belongs to - and also leads to the abandonment of the two space stations she flies to in search of an escape capsule. With accumulating space debris forever circling the Earth, humanity’s colonisation of near-Earth space has already begun to cancel itself out.

In this context, the film’s title takes on a range of meanings. Most banally, one might say, the story concerns a serious, ‘grave’ situation - Stone finding herself stranded in space as the lone survivor of an accident. The ‘gravity’ of this situation is intensified precisely by the fact that any outside help would now have to overcome the pull of Earth’s gravity so as to join her in orbit - and by the fact that space debris is held in the very same orbit by Earth’s gravity. Even if it was not extremely difficult to send a rocket to her rescue, such a rescue mission would be almost impossible due to the dangerous debris circling the Earth.

We can also note that Stone herself is circling the planet at great speed, so that the centrifugal force created by her movement balances the pull of Earth’s gravity, creating the experience of weightlessness. Complementing the pervasive imagery of tethers - tenuous, yet vital links between people or between people and spacecraft -, Stone’s floating in space is the result precisely of being tethered to Earth by the planet’s gravity. Rather than drifting off into empty space, she continues to be connected to Mother Earth by a kind of ethereal umbilical cord.

When she finally manages to find a spacecraft with which to return from her orbit to the planet’s surface, gravity is a potentially deadly force. Gravity accelerates the plunging capsule so much that it almost burns in the atmosphere - and yet it is only the pull of gravity that can bring her home. And here we are reminded of the trauma Stone has been trying to escape from: Her daughter played at school and fell down, gravity (together with her own momentum) pulling her to the ground with such force that she broke her neck. At the end of the film, then, we are reminded of the deadliness of gravity - and also of the fact that it is the basis of our lives. This reiterates, on another, global level, the central point we have made before: The film’s focus on grief serves to emphasise the fact that humans are dependent on each other, which makes them both profoundly vulnerable and indestructible. Similarly, the film’s focus on gravity expresses our dependency on the Earth - it ties us, sometimes pulls us, down, and also gives us life as well as a kind of material afterlife, because eventually our bodies become earth.

Now, Stone’s return to Earth is presented in archetypal imagery. She confronts the four basic elements of old: the air of the atmosphere, the fire that almost burns her capsule, the water of the sea into which the capsule falls, and the earth she crawls on to afterwards. There is also the eerie vision of what appears to be virgin land, untouched by human habitation, a kind of paradise which Stone is allowed to (re)enter – while the radio messages on the soundtrack have assured us that she is not in fact alone, that human company is on the way. Gravity thus depicts both the continuity of human connections and the promise of a new beginning, not just for Stone but also, perhaps, for humankind.[iii] The film emphasises the fact that she has to come very close to death before she can step on the Earth again; to be born again, first one has to die. As soon as she opens the capsule, it fills with water and sinks, and when she escapes from it, her space suit fills with water as well, dragging her down (Stone is indeed sinking like a stone). The technological devices that have protected her in space (capsule and suit) have to be abandoned for survival and a new beginning to become possible.

It is only after she has come very close to death for the second time that Stone can finally make her way back to the surface and to land. In retrospect, the capsule filling with water and the sea appear both as death traps and as wombs from which she is born again, her movement echoing the development of life on Earth - from water to land, and, on land, from crawling to walking. Indeed, the film includes a reminder of this development by briefly focusing on a frog swimming upwards, like its amphibian ancestors that were the first to make the transition from water to land (and whose descendants are proving the most vulnerable of all to anthropogenic extinction). Another reminder of broader developments is Stone’s passionate embrace of mud, the mud that provided living space for the first creatures to emerge from the sea. She says ‘Thank you’, looking down into the mud. Perhaps she is addressing a divine entity she believes in, or, possibly, the people who helped her get to this point (especially Kowalski, also the nameless radio amateur), or even the gravity that pulled her down, or, most likely, the Earth itself, producing this gravity, and its fertile soil (earth) that is here represented by this mud.

Finally, there is Stone’s struggle to get back on her feet (once again echoing untold millions of years of evolution). At the very end of the film, it takes every effort for her to stand up, finally towering majestically above the camera (which stays on the ground, looking up to her). It is hard to stand up and walk, as hard as it has been for Stone to overcome depression and return to life, return to the Earth. It is hard to accept and to cope with the pull. And it is wonderful.

Importantly, this final shot contains a reminder of the presence of the camera - similar to the breath clouding helmets in earlier point-of-view-shots and to reflections and refractions of light on the camera’s lens in numerous other shots. Here it is mud and water which has been splashed onto the lens by Stone’s movements. As the camera is positioned on the ground, we can say that the dirt on the lens reminds us of its - and our - immersion in and reliance on mud, the same mud that Stone clawed into and cherished after having extracted herself from the water.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

It also reminds us of course of the very existence of the camera and the fact that we are watching a movie. Thus, it is equivalent to the direct looks at the camera in the last frames of the action in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Avatar (two films we have previously written about for the ThinkingFilmCollective). Both films revolve centrally, like Gravity, around the idea of re-birth (an astronaut being reborn as a Star Child, a human being reborn as a Na'vi) and around the need, and the possibility, to gain a new perspective on the world we live in (on): The Star Child gazes at the Earth before it turns towards the camera, and Jake Sully abandons his human body so as to be able to live permanently in the (for humans so hostile) environment of Pandora. When they both stare at the camera and, through it, at us, the films remind us that what is at stake in these stories is our perspective as well. Are we willing to see the world anew? And what might we be willing to do as a consequence of our new perspective? Might we, for instance. decide not to give up on the challenges we face today? We are talking now about us as individuals, us as part perhaps of a movement – and us as a species. Gravity ‘s ending addresses us in the same way, serving like that of 2001 and Avatar as a call to action.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
The ‘alienation effect’ of the mud hitting the camera is, we would suggest, the film’s final invitation to its viewers to heed its call, to think about what is offered in the experience of the film, to be reminded, in Wittgenstein’s sense, of what one utterly knows but can be persuaded by ideology to forget: in this case, that life on Earth is so worth saving, and that (for the foreseeable future) life for us is only possible on or near Earth. Thus the film seeks to transform us by returning us to life, to the awareness of the wonder of this life, and to the ‘fact’ (that is once again greater than any mere fact) that being alive is a gift not to be discarded. For Gravity’s space adventure ends with a renewed appreciation of many of the fundamentals of life on Earth - breathable air, fertile soil which is also the ground we can walk on, as well as great bodies of water that first nurtured life on this planet, and just as importantly, the human interconnectedness which sustains us. The space adventure in the film here stands in for the film itself, Stone’s journey representing that of every viewer: We let ourselves be taken into space by the film so as to return from this journey, just like Stone, with a renewed appreciation of our everyday surroundings, knowing them, and knowing our way about in them, perhaps, for the first time. In other words: The film is not a means of escape from our world; even when we appear to float in (its) space, we are tethered to our regular lives, not least by the pull of gravity we experience in our seats in the auditorium (and by the proximity of other people sharing our experience). Gravity is a constant reminder of our utterly-essential connection to the Earth (and to each other) - as is Gravity.

[i] All of this is somewhat reminiscent of the harrowing Ray Bradbury story 'No Particular Night or Morning' from The Illustrated Man. Here a man suffers terrible loss on Earth and goes into space to disconnect himself from everything that could produce further pain, eventually denying the very existence of the past and of ever more aspects of the present, including his own body, which he experienced as extremely vulnerable when a meteor hit the spaceship; in the end he drifts into empty space in his space suit, accepting only the existence of his own mind. The difference is that Bradbury’s story is very much a meditation on scepticism as to other minds (or solipsism) as a disastrous philosophical challenge, whereas Gravity is interested in solipsism only as an (un-)ethical, self-protective temptation. The difference between 'No particular Night or Morning' and Gravity then is the difference between something that can be lived only at the cost of psychosis and something that can be lived more easily – at the cost of neurosis. It is the difference that Stanley Cavell famously describes as the difference between madness and tragedy. Gravity is interested in the latter, in depression, separateness, and the temptation to retreat from life, from the vulnerability that comes with one’s inevitable attachment to others. At the same time, Gravity replays many aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the dead astronaut Frank Poole’s body drifting away into space; the tenacity with which the lone survivor of the Jupiter mission, David Bowman, clings to life and eventually is able to return home, after he is reborn, from his death bed, as a Star Child; and much else. In particular it is worth noting that the curve of the astronauts’ helmets in Gravity echoes the curve of the Star Child’s protective cocoon, and that in some shots Stone adopts a foetal position and slowly spins around like the foetal Star Child in 2001.
[ii] See Read’s examination of ‘The logic of grief’, forthcoming.
[iii] Once more, echoes of 2001 here.

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