Right now it’s next to impossible to go to a movie with no preconceived notions. For those of us who spend too much energy in the film blogosphere, by the time a movie actually comes out we’ve seen the trailers, read the reviews, heard the hype, seen the interviews and read tweets about how this film is amazing/terrible/mediocre. So when I go into a first-run movie, I usually know what to expect.
Last weekend, I finally got to see Gravity. As had been promised, it was a remarkable film. The use of 3D was one of the best I’ve ever seen, which hopefully bodes well for the future of the medium. Sandra Bullock’s ability to make us feel deeply for a character without knowing much about her, was moving as well as necessary. It moved the film from being a fascinating gimmick (that spinning camera) into the realm of good storytelling. I came out of the cinema impressed by the cinematography, moved by the story. But I must admit that I did not feel as though my cinematic understanding had been expanded.
Much of what I heard about Gravity was that it was ‘the greatest space movie ever made.’ I take those sorts of statements with a grain of salt – they’re usually either from people who are very excited about the movie they’ve just seen and want to express it in a deliberate hyperbole; or from people who haven’t actually seen that many movies. But what did strike me about a lot of the Gravity buzz is one word that I heard repeated several times, and that I did not think fit the film I saw: masterpiece.
There’s a difference between a film that represents good filmmaking, and a film that is a masterpiece. A good piece of film may be visually and aurally impressive. It may be well-written. It may tell a good story. But I feel that there’s is a division between technical achievement in one or more areas, and actual masterpieces. A film can be technically brilliant or even important (see: Avatar) and still be lacking the emotional, philosophical or artistic underpinnings of a masterpiece. Masterpieces are works of art – we might praise Van Gogh for his brushstrokes, but the technique means nothing without the emotional or philosophical tenor in the work as a whole.
I suppose that what I call masterpieces are works that act in subtlety and not bombardment. I don’t think that a masterpiece can wear its heart on its sleeve, yet it must be both personal and universal. A character study, an epic, a comedy, a tragedy; it can fall in any genre, and address any multitude of meanings. Lawrence of Arabia, Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows – these are masterpieces to me. We often debate what is art and what is not, and in the end it seems that it’s about how the work affects you. Are you moved by it, and looking deeply into it, can it move all the more? Is it emotional, intellectual, visceral? The camera might provide a sense of vertigo, but once you have made it past that initial perception, does it mean anything?
Where I think Gravity fails is within its interpretative discourse. Gravity does not really have much to say that hasn’t been said before. The attempts at religious overtones fall flat; the pop-level psychological/spiritual dimensions of the film seem to take away from the experience of helplessness and terror which the film does so effectively. It proposes, I think, too many solutions to an existential experience. It attempts to inject a philosophical discourse into a film which would be better served by simply allowing the events to happen and the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Must we see the interior difficulties of Bullock’s character? Did we really need the tragic family backstory to be so perfectly spelled out for us? Gravity lacks subtlety in its convictions; it poses no interpretative mystery.
This is not saying that Gravity has no value, merely that to compare it to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey does disservice to both. And many will disagree with me, about Gravity – as, indeed, they already have. Still, in drawing the distinction though between good technical filmmaking and a masterpiece, I think we face an important challenge. Art is about showing the qualities of our world, our species, our universe, as well as our minds, emotions, personalities. It is about saying a great deal about the world, and saying a great deal about one person at the same time. It is not just a good story that affects us, but our relationship to that story, our feelings about it, our belief in it. So it seems that a masterpiece of cinema must be both something that we can all relate to, and yet something terribly specific.
Certainly this is all in the eye of the beholder, and perhaps I’m making an arbitrary distinction. Not all films strive to be masterpieces. There is as much to be said about the ones that are simply good stories as there is about the ‘important’ works. I don’t know that we should value one above the other. They both say something about our culture, our society, and ourselves. But just as we value entertainment, we should also value art. I would never write off Gravity because I don’t consider it a masterpiece. I would, however, argue that it is not as interesting, important or ground-breaking a film, in so many ways, as 2001: A Space Odyssey. And that is not because one is old and the other is new, one is Kubrick and the other is Cuaron. It is because 2001 still has more to say about the nature of our world, our universe and humanity’s place in it, than Gravity ever thought about.
*This editorial sprang out of a Facebook discussion between myself, Andrew Crump, Nick Jobe, Pat McDonnell and Keith Derrick. Smart dudes. I hope I did some justice to it.*