Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A metaphor for me, a metaphor for you

This past weekend my wife had arranged for a special birthday experience for me (technically I suppose you could say “belated birthday experience” but that is not only churlish but also such a technicality as to render itself moot; it’s not as if I could have gone gallivanting about on my actual birthday when it was Tuesday and I had to go to work) wherein she hired a sitter and the two of us went to the (reasonably) nearby Alamo Drafthouse for lunch and a movie. I had been intrigued about the Alamo since I heard it had opened (which come to think of it might have been some time last year) and it really acquitted itself with distinction compared to how I had built it up in my mind. We got there early enough to hit the bar, where we ordered a flight of four tasting-size craft beers, all of which were delicious. Then we went into the theater and ordered appetizers, lunch, dessert, plus popcorn and soda (and one more beer for me) and it was all excellent, far and away better than the food at a moviehouse has any right to be. In and of itself, the afternoon’s gluttony might have been worth the price of admission.

But we were there to watch a movie, specifically Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Now, I know that there is an understandable human tendency to inflate our own sense of enjoyment of a thing the harder it is to come by. All else being equal, people just generally will say they liked a movie more if they made the effort to drive to the multiplex and ponied up the money for a ticket than if they borrowed someone else’s DVD and watched it at home. And that goes double for me, since I go to the movies so rarely and desperately want to believe that whenever I do, it’s the best possible use of my time. (Or, failing that, the worst.) All to say I may very well be biased, but you guys, Cuarón is a freaking genius, and Gravity is amazing.

It’s impressive as a feat of movie-making, at almost every level, from the camerawork to the sound to the acting to the special effects. It’s astonishingly immersive (seeing it larger-than-life on the big screen always helps in that regard) to the point where my wife and I were discussing at length during the drive back home how it was a movie we felt just as much as we saw or heard it. It’s emotionally harrowing and physically exhausting, with the lines between those experiences extremely hard to distinguish most of the time.

Of course, in this brave new world we live in of contrarianism and democratic self-publication, any time a piece of really gripping entertainment comes along there’s going to be a chorus of people who enjoy it early on and urge everyone else to go enjoy it as well, and then there’s going to be an inevitable backlash of people pointing out that, um, actually, it’s not perfect or anything. And that’s fair, nothing’s perfect. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions and it certainly is frustrating to feel like the one person not taking crazy pills. I’m not so tightly lashed to the Gravity bandwagon that I feel personally affronted if someone else criticizes it, but at the same time, I do feel like there are some people who might have missed the point a little.


A lot of the early buzz for Gravity dwelled on the verisimilitude of the movie’s outer space setting. Of course a lot of that buzz was written by professional movie critics, and then the flick was widely released and physics nerds saw it and began calling out all the scientific inaccuracies up on screen. I happen to be a big fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson so I checked out some of his tweets and some of them were things I too had noticed (like how Sandra Bullock’s hair never floats weightlessly the way her whole body seems to) and some were things I never would have known (like how some of the satellite orbits depicted are going exactly backwards compared to their real-world analogues). It was all scientifically valid nitpickery.

Somewhere else I read someone (who will remain nameless because they don’t rate a cool webcomic avatar) who was lamenting the shoehorning in of a tragic backstory for Sandra Bullock’s character. It was unnecessary, they claimed, as unnecessary as the deleted scenes from the original theatrical release of Aliens in which Ripley got similar emotional baggage. Cameron ultimately understood that the propulsive plot of the movie was enough to get the audience invested in Ripley’s fate, and Cuarón should have had the same faith in Ryan Stone’s struggle to survive and return safely to Earth.

That’s … slightly less valid. But one thing at a time.

To address the physicists and the astronomers first, I really have no beef with those guys. Most of them have been gracious and essentially acknowledge they are just playing a spot-the-goof parlor game for their own amusement. None of them are saying Gravity actually sucks and everyone is stupid for liking it; they're just showing off their big science brains, and more power to them. The thing is, Cuarón never boasted that he was making a scientifically unimpeachable movie, never dared the engineers of the world to poke holes in his thought experiment. He’s not trying to sell the movie to schools to replace science textbooks, and won’t somebody think of the children? If anybody thought the triumph or failure of Gravity as a piece of narrative art resided in its strictly abiding by realism, they’d be egregiously off-base. But nobody seems to be thinking that.

Now, as far as what is and is not germane to the story that Cuarón is trying to tell, it truly boggles my mind that anyone would think the backstory about Ryan Stone having lost her daughter is extraneous. That is what the movie is all about! It’s not a trifling, throwaway detail trying to wring some cheap sympathy out of the audience in the midst of a standard techno-thriller. It is the key to understanding the film, not as an adventure tale about a space shuttle mission gone wrong, but as a meditation on the grieving process. The entire movie is a metaphor.

Think about it: Ryan is going about her business, doing her job, installing a new whatzit on the Hubble Space Telescope. Then, without warning, there is a terrible accident. She becomes completely unmoored, tumbling blindly through the void. Someone reaches out to her (this would be George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski character) and guides her forward when she is helpless to move herself. She can barely breathe. Just when things seem to be getting better, Matt’s support goes away. She panics. She tries doing what needs to be done, but everything is topsy turvy. Very little makes sense to her (because at this point she’s on the Soyuz and everything’s in Russian). When she runs into an impossible challenge, she seriously contemplates suicide. But she decides she wants to survive and is going to live. Things don’t immediately get better at that point, in fact they get rougher and rougher, but eventually she makes it back to terra firma.

It’s when Matt is towing her to the International Space Station that Ryan explains how her young daughter fell and hit her head and died, just a “stupid accident”. The storm of space debris that repeatedly threatens Ryan’s life is also an accidental outcome, but that connection is anything but an accident. For cheap sympathy, Ryan’s daughter could have died of cystic fibrosis, or in a school shooting, or any number of ways that were either non-sudden or provided a third party to blame. Instead it’s an explicit connection, underlining the idea that grieving the death of a loved can feel as disorienting and isolating as being an astronaut adrift, weightless and untethered.

It’s a beautiful metaphor, and that (I presume to posit) is what Cuarón is really after in the movie. With masterful use of camera angles and movement and shot composition, the audience physically, viscerally feels everything Ryan Stone is feeling, all the vertigo and panic and claustrophobia, every single jarring impact, basically each conceivable mental symptom of grief, literalized in the narrative. And yet the movie ends with a message of hope. Ryan survives. At the end of the film she is literally back on her feet on solid ground. Grief is not an experience people want to go through, and some people are ultimately undone by it. But it can and does end. Life goes on.

So, Gravity is art, a $100 million attempt to grapple with this aspect of human existence, and to temporarily bring the audience into it. If the film had cheesy special effects, or blatant violations of a child’s understanding of physical cause and effect, then it would fail in the attempt. It has to be close enough for suspension of disbelief to allow for gut-level identification. If Cuarón deemed various things “close enough” to being scientifically accurate, and erred on the side of what served the art rather than the science, I can’t fault him for that. But make no mistake, nothing is shoehorned into the movie.

Funny enough, thinking about this helped me put a finger on a troubling aspect of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tv show, even before watching this weeks’s episode, the series’ third. And then, in a coincidence I would not dare invent but can't bear to pass up acknowledging, last night's installment of S.H.I.E.L.D. was all about gravity, too! Specifically it was about a (fictional and unapologetically absurd) element called gravitonium which could create gravitational disturbances capable of upending tractor trailers or sinking an island and killing everyone on it.

(A character named Dr. Franklin Hall was a major part of the plot as well, and that is in fact the civilian alter ego of Avengers-opponent Graviton, whom I had previously suggested be incorporated into the MCU. As if gravitonium was not enough of a giveaway that they were building up to Graviton, the bumper at episode’s end showed a hand, presumably Hall’s, reaching out from the lethal element core in the S.H.I.E.L.D. holding facility. I’m geeked about this, but sadly the casting of Dr. Hall does close off one of my proposed avenues of entry for Christopher Lee. Back to the drawing board.)

My wife said that she liked the third episode of S.H.I.E.L.D. best so far, and that’s a good sign if we’re going to continue making it appointment television (which, let’s be honest, we totally are, if for no other reason than I am stubborn). The characters are coming along and the plots can therefore do things more meaningfully, because the audience has expectations about the characters that can be played with accordingly. But what I’ve come to realize is that S.H.I.E.L.D. is pretty much metaphor-free.


Not only is that a problem, it’s a singularly disappointing one considering the show’s Whedon pedigree. Buffy the Vampire Slayer will probably always stand as Joss’s masterpiece, and if you talk to anyone who’s a big fan of the series about what’s so great about it, assuming they’re not simply nursing a major crush on one or more cast members, the signature appeal is that it’s really a show about the rites of passage of adolescence and young adulthood, with everything filtered through supernatural metaphors. The consensus as to the moment where Buffy (the series) goes from “this is cute and amusing” to “HOLY CRAP” points to season two (spoilers again, for a 16 year old season of tv!), where starcrossed Buffy the slayer and Angel the vampire do the deed, and that triggers a magical curse which stipulates Angel will have a soul (and be tortured by a conscience) only until he experiences a moment of pure happiness. The lovemaking entails (at least one) such a moment, away goes Angel’s soul, and he becomes the murder-happy Big Bad for the rest of the season. It’s a killer (ha-ha) plot twist, but it works so well because of the underlying metaphor of girl meets boy, girl gives it up to boy, boy acts like a jerk after he got what he wanted and breaks girl’s heart. And to varying degrees, the rest of Buffy was all like that. Everything teenagers might struggle with or be afraid of was manifested in monsters and demons to be fought and destroyed. Buffy had experiences no one else in the real world ever would, which was entertaining on one level, but the stories being told were really about things everyone could relate to, which was satisfying on another level.

S.H.I.E.L.D. right now is operating on one superficial level only. I’ve been trying to figure out what experimental superhuman enhancements or Nazi-designed death rays or electro-activated gravitational disruptors are supposed to symbolize, and I’ve come up with nothing. The death ray is cool and all, but it is what it is for plot purposes only, a weapon that can be activated remotely to punch a hole in the side of the plane so that the climax of the episode can take place in a plane with a hole blown in the side of it. As someone who loves a good high concept, I’m not entirely opposed to that kind of storytelling. I’ve just been spoiled by, and become highly aware of, other, richer ways of going about it.


  1. Would you believe that Graviton was a villain I considered when I made my list in an earlier post? Gravity powers can be done on teevee without necessarily breaking the budget and still look cool. He's no MODOK, but of course, who is.

    The pilot episode of SHIELD had a solid idea that could animate the series, but it runs hard against the fact of SHIELD itself: the feeling of powerlessness in a world of capricious giants. Where is the room for humanity in a world with walking gods and super-soldiers and Hulks?

    That could work, and work well, but the problem is that SHIELD is a terrible vehicle for that theme. What with it being a huge, shadowy agency with unlimited resources and working as a significant actor with the giants. After all, who makes us feel smaller and less important than the national security/intelligence apparatus of the US government?

    You could bend the series to work with the theme if you had the stars of the show go rogue from SHIELD and fight the corrupted organization itself. Which will definitely happen at some point if the show lasts long enough. That's a season arc right there. The problem is, you can't properly wreck SHIELD or turn it eeeeevil, because Marvel won't let 'em. (At least, not until after "Cap: Winter Soldier.") So in the end, the heroes will win and SHIELD will be rehabilitated, because it must be.

    Because you asked, at least in my mind, then here's how it could happen. Coulson turns out to be a new-model LMD, made from recordings of the old Coulson's brain just after he died. Or a new type of clone. Some sort of "human replacement" that's a significant advance over what SHIELD has previously used. May is aware of it, but no other regulars are.

    Meanwhile, SHIELD is calling for strange missions and key people are acting erratically. Becauuuuse...yes, the "new model" LMDs are taking over the joint. SHIELD leaders are being assassinated and replaced. Coulson is of course invited to come along. Even offered a position of leadership, as he's the most advanced LMD ever built. The (ahem) "inhumans" are out for themselves, whatever that means, led by the LMD of some big SHIELD dude.

    Coulson refuses, the team goes rogue, and there's your season. The studio can reset the status quo anytime it wants (like in time for "Age of Ultron") by having the rogue agents defeat the conspiracy.

    Yes, it's basically the plot to the forgettable "Nick Fury vs. SHIELD" miniseries of the late eighties. It's also the obvious way to work the angle.

    1. Of course I believe you. A Jerkwater's word is his bond! Gravity powers are indeed tv-friendly, as we saw - and that was just messing with the ideas of gravity changing directions. I assume when Hall returns as Graviton he will have figured out how to INCREASE gravity and crush people. Still, the upside down room reveal was nice, and I suspect a lot of those crazy angles during the climax were intentional homages to the "special effects" and house style of the 1966 Batman tv show, so fair play to them there.

      I take your point about S.H.I.E.L.D.'s inhernetly problematic premise. I never read many S.H.I.E.L.D. comics back in the day, and most of my exposure to them was "the Avengers want to go out and right some wrongs, and S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up to stand in their way in order to preserve international treaties". So yeah, it has occurred to me while watching the show now that I'm being asked to root for an organization that was essentially the foil to the good guys in the comics. Also a lot of the stuff that Skye says (or even Ian Quinn, for that matter) I sort of agree with at face value, even though it's all totally counter to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s stated mission in the show. It will be interesting to see how long they continue to walk the line of putting forth a paternalistic mankind-isn't-ready-for-all-this-cool-crap monolith as the nominal protagonists.

  2. A clue that my "next-gen LMD" plot is happening: any mention of "Project Delta."

    I have a bunch of the old Steranko-era issues of SHIELD. (One of my first big collector manias was Steranko comics. It helped that there weren't many.) The appeal of the series was that it took the standard superhero comic of the day and added Bond-style gadgets (amped up to Kirby levels), pulp-style villains (again, amped up to Kirby levels), trippy-ass visuals (Steranko!) and was a little sexier than mainstream comics of the day. Yeah, Nick Fury got his swerve on. Possibly to Kirby levels, but I wouldn't know about that.

    If you build the show around Coulson, and they should, his value is as the calm man in the center of the lunacy. That requires a lunatic world. I hope they figure this out. Right now it's too normal-teevee-ish. The world is not ours, certainly, but it's not loony.

    They need a Big Bad in a big hurry. Whedon's whole style banks on "little guy against big, powerful villain," and right now SHIELD's agents are *not* the little guys.

    Oh my god I love rambling about this crap. Soy el nerd grande.

    1. I kind of assumed that "Rising Tide" was the Big Bad, with Skye's loyalty ultimately in question up to the season finale (if not beyond). Of course, Rising Tide is currently ill-defined and boring, but I further assumed that right about when everyone was assuming Skye was a team player, Rising Tide would do something big and ugly that shook the world of the show (or the whole world) up a bit. I also-further assumed that behind Rising Tidewould be a bona fide Marvel supervillain like, I don't know, Doctor Demonicus. Or Attuma? Ending the season with the reveal that Atlantis is real would be a kick!