Why ‘Gravity’ Could Be the World’s Biggest Avant-Garde Movie

Gravity Movie

REARVIEW: Bearing the traces of avant-garde filmmakers like Michael Snow, Alfonso Cuaron's 'Gravity' reconnects us to the primal power of cinema.

If success has many fathers, then surely the record-breaking October opening of “Gravity” has touched off a lively paternity battle in the Warner Bros. executive suite. But has anyone bothered to send Jeff Robinov (who exhumed the project from development hell at Universal) a congratulatory cigar? Indeed, watching Alfonso Cuaron’s space opera, it’s impossible not to wonder what this most spare and elegant of blockbusters looked like not only in script form, but as the rough cut Cuaron first screened for Robinov and other WB suits. Was there anything more than Sandra Bullock’s disembodied head (and an extended cameo from George Clooney’s) floating against a greenscreen for the better part of 90 minutes? Did even this historically auteur-friendly studio (Kubrick, Eastwood, Nolan, et al.) wonder if they’d just gambled away $100 million on the most expensive avant-garde art movie ever made?

Well, maybe they had. In more ways than one, Cuaron’s “surprise” smash bears the influence of the sort of non-narrative cinema traditionally confined to museums, nonprofit venues like New York’s Anthology Film Archives and specialist festivals like Lincoln Center’s current Views From the Avant-Garde. Nor is it the first game-changing Hollywood movie to be so indebted. To create the celebrated “stargate” sequence from “2001: A Space Odyssey” — the movie to which “Gravity” is most frequently compared — Stanley Kubrick and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull took liberal inspiration from two films, “Seance” (1959) and “Allure” (1961), made by the San Francisco experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. (Belson himself went on to work in Hollywood, on the visual effects for “Demon Seed” and “The Right Stuff.”) And it is impossible to look at the haunting final sequence of Kubrick’s “The Shining” without seeing the lipstick traces of “Wavelength,” made in 1967 by the Canadian Michael Snow.

Born in 1929 and still very much alive and working today, Snow graduated from the Ontario School of Art and dabbled variously in painting, photography and jazz before segueing into filmmaking in the 1960s, where he found himself at the center of an exploding experimental film scene that included Hollis Frampton, Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs. “Wavelength,” probably his best-known work, consists of what appears to be a single, uninterrupted, 45-minute-long zoom shot (actually the combination of several shots) that begins wide on a New York loft space and gradually narrows in on a photograph pinned to the wall in the far distance — an image of gently lapping ocean waves. Along the way, people come and go (one of them played by future critic Amy Taubin), “Strawberry Fields Forever” fills the soundtrack, and something that may or may not be a murder occurs on the edges of the frame.

But it’s another Snow film — arguably his most audacious — that “Gravity” brings to mind. It is called “La Region Centrale” and it was, prior to Cuaron’s, the movie that gave the most uncanny sense of what it might feel like to be weightless, suspended in mid-air, uncertain about which way was up. Snow made the movie in 1971 at a mountain range in northern Quebec, and like Cuaron, he had to build a special rig in order to shoot it: a robotized arm that could move Snow’s camera in any direction and along any conceivable axis, following electronic directions recorded onto magnetic tape (heard on the soundtrack as an atonal blips and bleeps). Snow has said he envisioned the film as the images an alien probe might report back upon visiting earth. One way to think of “Gravity” is as the message those same interstellar travelers have sent back to us.

“Gravity” has more of a plot than “La Region Centrale,” but only barely, and surely no one is telling their friends to see Cuaron’s film because of its great story. Rather, it’s the very absence of a dense narrative line that gives “Gravity” its majesty. We are in space here in more ways than one — literally in terms of locale, but also figuratively, in terms of how the movie works on us, how it allows our minds to expand to fill the void. Working in a genre particularly susceptible to high-tech mumbo-jumbo and convoluted mythologies, Cuaron (who co-wrote whatever there was of a script with his son, Jonas) strips almost everything away, leaving us in the realm of pure sensation. He gives us a movie that is “about” nothing so much as velocity, panic, motion, stasis, cold, heat, anger and fear. Some have hailed “Gravity” as a religious experience; others simply as an altar piece in the church of Cinema. And who can argue with either conclusion? For here is that rare movie that each of us must complete in our own way, in our own time.

That’s another point of connection with Snow, but also those French moving image pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, avant-gardists if ever there were. (For who could be more “avant” than the very creators of cinema as we know it?) Doubtless you have heard the story of how, at the first projection of their 1895 short “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat,” spectators frightened by the lifelike locomotive barreling towards them onscreen bolted for the exits — no 3D glasses required. Historians now tell us that this story is probably apocryphal, and yet it endures, because it speaks to the primal intensity image and sound can have on us in the dark, especially when the screen is large and our fellow audience members sit rapt in the same collective dream.

In the century since the Lumieres, technology has allowed us to go our separate ways, and moviegoing has suffered for it. We carry screens in our pockets now, the Star Child reduced to the size of a postage stamp. But every once in a while a movie still comes along that cannot be so easily diminished. So it’s especially fitting that this one is called “Gravity,” because it pulls us back, to the place where movies were born.

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  1. Gordon Brislawn says:

    Rarely have I read a movie review as well written and compelling as this. Thank you –

  2. andy says:

    “Non-narrative”? watch it again. Closer. Especially the end. Narrative went over author’s head….

  3. Anna Link says:

    Thank you for this review. It is important that the work of these predecessors is on the record, especially when its influence reaches mainstream cinema. I saw “Wavelength” shortly after it came out, when my instructor Hollis Frampton brought to class. At the time I thought it was both experimental and classic. You remind me that I occasionally wonder what I would think of it now, so I will arrange to see it again along with “La Region Centrale”. I am also looking forward to seeing “Gravity”.

  4. Considerate Reader says:

    Thank you to the unprofessional writer (using polite words) that didn’t put SPOILER ALERT on the top of this piece like other professional writers and critics do. Especially considering I only read the first paragraph of the article. Other folks like me that would like to form their own opinion who haven’t seen the film yet and didn’t see the top of this article…you have now been warned.

    • Spoiler misser says:

      Where was the spoiler? I have read the first paragraph three times now and fail to see what you are referring to.

      • Considerate Reader says:

        Someone who watched it below felt the same way. Perhaps it isn’t too much of a spoiler but I’ll only find out this weekend and I hope I have a fresh experience when watching. Considering I already knew Jack died before I saw Titanic, I’ll survive either way. The filmmaking usually is more engaging to me than the storyline itself.

  5. M Jaffe says:

    I am at a loss to understand everyone’s fascination with this movie. There was nothing fresh about it except perhaps some technology. There was virtually no personal journey of growth – an essential Aristotelian component. The “live for you’re daughter” theme was just too appended to be credible. And in the end it was simply tedious, repeating the same scene again and again in different contexts. Self indulgent, self important.

  6. annamarie smith says:

    beautifully written – thanks Scott!

  7. Brilliant. It is the reason I made film and marketing my career. A journey of storytelling on the cutting edge of invention, reinvention and adventure.

  8. TJ Kesolits says:

    I found that GRAVITY was truly a mind blowing experience. The 3D experience put you in space and let you feel this tragedy unfold with you in it. Magnificent work! TJ

  9. Marcia says:

    Thank u for indepth story

  10. Bob Shayne says:

    This analysis is a lovely piece of esoteria for academics with nothing better to do, but the movie, rather than being narrativeless or avant garde, has a very strong, very simple, straight-forward and primal narrative. – Bob

  11. Michael Cravotta says:

    Talk about reading too much into a film. Foundas is smoking something. It’s a stripped down story of survival against all possible odds that is a technical and directorial triumph. Let’s not make it into something more.

    • ArtsBeatLA says:

      Michael Cravotta says: “…Let’s not make it into something more.”

      Why ever not?! That’s what great film criticism does – sets a new film within its historical context, drawing important parallels. I, for one, found this well-written article truly illuminating.

      • Anna Link says:

        In re: “Uh, “important parallels” are not parallels. They are stretches of the imagination.”

        You don’t back up this judgement with anything. Have you ever seen Michael Snow’s “Wavelength”? If yes, I’d be interested in hearing more. If not, you’re just making an invalid assumption. I did see “Wavelength” when it came out and remember that it impressed me as being a classic. After the above review and comments I am now eager to see “Gravity”.

      • Michael Cravotta says:

        Uh, the “important parallels” are not parallels. They are stretches of the imagination. But I’m glad you felt illuminated.

  12. Hawk says:

    I just want to say, it seems a bit irresponsible to note that Clooney has “an extended cameo”. Does that not seem a bit spoilerish? I’m glad I’ve already seen the movie, as that comment would have definitely detracted from my enjoyment of certain scenes.

    • Michael Cravotta says:

      I can rattle off a list of long takes in history – Touch of Evil (one of my faves) and A Clockwork Orange all the way through to Russian Ark and the pilot episode of Downtown Abbey. But any reference of Gravity as being somehow inspired by avant-garde cinema because of the long takes (or any reason) is like saying that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope was the inspiration for Jonas Mekas’ Empire. It’s like comparing apples and Volkswagens.

      Avant-garde cinema is EXPERIMENTAL. While Gravity is lean on plot, it is a NARRATIVE film. It has a story that has a beginning, middle, and end that is depicted in linear time. Wavelength, BTW available for viewing online, is experimental cinema. And really difficult to sit through. (And someone needs to watch it and tell me what the hell Wavelength has to do with Gravity or The Shining. I have a degree in film and am a Kubrick fan, but I am not seeing it. Long takes were done well before Wavelength.)

      Foundas’ discussion on the Lumiere Brothers is somewhat more relevant. The famous train story is an example of the power of cinema to portray real life. They did it by filming real life and then projecting it. In Gravity, real life is RECREATED. And brilliantly so. (Having never been in space, I can only go by astronaut-filmed footage that I have seen.) But pulling out reference to the Lumiere Brothers is unnecessary. Why go back to the well with a fictional story to talk about the spectacle of the cinema and its ability to transport one in time and space? I think a discussion of “This is Cinerama” would be equally irrelevant.

      Cuaron’s direction in Gravity is more than Oscar-worthy. His camera floats in space with an impossible fluidity that enhances the drama unfolding on screen. It’s lyrically beautiful. You will be left wondering how the hell it was done. And I for one can’t wait to see it again later in the week to appreciate the work more closely.

      Generally I like Foundas’ work But here I find him to be trying to make relationships on the shakiest grounds at best and to be giving Gravity (and himself) an import that neither warrants. He’s Todd McCarthy-lite.

      How is that Anna?

      • Michael Cravotta says:

        Very nice try, Mr. Foundas. The opening shot and some of the others in Gravity can bring to mind “La Region Central,” an experimental film of robotic camera moves showing the sky and bare landscape, devoid (if I remember it correctly from my crappy alma mater NYU) of all humans. Unfortunately, you go in the wrong direction here. It is the very absence of gravity in space and the free floating of astronauts and spacecraft that make the camera moves and long takes seem graceful and natural – enhancing the on screen NARRATIVE. “La Region Central” has smooth moves but all the brilliance of a three year old showing off a new camera – Look Mom, I can turn it this way and that way – only without the benefit of the three year old’s narrative.

        The resemblance of the work in Gravity to “La Region Central” is worthy of a sentence. The “how was that done” WOW factor that viewers might have experience with “La Region” and it’s robotic camera moves might be similar to the WOW “how was that done” factor that 21st Century viewers have with Gravity.

        But it’s the foundation of your argument – that Gravity has an association to avant garde cinema – that I, and a number of other commenters, take exception to. And the comment that Gravity “barely” has a more defined plot compared “La Region,” a film that was experimental and sans plot. But way to go showing off your cinema knowledge. Very impressive.

      • Scott Foundas says:

        Dear Michael, “Wavelength” can be argued to have a narrative as well (a murder mystery, no less), and its (conspicuous) influence on the last sequence of “The Shining” is one noted many times over the years, possibly first by Richard Jameson, writing in Film Comment way back in 1980. But as I state above, the connection in the case of “Gravity” is to Snow’s “La Region Centrale,” sadly not available for viewing on YouTube (nor, evidently, at your alma mater). As for making distinctions between what is experimental and what is narrative, they’re about as useless as those between documentary and fiction. The most interesting movies do–and always have–move freely between such rigid classifications. Even the Lumieres “directed” their subjects, doing multiple takes until they felt they’d gotten things right. This is why there are three (known) versions of their short “Workers Leaving the Factory,” with fascinating subtle differences between the three.

  13. Susan says:

    I’m telling you now, the more you guys overhype and oversell this movie, the bigger the fall.

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