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