Does Sandra Bullock die in Gravity

Oscar Season Diary #10: Frontrunning to Instant Death

gravity-bullockAt the heart of divisiveness is passion.

You’re either for something or against it, and dividing love and hate into two binary categories with regards to the appeal of a film is often necessary when talking about it within the context of a race where only one can win. It’s natural to love what you love, push it forward, and let your next-best choice fall off the wagon to the side of the road.

I guess it’s unfair to say that, if you’re an Oscar voter, your #2 choice for Best Picture is one you don’t favor in general. It’s simply one that you don’t favor to win, and is automatically othered as a result. On a preferential ballot, #2 is essentially #9485 on the same scale.

Alas, only Oscar voters have to worry about that. Everyone knows the Academy has a huge task ahead of them after such a magnificent year jam-packed with quality cinema from around the world.

One one hand, the Academy could award the first ever black-made, black-themed film with a Best Picture win; on the other, they could break a 17-year pattern of awarding male-driven films their top honor. The latter seems likely since Alfonso Cuaron–director of Gravity–took home the top prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards last week. 90% of the time, those who win the DGA’s top prize go on to have their film recognized by the Academy as Best Picture of the year. In fact, it has happened a staggering 11 times since 2000. Only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have the unfortunate honor of being awarded the DGA’s top prize without a follow-up Best Picture win (both films were directed by Ang Lee, funny enough).

Gravity is also poised to win key technical awards, including Best Film Editing (essentially the third-tier Best Picture Oscar).

Still, these statistics are displeasing and unconvincing to some. Pundits are overwhelmingly in favor of a 12 Years a Slave win, as a staggering 18 out of 23 of those surveyed on GoldDerby have it predicted in their #1 slot. If 12 Years a Slave wins, it would be a nearly unprecedented feat, as not only would the Academy defy statistical expectations, but 12 Years a Slave would rank amongst the least-decorated Best Picture winners in Oscar history, as the only other category it has a shot at winning is Best Supporting Actress.

What about the brewing tide making Gravity the statistical frontrunner doesn’t resonate? How can so many look so deeply into the face of such certainty and pick the opposite course? There’s little to no basis for predicting 12 Years a Slave to win other than hope, which is never a bad thing. It would be momentous if Steve McQueen’s film could pull off an upset in the face of Gravity‘s late-game dominance.

The fact remains, however, that we have two fantastic films on our hands, and one cannot be appropriately valued over the other.

As we saw the guilds, critics, and audiences file into their respective, individualized tributaries flowing into the Oscar picture (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity have each shared the spotlight as frontrunner), certainty seemed to be something each of us lacked as we hunted for a singular film to throw our weight behind.

Once Gravity won the DGA and PGA, the ball finally started rolling in one direction, and the tides turned. From its premiere at Venice to its near unanimous praise from critics, Gravity became one of the most prominent, highly-regarded films of the year. It was praised as a technical revolution, as well as a monumental achievement for actresses, as it is largely a one-woman show that went on to gross nearly $700 million worldwide.

It’s funny, then, that we’re currently witnessing the same things that happened to 12 Years a Slave after the fall festivals and to American Hustle after the critics circles prematurely ejaculated all over it; people are turning against Gravity because its footing is firmly planted at the front of the pack. With Oscar voting beginning in a matter of days, Gravity‘s late-entry status as the Best Picture frontrunner carries a stigma few films escape. When you’re perceived as the best, you’re no longer the sexy choice, even after you win Best Picture. The film will become predicated by what so many will harp on as an unjust triumph over a more “socially important” film like 12 Years a Slave.

It’s also around this time of year that the awards season narrative has an end in sight after bloggers, journalists, and audience wallets started writing it nearly 5 months ago. Early in the season, pundits championed 12 Years a Slave not only as a powerhouse film in itself, but as a beacon for the minority voice to finally reign supreme at the Oscar ceremony.

Generally, black-themed films are either ignored or shoved to the side as honorees in minor categories (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, very rarely in other categories)but 12 Years a Slave entered the season strong, and will likely finish along those lines as well. It’s a film that recalls an ugly part of American history, but an important one–ever more so during times when the first black President leads our country, modern racial issues pervade our society, and when a societal surge for minority equality across all fronts should be represented and recognized in our art.

So, then, which social cause do you chose? Gender or race? Should it even be based on such factors?

Pundits on both sides of the Gravity/12 Years a Slave debate have essentially turned on each other, digging into their respective opponent because it doesn’t fit the awards narrative they desire. According to them, Gravity would undermine the doors that 12 Years a Slave would open for minority filmmakers, and to others 12 Years a Slave would only win because it’s the black movie that rides to victory on white guilt.

They seem to be forgetting one key fact: a film does not change once it wins Best Picture. It does not become any better or any worse. It merely becomes the permanent frontrunner, and this passionate discourse that’s tearing apart two camps representing two of the best films from a monumental cinematic year proves that once you’re first, you’re automatically dead.

Weighing which social narrative you’d like to triumph is poison. If 12 Years a Slave wins, then it makes it a hell of a lot easier for the Black New Wave to begin in full-force. If Gravity wins, it represents the first plot that’s female-driven to win Best Picture since 1997, and the first film driven solely by a female character to ever win.

The Gravity detractors nearly always fall back on the argument that it’s a film about a woman that’s been directed and written by men, and therefore crippled as a vehicle to advance the position of women in the industry. But, these people forget that we’re talking about a visual medium. When discussing any film, you must begin on the most fundamental level, and that’s what’s in front of us. On the basis of familiarity, general audiences often identify with a movie through its actors and what they’re able to see. That’s largely what makes Gravity so wondrous; its visual effects, and its charismatic lead (Sandra Bullock), who proved herself as a box-office pull in the age of fading individual bankability. She transcends the film’s visuals and becomes the one thing–aside from the visual effects–that people associate with the film. The only people arguing about Alfonso Cuaron vs. Steve McQueen are the film nerds who make a living off of fueling the debate.

Gravity’s plot is also a beautifully sustained metaphor throughout, and a Best Picture win for it would be a fitting cap on a year when a female-driven film topped the US box-office for the first time in 17 years (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Things are changing for women, but pundits would rather pick and choose their social narratives in the hopes that they actually might have a hand in shaping them.

Chiwetel EjioforOne of the most prominent Oscar pundits out there, Sasha Stone, recently downplayed Alfonso Cuaron’s position, implying that he would only be significant as a Mexican director in this year’s Oscar race if he directed something about the Mexican experience, which is absurd and reinforcing of the dominant majority. So, by that logic, the minority is only worth something when he’s talking about the “other” to the white man and playing into the white man’s tastes?

While I tend to agree with the generally fantastic pundits over at Awards Daily, their most recent podcast irked me. Ryan Adams, an Oscar blogger I’ve come to respect, states that white voters and critics were “with” 12 Years a Slave until something more “white” and acceptable came along that they could latch on to, and that a viable “white” option was validated by the New York Film Critics Circle (American Hustle) early enough in the race that white voters were able to default onto it because it is more acceptable to them as a predominantly-white voting base. That makes absolutely no sense. The love for 12 Years a Slave came from a predominantly white voice in the first place. The overwhelmingly white pool of film critics across the country made it the best-reviewed film of the year, and I’m not sure Academy voters think with the same sort of racial bias many pundits have been spouting about all year. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision to switch from a “black” movie to a “white” movie that easily.

It seems that the mere existence of 12 Years a Slave is victory in itself. In a year with black filmmakers taking huge strides into the industry as a whole (in addition to McQueen’s success, Lee Daniels directed a “black” film to over $150 million in world box-office, and Ryan Coogler generated significant critical acclaim and impressive box-office for Fruitvale Station), it would be a fitting Best Picture winner after three prominent black men helmed films that began this important dialogue about race in the industry.

While a Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave would certainly validate the minority voice in a white-dominated industry, the long-term success of the Black New Wave movement has largely already been determined by audiences and their wallets. There’s often a vitriolic backlash against studios for their overarching control of societal norms–that they reenforce unfair standards of beauty for women by casting thin actresses, that they avoid “black” or “minority” subject matter, etc. While studios and executives shape what’s presented to the public, it’s audience preference that dictates where the money goes, and that dictates what the executives put out. If we don’t want to see it, we shouldn’t take ourselves to indulge in the fantasy of what is largely unattainable for so many.

It’s disappointing that most successful films star men, are directed by men, and are marketed to men, but moviegoers are capable of changing that. Perhaps the smartest thing moviegoers did this year was drive box-office sales for female-driven films like Gravity, Frozen, Identity Thief, The Heat, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

It’s undeniable: while the industry isn’t an equal place for women just yet, 2013 was a turning point, and Gravity‘s impending Best Picture win will represent it well.

The divisive bickering, valuing one great film over the other on the basis of a single award, however, is unfair, and puts us right back at the beginning with no end in sight: squabbling about injustices and forgetting to feed our empty stomachs when a full-course meal sits mere inches below on the table.

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Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

gravity-sandra-bullock-skip
Gravity
, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

The "fetus" scene

The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.