Now that Alfonso Cuaron’s long-in-the-making sci-fi spectacle Gravity has smashed its way through Venice and TIFF (it’s astounding), its detractors have raised two major objections: first, that its spectacle comes at the expense of its emotional content; second, that its lengthy, whirling camera movements are self-conscious and barely motivated, summarized by Nick McCarthy for Slant as “all effect and little affect.” The former dichotomization of spectacle and emotion, as well as the demand for an affecting narrative — especially in a film that takes such pains to minimize its narrativity to emphasize its aesthetic gestures — is narrow-minded convention-clinging. In short, it’s not just an accident or a budget consideration that Gravity only runs 90 minutes.
This column is not concerned with a complete procedural summary of the film’s aesthetics. Rather, it aims to better understand the film through the construction of a single shot, and though Gravity is a long way from a home video release, the marketing campaign has appealed directly to cinephiles with two “one-shot” trailers that encourage their (all right, our) fetishistic obsession over long takes. Though they are only small fragments of the film’s first and second shots, their 90-second lengths each contain complex and impressive camera movements in virtual space, especially the first trailer, “Detached”.
The unbroken segment, taken from the film’s 13-minute opening shot, begins by looking into deep space over Earth, and panning as a distant piece of debris flies by the camera. As it pans, it reveals a shuttle, as the voice of George Clooney playing astronaut Matt Kowalski confirms “visual contact with debris” to NASA. This sets up the shot’s insane myriad of shifting perspectives, starting with a POV as the camera follows the debris much as Clooney’s “visual contact” would. Soon, the camera starts its whirligig, firmly shifting into third-person as it glances at Clooney’s face, then flies around the station, quickly observing the other astronauts at work before Kowalski flies over to help Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). When he reaches her, the camera moves back into an objective wide frame of the two stars interacting, when in the background a third astronaut is struck and killed by debris.
At this point, roughly halfway through the shot, we’ve already moved through several major perspective changes, fluidly switching between subjectivity and objectivity, first-person and third-person, with no clear delineation at any given beat. Given all these changes in framing and function, it may be worth asking whether Cuaron and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have mistaken “can” and “should”; after all, the constant movement and modal switches do not intrinsically refute the charge that the film is formally substanceless. Could Gravity fall prey to the pitfalls of CGI animation, where the camera is free to do anything and thus does, shirking all meaning and discipline?
To answer that, we may need to re-examine our assumptions about cinematic grammar, namely how a shot organizes and presents packets of information.
In Sidney Lumet’s commentary to his 1964 film Fail-Safe, he describes the editing technique of holding on a single shot as the “legato technique.” The term is a musical one, referring to notes connected through smooth playing, not often heard in a cinematic context. The term implicitly de-emphasizes traditional notions of the shot as a single, distinct unit, instead focusing on the space between a continuous image and a hard cut. It is more permissive of seamless edits connecting different camera setups into one shot.
That tradition includes the likes of John Woo’s Hard Boiled and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which circumvent the physical limitations of movement or the length of a film magazine by concealing the switch from one take to a new setup. Cuaron and his effects team mastered the technique in their last film, Children of Men, whose innocuous pans between distinctive compositions are massaged to cut together seamlessly, like the lull between two legato notes. Its two most famously long shots, the car chase and the warzone climax, are in fact composites of several different shots that have been edited together. Perhaps Gravity’s shots, which are composed of exponentially more composites, mixtures, and movements than those of Children of Men, could be thought of as a cluster of legato notes, rising and falling from chord to chord indistinctly, but with collective certainty.
The seeming weightlessness of Gravity belies a visual technique that refuses to compartmentalize its aesthetics into unified moments: a distinctive composition, or a distinctive movement, or a distinctive change in perspective do not come in successive groups. Contrary to a classical, painterly approach to cinematography, they don’t synchronize at moments of change.
Cuaron is not abdicating form for frills. He is intensifying a system of camera positioning that he knows very well, to the point where its individual units are desynchronized and displaced, and yet harmonious to his moment-to-moment intent.
The suspense thriller genre is a perfect match for such disorientation and staggered delivery of visual information, and what venue could be better than space and its six degrees of freedom? Cuaron takes advantage of those degrees in the next moments of the shot: still hanging in that objective wide, Clooney exits frame as the shuttle is sent spinning out of control, with Bullock still attached. This spinning is particularly disorienting because, after that moment of seeming objectivity, it corrupts the scene’s only geographical reference point.
When Bullock’s crane tears off the shuttle, it becomes our new frame of reference, and the extremely busy mise-en-scene and lack of an anchoring point of reference creates a sense of utter dislocation — we are firmly experiencing Bullock’s perspective now. The shot eventually anchors on her face, and then, as she chooses to detach, focuses in on her belt. Then comes the unmistakable imagery of the shot’s ending, where she is utterly alone, adrift, and getting smaller.
All of this is, moment for moment, attuned perfectly to the material’s intent. It’s a legato cluster of camera moves and frames and mise en scene, where distress is created by placing the audience in the same position as the astronauts: constantly receiving information that is difficult to process and connect. However, there is a critical difference between the two halves of the shot: the Kowalski-Clooney half, while fast, shows a relatively clear and controlled view of the environment, while Stone-Bullock’s perspective is defined by incomprehension and visual chaos. The shot elements are not just having us empathize with a suspenseful situation, they are actually feeding us information about how these characters react, with a central moment of objectivity to soften the transition. The spectacle is the emotion. The effect is affect.
– Will Ross