It took me a while to get into Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s much-feted black and white quasi-memoir following the life of Cleo, who lives with and works as a housekeeper for a middle-class family in Mexico City. Ironically, what kept me from engaging with the movie for the first half hour is also one of the things that Roma has received most praise for: its cinematography.
I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.
With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.
Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.
In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).
How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.
Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.
Gravity is a gorgeously shot film, no doubt. It’s a film by a director who knows what he’s doing; there’s not an ounce of fat on that movie. It’s a thrilling piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and one that has rightly garnered praise from critics and audiences alike. It’s difficult not to see some of the criticism as internet-age contrariness. Is the film’s plot simple? Perhaps. Is it too simple? Well, that point was ably countered by that patron of upper-case criticism, Film Crit Hulk.
And yet, I came away from having seen Gravity being subtly disappointed. It’s a good film, definitely, and Cuaron does a great job – but already one or two days after having seen it, when I try to think about what I saw the images that come to mind aren’t Gravity‘s, they’re from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.
Now, Sunshine… It’s a flawed film that’s almost sunk by its last third. It’s messy and confused. Yet it resonated with me to a much larger extent than Cuaron’s more accomplished, more consistent movie did. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why I was somewhat disappointed with Gravity is this: I was immediately pulled in by the trailer, which evoked the visceral dread of floating off untethered into the infinity of space. The film itself didn’t bring back this dread, because of its structure: obviously Gravity wasn’t going to kill off Sandra Bullock, at least not before the final five minutes or so, which meant that there was little sense of risk. It’s possible for stories to solve this conundrum by involving their audience in a sleight of hand where they know a protagonist won’t die, yet they feel that they may just be wrong about that. Gravity didn’t do that, at least not for me, and I’m not sure it wanted to – its aim was to show Bullock’s character struggling and triumphing.
That’s the other thing, though: I did care about the character triumphing, but not much. Dr. Ryan Stone, first-time astronaut, works as an audience stand-in, especially in concert with the amazing cinematography (seriously, if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get an Academy Award for this, the Academy should be shot into space!), but to be honest, I didn’t particularly care about her. Part of this is Bullock’s particularly American everywoman quality: a bit like a female Tom Hanks, there’s something to calculatedly likeable about her. She works well in Gravity, but I often find her (and Hanks) bland, compared to, say, the everyman characters of Jimmy Stewart that hinted at darker qualities under the folksy niceness.
Adding to this are my issues with Gravity‘s themes: Film Crit Hulk (and other critics) liked the rebirth motif running through the movie, but I found it somewhat hackneyed and distractingly obvious. By the time we get Bullock’s zero-G fetal position and realise that the line tethering her character to various space vessels doubles as an umbilical cord, the film is practically shouting its subtext at us in IMAX-sized captions: we’re witnessing her rebirth, get it?
Sunshine is hardly all that more subtle about its themes, but it’s less single-minded – it’s more messy, as I mentioned earlier – and for me this makes the film resonate more. It’s fair to say that Boyle’s movie doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but the result is that Sunshine‘s themes aren’t as pushy. More than that, though, I cared about its characters and their plight much more than I did about Dr. Stone’s; she may be more likeable, but her likeability is largely predicated on the audience liking Sandra Bullock. Sunshine‘s characters are more flawed, more complicated, and to my mind more human. As a result, when those characters die it feels more like a loss, whereas Gravity‘s deaths were mostly forgotten a minute after they occurred.
There’s something else that Sunshine pulled off and that makes the film resonate more with me than Cuaron’s arguably more accomplished movie: both films have a metaphysical component, but Sunshine‘s goes beyond the individual level. It’s not just about the potential death of one audience stand-in, it’s about the possible death of mankind. It’s about the two directions in which playing God can go: the film’s protagonists are working on saving the sun and, by extension, mankind, while the antagonist wants to return us all to the stardust we came from. Both sides are torn between being flawed humans and aspiring to the kind of power that humans should not have. It is a shame that Boyle turns this metaphysical playground into a slasher movie, almost drowning the more interesting themes in a space-age retread of And then there were none, but the power of the filmmaking – always more disjointed than Cuaron’s, but for me more engaging in this – got to me to an extent that Gravity didn’t in the end.
Gravity is accomplished in ways that Sunshine doesn’t manage. It is the more coherent film, it gets more things right and fewer things wrong. But the things that Sunshine gets right – and even its noble failures – means that I’d rather sit in a tin can with Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne and Hiroyuki Sanada than with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. I’m glad that Dr. Stone made it, but for me her triumpant rebirth doesn’t even begin to touch Sunshine‘s final scene, which is confident enough to be simple and quiet – and all the more glorious for it.
As usually, I was late to the party. Everyone ranted and raved about Children of Men when it came out, so I got the DVD almost immediately when it came out. And then it lay around for ages, was moved from one flat to another… and last Saturday we finally thought, “The value of a DVD lies in watching it, not having it,” as Confucius said. Or Yoda. I forget which.
Now, having seen the film, I’d say that the raves were warranted… if the reviewers left the cinema roughly two thirds into the film. The first hour or so of Children of Men is the most compelling, most chillingly credible cinematic dystopia I’ve ever seen. It is also one of the most breathtakingly well shot films – just how on earth did they shoot some of those long takes?
For a long time, Children of Men succeeds in making a horrific vision of the future all too credible by taking our present-day world and extrapolating. None of the over-the-top gadgetry of other near-future films. (While I’m embarrassingly fond of Strange Days, that millennial melodrama does look extremely dated. That film was right, however, in assuming that whatever entertainment technology will be the next best thing, it’ll largely be used do commodify violence and porn. Now let me go back to play GTA 4.)*
I also like that the film doesn’t provide lots of explanations and exposition. It throws its viewers into a world where the youngest child is 18 years old, where people have become almost indifferent to small-scale terrorist bombings but can’t stop crying over the killing of a Brazilian teen just because he happens to have been the last baby born. Where “Rah, rah, we are the best!” chauvinism has become the norm. And every one of these developments has its roots in our present day. Eighteen years of a slow, ongoing apocalypse will do that to you, I guess. But none of this is dwelled on. While watching the first hour of the film I never felt like the film was trying to tell me something in six-foot high, bolded letters.
But then the film becomes more heavy-handed. We get images that are clearly inspired by Abu Ghraib. We get grimy ethnic refugees in wartorn Bexhill. And to me at least, it all looks less like an extrapolation of our current world and more like editorial comments on current conflicts. Yes, the beginning of the film also commented on our present-day world, but it did so much more subtly, in the background. There’s a richness to the scene-setting that is more convincing and more complex than the in-your-face correspondences of the last 30, 40 minutes.
It doesn’t help that while the first hour of the film focuses on dialogues and characterisation, it ends on what is mostly running and shooting. At least the main character doesn’t become an action film hero (there’s a gorgeously funny escape roughly at the half-way point which plays refreshingly different from what you’d get in a Hollywood action film), but still, there are only so many variations on the theme of running away and being shot at .
Sadly I’d heard so much about the key scene where the guns fall silent at the sound of a baby crying, so when it came it didn’t strike me the way it struck many viewers. The Bexhill transition had taken me out of the film so much that the scenes of awe-struck ‘fugees staring in almost religious rapture at the first baby in 18 years, with the occasional poor sod in the background being shot while gawping, struck me as almost Monty Pythonesque – “Oh look, bab-eurgh!” “Look at its widdle fing-blam!” Or perhaps I just had a phase last Saturday of being a callous bastard… or perhaps it was that I didn’t quite buy the Uncanny Valley CGI Baby. Earlier scenes – the amazing sequence in the car, or Michael Caine’s final moments – got to me much more.
(Yes, I am evil.)
In some ways I think I’d reacted better to the film if I’d known less about it – but even then, I would have felt disappointed by the abrupt shift in tone. The moment that Peter Mullan’s cartoon character Syd turns up is the moment that the film sharply turns into something different, and much less compelling, than before. I came away feeling that I’d seen the beginning of a masterpiece and the end of an okay dystopia. I just wish I’d been able to finish watching that masterpiece before someone spliced a decidedly inferior film, though one strangely starring the same actors playing the same characters, into the reel.
*Actually, I haven’t got the equipment to play GTA 4, so I’m stuck with lower-tech virtual snuff. Poor widdle me.