"Gravity" revives "sensation cinema" of Hollywood's silent era

Alfonson Cuarón's latest provides the kind of visceral moviegoing experience big tentpole movies seldom do

Published December 14, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinGravity is one of those intense film experiences that people discuss in terms of their bodily reactions to it. Although such viscerality tends to be deplored by film critics, they’ve jumped on the Gravity bandwagon along with the general public. Enthusiasm for the film got pervasive enough to bring the usual damp personalities out of the woodwork, keen to explain to everyone why they’re wrong to feel things. What, they ask, is so great about a movie featuring Sandra Bullock hyperventilating in space?

For the record, here’s what’s so great.

Gravity represents a return to “sensation cinema,” in particular the fast-paced female-centered action serials of the 1910s such as The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine, and The Hazards of Helen. Borrowing the relentless crisis structure from the old serials, Gravity features the same kind of catalyzing breakdown of technology as in The Hazards of Helen, plus the action heroine who grapples with it. When Sandra Bullock’s character is faced with the absurdly impossible task of hopscotching from one type of spacecraft to another in oxygen-free zero gravity, she enacts a millennial version of Helen’s awesome leaps from motorcycle to train to speeding car in one continuous chain of disaster-avoiding stunts and thrills.

This is a good development, because Hollywood desperately needs an alternative genre film model to the increasingly dull and cumbersome action/sci-fi/fantasy/superhero epic that’s been the tent-pole propping up the American film industry since the 1980s. Other than the emphasis on action, the two approaches to genre film are opposites. Sensation cinema tends to be short and fast — Gravity clocks in at a brisk 91 minutes — while tent-pole films are long, often weighing in around two-and-a-half hours, and operate on a principle of piling on value in exchange for the exorbitant price of movie tickets, in the form of big stars, massive spectacle, and a padded running time.

Sensation cinema flows swiftly from one thrill to the next, gathering momentum; tent-pole films tend to lumber along between big set-piece action scenes, heavy on the hardware and weaponry and involving a cast of thousands. Sensation cinema establishes a precarious situation and then spins out the wild possibilities in a series of enjoyably hair-raising escapes from death, whereas tent-pole films tend to have, as Joe Bob Briggs used to say, “way too much plot getting in the way of the story.”

It was quite a poignant thing, hearing the first reactions to Gravity when it opened. People expressing amazement at being viscerally affected by a film, almost unable to believe they felt something intensely because of a film. Yes, it’s come to this. We no longer expect movies to move, in any sense of the word.

But Gravity helpfully points us back to the sensation cinema practices of the silent era, and it’s dimly possible that the American film industry might save itself by learning, or re-learning, from them.

Sensation cinema used to encompass a range of genres, from crime melodrama to action-adventure to the “thrill comedy” of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. (The great French serial Les Vampires, with its daredevil female anti-heroine Irma Vep stunting through every episode, is one of the more well-known and admired examples of sensation cinema nowadays.) The genres had in common a tendency to regard the modern world as a surreally dangerous place of continuous shocks, jolts, and crises, requiring a new kind of person to navigate it. The trauma of the modernist experience was converted into “trauma thrills” actively sought by audiences of the walking wounded who flocked to see fantastical versions of what they were experiencing everyday on city streets, in factories and high-rises, on heavily trafficked roads and in packed trains and trolleys.

As argued by film scholar Jennifer Bean in “Trauma Thrills: The Early Action Cinema,” the Hazards of Helen serial represents both the deep anxieties and the exciting possibilities of the modernist experience. If you look at episodes of Hazards of Helen, you see a young woman facing a single technological malfunction that spirals into a series of life-threatening near-disasters in the form of the failed workings of mass transportation and mass communication. While the male bosses place all their faith in the efficient functioning of their machinery, Helen spots the inevitable breakdowns and cheerfully heads out to grapple with them.

The Soviet theorists and filmmakers of the 1910s and ‘20s were particularly interested in these kinds of American films, which they studied in terms of cinema’s capacity to foster the creation of revolutionary subjects. According to Jennifer Bean, Sergei Eisenstein drew on the example of sensation cinema in developing the shock effects of montage for his “cinema of attractions.” The idea was to create an impact of “dynamic, uncertain volatility” through the moving image of the moving body, and, in the process of jangling the nerve endings of the audience, to “make things strange, and thus to cut a reflexive path through the viewer’s habituated response to the everyday.”

In the service of creating such an impact,  Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky argued that filmmakers should “stop wasting film on psychological rummaging and all those arty prose poems clearly alien to the constitution of cinema … Plot in film is only necessary to motivate the tryuk [trick, stunt, acrobatic feat].”

Helen’s tricks, stunts, and acrobatic feats are a response to as well as a reward for recognizing the inevitable malfunctioning of a complex system. Helen is the progressive New Woman of the 1910s because systemic breakdown can be played to her advantage, destabilizing her male bosses and keeping her athletically on the move and exhilarated by movement.

Unfortunately, in Gravity, our contemporary Helen (Sandra Bullock) possesses no such joyful energy. She’s “Dr. Ryan Stone,” elevated in status but incapacitated in every other way. “Stone” is one of those metaphorical names, referring to the character’s deadened sensibilities and tendency to sit there dumbly when action is imperative. When she stops being stony, she starts weeping and contemplating suicide.

It’s been argued by various critics that the weakest point of the film is the mess of “psychological rummaging” on the part of screenwriters Alfonso Cuarón (who also directs) and his son Jonas, resulting in a stunted female character with a ponderous backstory about a deceased daughter. It takes many near-death space-traumas and a hallucinatory visit from George Clooney to finally restore her will to live.

And it’s true that this character arc is merely tiresome, unless you think of it in sensation-cinema terms. Then you see it has power: witnessing this moribund character get moving is a huge relief and a genuine thrill. Gravity’s starting point is not the New Woman of a progressive era who welcomes systemic breakdown and leaps into action as a liberating force, but the fitting heroine for our dismal time. We get a glum, played-out career woman with cosmetically perfect muscle tone but no apparent athleticism, who’s so incapacitated by depression she’s inert and useless in a crisis. She’s a “genius” who helped design part of the spacecraft, but she knows almost nothing about how to fly it. The inspiring phrase that finally motivates her to make the extra effort to save her own life isn’t any memorable rallying cry; it’s George Clooney’s glib, prosaic little line, “You can always do something.”

This line is almost painfully relevant to our current state of bogged-down political helplessness. We should all hit the streets carrying signs saying “YOU CAN ALWAYS DO SOMETHING.” Maybe that would help us figure out what, exactly. It worked for Dr. Ryan Stone!

To see such a hopeless drip of a character forced from stasis to movement, from miserable quiescence to desperate risk-taking action that overcomes even the most incredible odds, is exactly what we need to experience viscerally a thousand times over. In Stone’s defense, her “hazards” are infinitely more hazardous than Helen’s. Helen could thrive in an industrial world that was complex and daunting but still comprehensible. The allegorical “space” of Gravity offers no such comforts; as the film starts by informing us, “life in space is impossible.” Much has been written about the formidable combination of 3-D CGI, innovative camera effects, robotics, and elaborate wire-work in Gravity necessary to make us feel the dreadfulness of zero gravity, no oxygen, and the human being’s total reliance on perfectly functioning technology to survive in such conditions.

The environment is entirely alien, the technology necessary to live in it has gone far beyond our ken, and humans float around haplessly waiting for the next systemic breakdown and trying to come up with the motivation to keep on struggling. It’s hard not to identify with that set of circumstances.

Cuarón “makes things strange” by shocking viewers with the now-unfamiliar physical symptoms provoked by sensation cinema, and keeping us in something like the state of electrified disequilibrium recommended by Soviet theorist-filmmakers as a precursor to acquiring revolutionary viewpoints. Among Cuarón’s earliest shock effects is making us feel the nausea of sharing Stone’s point of view while untethered and spinning in space, and the edge of panic when we realize there’s no immediate prospect of the spinning coming to an end as she, and we, drift and revolve through the void. Then Cuarón enforces so rigorous a crisis structure that it finally achieves a kind of hilarity and exhilaration at the prospect of further crises.

We become crisis junkies. When, in a crazy rush of climactic scenes, Ryan Stone manages to ride a fire extinguisher to the last spacecraft, survive the craft’s fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, live through the crash-landing, then nearly drown in the ocean, all I could think was, “Great, what’s next? Shark attack? Cannibals on the island over there? Let’s keep this party going!”

Dr. Ryan Stone never really manifests any love of crisis for the sake of its revivifying shock. But out in the audience, we learn to appreciate it, with something like the bracing energy of good old Helen, a queen of disequilibrium.

By Eileen Jones

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Action Films Gravity Jacobin Movies Sandra Bullock Silent Films