Thursday, December 12, 2013

Gravity and Floating

essaysbysean.blogpot.com
(Spoiler Free)

…I am still under the spell of the space movie, Gravity

Cross the flat grounds of Kingsfold Retreat, plunge into the deep ravine-valley, climb the narrow path through the thickets up the steep far side, and you will find a cozy hermitage, complete with an iron stove, a stove that a body-builder had carried up, up against gravity, at what effort we can only imagine. Then think of a hermit: a fellow with long straggly hair—but not too straggly, not with Kingsfold so near. Keep an eye on that hermit; we’ll get back to him.

In the movie Gravity a young girl has tough straggly hair, combed daily by her mother. Orbiting her big mother, the girl will one day come to have civilized, groomed hair. And her mother, loving that girl, will stand with both feet on solid ground. The alternative, to float untethered, does not bear thinking about.

I seldom go see movies twice, but I did for Gravity. See it in 3D if you possibly can, in 2D if you can’t. If you merely see it on your idiot box then it will be like seeing Apocalypse Now on a box, instead of on a widescreen with dolby 3D sound: Same film credits, but a totally different experience. As for Apocalypse Now, when it was released the viewing audience, as I recall, was evenly divided: half thought it was very good; half thought it was very bad. Since then, of course, it has passed the test of time and even been re-released. Back in the 1970s, when it came out, I asked a college English teacher if it could possibly be any good, since so many thought so little of it. He answered that such a ratio of like/dislike is common in future classics. As for Gravity, its dislikes are from a smaller audience percentage, and it won’t be as much of a classic, but still, like Apocalypse Now, there is definitely something there.

On two or more web sites, including film critic Roger Ebert’s, I find detractors, and reading them leaves me with mixed feelings of irritation and contempt… and loneliness. The commenters who see the big name actors as “merely repeating their old roles,” who see the actors as being contaminated by previous roles, or see them as being unable to act (or at least, not act outside their usual roles) are mistaken. What those critics may not realize is they are unable to see the motion picture with fresh eyes on its own terms. Of course, if Gravity becomes a classic then when it is re-released young viewers will barely know the actors. I found the characters in Gravity, including the big name ones, to be drawn well enough for what they do.

Some people complained the show just went on and on. Perhaps they wanted some comic relief, or a comforting break of long flashbacks or a dream sequence. I suspect they have been conditioned to expect a break every seven point three minutes. (Commercials on TV are no longer 12 but instead 16 minutes out of every hour) I didn’t expect critics to have gotten away from their couch and TV to the great and dangerous outdoors, but neither was I prepared for them to be so innocent. A few complained about some “simple dialogue” with “simple questions.”

Not me: As a former soldier I know full well that when you are in pain without morphine you need questions to somehow reduce the pain by taking your mind off yourself. I know that under stress any questions to refocus your brain, to kick-start the resumption of simple thought processes, must be very simple. There is a good reason why the radio talk of soldiers and first responders is so unoriginal, clich├ęd, even hokey. For me to be confronted by the harsh judgments of contemptuous critics who don’t know such basic-to-me stuff, critics who must have lived nice safe lives, just makes me lonely.

Gravity is about a survival situation in an utterly hostile environment, and such plights, God help us, just go on and on. It’s never over until the fat lady sings—If you make it that long… And Gravity is also about something more…

I was born before the Mercury (one man) and Gemini (Two men) space programs. I once read a scientist’s book about his time in training back then, a time where potential future space-going scientists were expected to have the same training as the “normal” astronauts who had backgrounds as test pilots, fighter pilots and so forth. The scientist thought such hard training was over-kill, but such was the NASA (The right stuff) culture. (Incidentally, the scientist never did get into space) Today things are more relaxed, of course.

In Gravity one of the main characters, with a fine Polish-American name like Kowalski, is a representative of the old NASA: extroverted, confident and enjoying the simpler things in life such as country music. And he has goals, however simple, such as breaking a record set by a previous spaceman.  His polar opposite is the scientist Ryan. In the vastness of space Ryan inhabits a very narrow world. He asks Ryan, “What music do you like? Classical?” and Ryan doesn’t care enough to have any preferences: strange. And doesn’t care to have goals: seriously strange. Poor Ryan doesn’t even care enough about others to offer them jokes or tell them stories—but Kowalski sure does.

The problem, as I see it, is that subconscious caring, or uncaring, is so influential during split-second decisions. If two people are tethered as close as the Gemini twins in the zodiac, then to have someone just living as a cipher, without the gravity of caring, can depress the odds of survival. Gravity is not just space action; no, Gravity is a drama.

...My army experience is relevant: In the chaos of war, you don’t want to mix ammunition—trust me on this. Ammo resupply can be confused or interrupted—so keep it simple! Hence the submachine guns used pistol bullets, while the Bren guns and the big Browning machine guns used rifle bullets. An army rifle squad, of about ten men, when under enemy fire, would break down into two groups for maneuvering across a field: Seven riflemen and three guys responsible for the squad fire support: In Dad’s war this support meant two Bren guns with bipods. During the conflict in Nam they came out with new little M-16s firing new little bullets. It seemed so weird, at first, —even downright scandalous—to have individuals able to burn up ammunition so fast. According to a rumor I once read, the new theory was that for maneuvering across a field the seven riflemen would fire their M-16s with the select lever (the safety) on repetition, (single shot) while the other three would give support with their M-16s set on full automatic. It didn’t work.

Today they’ve had to mix ammo by having the squad support be two M-60s, with bipods, dangling a belt of big old style bullets. “It didn’t work” because the other seven guys didn’t feel self-confident, not if they were being supported by guys with just the same measly weapon they had themselves. If a sergeant needs to carry a rabbit’s foot he should: People need to feel they have an edge. During Dad's war we said, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” As alcoholics in recovery know, God is the biggest edge of all.

Ryan confesses, “No one ever taught me to pray.” Yes Ryan, but it has to be done, if only to help break you free of your own little world.

For Gravity, I am sure film school students will find a great deal to talk about; English teachers not so much. I suppose teachers might talk of various cultural values. The Russians? Their traditional culture (They needed identity papers long before communism) of oppression  has given them the distinction of vodka bottles. The Americans? Besides fast food, they have given the world pop culture: What can be more symbolic than a floating Marvin the Martian? Floating. The Chinese? With their three thousand year history? On a shelf is a statue of the Buddha, not floating but fixed. Stable. Some values are eternal.

And outside the lethal zone of orbit, down past the stratosphere and troposphere, down in some wild ravine is a hermit. Amidst fresh air and insects he is curled over, reverently reading his Bible. Such wonders and signs! Angels among us—Good folks meeting angels would need to shield their eyes from the glory! No wonder his Bible floats him free of people... But not for long. Any hermit soon finds himself, while coming in to get supplies, spending more and more time in town standing on two solid feet.

In our Gravity is our humanity.



Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
December 2013

Footnotes:
~Kingsfold Retreat is not for saints: Beside every outdoor bench is a tomato can for cigarette butts. I have been to the hermitage, and read the book  for resident's meditations.

~Hermits will spend “increasingly more time in town,” is according to a prairie social work teacher.

~”They needed identity papers long before communism,” I know this from Maxim Gorky’s classic play The Lower Depths.

~ “Doesn’t care enough about others,” see my Learning to be Nice, archived in May 2013. Come to think of it, my previous post might help set an intention, and a climate, for caring: Brights in a Grey Life.

~Commercials have gone from 12 to 16 minutes: Never again will there be long ballads to start a show such as for The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. I guess leisurely screen credits are gone too.

~“Contaminated by previous roles,” is like how when Tom Cruise had a role without his trademark smile, his good looks blurred by a beard, playing the cruel villain in Collateral. The hero is a taxi driver. I read two or more reviews by paid professional movie critics who sounded, to my amazement, like caricatures of Hollywood drag queens. Hating Cruise, they hated the movie. Then I turned to a gentleman I could trust, the late Roger Ebert, who saw the movie with an innocent eye. The haters were wrong; it was a good show.

~Speaking of Tom Cruise, and “simple questions,” he is supposed to be in a sci-fi movie in the summer of 2014. This is according to a back cover blurb on an English translation of a Japanese sf "light novel"—the title will probably be changed by Hollywood, and most of the story too, but not one thing: A question. In the first chapter a young Japanese soldier-boy is sitting alone during his first battle, not wounded but rendered non-effective because his brain has boggled; his circuit breakers have tripped; he has silently freaked out. An older, famous American warrior-goddess comes across him. She asks him a question about Japanese green tea, claiming she’s always wanted to know. This resets the boy’s breakers, and he returns to the fight. Of course they are fated to meet again…


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