Gravity ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

GRAVITY is a unique cinematic experience, an elegant, beautifully imagined, well-acted, intense piece of art and entertainment that I cannot wait to immerse myself in again. (No, Matt Singer and Michael Phillips, rewatchability doesn't always equate to excellence; if it did, ROAD HOUSE and MY COUSIN VINNY would have topped my Sight & Sound list... But with so many movies I'm still desperately trying to see for the first time, it's rare I even consider seeing one for a second -- which I hope to do in the theater with GRAVITY.

Alas, GRAVITY is not a masterpiece. The delicately introduced dead daughter back story -- which some colleagues believe should have been excised completely -- is over-written and over-played, and its 'Choose Life' messaging lacks both subtlety and intellectual rigor. (Cuarón's fetal-position poetry and closing re-birth imagery -- Ryan emerging from her capsule/womb, crawling, then taking her 'first steps' -- are fleetingly powerful, but not exactly the stuff star-children are conceived of... Hey, wait, that tether is a lot like an umbilical cord too, isn't it?)

But I want to talk about gender; specifically, the argument put forth by my co-host (and some others, I'm told) that the gender dynamics on display in GRAVITY are problematic. I think Michael was correct to assert on Filmspotting #463 that the movie exhibits a certain paternalism. Not according to a strict definition of the word, mind you: It's a stretch to suggest that Clooney's Matt Kowalski treats Bullock's Ryan Stone in a way that disregards her will; she is, after all, always amenable to his (quite helpful) advice. It's even a stretch to say his behavior expresses an attitude of superiority since he never demeans her.

Matt is, though, the vastly more experienced astronaut, and technically outranks Ryan. He is almost always instructing her to do something, and doing so with a fatherly -- or at least big brotherly -- tone. Is there also something inherently paternalistic about resting your story's entire emotional core on a woman's loss of her child, more or less defining her by her status as a mother? Perhaps.

I'm mystified, however, by the most cited evidence of GRAVITY'S alleged gender crimes:

Clooney says a few kinda sorta sexist things to Bullock. I didn't have my adding machine handy, but chatty Matt has, by my count, 4,172 lines of dialogue -- give or take several hundred. Of those 4,172, how many directly or indirectly reference appearance and/or seem a little flirty? Three maybe? He says something about her brown eyes (and later his), her masculine name, and his good looks. That's the list. And honestly, none of those lines would likely get him pulled into a sexual harassment lawsuit by even the most sensitive complainant.

More significant, though, is the tenor and context of those lines. Forget "tongue in cheek," whenever Clooney initiated one of those exchanges, his tongue was so firmly planted into the side of his mouth that it's a miracle we could decipher his dialogue at all. The only way "What kind of a name is Ryan for a girl anyway?" could have been delivered more ironically is if he had said, "I'm going to try to bring some levity to our current dire predicament by asking you in a mock macho way why your parents gave you a boy's name." Ironic flirting is not actual flirting; it's distraction making and tension breaking between equals, people who are both aware of the game being played. And whether facing almost no chance of returning to Earth safely or hovering 600 miles above it, there was a LOT of tension for the just-about-seen-it-all astronaut to break.

I'll be the first to admit it would be interesting to see a version of GRAVITY where the female character is the grizzled vet with the fancy 'jet pack' that affords her the ability to dictate her movements, while the male character is the one untethered and in need of rescue. But then we're not just highlighting problems with the material, we're completely rewriting it -- unnecessarily too, because there's simply nothing disturbing about the male-female dynamic GRAVITY gives us.

Howard Hawks famously made RIO BRAVO as a response to HIGH NOON. Hawks just couldn't abide watching Gary Cooper's Will Kane, a marshall employed by the citizens of Hadleyville to protect and serve them, spend all that time begging those citizens to help protect and serve him in his quest to stop a dangerous outlaw. Even worse, after the town refuses to assist, and he's forced to fight his fight alone, his Quaker wife has to step in to save him. So as a counter, Hawks offered up John Wayne's John T. Chance, a sheriff who doesn't hesitate to stand his ground and entreats no one, despite being severely outnumbered. Because it's his duty.

My guess is that most halfway sophisticated people, male or female, scoff at Hawks' antiquated sense of virility -- even if, deep down, they find it immensely attractive. I mean, come on Hawks, seriously? A man is only a man if he doesn't back down when challenged? When he's too proud to ask for help? When he does his job even if doing it means almost-certain suicide? Surely masculinity isn't quite so black and white, right? (Please say right, please say right, please right...)

But I wonder if the desire for Ryan to appear less subordinate and more in control isn't really a feminist form of -- or over-corrected response to -- this same old-school machismo. Can a man not be a mentor to a woman without it reflecting an attitude of dominance? Can a woman not need a man's help without it being a sign of weakness or inferiority, especially when, in the case of GRAVITY, the woman in question has already demonstrated her competence, intelligence, strength and self-reliance -- traits, I hasten to add, we assign to her immediately since we rightfully assume she wouldn't be up in space if she lacked them?

Matt doesn't just rescue her once; thanks to his surprise return late in the film, he's the sole reason she gets home alive. I'll grant you that if Matt had actually made his way to Ryan's pod and provided her with a solution, that's something we could potentially chalk up to the 'white knight saving the poor damsel in distress'. But he didn't actually do that because he isn't actually there. Who is denying Ryan agency here: Matt, or the critics insisting that a construct she herself conjured should get the credit for her brilliant last-second scheme? Sure, Clooney's presence may leave certain viewers 'feeling' like Matt saved the day, but fortunately for Cuarón, audiences don't have to rely on feelings; we can approach and assess a scene analytically... Or maybe it was all Wilson the volleyball who got Tom Hanks home in CASTAWAY.

For those able to look past impressions, oversimplified gender evaluations and, regrettably, Clooney's shit-eating mugging, what manifests is one person, in a seemingly insurmountable moment of despair, drawing hope from the only person he or she could draw from -- a literal lifeline from a connection forged under such extreme, unfathomable circumstances, that they will be bonded, inextricably, forever.

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