A stellar actor can elevate the worst tripe, while special effects tend to plasticize story, yet the right art direction will add to not only the world but the characters as well. Purely Production is a monthly post where I explore the different elements that affect a finished media, for good or ill. We’ll forget about writing for a moment and delve into all the bedazzling doodads that dress a story.
Purely Production #5: How much do production skills play in the success of a film and does it matter that a story is ridiculous?
For his birthday, my Dad splurged on 3-D IMAX tickets for my family to see Gravity (we bought dinner). I was thrilled because, to be honest, I think it’s crazy to spend $14 to see a movie in 3-D which makes my head hurt, my fingers cramp (from holding up the glasses) and my eyes blur (is it my eyes or does everything in 3-D look downright squiggly?!) Yup my Dad is crazy for 3-D.
I am not. I believe 3-D is a fad of the money-making machine that is Hollywood. I’m only grateful the Star Wars series never made it onto the eye-poking technology. (Can you imagine the never-ending buzz that would be 3-D, ugh?!)
That said, I didn’t hate Gravity in 3-D. I did feel like I followed her through the tiny tubes and triple used spaces in the space station and other capsules. I felt earth below like a school-house globe. When she stood on the beach I felt her looming over me in thanksgiving. So yes, 3-D added something. Enough to make up for $80 at the movie theater – I don’t think so. But it certainly was an experience.
Still, I don’t get all the Oscar cries about Gravity. Well, I should say I do and I don’t. It means a digression into story-land but I’ll explain anyway. Gravity’s story was so thin a breath exhaled too strongly would riddle it with holes.
Yes, that bad!
The story is about an astronaut (obviously, I use the term loosely here) who after a major catastrophe must make her way to earth, by herself, with what is left to her in space.
That should be pretty easy for a trained astronaut, and that is where the looseness of the term, astronaut, comes into play. First, she’s not really an astronaut at all but a scientist whose work is soooooooooooooo particular they trained the researcher to go to space rather than send a tech competent, pro-astronaut. Second, she’s had a major blow in her life that makes living a 50/50 proposition she takes day by day.
Without Ryan (Sandra Bullock) dealing with a deep emotional trauma there is no drama, but that is added at the expense of believing that NASA would send a suicidal and barely trained researcher up into space. (Uhh, yeah, her work didn’t look complicated at all, and it’s safe to say George Clooney could have done it faster with her simply telling him what needs doing. And yes, we’ve had happy, perfectly well-adjusted school teachers attempt to go into space, and look how that turned out? No disrespect intended!)
Without the drama though, the story wouldn’t be terribly exciting. And so the story is in a catch-22, at once unbelievable and unfixable. This alone in my humble opinion should withdraw in from Best Picture contention. (Wait, keep reading before you huff away…)
Yet once I let go of the fact the story was a fanciful farce, needed to add tension to the events of the movie, I realized something.
I wasn’t bored!
As my brother would say, expanding answers are needed to understand. I wasn’t bored with a single moment of Gravity until the climax. There Ryan was, stranded in space, trying to figure out why all this effort was even worth her time and I just suddenly lost all interest. By the end of that scene I was clinging to my armrests trying to keep my butt in the seat as all my feet and head wanted to do was get out of there quick. I nearly cheered when I saw Clooney in that port window. I didn’t care how he did it but I was as happy to see him as Ryan was.
I knew the story was ridiculous and yet I stayed connected until that moment, why? And why was I pulled out of the movie during the biggest moment, the moment we’d all been waiting for: when Ryan’s struggle with suicide came to a crescendo? Just what was so enthralling about a sortanaut drifting out in space?
After pondering this for a few days, I read this article by Film Crit Hulk here (I know crazy name). FCHulk gets a little too philosophical at times but he’s insanely knowledgeable about film. I learn more from him than any other movie posts I read. Here’s the passage that really hit me:
1. THE THING THAT TRACKING SHOTS DO BEST IS HOLDING TENSION (SEE:GRAVITY AND EVERYTHING CUARON HAS EVER DONE). WHEN SHIT STARTS HITTING THE FAN, THE AUDIENCE INSTINCT IS TO TURN AWAY, TO BREAK IT, TO FIND SOME KIND OF RELIEF, AND WHEN YOU DON’T LET THAT HAPPEN YOU RATCHET UP THE INTENSITY. IT STILL NEEDS TO BE COMPOSED CORRECTLY SO THAT THE SUBJECT AND EMOTION ARE HIGHLIGHTED IN A MEANINGFUL WAY, BUT THIS IS STILL HOW THEY WORK BEST.
It’s the actual way Gravity was shot that held my attention!
Ahhh… the tracking shots Cuaron used, and the fact he used them the way they were meant to be used… (see the article link above). I.E. good movie making techniques held my attention.
FCHulk quotes A.O. Scott who, indeed, put it perfectly: “Wow, that’s quite a tracking shot,’ when it should be ‘My God, what a horrible experience that must have been.” (No, we aren’t talking about the True Detective shot, but Gravity – keep on topic now.)
What Gravity did so well was keep you in the story (as flimsy as it was) so that you did ponder how horrible the experience must have been and not about the filming itself. I never thought ‘oh, this is why everyone is so gaga about Gravity – the shots.’ I never thought ‘oh, this is where the story fails miserably.’ Sure these answer my questions of why, but they only came after the fact.
Production, when done well, deserves an Oscar, maybe not for Best Picture, but certainly for a slew of technical ones and perhaps even for Best Director. Was I as happy as Ryan to see Clooney out that airlock – yes (anything to take me out of that pathetic scene) – but I was also happy because then Ryan wanted to live. I’d bought into the story and wanted her to rise to the challenge. That’s movie making at it’s best.