Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Defining Gravity: Outer Space as Inner Space

I probably should have chosen a different title for this post. That Wicked song is going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Still, Gravity is a strange title for a movie that takes place in an environment where there isn't any.

Or is it?

The secret, perhaps, is to not watch Gravity as a disaster movie about an astronaut lost in space after debris from a ruined satellite destroys her shuttle.  Instead, we examine it as a movie about psychology...outer space is in fact inner space.

There's a lot we could talk about.

We could talk about the simplicity of the movie. Eighty eight minutes. Very few characters and minimal development of those characters. Long, slow takes instead of frantic cutting. To paraphrase, Dolly Parton, "It takes a lot of complexity to look this simple."

 We could talk about the rebirth motif. Gravity contains two rebirth scenes: the one in the space station where she floats in the embryo like a fetus in the womb and the end of the movie, when she emerges from the water, mud, and plants to stand unsteadily on her two feet, millions of years of evolution compressed into just a few moments. Each of them comes after Stone has reached a point of hopelessness.

We could talk about the focus on talking. Kowalski mentions maintaining a constant stream of communication; he doesn't care what they talk about, so long as they are talking. We see this again later in the movie when Stone's distress call somehow reaches an Inuit fisherman in Greenland (*). Neither of them are able to communicate any meaningful information to the other...and yet, they are still talking.

We could also note how much dialogue in the movie takes place, as the characters call it, "in the blind"--characters talking but being unsure if anyone is actually listening or hearing. Kowalski to Mission Control. Stone to Mission Control. Mission Control to Stone during the rescue sequence. Stone to Kowalski. Stone to herself.

Is it about prayer? Is it about hope or faith that someone is out there? Is it about how saying the things out loud makes them more easy to deal with? Or do these questions even matter? Maybe it's just speaking to that same part of our psychology that writes in journals and confesses to bartenders in foreign countries--that sometimes the act of communication is more important than whether or not we are actually communcating. 

And speaking of prayer...

 We could also talk about the repeated appearance of articles of faith. Among the dead astronauts and abandoned space stations, we see a lot of artifacts, references to where people put their faith: A Jesus picture and a Buddha statue appear, but so does a photograph of a man's family...not to mention a lingering shot of, um, Marvin the Martian.

Interestingly, we never see any such artifacts among the live astronauts, possibly for two different reasons. Kowalski finds his faith in the moment; he talks during multiple moments about the beauty of the space around him. Stone, on the other hand, has nothing.

In fact, let's talk about Stone. Because it's through her, and through her relationship with Kowalski that we find the pot of gold at the end of Gravity's rainbow (sorry, couldn't resist).

"You're gonna have to learn to let go."

Like many of us, Ryan Stone is a person holding on to a lot of things. She holds on to her desire to fix the transmission card even after it is safe to do so. She holds on to her fear of the situation she's in. She holds onto the guilt and grief over her daughter. She holds on to the fear of loss.

When we think of 'letting go,' we often think of it as a metaphor for death or giving up on something or someone. We rarely think of how it relates to life.

But in this case, it is.

We see this most explicitly in the scene when a despairing Stone prepares to kill herself by releasing the remaining oxygen from her space capsule.

It looks like Stone is letting go, but she's not. She's still holding onto control, this time by trying to control the way she dies.

Earlier in the movie, when Kowalski tells Stone she needs to learn to let go, he's telling not telling her to give up.

He's telling her to let go of the things that keep her from living. No matter how long or short that life may be.

"Where you go, I go"

Matt Kowalski is a handsome. He's an astronaut, an adventurer, and a storyteller. He has brown eyes.

He's also something else.

Matt Kowalski is a case study in the power that comes with acceptance.

He has a bad feeling, but he doesn't fight the badness. Bad or good doesn't matter to him--he treats them with equal aplomb. He brings up the space walk record that he wants to break, but he is  comfortable whether he succeeds or not. He has preferences, but he is not tied to them.

Many of us resist acceptance because we believe that it means submitting to whatever life brings. We fear that acceptance will take away our motivation to act, to defend ourselves, to right injustice. How will I motivate myself if I just accept things? If I'm content with whatever happens, what will get me out of bed in the morning? We confuse acceptance with passivity.

Kowalski shows us how we can accept and still act. If anything, Kowalski's equanimity makes him MORE effective, not less. When Stone is trapped by focused on what she wants to do with the module, Kowalski sees the debris coming and prepares to act. While Stone is rendered ineffective by fear and the gravity (there's that word again) of the situation, Kowalski sees what is possible and acts accordingly.

Yet while Kowalski is pragmatic, he is never cold or clinical. He rescues Stone. He never loses his temper with her or barks orders. He remains gently encouraging throughout. Kowalski is also the one who remembers to look in on the rest of the shuttle crew and makes the decision to retrieve Sharif's corpse.

Kowalski is compassionate, accepting, effective...oh yeah, and he looks like George Clooney.  If we met him on the street, we would think: who can live up to that? But he's not a person. He's a personification of Stone's--and by extension of all of our--capability for finding those qualities in ourselves.

As the dialogue makes clear, Stone has brown eyes too.

Where we go, acceptance goes.

 Three times Stone is saved by this acceptance personified. Once when he finds and binds himself to her. A second time when he shows her how to let go. And a third time when...well, that's a hell of a story.


In the end, Stone re-enters Earth's atmosphere, and for the first time in the movie gravity asserts itself, pulling her landing craft downwards. For the first time, she is being pulled by gravity.

And yet for the first time, she is also free of it.

She is in a dangerous situation, but it is no longer holding her down. She does not know what will happen and there is no Kowalski to save her.

But he accepts her options: burn up in the atmosphere or survive and have a hell of a story to tell. Either way, she says, "No harm, no foul."

She is free.

And after she lands, after she emerges from the ocean and stands on her own two feet, she walks away...perfect in her relationship with gravity.

(*) For those interested, the director's son made a short spin-off film called Aningaaq that shows this scene from the fisherman's perspective.

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