Don’t be boring

Last night, I saw Alfonso Cuarón speak at the Science Museum about Gravity. It was a great insight into a film I found incredibly powerful.

I remember seeing Gravity at the cinema in 2013. Soon after handing in my master’s dissertation, I was hyper and happy and buzzing with joy. Two hours later when I walked out of the cinema, I was quiet, reflective, and hugely impacted. It’s an immersive and, at points, overwhelming film. The movie industry often tells us that the cinema experience provides so much more than watching something on DVD at home six months later and, in Gravity‘s case, I completely agree with them.

From the opening shots of space that fill your peripheral vision to the radio dialogue of the characters that buzzes around you in glorious surround sound, you cannot help but feel you’re there with them, in orbit. As beautiful long tracking shots follow Sandra Bullock through space stations and into capsules and away from fires, you’re right there with her. And so, when she’s thrown into a spin or plummets to earth, you feel it too. Or, at least, I did.

So, as host Samira Ahmed asked Cuarón about his background, his inspiration and his choices, I was fascinated to understand more about the movie. “It’s about rebirth”, the director said, confirming the not-too-subtle yet wonderful imagery. From the foetal position of astronauts in a womb-like capsule, to the umbilical cords connecting their suits to their shuttle. As Bullock’s character stands up to walk off at the end, it’s about more than one human’s birth, but about humanity. “Not in an intellectual way. I mean the species,” explains Cuarón. That’s all well and good, sure. But I don’t love the film for a metaphor. I love it because it look and sounds and feels so…much.

Cuarón’s creative choices made it so. He resisted studios trying to add in scenes of Mission Control in Houston, to show the ‘other side’. In fact, even George Clooney’s character was a later addition, it was originally about just the single woman in space. But, it had to work, and it had to be interesting.

As a filmmaker, Cuarón is unapologetic about compromises made to make the film more interesting. Though technically accurate down to the sort of wire cutters used on a space walk, there are some elements that deviate from documentary reality. But why not? “I’m not stupid!”, Cuaron exclaimed, acknowledging that, yes, Bullock’s character would have been wearing a nappy beneath her space suit, and Clooney’s veteran astronaut would not be chattering away in space without a focus on the mission. But a film’s got to be interesting. “That would be boring,” Cuarón kept saying, of dimissed alternatives to the finished product. For example, Bullock’s final scene in space, where she undocks the Chinese capsule and addresses Houston that her descent to earth ‘could go one of two ways’, was initially attempted without a score, but that version was abandoned. Though music was used minimally on the film, and always without percussion – a Hollywood rarity – it had to be there in this case. Without it, the scene was too boring. End of.

It’s also relevant to why the film ends abruptly – Cuarón hates the trend, that grew in the1980s, of prolonging an ending to assure audiences that everything’s alright. Films like Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which he loves except the ending, should finish when the story finishes and the lead character makes it to safety – not add on a postscript about the life after the climax. I think this is good advice too. Finish telling the story you’re telling, and leave something to the imagination. I’m a fan of a short-and-sweet film, and at 91 minutes Gravity doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second.

So, full credit to Cuarón. And to his visual effects teams. And to Bullock, who underwent gruelling training for four months to get into the shape needed to act within the demanding rigs used on set. They’re necessary for the long tracking shots I love, but exhausting. Still, Bullock thought it was preferable to riding in a ‘vomet comet‘ to film in actual microgravity (Cuarón, on the other hand, loved having that opportunity – cashing in on the fact his many advisers on the film worked in an industry he’d admired since a child. Why wouldn’t you take up Nasa’s offer?).

It was amusing to hear in the Q & A after the main interview that a number of audience members asked Cuarón if key creative aspects of the film were done ‘on purpose’. I wonder how irritating this question might be to a director, or any artist. You might as well as a chef if his use of ingredients were deliberate. Still, Cuarón took the opportunity to explain how he came to his decisions. Like the choice, despite the movie featuring all current and accurate technology, to put the characters in older space suits, as the latest real ones looked too futuristic. The details like that matter – so the audience is not distracted or disconnected. Gravity is not a fantasy, like Star Wars, nor is it a science fiction about future or hypothetical technology and its consequences, like Interstellar. It’s a drama, about a person, in space.

Cuarón’s message of ‘don’t be boring’ was the notable takeaway from the night. You can be as arty, moving, accurate as you like, but if you bore audiences you’ve lost them. It’s food for thought, from beginning to end. Watching Bullock’s final escape scene brought it all back to me – how Gravity was a film you couldn’t turn away from, and I was emotionally impacted even just watching a two-minute clip out of context of the rest of the film. That’s Gravity‘s power.

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Thanks so much to the Science Museum for hosting the night. There’s still a few weeks left of their Cosmonauts exhibition, to which the event was linked, and if our journey into space at all interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit.

2015 in movies

I started keeping track of the films I watched in 2015. It started off with a desire to organise the list of films I wanted to watch, and a way to keep track of the ones I had. I was recommended Letterboxd as a means to this end, and have found it to be superb.

So, I can tell you that in 2015 I watched 113 films – 77 of them for the first time. This included 9 films featuring Alan Rickman, 6 films directed by Richard Linklater, and one terrible movive entitled The 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue.

A lot of the films I watched were from a few years back – catching up on classics, the big films of the last couple of years that are now kicking about on DVD, and other recommendations and TV movies. Amongst these, and indeed amongst all the films of any age I saw this year, my favourite has to be Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece of interwoven stories, long brooding shots, superb rhythm and captivating characters living contrasting city lives. Despite being over three hours long, I didn’t want it to finish a single minute early – and that’s saying something.

Amongst the year’s cinema releases, Birdman was my favourite. I have a thing for long, unbroken steadicam shots – and this film is essentially one extended shot of this type. Combined with a fascinating glimpse behind theatrical scenes and a powerful performance from Michael Keaton, then the film is not just one-of-a-kind, but darn good as well.

Closely following on the heels of Birdman are the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (beautifully audacious action movie with fresh characters, minimum annoying exposition, and no apologies) and Whiplash (superb tension for such a character-driven movie, thanks largely to J K Simmons) – while the latest Bond and Mission:Impossible installments left me underwhelmed. In terms of older movies then I’m glad to have finally seen superb titles such as Captain Phillips, Drive, and 12 Angry Men. It’s good to play catchup.

I also made a start on watching old Hitchcock movies at the end of the year, and I’m sure that will continue into 2015. One of the most enjoyable film series of the year, though, has to be Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy – I watched them back-to-back in a single day and loved the dialogue, the characters, and the realism of the simple settings. I’ll be back to see them plenty, I’m sure.

You can see my full 2015 in film review over at Letterboxd – including ranked lists, reviews and ratings for all the films I saw last year. For now, though, I’m off to grab a DVD.

Movie life

Films are a thing, aren’t they? I’ve been playing catch-up recently, ploughing through loads of films that ‘I’ve been meaning to see for aaaages’. The list is a long one, hard to prioritise, and by its nature limited. How do I prioritise the films on it, and where do I turn when I want to give something ‘off-list’ a try?

I mention these rhetorical questions by way of introducing two things in the world of film that have brought joy to my life recently: Letterboxd and 20th Century Flicks.

Letterboxd is a free website that lets you keep a diary of the films you’ve watched, build up lists of films you want to watch, and connect with friends to see what they’re watching. It’s been great to finally consolidate my ‘notes-to-self’ into proper online lists that I can access anywhere, and have instant access to the recommendations of friends. There are various ways to tag, rate, and review films and to share these views with friends in your social network (or strangers in the wider world) and the whole site is clean, attractive and simple to use. Give it a go!

20th Century Flicks, on the other hand, is at the other end of the ‘recommend me a film’ spectrum – real-life humans in a real-life video shop. I became a member earlier in the year and have enjoyed chatting with the staff when choosing or returning DVD rentals ever since. They’re friendly, they know their stuff, and they’re extremely helpful when you want to pick their brains on what to watch. As great as the internet and the growth of pretty data-crunching websites can be, there’s surely no substitute for that.

You’ll find 20th Century Flicks on the Christmas Steps in Bristol, and they recently ran a competition to design a film poster for that delightful little alleyway of shops. Flexing my nascent design skills I gave it a go one evening with the below effort – the eventual winner was much more deserving, but I got a runner-up prize. Thanks, 20th Century Flicks!

Christmas Steps movie poster

Just a little something I knocked up.

Of course, you can always let me know your own film recommendations by getting in touch. I’ll try anything once.