Sandra Bullock, Gravity and the "single actor" movie

Ryan Gilbey explores the turning point in any film career - the “single actor” movie - when close-ups and soliloquies test actors to the max.

Alfonso Cuarón’s contemplative thriller Gravity is not heavy on dialogue; in space, no one can hear you soliloquise. But one line will provoke sympathetic nods: the astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has been stranded alone for some time hundreds of miles above earth in a malfunctioning shuttle when she’s moved to remark: “I hate space.” The depth of the film’s visual palette and the intensity of the scrupulous sound design (Steven Price’s score ambushes the ears with crescendos that suddenly collapse to reveal chasms of silence) make us hate space too – to fear it, even as we bask in its beauty.

Gravity has been commended for the groundbreaking special-effects work carried out largely by the British company Framestore. If it’s true that Cuarón allowed years to pass while waiting for the technology to catch up with the demands of the screenplay he co-wrote with his son, Jonás, it was time well spent. “We made sure the quality of light was rich and varied,” the film’s visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber, recently told the Hollywood Reporter. “When [the characters] were over the ocean, there were cool blue lights, and over North Africa there were warmer colours coming from the desert.”

That’s a relief. Had I detected even a faint chill emanating from the Sahara region, I’d have been straight on to the “goofs” section of the Internet Movie Database to register the anomaly in the severest terms. As it stands, the various awards bodies may as well just tip next-year’s technical gongs into a swag bag and FedEx the lot round to Framestore: that race is won.

The comprehensive realism of the version of space shown on screen is achieved through animation, 3-D technology, stunt work and puppetry (in the film Bullock was installed into a rig that could then be operated as though she were a marionette). But the film must also have some traction as a metaphor for the life of a stratospherically famous actor who can command, as Bullock does, around $14m per movie. Like astronauts, actors get lonely in their line of work. For both, the moment that cements their professional success is often one of extreme solitude. For the astronaut, it might be the moon walk, or the excursion beyond the safety of the vessel to carry out repair work under the stars – years of training distilled into one person facing the glare of infinity. An actor has reached the top only once he or she can come to expect plentiful close-ups as a matter of course but that adoring convention of film vocabulary is also a process of isolation and quarantine. The cinema frame becomes a literal exclusion zone erected around a human face. This person is special. Keep away from the others. Keep out.

Earlier this year, the young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan, the subject of an extraordinary extended close-up in the teen science-fiction film The Host, explained to me what it is actually like to be under such scrutiny. “You feel it’s just you and the lens. It all goes very quiet on set. The camera’s like a friend sitting down that’s just all ears and wants you to pour your heart out. It’s this open, round, black thing and you can tell it whatever you want to say. That’s what’s so liberating about a camera, I find. Except it stares – that’s its way of listening.”

In extreme circumstances, there is a compliment available to an actor that ranks even higher than the close-up. It was bestowed upon Tom Hanks for more than an hour in the middle of the desert-island drama Cast Away. Ryan Reynolds found himself an unusually young recipient of the honour when he was stuck in a coffin for the entirety of the thriller Buried. The esteemed Philip Baker Hall was more than up to the task when Robert Altman cast him as Nixon, pacing around the Oval Office in Secret Honor; while John Cusack was able to bring shades of stand-up comedy to the horror film 1408 when he was awarded this privilege. What I am referring to are not merely close-ups but entire films, or the lion’s share of them, given over to a single actor. It’s hard not to see them as gifts with big floppy bows on top, handed out either as totems of encouragement for rising stars (see Locke, which features Tom Hardy alone in a car for 90 minutes) or long and distinguished service, as in the case of All is Lost, in which Robert Redford, battling to survive at sea, has a word count that is barely into double figures.

You may have noticed George Clooney’s name on the Gravity poster alongside Sandra Bullock’s but in no sense is the movie an ensemble piece. Other people appear in voice form alongside Bullock and Clooney, though when we twig that one of Bullock’s fellow astronauts is played by an Asian actor (Phaldut Sharma), we can be pretty sure he won’t be long for this world. Even in an unconventional film made by a Mexican auteur, the orthodoxy that places celebrities and white people first is beyond dispute. For all the meticulous technical detail of Gravity, there seems little doubt that Bullock’s celebrity status will be her protection against perishing. It’s a bummer for agents and managers when their clients die on screen.

At least Gravity respects the conventions of the single-actor movie. Such films are partly about the currency of the star – whether or not particular actors can “open” a movie, whether audiences will turn out on that first weekend because of their involvement. Bullock isn’t the primary commercial draw of a film such as Gravity, which promises spectacle and ( maybe misleadingly) certain comforts of the genre. But she will be vital in bringing to the movie a type of viewer not statistically attracted to science fiction extravaganzas. That type is called “female”.

The single-actor showcase also allows a film-maker to establish and negotiate limits; there’s nothing like restriction to free a creative mind. Outer space gives precious little wriggle room, as Moon, starring Sam Rockwell, virtually by himself, also demonstrated. But the same effect can be generated in transit – Steven Spielberg’s 1971 debut, Duel, about a lone driver hounded by the unseen pursuer at the wheel of a juggernaut, is a model of economy with precious few reprieves.

Not everyone can stick to the rules. In 127 Hours, about a man whose arm is trapped by a fallen rock, the director Danny Boyle was so terrified of boring the audience that he drained every drop of dread and suspense from the material. The challenge of setting the entire film in a cave counted for nothing when the editing and the camera angles exercised a liberty denied to the pinioned hero. Cuarón favours fluid, elegant camerawork that feels consistent with Bullock’s somnambulant movements; we may not know how the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, achieved the balletic shots but there are no restless cutaways to relieve the pressure, no division between form and content.

Perhaps this evocation of loneliness speaks directly to us whenever we witness a solitary actor stranded on screen. And maybe it’s also one of the elements that makes this type of film so rare and so disquieting. “We live, as we dream – alone,” wrote Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and it isn’t just Hollywood that throws an awful lot of noise and money into the business of disguising this truism.

Gravity is saddled with a banal backstory to explain why Bullock’s character feels no more alone in space than she does back on earth. The film’s imagery is primarily natal: umbilical cords attach the astronauts to the spacecraft, rippling seductively, while Bullock is seen at one point curled foetus-like in her chamber. An attempt at re-entering the earth’s atmosphere is shot from an angle that makes the debris resemble sperm competing to fertilise an egg.

But the film is at its most mature when it resists the magnetism of psychological explanation and dares to put Bullock in extreme close-up, staring out at us in the auditorium staring back. In those moments Gravity confronts and embraces loneliness without any holistic need to resolve it. Now that’s scary.

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Now listen to Ian Steadman and Helen Lewis discussing Gravity on the NS podcast:

Sandra Bullock in "Gravity": a film that "embraces loneliness, without any holistic need to resolve it."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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