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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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.