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?

MATT MURPHY FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Measure for pleasure: sex, money and Shakespeare

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare was no exception.

A hundred years ago this month, preparations for the Battle of the Somme were no impediment to national remembrance of the tercentenary of William Shakespeare’s death. He had been buried on 25 April 1616, but it was generally agreed that he had died two days earlier, on what may well have been his 52nd birthday (we can be sure about the date of his baptism in 1564, but not that of his birth). So, on 23 April 1916, St George’s Day, celebrations were staged in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Also in Prague and Madrid, New York and Copenhagen. And, with special fervour, in Berlin. Back in the 18th century Goethe and Schiller had claimed Shakespeare as Germany’s national poet. In their adopted town of Weimar, as Germany geared up for war in 1914, the president of the Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft (German Shakespeare Society) had aligned Shakespeare to the spiritual rearmament of the German people. “O God of battles!” he had declaimed from Henry V, “steel my soldiers’ hearts;/Possess them not with fear”.

The two most notable Shakespearean publications of that tercentenary year were both published by Oxford University Press. First there was a stout, two-volume set called Shakespeare’s England: an Account of the Life and Manners of His Age. It began with an
“Ode on the Tercentenary Commemoration of Shakespeare” by Robert Bridges, the poet laureate. “And in thy book Great-Britain’s rule readeth her right,” Bridges wrote. “Her chains are chains of Freedom, and her bright arms/Honour, Justice and Truth and Love to man.” Thanks to Shakespeare – the poem proposed – the Union Jack has been hailed around the world as “the ensign of Liberty”. Shakespeare was lauded as the vessel of a kind of benign gunboat diplomacy: “And the boom of her guns went round the earth in salvos of peace.”

The book proceeded with a paean to “The Age of Elizabeth” by the aptly named Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, and then with an array of essays on almost every aspect of the culture of Shakespeare’s age, from religion, the military, education, travel and agriculture to law and medicine, commerce and coinage, heraldry and costume, city and town life, homes and gardens, sports and pastimes, rogues and vagabonds, and ghosts and witches. A century later, Shakespeare’s England remains a valuable compendium of historical lore, though it does not have much to say about the subjects that most 21st-century academic Shakespeareans focus on – women and gender, race and ethnicity, questions of cultural ecology and social anthropology.

The other OUP volume of 1916 was ­entitled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare. It contained over 160 tributes to the Bard, in more than 20 languages, contributed by scholars and writers from every corner of the globe. As Andrew Dickson reveals in his wonderful Shakespearean travelogue, Worlds Elsewhere, published last autumn, there is even an essay (written anonymously) by Sol Plaatje, the founding general secretary of what became the African National Congress, arguing that William “Tsikinya-Chaka” (that’s “Shake-the-Sword”, translated into Setswana) would one day belong to all South Africans, not just white men.

In contrast to the impassioned celeb­rations and the hyperbole of the claims about Shakespeare in 1916, the marking of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1964 was fairly low-key. There was a set of Royal Mail stamps, a spike in academic publications, a ramping up of the annual Stratford-upon-Avon birthday jamboree, and not much more.

The two most notable books on Shakespeare published that year were modest in scale compared to the hefty tomes of a half-century earlier – though not modest in ambition. One was a bestselling biography by the historian A L Rowse, in which he announced that he had “shed light upon problems hitherto intractable [and] produced results which might seem incredible” by solving, “for the first time and definitely”, the riddles of the sonnets, as well as effecting “an unhoped-for enrichment of the contemporary content and experience that went into a number of the plays” – claims that Rowse pushed ever further in subsequent books on Shakespeare, each more hubristic and less scholarly than the last. Alas, poor Rowse: his credibility on the subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets disintegrated when another scholar noted that his case for the poet Aemilia Bassano as “Shakespeare’s Dark Lady” was based primarily on a misreading of a manuscript. He had thought it said she was “very brown” in her youth, but the actual wording was “very brave”.

The second bestseller from 1964 has stood up rather better. Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun is by some distance the best contribution (save perhaps for the wonderfully comic No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon, published in 1941) to the never-ending genre of novels about Shakespeare. Burgess the wordsmith had a terrific feel for the verbal pyrotechnics of the young Shakespeare, but also for his rootedness in the Warwickshire countryside. Fragmentary biographical gems – such as the weirdness of Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert – are interwoven with phrases and psychological insights drawn from the plays. And there is lots of very good Elizabethan sex.

***

Sex – now there’s a subject dear to Shakespeare’s heart, but one on which 1916’s Shakespeare’s England was unsurprisingly silent. Those two hefty volumes end with a rich subject index, but “sex” is not to be found between “setting-dog” and “shadow, in muster-roll”, nor “pox” between “powdering tub” and “praemunire”. Actually, the “powdering tub of infamy” was the sweating cure for syphilis, to which Shakespeare alludes in his final two sonnets as well as in several plays, but the author of the chapter on medicine in Shakespeare’s England (Alban H G Doran, consulting surgeon to the Samaritan Free Hospital) couldn’t bring himself to use any phrase for the pox other than “contagious disease”.

Sex is an area where Shakespearean scholarship has advanced immensely in recent decades. In 1994, Gordon Williams of the University of Wales at Lampeter published an astonishingly well-researched, three-volume Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, which enumerated the sexual double entendre of about 2,000 words and phrases in the plays and poems of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Williams also produced a spin-off in 1997 providing a comprehensive glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. It was never far from our hands when we were compiling the glosses for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Complete Works, which one reviewer described as “the filthiest edition of Shakespeare ever produced”.

Never mind the gunboat diplomacy – a Shakespeare who is honest, funny, messy and, above all, unashamed about sex might just be a useful 400th-anniversary present to those parts of the world where ­homosexuality remains illegal (as it was in Shakespeare’s England, though that didn’t stop him celebrating homoerotic passion) or where people live in fear of the modern-day, Islamist equivalents of the Puritans in Elizabethan and Jacobean London who excoriated plays, the theatre, sexual puns, female pleasure and cross-dressed boys.

For this reason, I predict that one of the two books published in this 400th year that will spark great debate and make a difference is Jillian Keenan’s Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love. Simultaneously a memoir, a work of literary criticism and a love song (to Shakespeare much more than to the other men who pass through its pages), it is an extreme example of the genre of “self-discovery through literature” that was pioneered in such books as Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran.

It is the kind of book about Shakespeare that would have been inconceivable, in the full sense, in 1964, let alone in 1916. We have feminism – from its first shoots in the essays of Virginia Woolf through the full flowering of écriture feminine in the late 20th century – to thank for the eruption of the personal voice and self-conscious reflection on sexual identity into Shakespearean criticism. I know of few straight men who would dare to write a book as brave as this one.

What’s it about? Shakespeare and spanking. My first reaction was quizzical, but Keenan swiftly won me over, with her brisk prose, her playful self-flagellation and, above all, her perceptive attention to the nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Think about it: if our claim about Shakespeare is that he speaks for all of us, that he addresses every dimension of human ­experience, is it surprising that a reader preoccupied with the symbiosis of desire and pain should find things in the plays with which to identify? Keenan’s heroine is Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which she rightly describes as “a play about sexual awakening and sexual exploration . . . at its core, a play that grapples with questions about sexual freedom, self-determination and consent”. When Demetrius tells Hel­ena that he can in no circumstances love her, she replies:

And even for that do I love you the more:

I am your spaniel; and, Demetrius,

The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.

Use me but as your spaniel; spurn me, strike me . . .

This rather turns Demetrius on. When all the story of the night is told, he and Helena are a couple.

Speaking for myself, I don’t “get” the whole BDSM thing. I suppose I’ve always assumed that it comes from childhood trauma: the Victorian poet Swinburne was a masochist because he was constantly whipped at Eton, that sort of argument. But great art – and good criticism – can teach you that choices unimaginable to you may be embraced by other people. Shakespeare’s greatness lies precisely in his capacity to enter into other minds, to show spectators and readers what it might be like to be a person with very different emotions, experiences and desires from our own.

Thus, Keenan offers a powerful reading of The Taming of the Shrew, proposing that the “taming” (which involves physical as well as verbal abuse) is a game in which the woman is complicit from the start. After all, the first sexual spark jumps between Kate and Petruchio in their opening encounter when they share a joke about cunnilingus. As Keenan puts it, “To Petruchio, Kate comes first (in every sense of the phrase).” The play itself takes place within a frame (the Christopher Sly plot) which is there to remind the audience that the whole thing is a fantasy, a piece of wish-fulfilment. Most of us are uncomfortable with the taming narrative because it seems to involve beating a witty and independent woman into physical submission and marital subservience. For Keenan, by contrast, Kate isn’t “broken” at the end of the play, she is broken at the beginning (by her father, by the patriarchy). She is liberated at the end: “If she and I be pleased,” says Petruchio, “what’s that to you?” Keenan (who is just occasionally a little too glib) adds, “I couldn’t put it better myself.”

The discourse of command and obedience, the sound and tingle of the slap, the hand beneath the foot: it’s all a game, and one that both parties enjoy to the full. In readings such as this one, the critic works with the dramatist to loosen the stays of the vanilla spectator and the middle-aged, heterosexual male scholar.

Shakespeare uses the word “beat” or “beaten” nearly 300 times. Of course the context is often that of military defeat and equally often of wanton cruelty. But sometimes it is comic knockabout and just occasionally there’s a dynamic whereby pain is pleasure, as when Cleopatra says: “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,/Which hurts, and is desired.” Such lines are true to a dimension of human experience and it is cause for celebration when a writer as original, witty and self-deprecating as Keenan takes them seriously.

***

Like sex, money is something that a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about (and wanting more of). Shakespeare, it seems, was no exception. My second pick from the plethora of quatercentenary publications could hardly be more different in tone or style from Sex With Shakespeare, but it will without doubt prove indispensable to future scholars and biographers. While Jillian Keenan has been spanking her way around Spain and Oman, Robert Bearman, a sometime archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been closeted in Stratford-upon-Avon examining tithe-holdings, tax assessments of the value of moveable goods, notes on the storage of malt, property conveyances and monographs with such titles as Warwickshire Hearth Tax Returns: Michaelmas 1670. The results, in his book Shakespeare’s Money, are as rewarding, in their way, as Keenan’s frisky textual entanglements.

In many respects, Bearman’s scrupulous and comprehensive trawl through the archives confirms the familiar story. John Shakespeare, the playwright’s father, rose to a position of some prominence as a tradesman in Stratford-upon-Avon but then fell into financial difficulty. William went to London to try to improve the family fortunes, as well as to earn money to support the wife he had got prematurely pregnant and his three young children. After a slow start as a bit-part player, he found his niche as the rewrite man, patching, improving and eventually displacing old plays in the repertoire. In 1594, he and his fellow actors became sharers in a joint stock company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

The combination of aristocratic patronage and business acumen – a share in the profits as opposed to the piecework payments on which other dramatists relied – allowed Shakespeare to purchase the title of “gentleman” and to buy a large house back in his own town (at a knockdown price) by the late 1590s. In the early 1600s, when the theatres were struggling through closures prompted by the plague, Shakespeare spent more and more time in Stratford-upon-Avon. The pace of his writing slowed as his property portfolio grew. When he died in 1616, his status was such that he could be buried inside the parish church, and a monument was raised in his honour some time after.

Bearman is especially illuminating on the intricacies of the transaction that marked the high point of Shakespeare’s financial fortune: his purchase in the summer of 1605 of a half-share in the lease of a portion of the Stratford tithes. Bearman explains how, following the Reformation, the tenth part of agricultural produce traditionally due to the parish rector became a commodity that could be bought and sold (a modern analogy might be the futures market). Shakespeare paid the very considerable sum of £440 for his entitlement. Bearman never tries to translate early-modern values into present-day equivalents, which is an impediment for the lay reader, but I would say that this equates to about £100,000.

At this point, though, the author questions the usual narrative. He notes that after 1605 Shakespeare made no other significant capital investments of this kind. A prosperous man would have kept on growing his property and investment portfolio. Furthermore, the marriages of Shakespeare’s two daughters in later years were not to wealthy or well-connected men, as they would have been if he had achieved unquestionably prominent status in his community. And, by comparing the bequests in Shakespeare’s will to those of the other lesser gentry in Stratford at the time, Bearman shows that he was by no means a rich man when he died.

Though wealth is always relative, and the dying Shakespeare still had the big house and the best and second-best beds, Bearman’s careful weighing of the evidence does suggest a trajectory of decline, as opposed to continuing prosperity in the last decade of the playwright’s life. He also points out that the notion of Shakespeare’s voluntary “retirement” to Stratford is anachronistic. Puzzles remain: why did he sell his lucrative shares in the playhouses and the acting company? What exactly were his intentions in purchasing a property in London in 1613, never having done so while he was living and working there? Above all, why did the pace of his writing slow, and why was it that, from 1612 to 1614, his only works were partial contributions to plays in which the younger dramatist John Fletcher increasingly took the upper hand?

One possible answer might connect money back to sex. From 1603 onwards, a deep vein of sexual disgust runs through several of Shakespeare’s plays – notably Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and parts of King Lear and Pericles. Again and again, there are images of sexually transmitted disease. Furthermore, there are fragments of biographical evidence from this period suggesting a whiff of scandal around Shakespeare’s name. He stopped acting with his company early in the reign of King James. And then there is the hair loss. And those references to the sweating or powdering tub in the sonnets. People with marks of the pox were kept out of the royal presence. Could it be that when King Lear – with its startling images of female genitalia as a sulphurous pit – was performed before the king at Whitehall on Boxing Night 1606, a syphilitic Shakespeare was in exile out in the country, on a path of bodily decline to that premature death on his 52nd birthday, 400 years ago?

Jonathan Bate’s “The Genius of Shakespeare” is newly republished as a Picador Classic

Sex With Shakespeare: Here’s Much to Do With Pain, But More With Love by Jillian Keenan is published by William Morrow (352pp, $25.99). Shakespeare’s Money: How Much Did He Make and What Did This Mean? by Robert Bearman is published by Oxford University Press (196pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism