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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era