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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times