The Best Movie I’ve Seen in Years: “Gravity”

Gravity, written, directed and produced by Alfonso Cuarón, and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is the best movie I have seen in years.

Frankly, I didn’t think movies could be any good at all anymore until I saw this movie. Everything is either Hollywood garbage, or it’s art-house garbage.

Almost everything is perfect in Gravity. The rhythm, the timing, the special effects, the acting, the music (especially), the ending. All of it. The writing is fantastic if you ask me; the actual lines that the characters get are less than perfect. There are certain moments where you sense that the writing could have been just a hair tighter or more trenchant. But the whole point of writing is to tell a great story, not to show off how witty the script writer is. I’d rather have a fantastic story full of clunkers than 90 minutes of witty repartée that goes nowhere. Gravity is a great story, and there are some quite witty and sweet lines along the way. Good writing overall.

If you have only seen the trailers and advertisements for this movie, you might not understand what it’s about other than it’s about some astronauts in space that have a disaster. And that is indeed what Gravity is about. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts on a mission to improve the Hubble Space Telescope, and when a Russian missile launch inadvertantly causes some satellites to rip apart and scatter at low Earth orbit, the entire mission goes haywire.

So, yes, that’s what it is “about”. The satellite debris hurtles into the space ship of the protagonists at high velocity and everything goes crazy. Bullock (“Mission Specialist Ryan Stone”) and Clooney (“Mission Commander Matthew Kowalski”) go through a series of increasingly tense moments as they attempt to regain control of the disaster. Early on Bullock gets blasted off the main structure of the telescope and spaceship and is hurtling all alone, head over heels between the earth, the sun and the stars.

So that’s the basic plot: things get messed up, and the astronauts have to find their way back to Earth somehow, even though all their equipment and landing modules are damaged.

The action scenes are incredible. Truly unnerving and almost uncomfortably tense to watch. As soon as I saw this movie, I thought, how come no one has made a movie like this before? The idea is so simple, and so exciting. The angular momentum of the space station, the astronauts, and the satellite debris makes for more action than you could ever want. It takes your breath away. No violence, no sex, no “battle scenes.” You see one rather clean (though disturbing) shot of a fellow astronaut who got pierced in the head with a piece of satellite debris, and you see one floating, blue-faced body of another astronaut who died when the debris ripped apart the space ship and let all the air out. Beyond that, the “violence” is all implied, or happens only to space station components. Still, it’s incredibly exciting.

People used to tell stories like this one all the time. Stories of survival. Usually they took place on earth, and the “hostile environment” was a foreign land, a tropical jungle, or the wide expanse of oceans. The idea of Gravity is very old, and very simple. People go into a place hostile to life, encounter disaster despite their best preparations, and are forced to improvise to make it back to “civilization.”

Space movies, more than any other genre, highlight the true drama of this genre. I’m thinking of movies like Contact and Apollo 13 right now. The central thematic tension is the difference between the warm embrace of Mother Earth and the cold indifference of alien space. People in this type of movie want to explore the universe, but they also want to be warm and safe at home. A natural tendency (at least for some types of humanity).

What’s great about Gravity is that it is unabashed about it’s themes, and indeed very nearly explicitly states them. Kowalski (Clooney) loves being in space, and he’s portrayed as a veteran astronaut, almost a rock star among astronauts. Stone (Bullock) is portrayed as the smartest cookie in her field, tough enough to take astronaut training and go into space just to ensure her genius telescope modifications go into effect. Beyond that, the story is about human beings trying to be human beings.

[By the way, I don't feel the decision to make Stone (Bullock) a woman was a "grrl power" thing. The movie is much more emotionally powerful with Stone as a woman than it would have been with Stone as a man. The writers do a little bit of deft hinting in the dialogue to explain why Bullock is up there at all, then they get on with the story. There's no you-go-girl stuff. They spend a grand total of 15 seconds of dialogue explaining why she's there, and then the satellite debris enters... on with the story! As it should be.]

So I still haven’t gotten to why this movie is so good.

At the end of the move [SPOILER ALERT], Sandra Bullock decides to overcome all odds despite her own fatalism. She’s about to give up on life, to give up on Earth essentially, and the “angel” of Clooney/Kowalski appears to her to convince her to keep going. It’s ambiguous as to whether it’s her dream, her conscience, her hallucination, or an angel of some kind. But it amounts to the same thing. Just when things get their most awful, Sandra gets a message from somewhere that she needs to keep going, no matter how sad and lonely she is.

What follows is an extended scene that in lesser hands could have been supremely cheesey. But Cuarón in Gravity gets it just right. High emotion, eternal themes, glorious human emotion. I cried.

Bullock makes it back to Earth [SPOILER ALERT!] at the end. As her capsule breaks up and the heat shields turn white hot and her computer equipment sparks and melts, the music builds and builds. Her capsule lands in some shallow water, after much drama. Then as the water rushes in through the hatch of the capsule she has to fight and struggle to get out of the capsule, tear her space suit off, and swim like the frogs around her up to the surface.

When she gets to the surface, she catches her breath and turns on her back in the shallow weedy water, and there are flies buzzing about her as the remnants of the space station streak across the sky like bright meteors.

That inclusion of flies is key. As soon as Bullock returns to Earth, where she’s been trying to get all along, we get flies. A reminder that Earth can be ugly and imperfect. And still, the next thing she does is struggle her way to the shore, stand up with difficulty with her zero-gravity-induced muscle weakness, laughs and clutches some sand in her hand, and as the music swells to a crescendo, stands up and takes a few steps.

Earlier in the movie, when she is almost out of oxygen in her space suit and finally after much drama makes it into the airlock, she sheds her spacesuit, sucks in some air, and curls up into a fetal position, rotating in zero gravity beautifully.

It’s a key moment, because the scene of her struggling out of her watery capsule onto land is clearly a metaphor for birth. When she clutches the wet sand and laughs to herself at the end, it’s one of the best affirmations of life I’ve ever seen in cinema.

Because 98% of the movie takes place in space, and because the depictions of space are so honest, beautiful, and terrifying, when the main character gets back to Earth it’s genuinely wonderful. The basic message is: life itself here on Earth is a miracle.

I think it was Chesterton who first articulated to me the idea that it’s not the astonishing anomalies of life that are truly interesting, but that it’s the wondrous normality of life that is truly astonishing. If we could all be tourists on Earth every day of our lives, clutching the sand and laughing for simple joy, we’d all be happy.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if you want to relive some of the best moments, here are, in order, the early scene when things first go wrong at the space station (lots of action drama)…

And the penultimate scene where Bullock finally finds a way (both with her machines and in her heart) to get back to Earth. A couple notes on this brief scene. You see a little fat golden Buddha on the dashboard of her space module. That’s because she’s now on a Chinese module, after being on a Russian craft earlier, and after starting off on an American craft. When she is on the Russian craft, you see a little golden orthodox Christian picture of a saint (or Christ himself, perhaps, it goes by quick, I’m not sure). So the shot showing the Buddha statue I don’t believe is meant to be “multi-cultural” in an anti-Western sense, but rather just pointing at the universal striving towards faith and God. I actually think it’s a rather remarkable and kind of “old school” way to hint about God in an “interfaith” way, and it’s in no way inappropriate in the context of this movie in which, after all, the protagonists spend most of their time floating above the Earth rather detached.

Bullock’s lines in this scene might seem a little forced or silly if you haven’t seen the whole movie, but again, I find them rather charming. Regardless of whether this particular scene moves you or not, I hope you can at least see how it’s lovely and exciting and life-affirming (and maybe even God-affirming).

Finally, I’ll add that the movie sets up Bullock’s character as being rather scientific and pragmatic, but that in the midst of the drama you learn that she’s lost her little girl to an accident. At one point (just before the scene below) she almost gives up all hope and turns off her oxygen, before getting the angelic visitation from Clooney/Kowalski that I mentioned above. In the context of the movie then, this scene is not just exciting visually but also dramatic on a personal level. “Either way, it’s gonna be one helluva ride” might seem a rather lame line, but I think it works in the context of this remarkable movie. Also, her line about “it reminds me of a story…” is a callback to something that Clooney’s character often said, and at this point Clooney, has sacrificed his own life to keep Bullock alive, even though it left her all alone with no idea what to do…

After her “cheesey” lines, note, she looks up at the sky and says, “I’m ready.” She’s talking to God there. I can’t think of a more lovely and life-affirming moment in recent films. Just beautiful.

The very best part is the very end, but I can’t find a youtube clip to embed here, so if you’re interested, you’ll just have to watch the whole darn movie. Cheers!

Not Materialism, but Material Matters!

In my last post, I said:

A lot of modern life is designed to make us into mopey, self-loathing cogs. Eaters and spenders. When you break out of that mold and feel how natural and positive it is to have your testosterone flowing, it’s a bit of a revelation.

What do I mean by natural and positive? Men are, by nature, more aggressive than women. Whether it’s polite to acknowledge it in civilized company or not, men get a rise out of aggressive acts, especially when such aggression is in defense of the man’s self, family, or tribe.

As a non-materialist (what else are we supposed to call ourselves these days? Theists? Supernaturalists? I hate to give myself a negative designation — “non-materialist” — but since I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or initiate in the Mithraic mysteries, and since modern people take materialism as their “obvious” baseline, I am left with no other term), as a non-materialist, I bristle intensely if anyone suggests to me that all of my spiritual experiences are merely the products of this or that measurable hormone.

I believe that the brain is a God-conducting organ. That is to say, when scientists find a “God module” in the human brain, it proves not that God-consciousness in humans is a function of some randomly-evolved brain region, but rather that the scientists are reading (through their astonishing modern instruments) the physical echoes of something that precedes brains, humans, and cells.

If humans are half-animal, half-angel, as the Christians and the Hindus (after a fashion) would have it (and I believe they are correct, and believe that no other explanation really answers all of the relevant questions), then it’s quite obvious that our animal bodies (including, duh, the brain) would reflect our spiritual capacities. When scientists “discover” this or that region of the brain that correspond to this or that religious experience (and it’s been done with Christian prayer, with the meditation efforts of Tibetan monks, etc, etc), my reaction is not to therefore discount the nuns and monks. I don’t think (as they clearly intend us to, from their rhetoric), “Wow, there’s a physically measurable link between believing and brain activity!”

Rather (and it’s kind of embarrassing to point this out), anyone with an open mind would recognize that we’ve merely kicked the can further down the road. Finding cellular connections between the physical body and spiritual experience proves nothing whatsoever, on the metaphysical level. Those who deny that metaphysics even exist are still lost in their minutia, and those who have had incontrovertibly real experiences with the “supernatural” (which is actually the natural) still can’t “prove” their experiences, by the laws of modern science, without appealing to the very laws which by definition preclude the supernatural.

So when I talk about testosterone, as for example in the above-linked post, I don’t mean to endorse a purely materialistic view of the world. But, as must be obvious, neither do I deny the link between the body and the spirit. And, as I have already written, and as I intend to show in further posts, I believe that those who understand the (true) metaphysical nature of life have underestimated the degree to which the body influences the soul and, especially, the spirit.

I’m asserting nothing new.

Sunshine and Testosterone

The other day I was driving back from the gym, after going very hard in the weight room. By “very hard,” I mean lifting until muscle failure, which means there’s involuntary grunting going on, shaking legs, etc. After each set, you know you are making a difference when you temporarily cannot move the muscles in question, then suddenly feel a surge of energy all over.

Driving back, having chugged some whey and whole milk and caught my breath, I turned on the radio. The “classic rock” station was playing Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” I turned it up, bopped around a bit, turned it up more, found myself bopping with even more energy, and finally cranked it full blast. I felt a surge of positive energy.

That’s not a particularly aggressive song (especially compared to what I was listening to when I was actually lifting). And Freddie Mercury is not exactly the most, ahem, traditional man. But it’s certainly peppy, assertive, and has a driving, unapologetic beat, if you will. I used to listen to “classic rock” all the time when I was in high school, working out very hard five days a week on the crew team. Part of that was being a white, teenage male in the 1990′s in the United States (going through a Led Zeppelin stage, for instance, was a bit of a rite of passage where I grew up, whether or not you were an athlete). But as I listened to Queen on the way home, I realized just how closely linked the weight lifting and my current enjoyment of that song were. 

If I had been on my way home from McDonald’s, or a movie about how horrible white people are, or some other such poisonous activity, I would not have enjoyed that song in that moment. I probably would have changed the station, or I might have let it play at a low volume, letting it be a buzz of mindless background noise. But lawdy, in my current amped-up state I was really cranking that stuff and enjoying it with a big smile.

Now, enjoying Queen songs is pretty value-neutral, if you ask me. Lifting weights isn’t good because it makes you crank the classic rock music. It’s good because it’s very good for your health and your psyche. It increases muscle mass, which is very closely linked to overall longterm health; it increases testosterone which is the natural miracle drug of male bodies, and it makes you a more physically capable person in everyday life. (Dennis Mangan is my favorite non-meathead proponent of weightlifting. Some of the meathheads are pretty great too, but I’ll let you find them on your own.) But I submit there is a real link between extremely rigorous, rippingly painful exercise (plodding jogs don’t count) and the sort of sunshiny aggressiveness I was feeling in my car that day.

And I’ll go a step further and say that a healthy man in his prime should feel sunshiny aggressiveness. Not all the time, of course, but it should be common and almost a baseline. A lot of modern life is designed to make us into mopey, self-loathing cogs. Eaters and spenders. When you break out of that mold and feel how natural and positive it is to have your testosterone flowing, it’s a bit of a revelation.

Body, Soul, and Spirit

A human is a tripartite being — body, soul, and spirit. There are many different schema that take account of this basic reality, and so there are many different terms that have been used to denote these three levels of being. Furthermore, the dividing lines between each one and the next are not fixed and impermeable. There are fuzzy zones between body and soul and spirit. 

What the “body” entails is pretty obvious to most people. The difference between soul and spirit is harder for many people to understand. “Soul” is made up of the mind, the will, the moral agent. It also encompasses everything integral to a person that is not bodily-defined. This includes one’s role in society, insofar as it is an expression of and an influence upon that person. It also includes sex, and race. Here we can see how interdependent body and soul are. A man’s sex is reflected in his body, but it is also reflected in his soul. Likewise for a woman.

[Of course, hard Leftists pretend that there is no such thing as “gender” outside of our beliefs about gender. That is, “gender is a construct.” I believe, on the contrary, that maleness and femaleness precede humanity itself. That there is a man and a woman in our species is merely a reflection of the deep nature of the universe. The Chinese have known this for thousands of years — the principles of yin and yang. But then, of course, all people have known this, for all time. Foolish moderns are the first ones not to know it. They call their ignorance holiness and wisdom.]

The spirit is the least determined part of a human being — the least material and therefore the least obvious. Although in fact every spirit is unique, and in many senses more specific than bodies and souls, because the spirit is the part of the human being that is closest to the eternal and the divine there is a sense in which the spirit is the most universal part of each person, the least differentiated. It all depends on what perspective you take; if you consider how matter is just highly organized atoms and molecules and how easy it is to disintegrate those organized patterns into meaningless goo, one can call our bodies the least specific part of our selves. What part of our being we consider most essentially individual is a question of emphasis — clearly all three levels are indispensable. Without one level or the other, the being is no longer recognizable as a human.

I’m interested in how very important all three levels are. So many people today live in willful ignorance of the spirit. They even deny the soul, though the denial is mostly rhetorical — they replace it with terms from neuroscience or whatever; no one can operate for 10 minutes in everyday life without a provisional theory of the soul. Modern people are so deeply messed-up in their appraisals of society partly because their own rhetoric about the non-existence of the soul forces them into provisional, slapdash explanations for human behavior.

But among people who understand and cultivate the soul and the spirit, I find there is often a corresponding neglect of the body. I am not speaking strictly about matters of bodily health (though of course health is hugely important). I am speaking also of how greatly matters of the body can affect matters of the soul and the spirit.

That the spirit has no physical location in the body (it doesn’t go away if you chop off someone’s leg, for example) does not mean that there is no link between the two. 

Many of the manifestations of the body-soul-spirit connection are so obvious and everyday that it seems silly to point them out. A weakened body can very obviously contribute to a depressed soul, either through illness or through poor diet or lack of exercise. 

But other ones, such as the connection between sexuality on the bodily level and spirituality, are less obvious and more controversial in modern times. Or the effect of behavior upon hormones, and the corresponding effect of hormonal harmony/imbalance on the will and indeed upon the beauty of the spirit. 

I will have more to say about the specifics of how we neglect and nourish our bodies, souls, and spirits in later posts. 

Happy Holidays!

And no, I don’t mean that in the secular, crypto-anti-Christmas sense. But in the sense that we’re just between Thanksgiving and Christmas now, with New Year’s soon to follow. It is indeed the holiday season. 

I’ve got a few posts brewing, and want to alert anyone who still gets has this blog in his bookmarks or feed that I will be putting something up right soon. Do check back if you are interested. This isn’t officially a revival of the blog full-time. But since it’s still here, and I feel like writing, people who are interested might as well be invited to read.

Blessings to all. 

Prolonged Adolescence

Via Steve Sailer, I came across Emmanuel Todd’s maps of family structure in Europe. HBD Chick blogged about all of this and was the one that brought it to Sailer’s attention. I’ll let you follow those links if you are interested in the subject. The basic takeaway is twofold: 1) Western Europe (as opposed to Eastern Europe) has different traditional family structures; and 2) the Anglo-Saxon world (Denmark/Norway, the Netherlands, and England) has a particular traditional family structure that actually has the latest marriages and loosest inheritance laws. As an American, and a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons, this interests me. (I’m largely Celtic and Nordic by blood, but there’s bound to be some Anglo-Saxon mixed in, and as an Amercian I live in a country founded on the ideas of the Anglo-Saxons.)

All this discussion (and it’s fascinating, I encourage readers to investigate those links) made me think about the how the notion of adolescense has changed. There are all sorts of cultural factors, of course. People live and dress like children well into their thirties and even fourties these days because we’ve done away with the notion of respectably adulthood. Being young and cool is valued, whereas being old and wise is not (except for in a maudlin way). But young people have always been “cooler” than old people (even though the notion is a modern one); and old people have always been wiser, on average. But wisdom used to be desirable, something a young person could yearn for. Nowadays it’s just a consolation prize for the old losers in the all-important game of staying young and cool.

It’s a bit reductionist for my taste, but I was thinking about the concept that major hormonal changes in the body could serve as markers as transitions from one phase of human life to the next. Hormones are massively important in human behavior, and to go through a major hormonal change means to become a different person (socially speaking), whether you want it or not. The most famous such change, one which all adults can recognize, is the change that happens at the onset of puberty. I went through puberty from about 14 to about 17. I was a radically different person when I was 18 than I had been at age 13. All my interests, my foci, my ways of approaching the outside world and even my own family — all this had changed dramatically in the space of 5 years. This is perfectly normal and almost all people experienced something analogous in their teen years.

Now, I certainly changed between ages 23 and 28, but the change was nowhere near as dramatic. And indeed, though I changed between age 3 and age 8, the rather rapid changes a small child goes through in cognition and socialization are still of one piece, if you will. That is, I was changing all throughout my youth, as all humans do, but the change I went through in my teens was simply different.

(I should also mention that there is a strong hormonal change between the moment an infant is breast-fed and when that child is weaned. Few of us remember this transition, so it’s hard to talk about. But from a biological perspective, this shift is real and significant.)

Traditionally, for a woman, the next big hormonal change after puberty is the gestation and birth of her first child. For a woman, pregnancy and early motherhood are times of radical hormonal change. Just as in her puberty period, she finds her whole world turned upside-down, and she becomes in some senses a new person. Just as with puberty, her core essence might remain the same, but also just as in puberty life has been radically altered — on a chemical level.

Further pregnancies and other life events can obviously change how our hormones interact with our bodies, but the next radical change for a woman, hormonally, is the onset of menopause. Menopause represents a strong and radical change in the hormones of a woman, and she simply can’t continue on as a “young woman” anymore once the chemicals in her own body have changed. It’s not a bad thing, and indeed it can result in noble old women, but it’s a joke to pretend this is not an epochal change in the life of woman.

So then, simplifying far too much, I break woman’s hormonal life down into: 1) breast-fed infant, 2) pre-pubescent child, 3) pubescent and post-pubescent adolescent, 4) fertile mother, 5) post-menopausal old woman.

Or: Baby, Child, Teenager, Mother, Old Lady.

So let’s look at that “Teenager” phase of a woman’s hormonal life. Menarche happens much earlier in Western societies than it used to. Most of this, presumably, is due to stronger nutrition. I maintain that some of it is cultural/psychological: that is, girls get puberty cues much earlier in life than they used to. I haven’t seen a study proving this, but it makes sense to me. But certainly young American girls have a much richer diet than medieval or ancient girls, and so it’s not shocking that they go through menarche at a younger age.

At the other end of the “Teenager” period we have the moment of a woman’s first pregnancy. Pregnancy starts changing the hormonal balance in a woman’s body from day one. Many women these days, of course, end up aborting their children. But they also used to miscarry much more frequently than they do today. So — while I actually could write a whole new post about the hormonal (not to mention spiritual) trauma that abortion causes a woman — let’s just assume for the sake of argument that “pregnancy” refers to pregnancies carried to term: babies.

Western white women have babies later and later in life now, if they have them at all. It’s pretty typical for a college-educated, upper-middle class woman in America to have her first child at 33 or 34.

So, if girls used to go through menarche at 16, and have babies at 20, the period of being an “adolescent” or “teenager” was abour 4 years, give or take two years. Now, a girl goes through menarche at 11 and pregnancy at 33. “Teenage” hormones are active in her for 22 years. Five and a half times longer.

That’s five times as much teenage-ness. Think of all the stupid ways of teenagers, and think of how societies have always accomodated the craziness of teenagers, and then multiply the teenage factor by FIVE. Women are only half of society, of course. But then… ahem… women are HALF OF SOCIETY!

I can’t prove any of these numbers with links just now, but I invite readers to disprove them. Even if I am off by a few years here or there (which I must be, considering that I’m not using any hard data), the point stands. Women are teenagers for decades these days, whereas being a teenager is meant to be a brief and intense period in the life of a woman. We have a world of teenagers in the West today. No wonder we act like such adolescents.

Of course boys and men have their own method of prolonging teenage-ship these days. But one can only write so much in one blog post. For today, dear and lovely ladies, the spotlight is on you.