Last week, as a birthday treat, I went to the cinema. Twice. I saw two of the best films I can remember in a long, long time. At times, both left me breathless at the beauty of their images, thrilled with the daring of what I saw on screen, in awe of the acting and the directorial visions. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave were the showpiece films at most of the 2013/14 Film Awards ceremonies around the world, but when someone asked me which I preferred, I was caught cold. Surely this is like comparing apples with oranges?
Juan Alfonso Cuaron’s effects-laden masterpiece in space is (mostly) a highly intimate one-woman show starring Sandra Bullock in her finest performance. It zips by in 90 minutes, every scene a marvel of special effects and cinematography that might just change sci-fi movies for ever. There’s a wafer-thin plot that all takes place in a few hours, largely cheesy dialogue, but action sequences like I’ve never seen before. It’s a disaster movie where everything that can go wrong does, repeatedly.
Steve McQueen’s 3rd film is a more languid affair that takes more than two hours to tell its story that stretches over 12 years. Scenes are deliberately paced, with often static cameras. There’s a wide cast of characters who come and go with complex relationship dynamics. It opens up a whole society to our scrutiny, and while there’s a constant underlying dread and threat, the eruptions of violence are relatively infrequent. But when they come, they are devastating, filmed in extended takes, all in camera, with brutal, shocking effect.
But on the other hand, they probably have a lot more in common than the superficial aspects that make them different.
Brilliant Directors: Alfonso Cuaron and Steve McQueen are two of my favourite directors working at the moment, both based on pretty short filmographies. Cuaron’s reputation for me is based almost entirely on the fantastic Children of Men, while I’ve been blown away by both Hunger and Shame by McQueen. Although their styles are different, the technique they display make them both masters of their art…
Human Survival: both films are about personal survival; indeed, the strength of the human spirit not just to survive, but to live, free from tyranny and fear. The lead characters are in alien surroundings, beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles and dangers and forced into unspeakable situations to come through.
And more than that… these are films about asserting personal identity. Dr Ryan Stone has fled from her sorrowful existence on earth and shelters within the anonymity of her space suit. Solomon Northup has his identity stripped from him and replaced. He is forced to suppress and conceal his self as his literacy could even condemn him. How they escape these situations is the core character arc of each film. The climax of each film is a triumph and an escape for both characters that is as much psychological as it is physical.
Cinema is a visual medium: these two directors are masters of their art, albeit with very different styles. Cuaron’s camera is often moving in long, flowing takes that, in Gravity, brilliantly make the audience feel weightless, so we almost forget that there’s a concept such as ‘up or down’. McQueen’s camera is often static or slow-moving, focusing on faces, forcing the audience to lean in, to pay attention. Both directors are blessed with awesome cinematographers – Emmanuel Lubezki and Sean Bobbit – who conjure the most heartstopping images over and over again through each film.
The opening sequence of Gravity is a thing of wonder, but it unfolds so organically that it’s only when it’s over (almost 17 minutes) that you stop to breathe and realise that you haven’t seen a cut yet. Meanwhile, in the cotton fields and swamps of Louisiana, Bobbit shows us astonishing skyscapes and natural wilderness in a similar way to Terence Malick, as the backdrop to human cruelty.
And the sound… Both films have marvellous sound design and scores. The ambient sounds of nature are set against the extended silences of the slaves’ existence or the barking orders of their masters, or indeed the cracking of whips. Solomon’s violin provides occasional relief, but even then is at his Masters’ pleasure playing for ostentatious tea-dances. Slave spirituals are solemn choirs that express hope and loss and fear all at once. The contrast of sound and silence is marvellous in both films, and none more so than in the space of Gravity. Action sequences are made more powerful for the lack of sound, meaning we are given no warning of what’s about to happen, we have to focus on the visuals. The score is unsettling, with sounds manipulated to create unearthly effects. Voices are heard, not just offscreen but thousands of miles away, chattering reminders of exactly where we are.
Look into my eyes… The central performances of Sandra Bullock & Chiwetel Ejiofor could well both be career-defining. Both are rarely off screen, and often fill the frame in extreme closeup. Both are archetypal ‘fish out of water’ characters who undergo extreme ordeals and we live every moment with them. It’s here that 12 Years a Slave has the edge over Gravity for me. Not for the weightiness or importance of its subject (however true that is), or for its in-camera approach compared to the CGI wizardry, but for the deep, deep humanity that comes through every scene of McQueen’s film. From Solomon Northup’s incredulity and despair to Master Epps’ or Ford’s internal conflicts and self-loathing, from Patsey’s desperate defiance for a bar of soap to her brutalising just moments later, from the silent choruses of slaves at the graveyards, in the New Orleans slave markets, awaiting their master’s judgement in the cotton barns, listening to scripture or in the sugar plantations. All these images come back to me; still, silent, challenging me to reckon with myself. It’s hard to look away.