Gotham Diary:
17 October 2013

Te Deum laudamus: the battle was not lost. A reckless foray beyond the perimeter of the known world was checked, before any serious damage could be done. Now, in peace, we can assay what might be learned from the past seventeen days.

I’m glad that I didn’t write more than I did about the shutdown and the debt-ceiling nightmare. But was I foolish to write what I did? What it silly to worry? I don’t think so. Among the friends I talked to, the consensus seemed to be that, if not this time, then next time: next time, or the time after that, the secessionists, as I think it safe to call them, will shear the unity of the country. The only alternative is to deflate support for their positions, by converting their supporters to a commitment to harmony. That will be difficult, but it is not unlikely. Many commentators have argued that what bothers the Republicans most about Affordable Care is that it will work, and persuade many of the less-affluent and -educated Americans who currently vote Republican, if not to switch allegiance, then to withdraw their support from Republican candidates — extreme Republican candidates, anyway. Even if this comes to pass, it will take some time, but the prospect does suggest an avenue of thinking that might inspire short-term inroads.

We pray that future battles may be as virtual as this one — or, in any case, no more expensive. But I don’t count on it.


It came to me this morning that I’d really like to see Sandra Bullock in an all-woman production of Waiting for Godot. I can think of no other actress who so consistently embodies the plight expressed by Beckett in the famous line (from The Unnamable, according to Wikiquote), “I can’t go on; I’ll go on.” In film after film since Speed, Bullock has nailed characters who progress from being totally freaked out by a hopeless situation to ploughing through catastrophe and coming out intact. She makes full use of the license that female actors have to come completely undone, but panic is never more than a transitional phase that leads to determination and composure. It is hard for me to imagine that Alfonso Cuarón ever conceived of anyone else to play his new heroine, Ryan Stone, but apparently he did: Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie. Phew! I’m not going to say that they would have been bad in the part, but they couldn’t possibly have given us Bullock’s immense moral muscle. It is she who brings gravity to Gravity.

Long before I saw the movie, I sensed that, not only was nobody going to tell me how the story plays out, but, as with family scandals, I oughtn’t even to ask. Now that I know the ending, which, without hesitation, I would call “satisfying,” I have no intention of passing on what I’ve learned. Several reviews suggested that Gravity is something of a cinematic gamechanger, but I can’t bring myself to agree. It is a very beautiful film, with hugely exciting episodes in 3-D, but if there was something novel about the spectacle, I missed it. In a way that harmonizes with the look and feel of the show, the story is crisp and lean, an uninterrupted narrative that moves from heaven to earth.

In this, it is very unlikely Apollo 13, a film famous for its supple shifts among four graduated points of view (what Houston knows; what the astronauts know; what their families know; and what the television audience knows), but, even so, it was to Ron Howard’s  classic that I turned for the same kind of stimulation that Gravity aroused. The two films have a few things in common. Ed Harris, of course, plays more or less the same role in both, although he is not seen in Gravity. The sense of being in space, somewhere between the earth and the moon, is similarly represented, even if Cuarón indulges in a wild virtuosity that would be out of place in the stoic Apollo 13. The cockpits of the spacecraft are just about identically drab and functional: the glamour of space travel is altogether out the window.

But the films are not similar; they’re complementary. Like salt and pepper, they belong together, in similar vessels, and they both whet the appetite, but each does so by doing what the other does not. I can’t continue this discussion without spoiling the surprise of Gravity, so I’ll stop, but I encourage anyone who has enjoyed the new movie to give the old one a new look: Cuarón’s great movie increases the greatness of Howard’s.

When Gravity comes out on DVD, I’ll try to remember to pick up this thread.