Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Levity: Spoiler Alert

Although the movie pissed me off colossally, the first 60 seconds of Gravity are fully worth the price of admission. Behold:

          A giant, swirly Earth is reflected in your wide eyes, your very consciousness is but the tiniest particle hovering somewhere in infinite space...inside a dark movie theater somewhere in infinite space. You blink, disoriented by the deafening cacophony that fills your head like a scream, louder and louder, until suddenly—

          Perfect quiet. A floating sensation, both wondrous and petrifying. The slippery abruptness between scream and silence, the slippery, incomprehensible flicker of awareness between birth and death. Our eyes open wide in horror, in wonder, at the ineffable—
          George Clooney with a jet pack cracking a joke.

          Which might have become a rather nice, surreal counterpoint, except what follows is a bombardment of flying space schmaltz.

          The movie I'd anticipated—from reviews and trailers—somehow involved existential, angsty thrills and would fully engage my imagination in a kind of collaborative partnership to spark a profound metaphysical experience. I bought a ticket for my imagination to travel places I could never go unguided. Not merely to be put through the paces of a pretentious action film, but to participate in a transformative event.

          Spoiler alert: in no movie should Cary Grant or George Clooney ever die. And under absolutely no circumstances with a jet pack nor, with his trademark suave insouciance, by casually untethering himself into oblivion very early on in the film. (His last words are, "Gee the sun looks great rising over the Ganges. Ya can't beat the view.")

          Spoiler alert: If I was Sandra Bullock's character, battling anxiety and severe space sickness, I would have asphyxiated on my own puke as soon as my helmet filled up. That would easily knock an hour-plus off the movie.

          Spoiler alert: In fact, I would have died a thousand deaths in the first 20 minutes. Sandra Bullock survives the entire saga with a small scratch on her forehead (but the way her blood beads up and floats into space is incredibly cool). In the end, she emerges from the primordial sea like the first creature ever to crawl onto dry land, and she smiles like a champ. Gee, do you think that could be a metaphor for her evolution during the course of the movie, like, almost, a kind of re-birth? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

            In movies like Indiana Jones, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, James Bond, etc., we know we're in a preposterous world of make-believe and we enjoy suspending our disbelief. Gravity takes plausible circumstances—astronauts making repairs outside their spacecraft are caught in the path of a deadly bombardment of space debris (inadvertently triggered by the destruction of a defunct satellite)—and the next thing you know, our space-sick chick is kicking ass and taking names, shedding her gender-neutral space suit to perform languorous, fetal somersaults in her underpants, in Zero G.

          Moviegoers, Sandra Bullock is 50 years old, so suspend your disbelief in her perky breasts, rock-hard abs, and thigh-master thighs. Turns out the role was written for Angelina Jolie but she passed (but wouldn't it have been really special to watch Angie pouting and sultry in her spacesuit, or maybe Brad and Ange doing it in Zero G?—contemplate the positions they could manage in Zero G— with 3-D glasses, we could dodge their secretions); Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman, likewise, passed.

          Gravity is a one-woman action film in which there is no adversary. See, that I like, because we all engage in an inner struggle with ourselves, a personal jihad. But I guess Alfonso Cuarón, the writer and director, had something more blockbuster in mind.

          Still, Cuarón tries to be deep. Bullock's character confides to George Clooney that there's no one on Earth to grieve for her when she dies and that since her four-year old daughter tripped and died after hitting her head in a playground accident, she's just been "driving around." I guess you could say since her daughter's death she's felt...untethered. [Fiendishly wiggles eyebrows here.] George Clooney tells Bullock nothing about himself, but he's still mighty helpful. He says, "You're going to make it."

          Spoiler alert:  After she puts her space suit back on, indicating that it's time to put away our sexual fantasies, Bullock gives up. She flicks a bunch of switches on the control panel and delivers her swan song. "Honey, I'll see you soon. I've missed you so much, little girl, but now we can finally be reunited." As she begins to lose consciousness there's a knock on the space capsule door.

          It's Clooney. He cracks a couple more jokes and his eyes twinkle mischievously behind his bubble-head space helmet. At this moment, my friend, seated beside me, turns to me with the surprised pucker of someone who's just been forced to swallow bad milk. Never mind, Clooney vanishes, and Sandra Bullock flicks the switches back on again with a flourish, proclaiming her desire to live. "George-Clooney-character, tell my daughter I love her very much, but it's time for me to choose life. Tell her, George-Clooney-character. You tell her I'm gonna be okay."

          Meanwhile, I'd be thinking, Why all the fuss when it's obviously hopeless? Let me just attempt to die on my own terms and come to a place of enlightened acceptance and peace at breakneck speed, maybe start believing in God. And I'd probably imagine my body being recovered and wonder if the recovery team would judge me harshly for not putting up a more robust fight. And then I'd think, No one will know what I'm experiencing. Which would lead me to search for a recording device so I can put dibs on immortality. And maybe the rest of the movie is just that transmission of consciousness.

          Spoiler alert: We get to see Sandra Bullock semi-nude again when she nearly drowns (after her landing pod plops in convenient proximity to some warm shoreline at sunrise). We get to watch her impressively firm body swimming up from the deep till she finally breaks the surface, gasping sweet air like a newborn babe. She passes out on a pillowy swath of red sand, and awakens, resolute. She actually laughs as she takes her first wobbly steps into the sunset.

          They should have billed this as a comedy.


In my metaphysical version, George Clooney and I remain tethered to each other for eternity. I would never, ever have let go. Everything else in the movie would be exactly the same, except for the very end, when you would see two spacesuits adrift, like body-shaped coffins among the stars, and realize the whole movie had been my oxygen-deprived, pre-death hallucination. The same way that much of our lives are hallucinatory, self-created stories. Or is that too...grave?

          Whaddya think, blockbuster material?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Boris and Zelda

My mother now spends her life in bed, under a white duvet, with Boris and Zelda, her Siamese cats. Some afternoons when I peek into her room, all three are asleep, blissed-out, sort of here but not-here. I imagine the three of them on an Egyptian ceremonial barge, drifting smoothly along a sacred river. It's easy now to apprehend why our ancestors liked to have their canine companions buried with them.

          In this way, I'm repeatedly blindsided. As soon as I appreciate the comfort of an ordinary moment, it collides with the anticipation of horror and bereavement. Anticipation may be the wrong word. Once you know something is coming, it's already here. The moment of comfort, even as it occurs, conveys the anguish of memory.

          When she's in bed, my mother is not in pain. I know what she's not, but not what she is. What I mean by that is she no longer reads or watches TV. Every morning she asks me what day of the week it is, and then she forgets; she doesn't remember that my birthday is in three days. She's rarely hungry and long ago lost her sense of taste and smell. My mother used to sleep all day but now, quite often, her eyes are open.

          What does she see? Macular degeneration has taken away most of the sight in one eye and her central vision is severely impaired. She doesn't wear her glasses anymore; without them she can't see the vibrant bouquet of red-tipped yellow roses a friend recently brought for her. They are exquisite. A life-affirming burst of color. I place the vase of roses on a cedar chest right across from my mother, thinking of the pleasure they will give her.

          Instead, she tells me to take them into the dining room where I can enjoy them.

          "Aren't they beautiful?" I ask her.

          "I can't see them," she says.

          I bring the vase over to the bed and she peers, dutifully, into the pretty swirl of petals. "Do you see the colors?" I ask.

          "They're beautiful," she smiles. "But take them to the other room."

          I return the flowers to her cedar chest and she doesn't notice.

          Quite often, my mother pushes the cats off her now. Their constant weight annoys her; she says she can't even turn over without having to cast one off, and then they're right back again.

          Boris and Zelda find me in the dining room. They sniff around tentatively—all pointy chins, pointed ears, and high, inquisitive tails—before jumping up together to muffle the keyboard of my laptop.

          They annoy me, too, with their inscrutable blue eyes, demanding my attention. But all it takes is my index finger on Boris' chin to set him purring, heavy-lidded and content. Zelda is unhappy unless she is on my left shoulder with her nails jammed deep into my flesh, holding me tight. This has always been her favorite way to embrace my mother. Zelda's purring is so loud I can't help but smile. She sounds like a helicopter at take-off. We three are in the same boat now, purring, caressing, and already bereft.