Gravity: A New Cinematic Experience?


In 1996, Susan Sontag lamented the death of a certain kind of movie-going in her article “The Decay of Cinema.” For Sontag, the proliferation of home viewing technologies ruined the essence of “the darkened room”—the ultimate cinematic experience.

Cinema studies scholars since Sontag have similarly been engaged in debates about the state of cinephilia as a result of technological advancements, in particular the advent of digital media. This renewed scholarly interest has given rise to a number of significant anthologies, including Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory edited by Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, and Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, a two volume series edited by Scott Balcerzak and Jason Sperb.

These anthologies, as well as Christian Keathley’s historical account of cinephiliac reception in Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees, have forcefully demonstrated cinephilia’s presence in the digital age. As Annette Michelson has noted, cinephilia has many forms for different historical periods, and it is important to recognize that there isn’t any such thing as “proper” cinephiliac behavior or the “essence” of cinephiliac reception. If we are to understand cinephilia as a love for the cinema—and I certainly think we should adhere to this comprehension—then we must remember that this love can be practiced in different ways by different cinephiles from different time periods, but that these differences do not create a cinephiliac hierarchy in which some forms of love are more intense or “true” than others.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t any differences in cinephiliac reception. Keathley is wise to acknowledge the ways technological advancements have altered cinephiliac behavior throughout cinema’s history. Moreover, Thomas Elsaesser distinguishes between two generations of cinephiles that he calls “cinephilia take one” and “cinephilia take two.” According to Elsaesser, “take one” represent the cinephiles of his generation like the Cahiers du Cinéma critics who spent their days in movie theaters watching films, in coffee chops talking about films, and expressed their ideas in print magazines and newspapers. It is appropriate to assume that Sontag mourns this form of cinephilia in her article.

Elsaesser describes “take two” cinephilia as “post-auteur, post-theory cinephilia that has embraced the new technologies, that flourishes on the internet and finds its jouisance in an often undisguised and unapologetic fetishism of the technical prowess of the digital.” It is mostly this form of cinephilia that the recent anthologies have embraced.

Of course we can debate whether or not there are only two generations of cinephilia, as Elsaesser seems to suggest. Sarah Keller, for instance, implies that Jean Epstein and other French theorist/filmmakers of the 1920s were among the first cinephiles to express an intense love for the cinema as well as for technology’s potential to enhance cinematic form in Jean Epstein: Critical Writings and New Translations. Elsaesser, on the other hand, begins the discussion with the Cahiers du Cinéma critics.

However, regardless of when cinephilia began, there does seem to be a general consensus that both cinema and cinephilia have shifted as a result of digital media, and this shift is precisely what Sontag opposes—the transition from theatrical viewing to home viewing; Barbara Klinger describes the phenomenon of home viewing well in Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home.

This consensus is mostly true. Many cinephiles of the digital age discovered cinema via DVD and the internet, and contemporary cinephiliac behavior can be observed on blogs, forums, message boards, and websites such as this. However, the question remains: do cinephiles still find pleasure in the “darkened room,” and more significantly, do they need to?

Before I begin to discuss Gravity in an attempt to answer this question, I should perhaps note that I am among the contemporary cinephiles who embraces digital media but who also finds pleasure in that “darkened room” on a regular basis. Still, the majority of movies that I see in theaters I can just as well enjoy on DVD or on my computer, but it just so happens that I see them in theaters because I have the time to see them, I have access to the theaters in which the movies play, and I don’t particularly feel like waiting for the movie to be released to the internet months later.

This fact is what has caused certain scholars to oppose contemporary cinephiliac behavior. A part of the pleasure and magic of cinema is that once-and-a-lifetime theatrical experience that cannot really be captured after it is experienced. That is, before technology changed reception practices, cinephiles literally had to spend all day in the theater because that was the only way to see movies. Things have obviously changed, and now we can re-watch films at our leisure, re-wind them to certain scenes we love, and even re-purpose them via mash-up videos and YouTube homages. Over time, it seems that cinephiliac behavior has morphed from a desperate need to find and catch any film to an overwhelming instant access to nearly every film ever made.

And I’ll leave that discussion there because in many ways Gravity complicates it. We all know about the film—Alfonso Cuarón’s dream project, Sandra Bullock alone in space, 3D unlike any 3D we’ve seen, so on and so forth. A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times explains the problem of writing about this film well, because there really aren’t any words to give the experience justice. It is a beautiful work of art with a strong central performance by Sandra Bullock, and the visual effects are, for lack of a better term, out of this world.

Moreover, I think Gravity complicates current debates about cinephilia because on the one hand it embraces the latest technologies but on the other hand it exists to reject contemporary reception practices. That is, it uses 3D and CGI to give the audience an experience unlike any they’ve had, but it is an experience that can only be had in the cinema.

It is easy to view Gravity as Hollywood’s attempt to achieve total market domination, and in certain ways, it is an artistic as well as an economic experiment. Cuarón certainly expands the cinematic form with his use of space and maybe even the narrative form with Bullock’s storyline, but Hollywood also pushes the limits of what it can do economically. By hiring two of the world’s biggest movie stars, giving one of our best filmmaker’s the money and the artistic freedom to create, and investing in new digital technologies, Hollywood proves that it can remain relevant in the digital age.

Most of what you will read about Gravity will discuss what Tom Gunning has called the aesthetics of astonishment, and this article is no different. I was quite amazed by the moving images projected upon the screen—and Gravity is the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Gravity is indeed a contemporary cinema of attractions, and it reminds us most of all that the spectacle is always more exciting than the story.

However, I was even more astonished by Hollywood’s ability to discover yet another way to render the theatrical experience unique. Even after internet streaming and on-demand, Hollywood has released a film that can only be enjoyed, appreciated, and “experienced” in a movie theater.

I want to tell you all to run out and see this film. I want to tell you to see it in 3-D. I want to tell you how amazing it is, how truly awesome the visual effects are, and how awe-inspiring Sandra Bullock’s commitment and dedication to the project is. I want to tell you all of these things, but I think you already know. I think you know that if you don’t see it now, in theaters and in 3-D, you will never see it the way it was meant to be seen, and you will forever miss out on one of the great cinematic experiences.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. Oh….My….God….. What a breath of fresh air…literally… Gravity was easily one of the most intense movies I had ever seen… New cinematic experience? Yes, for me. And I am the audience, so goal achieved.

  2. Margo Pearson

    Great read. I can’t seem to get this movie out of my head. I must tip my hat off to the director, Alfonso Cuarón. I honesty don’t think anyone in Hollywood could have ever pulled this off the way he did. I am a huge fan of movies, especially sci-fi, thrillers, and drama themed movies and this film seemed to merge all 3 genres in one. The sheer claustrophobia from the pov from the actors view made you feel at times that you couldn’t breathe and where in that space suit with them. Yet the grand, realistic looking CGI visuals of space and mother Earth made you feel the camera was actually filming from that very location.

    Without question an Oscar contender for both Sandra Bullock and Alfonso Cuarón.

  3. Edgar Perez

    The movie is visually beautiful and tense, but it takes as much care about laws of physics as Harry Potter serial does. To avoid spoilers, I won’t be too specific, but watching the movie reader will understand. Rule of thumb (avoiding technicalities) – to maintain stable orbit on certain altitude object needs to have specific (angular) speed relative to the center of the earth. For example ISS performs DAP (avoidance procedures) -moving significantly up or down by increasing or decreasing speed by 1m/s. Therefore, when increasing speed object will move in higher orbit, decreasing speed it will move to lower orbit. Aiming at space station from 100 miles distance and then accelerating significantly in its direction wouldn’t bring you anywhere near it. If the orbits were perfectly aligned, one would end up few miles above of below it. Disregarding that, approaching station with speed difference of, let’s guess 30m/s, isn’t good idea. If aimed correctly, astronaut would end up as fly on windshield, with or without auxiliary source of thrust. Cloud of debris, due to earlier mentioned rule, can’t return on the same “place” unless orbits were perfectly aligned in opposite direction. Besides, If speed of debris differs from target, they would move to different orbit. Just to mention that Hubble orbits almost 100 miles above ISS with different inclination. Moving between those two orbits is very complex task requiring quite lot of calculation… Still, after accepting Harry Potter as reality standard, I like the movie.

  4. I wanted to immediately re-watch the film as soon as it was over; part of me was thankful I was on earth but another part of me was curious to take a trip around space- and perhaps get lost in it’s beauty. And that’s just it— the film is frighteningly seductive. But I don’t mind at all. Best cinema experience I have had all year. Prisoners takes the silver crown.

  5. Jeffrey

    I’ve been watching movies for well over four decades and this may have been one of the most emotionally harrowing film experiences I’ve ever had. I rarely use the word masterpiece but, if this isn’t one, it’s damn close and as close to a perfect movie as I’ve seen in a long time.

  6. Just watched this movie in 3-D with my movie theatre-working friend. We both enjoyed it though my friend thought it was “weird”. Seeing this in 3-D was quite a treat, that’s for sure!

  7. Sherrie Lit

    I was hooked, I was scared, I cried, I laughed and I questioned what I could do to make my life better. This is the effect watching this film had on me. Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t just direct movies. He creates art, like a painting. And any good painting incites emotion. So that’s what watching his films does to me.

  8. Forrest Waters

    I was not disappointed with the CGI effects but was TOTALLY disappointed with a story line (if you could find it?)This was CASTAWAY in space without a plot. There were some exciting moments which made you do Ohhhh’s and whoa’s! On the whole they were far and few between. Clooney was his charming self and Bullock did a great job making her role semi believable. When you think of Ron Howards version of space (Apollo 13) which was true. He did an amazing job even with the fact he had reality as his governor. This movie was fiction with all the room in the world or out of this world for story development and still crashed in that area. Its fiction for God sake come up with something new! Why did they go through all the time needed to create all the exceptional visual effects if you were going to trash a story plot. Seems like something Spielberg would do these days because he does stand on ceremony. Sorry but overrated.

  9. Brett Siegel

    The 3-D craze has been a fascinating phenomenon, mostly because nine times out of ten it seems to be industrially motivated. It’s a great way to tack a hefty upcharge onto ticket sales and give audiences the impression that their money’s going to a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, as you say. I think people are beginning to see through the strategy, though, and are starting to veer back to 2-D when given the chance. That being said, every year there seems to be a truly magnificent 3-D experience that justifies the use of the technology (not to mention the extra charge). Last year it was Life of Pi. This year it’s Gravity. Hopefully, studios will save their colossal 3-D budgets for passion projects like these with directors who genuinely care about using the technology as a narrative and aesthetic function, rather than just a transparent attempt to dig deeper into our pockets.

  10. Ewan Wilson

    As Brett says, I’m inclined to view 3D as a marketing gimmick that, nine times out of ten, adds little to the worth of the film. Having said that, you make a case for Gravity and it comes recommended by friends for its visuals. I missed Life of Pi while it was in cinemas last year, so maybe I’ll give Gravity a shot before it’s gone.

  11. To some extent a tension has always existed re: movies in theaters. It originally was seen as an extension of theatrical live performances (hence why movies were shown in theatres). In one sense, movies have had to justify why they are in a theatre. In very old times (c. 1910s & 1920s), it imitated live theatre (even with intermissions with very long productions well into the 1960s (See, e.g., Battle of the Bulge (1965))). Gradually cinematic technology broke past a pure theatre form, which eliminated this argument. The justification, which started to resemble the cahiers explination, is the moviegoing experience was the only way to see a movie. With the advent of new ways to view a movie, you then had the cahiers argument shift to broadly its present form, but losing to home viewing simply because it’s cheaper in the long run for the consumer. The main idea here is that the ‘genuine cinematic experience of a movie theatre’, whatever merit the sensory arguments may have, I think are going to fall on deaf ears against the problem of cost to see the film. And ultimately, except for films that implement high technology like Gravity, I think most people will not see much of a difference between seeing a film in a theatre and seeing a film at home.

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