Two films playing in Memphis this week highlight the best man is capable of (Gravity) and the worst (The Act of Killing). Each film is astonishing, immensely compelling, emotional juggernauts that break new ground on what cinema can be by reasserting its unique power to transform and immerse the viewer. If Gravity and The Act of Killing don't wind up as the two best films of the year, well, I can't wait to see what comes next.
Gravity is the latest from great director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También, the best Harry Potter movie). Children of Men might be the best film of the twenty-aughts. Gravity might be better. Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Kowalski (George Clooney) are astronauts on a space-walk mission to repair the Hubble telescope. Against the gorgeous backdrop of Earth and the cosmos, they are almost imperceptibly tiny. While Stone nervously tries to fix an electronic component, Kowalski patrols in a jet pack, swooping in and out and around the Space Shuttle and telescope and regaling those on his radio frequency with the same bawdy stories for the thousandth time. They hear from Mission Control (the voice of Ed Harris, a nice casting gimmick) that a Russian satellite has broken apart, destroying nearby objects, and that a debris field may be on its way toward their location. Kowalski keeps the mood light as they abort their mission and prepare to evacuate the area. Before they can safely react, the shrapnel storm tears into the tiny bit of space they occupy, shredding the shuttle, destroying communications with Houston, and sending the crew careening. Stone becomes untethered and panics as she loses physical contact with the ship and her companions. She spins and spins away into the darkness. All this takes place in the first shot of the film, clocking in at 17 minutes.
That's the kind of thing Gravity is, Cuarón's camera constantly on the move, the actors a pair of dancers in the dark performing a ballet of impressive choreography, the special effects taking us to a place we've been before but never to such a dazzling degree.
On one hand, Gravity is spectacular because of its technical accomplishments: not only the long takes and camerawork but the brilliant cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) and utilization of 3D, the best anyone has ever done in part because space is already the ultimate 3D environment. Gravity, and the lack thereof, has never before seemed so palpable a force. On the other hand, Gravity is a masterpiece because it puts within this technical framework the sublimely relatable humanity we've come to expect from a Cuarón production. Not unlike Children of Men, Gravity is about a primordial human ideal: trying to do the right thing in crisis, being good to others, and finding rebirth even amidst death.
Gravity is science and it's fiction, but it's not science fiction. It follows some established cliffhanger adventure film formulas, but it performs them with novelty and attention to detail. Gravity's collisions in space are possibly the most thrilling thing I've ever seen. And Bullock is phenomenal. Pro tip #1: See Gravity in 3D, not just because, but because the glasses will help cover up your tears when you cry. Pro tip #2: In space, no one can hear you scream, but in the theater people can still hear you sob even if they can't see your face.
I watched Gravity with my hand over my mouth in amazement. I watched The Act of Killing with my head in my hands in amazement. Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary is screening at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on Thursday, October 10th, and it should not to be missed.
Like Gravity, The Act of Killing gets considerable mileage out of the way it tells a typical story with conceptual brilliance. The film considers the evil that man does against others and to himself. In an introduction to the movie, Oppenheimer says that there isn't such a thing as good people and bad people but that evil is committed by regular human beings. This banality and universality of evil is explored specifically in the instance of the Indonesian coup of 1965, during which, in less than a year, more than 1 million "Communists" were murdered by the military, paramilitary, and "gangsters" — criminals who served as executioners for personal gain. Not only were the perpetrators of genocide not held accountable, they're actually still in power.
The Act of Killing finds men such as Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who personally killed thousands of people, walking unmolested today, hailed as victors and establishment elite. Filmmaker Oppenheimer does something so courageous and simple that it leads to a film that almost can't be believed. He has these men, who are war criminals to our eyes, recreate their personal scenes of mass killing and rape for his camera, set at the same places they occurred. Further, he has them perform these sequences in classic Hollywood styles of cinema, such as musicals and film noir. It works, because the men know that their atrocities have been deemed justifiable by their society. No one judged them back then, so what do they have to fear now? "This is who we are!" one says. They fully expect Oppenheimer's film to be a gateway to even more celebrity and adoration.
Congo is the "star" of the picture; he's an old, white-haired man now. He laughs and jokes with his contemporaries about what they did. (It makes you wonder what kind of poker face the camera operator must have had to develop.) "Here was the paramilitary office, where I always killed people," he says without inflection. But, over the course of the filming, he opens up more and more about the terrible toll his actions have taken on his psyche.
The figures in the documentary attribute power to cinema itself: They say they were emulating cruelty and sadism they saw in American films. If so, then The Act of Killing brings the medium full-circle, capable of revealing truth in the make-believe of performance. The ending, which I can't give away, rivals anything on theater screens in memory.
The Act of Killing
Thursday, October 10th, 7 p.m.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
$8/$6 Brooks members