Last week I went to the premiere night screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity. Being as I am very interested in sci-fi and a lover of spectacle, I of course had to see the film in 3D and on the massive IMAX screen at Lincon Center AMC. While many people both in writing and in conversation critiqued the film’s lack of story, I thought it was perfect. A film this visually rich and stunning would be overloaded with too many characters or plot twists, and its bare-bones simplicity in terms of character and narrative were spot on. When Sandra Bullock‘s character detaches from a piece of errant debris and, preserving her inertia, free falls (free floats?) into space, the shot is absolutely gorgeous. When seen in three 3D the spinning body appears to melt into an impossibly infinite abyss. As a viewer, I was both marveling at the technical wonder before my eyes and absolutely terrified for the character – perhaps a more empathetic version of the urban legend of spectators’ extreme affective reactions to early film.
While much of the film consists of the main actors floating magically in space (including a scene where Bullock’s tears float weightlessly off her skin), this shot in particular stuck with me. The screen becomes boundless – in all possible dimensions. Mary Ann Doane has discussed how IMAX approximates the sublime with its boundless horizon that extends into and beyond the viewer’s peripheral vision. In Kant’s iteration of the sublime, beauty is defined by an object’s form (which is to say, its boundaries). The sublime, on the other hand, is distinguished from beauty in its formlessness (its absence of boundaries). In this sense, IMAX is a commodifiable experience which approximates sublimity for the viewer – engulfing her field of vision, if only momentarily, with an image without boundaries.
This notion can also be discussed in light of what Alison Griffiths has called “the immersive view.” While at an IMAX theater, we become immersed in the image. The company’s own tag line is “IMAX is Believing,” suggesting the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief (with regard to both the image and the narrative) is an essential part of the IMAX experience. Promotional material with this tagline, however, emphasizes the directness of the encounter with the image, alluding not to belief but rather to empirical experience.
To return to the shot of Bullock spinning in space, the image does not, as IMAX promotional material would have it “suck me in,” nor does it, in the tradition of Renaissance perspective and Classical Hollywood cinema would have it, produce a seamlessly unfolding reality for the singular subject, but rather unleashed a formless soup of abstract space with which my relationship was hazy and uncertain. Part of the appeal of both IMAX and contemporary 3D is the wonder at the illusion – the technological foil to Pollock’s simultaneously flat (material) and deep (immaterial) drip paintings.
In this way, my experience of Gravity, was not merely an immersive or sublime one, but an incredibly mediated one. My awe in front of the astronaut catapulting in an endless abyss was, simultaneously, a curiosity and reespect for the unseen technological wizardry that made such an image possible. When discussing the film with people who’ve seen it (whether they liked the film or not) inevitably everyone, at some point, utters the phrase “I wonder how they did that.” IMAX’s sublime cinema of attractions simultaneously foregrounds the technical wizardry of the apparatus while concealing its mechanisms within the boundless image.
After viewing the film and conversing with my friends I came with on the way out, I moved (along with several other spectators) along the escalators and hallways of the AMC theater, passing large-scale posters for movies we discussed wanting (or not wanting) to see and checking my phone for emails, texts, and commenting on Facebook how much I liked the film. Unlike the delightful haze, that liminal space between reality and illusion, Barthes wrote about in “Leaving the Movie Theater,” we are instead thrust right again into a space of mediation through screens. Upon leaving the IMAX, I then walked down to 42nd Street, passing through midtown’s other iteration of larger-than-life screens, Times Square, just in time for the “Midnight Moment.”
“Midnight Moments” are curated short video art pieces broadcast over participating screens for 2-3 minutes every evening at 11:57pm. This month’s, a piece by Andrew Sloat, uses images of hands manipulating print letters to animate excerpts of the First Amendement (which quite timely starts with “congress shall make no law…”). While many people did not realize video art was happening, quite a few took notice, commented, and (like I did) documented this convergence of mega-screens on their mobile micro-screens.
I don’t want to have my complete discussion of Midnight Moments here, but suffice it to say, the experience of these screens, which can also be defined as “immersive,” was far different than IMAX. Rather than being rapt into one image, my eyes were constantly darting from one to another. It was no less overwhelming than Gravity, but a far different experience in relationship to the body. Craning my neck to look up and constantly swiveling my head from one screen to the next, the screens were experienced as flat objects in space, not as boundless and deep. Nevertheless, the intensely mediated experience of being overwhelmed by screens ties the two works together. Erkki Huhtamo has written about the simultaneous shrinking and expanding of scale in media since the 19th century with a term he called “the gulliverization of media” (examples included parlor objects like the stereoscope and large-scale billboards). If IMAX and Times Square represent one pole (mediated immersion), the other pole is represented by iPhones and personal computers, which generate a (false) sense of control and ownership. As my night at the IMAX premiere attests to, both of these experiences are very much a part of contemporary media spectatorship.