Richard Brody, 2001, and the Cardinal Sins of the Critic

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody is an interesting film critic — and an actual critic, not just a reviewer (unlike waka waka Anthony Lane, or David Denby who inexplicably liked Troy but hated Iron Man). The guy is steeped in a century of world cinema and is one of those types secure enough in his own acumen to throw a wild card like Marnie into his Top 10 list, or fearlessly extol the excellence of Norbit (again and again!).

But in his recent post on Gravity he commits one of the serious critic’s cardinal sins (another of which is, indeed, approving of Norbit). I’m not talking about this little piece of scientific illiteracy:

It’s notable that the movie is called “Gravity,” which, of course, is what’s lacking in outer space. The effort to return to Earth entails the effort to reënter its gravitational field.

Aside from containing two of the New Yorker’s Top 3 eccentricities (putting movie titles in quotes instead of italics and the renowned diaeresis [the third is their spelling of vendor as “vender”]), the ignorance of how gravity actually works that’s on display here is astounding. But you know what? He’s using it as a rhetorical device, so I’m going to give him a pass on this.

What’s more troubling is the crucial error in this passage:

It’s worth recalling that the grand climax of “2001” is also the entry into a gravitational field (Jupiter’s) and that its colossal force gives rise to one of the most hallucinatory visions in the modern cinema.

2001-a-space-odyssey

Richard Brody watching TV in his Brooklyn sublet

How many times has Brody seen 2001? Bowman is entering Jupiter’s gravitational field? Really? Because the camera pans away from Jupiter and its impossibly aligned moons and monolith as he enters the Stargate. Bowman isn’t pulled toward Jupiter in any way — aside from the fact that, just by being anywhere near Jupiter, he’s already in Jupiter’s gravitational field, and has been for his entire time on screen.

I know I sound like Comic Book Guy here, but this really is crucial to any understanding of what’s going on in 2001. Whatever forces are at work on Dave Bowman, gravity is not one of them by this point, and the viewer isn’t meant to think that it is. The force field Bowman plunges into springs from conscious agency. Clarke and Kubrick make it quite clear that, by reaching the monolith that floats among the moons of Jupiter, humanity (with Bowman as its exemplar) has reached the stage where it can be permitted to pierce the veil of “nature” and its clockwork forces. He has proved that he can be granted access to the next step of evolution, shaped consciously by intelligence rather than blindly by environment. It’s amazing that Brody, who has complained about “an emphasis on the observable…stripped of inner experience”, could be so literal, and so wrong, about one of the greatest films in all of cinema.

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