Gravity, Titian and the Nature of Looking

still from film GravityThe big event film of the moment is Gravity and ‘film’ is always an aspect of our contemporary visual culture that offers rich source material for those of us who are a bit opinionated (oops). This film is a mainstream Hollywood offering with two big ‘A’ listers, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, playing second fiddle to the 3D imagery of our beautiful planet. ‘Gravity’ is not an art installation, but the first 20 minutes or more are so compelling visually that you almost disengage with the narrative of the film and just soak up the shots in a floating, mesmerized trance. The British film critic, Mark Kermode, who is not a fan of 3D, said that this was one film you really should see in 3D. Furthermore, the general view of the professional critics is to see it on the biggest screen possible. That said, ‘film’ is so much more than a series of shots. It was fascinating to see the 3D shuttle and the weightless astronauts and viscerally thrilling to glimpse the Earth from the enormity of space, but once this waned, the rest of the film was disappointingly formulaic.

Titian - Portrait Man in Blue
‘Portrait of a Man in Blue’ – Titian, circa 1512
Oil on canvas
32 x 26″ (81.2 x 66.3 cm)
National Gallery, London

This now brings me to the point of Titian. Titian you are thinking, what? Well, not just Titian, but artists like Dürer, Vermeer and Hockney too, and all the artists who consciously experiment and play with perspective. Because as we know we do not see our real life world in lens-photographic-cinematic focus. The human eye is rapidly adjusting and re-adjusting as we look around ourselves. Our attention and our eyes focus and re-focus as we register and respond to our visual environment. And, this all happens as our outrageously, sophisticated brains process the raw visual data supplied from the optic nerve – looking and seeing is so much more than registering light. When we watch a 3D film and the objects come out of the screen at us it is more like Titian’s depiction of the sleeve in the painting ‘Portrait of a Man in Blue’ than looking at someone in real life. The artist chooses to draw our attention to the magnificent, costly silk sleeve by making it appear slightly larger than we would expect. Another striking example showing a heightened three dimensional form in a two dimensional representation is ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Palma Vecchio. As we look at each painting in its entirety we see realistic looking people in attention-grabbing fine robes, but if we deliberately move our focus around each image we see that the proportion of the nearest sleeve is exaggerated. It looks more as if the sleeve might break out of the surface of the canvas. Although the representations are not quite 3D, neither are they how we would see the sitter in reality.

La Bella by Palma Vecchio
‘Portrait of a Woman’ (La Bella) – Palma Vecchio circa 1520
Oil on canvas
37 1/2 x 31 1/2″ (95 x 80 cm)
Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

In the 21st century with the luxury of affordable digital photography, photographic images are everywhere and by a process of osmosis we are accustomed to seeing our 3D world rendered into a lens mediated 2D version. It’s normal, we take it for granted unless the lens distortion is so extreme it makes the subject look bizarre. And, this is the point where I return to ‘Gravity’ where the level of the 3D special effects is so good that we accept it as a near truthful account of what astronauts see and experience. I think perhaps this is why most viewers have been enthralled by the spectacular visuals, and they are beautiful, but in the end for a whole film to be outstanding there needs to be a strong script, believable characters, hopefully an unpredictable narrative and a sympathetic score, not just great 3D wizardry used effectively.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

6 thoughts on “Gravity, Titian and the Nature of Looking”

  1. Gravity was screened in our theatrette tonight, on a smallish pull down screen. Hubbie and I had not seen it, so I dragged him down. Hilarious. Without the big screen or 3D effect to completely distract your attention, it was verging on a comedy with the lame script and repetitive near death scenes. BUT even with our second rate equipment, the visuals were still eye catching.

  2. You know Gwen, I’d completely forgotten what I’d written about this film and now totally think of ‘Gravity’ as just rather overrated. I think Hollywood gets so hung up on the visual excitement of doing science fiction they forget all the other basics of making an engaging film. Great science fiction has something to say about the human condition and that’s why I think you have to go a long way to beat ‘Blade Runner’. Ridley Scott succeeded in breathing a cinematic aura into Philip K Dick’s desolate story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” – something, according to some of the critics, he hasn’t managed with his latest ‘The Martian’. (yet to see myself)

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