Friday, July 23, 2010

A Stellar Documentary

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I eagerly followed the NASA space flights, from the one-man Mercury to the two-man Gemini to the three-person Apollo flights. I couldn't get enough of these and like most kids growing up then, I watched all of this on tv, whether at school during the day or at home during the evening.

When the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969, it was a milestone in everyone's life and at 13, it was something that influenced my life and has stayed with me to this very day. Seeing the moving documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) for the first time the other day, took me back to my youth and reminded me how magnificent man can be when he is challenged to go to a higher, more distant pinnacle than ever before.

Director David Sington organized his film around interviews taken in 2006 with several astronauts from various Apollo missions; these include Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11; James Lovell from Apollo 8 and 13; Alan Bean from Apollo 17; Edgar Mitchell from Apollo 14; Charlie Duke from Apollo 16 and Dave Scott from Apollo 9 and 15. Sington films them in closeup as they talk and it's interesting to see how youthful these men look in their 60s and 70s. Sington and his editor David Fairhead include a few extreme closeups which were merely test shots for focus on the eyes of various astronauts and were meant to be throwaways, but these brief images are quite revealing and visually notable.

Speaking of visuals, it's hard to go wrong with images of the huge Saturn rockets lifting off or of the astronauts walking on the moon. We've seen these before of course, but there are many images we haven't seen, as NASA officials allowed the director access to some shots that had never even been processed before this film. Visually, this is a wonderful film, especially seeing the earth as the astronauts saw it, from the vastness of space. No matter how many times we see this visual, it's stirring.

Sington has wisely decided to organize this film not by mission number, but by flight plan, so we get comments from the various astronauts on everything from the jolt they felt at liftoff to the excitement of seeing the moon up close to the thrill of walking on the moon to final splashdown back on earth. Thus the film becomes more than an exercise in trivia, but a journal of what life was like for these special men.

As visually interesting as this film is, the best part of this work is the collection of interviews with the astronauts. Some of the best remarks come from Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew member who did not walk on the moon, but instead stayed in the command module above the moon while his crewmates were making history traversing the lunar landscape. Collins says that while he remained positive during the flight, he was always "mildly worried" that something would go wrong. Upon completion of the mission, he comments that "nobody messed up. Even I didn't make any mistakes!"

There are dozens of other wonderful insights. Lovell talks of how small earth looked from space, saying he could put his thumb up and cover the entire planet. Bean recalls the "weird feeling" he had walking on the moon, as it was only his crewmate and himself, while Mitchell remembers asking himself on the moon, "What am I doing here? You've really got yourself in trouble now."

Sington also has the astronauts talk about their feelings as they returned and how they look at their life and the world today. Mitchell, recalling the view he had of space upon the return from the moon, says that "my molecules were the same as that of the stars." Bean comments that since his return to earth,

"I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic – I’m glad there’s people around... Boy we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden."

There is also a remarkable clip of President Nixon reading a prepared statement from the Oval Office about the tragedy of Aldrin and Neil Armstrong not returning from the moon. This was written in case the motor of the lunar module did not fire for their takeoff from the moon, which would have meant they would have been casualties, as there was no way to retrieve them. "They know there is no hope for their return but they know there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice," was part of this chilling message and what foresight it took for NASA to cover this possibility!

One final production note and that concerns the beautiful score composed for the film by Philip Sheppard. He writes stirring themes, never going over the top in emotion. The scenes of the huge rockets at liftoff are accompanied beautifully with Sheppard's music, which here is patterned after a classical concerto.

This is a highly recommended work that reminds us of how positive men can be when they are united in pride.

One final note: This was somehow passed up by the Academy for nomination as Best Documentary for the year 2007. Over the past decade, the branch that nominates the films for this award has become more socially conscious, focusing on subjects from war to terrorism to illegal dolphin fishing. While those are serious subjects and the films made about them were often quite powerful, it's a shame that a beautifully crafted, heartrendering film such as this could not even garner a nomination.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truth or Lies?

"I always laugh about Jean-Luc Godard's comment that 'Film is truth 24 times a second,' because in my opinion, film is a lie 24 times a second. Everything is prearranged, predigested, rehearsed, thought out, worked out, written down and then eventually photographed." - Stanley Donen

This quote from the Turner Pictures documentary, When the Lion Roars, about the history of MGM, is about Donen's specific thoughts concerning the famous title sequence from Singin' in the Rain, which he directed in 1952. Noting how much preparation went into this scene, he continues:

"No musical number is not organized down to the last eyelash. The puddles were even organized. The puddles had to be placed and we had to work out how far he was going to have to move to splash in the puddle and we had to dig out the cement in the street and make it hold the water.

"It's an appearance of truth 24 times a second, but it's all organized. "We're all working strings."

LIke most of us, I've seen that scene in Singin' countless times, yet I never noticed that the cement was dug out on the street to hold the puddles. After Donen mentioned it, I saw it right away and now I know it's coming, whether I am looking for it or not.

So it seems to me that Donen is saying, at least in part, that the scene works so briliantly (I think it's one of the most perfectly realized scenes in cinema history) because it was so organized and rehearsed; in other words, nothing was left to chance.

But I wonder what Donen would say about the penultimate scene from In Cold Blood (1967) where convicted killer Perry Smith (Robert Blake) tells a childhood story to his former warden, as both of them are in a small room not far from the "corner" where Smith will soon be hanged. Smith is standing next to a window and as the rain hits the glass, we also see the reflection of the raindrops on Smith's face (this is shot in low key black and white so we can see these details quite clearly). Remarkably, the reflection of raindrops fall from his eyes down his cheeks, making it seem as though Smith is crying as he speaks. Conrad Hall was the director of photography on this film, but even a cinematographer as brilliant as he could not have planned this. It's an amazing, powerful visual that gives even more meaning to the scene, as Smith talks of the heartbreak of his youth. (The scene can be found on YouTube at:

So how do we now look at Donen's quote and what about Godard's statement of "film being the truth?" Of course, as Godard was a political filmmaker, we can believe that his words were more ethereal thoughts about the meaning of film - we don't have to take it literally. But while Donen certainly has a strong point, I think it's safe to say that based on the scene from In Cold Blood, the reality (truth?) lies somewhere in between, as this scene is a compelling one thanks to its happy visual accident. In this case, the total emotional impact was clearly more than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Suspense 15 floors up

One of the great things about DVDs is the rerelease of hundreds, if not thousands of films that many of us have never seen or in some cases, even heard of. That was the case for me with Fourteen Hours (1951) directed by Henry Hathaway. I picked this up at my local library, knowing nothing about it, except that it was released under the Fox Film Noir banner and as I love this genre, I thought I'd give it a try.

I'm pleased I did and I'm glad I knew so little about this work, as it is a riveting film about a man who threatens to jump off the ledge of his 15th floor hotel room in Manhattan. The film was written by John Paxton who adapted a 1949 New Yorker story by Joel Sayre about a real-life incident in 1938 concerning the drama of John William Warde, who held New Yorkers captive for most of a day when he threatened to jump from the 17th floor of his hotel.

What is remarkable about this film is the fact that most of the action takes place on that ledge (or just a few feet away in the safety of the man's room.). We know we are watching a movie, so we know that the man is not actually 15 floors up, facing possible death, yet the technical work - matte paintings and process shots - is of such high caliber, that we feel the vertigo of this man above the streets of New York, even though the film was largely shot in a Hollywood studio.

I also like the fact that the story is not sensationalized, as the film is more or less a cat and mouse game between the would-be jumper (wonderfully underplayed by Richard Basehart) and a street-smart, humble policeman named Charlie Dunnigan (charmingly played by Paul Douglas) who spends much of the film on the ledge trying to reason with the man about why he should not jump.

At first, we know nothing of this man and why he wants to take his life; he says almost nothing to Dunnigan, not even his name. Dunnigan works to gain the man's trust by offering him a glass of water; he accepts, but immediately wonders if anything has been added to the water to affect his behavior. This guy, as desperate as he is, stays ahead of Dunnigan and others (police officials, a psychiatrist, hotel employees) by constantly keeping them off their guard.

We soon find out the character's name is Robert Cosick, but it might as well be Robert Smith or Bill Jones, as the identity of the name is a plot device to bring the man's parents and former fiancé into the action. This takes up much of the seond half of the film, as we see how his parents - an overbearing mother and a recluse father - did much to ruin his psyche. Lacking self-confidence, he did not see himself worthy of a bride, so he now sees suicide as the only way out.

This psychological situation helps explain things, but it is the mano-a-mano conversations between Cosick and Dunnigan that are the strongest things about this drama. After an inital encounter on the ledge, Dunnigan is told to go back to the street by his commanding officer. Cosick hates policemen in general, but found Dunnigan understanding to his plight, so he demands that Dunnigan returns to the ledge so they can talk. Perched betwen the window and the ledge, Dunnigan questions Cosick why he asked for him. "Everybody lies to me," is his reply. Dunnigan tells him that he wants to help and it is his fast thinking during their conversations that begin Cosick thinking about small things, briefly taking his mind off death.

The film also has things to say about media and the public and how they treat these incidents. We see thousands of people gather below only minutes after this ordeal begins and of course, the television cameras are there to cover every detail. One woman tells her business associate that she refuses to head to work while all this is going on. "What if he jumps?" is her response to being late for work. Every time a new person is introduced and brought to Cosick's room to plead with him not to jump, we see photographers rushing to grab their camera, as this might be THE person who gets him to come back in - or else the person who fails and indirectly causes him to jump. Talk about drama! This is nicely felt in Hathaway's subtle direction and like the rest of the film, it's presented in a restrained manner.

Hathaway's direction is excellent - straightforward and tight, adding to the tension of the basic drama. Basic things such as Dunnigan giving Cosick a glass of water or a cigarette are directed very well, as we see the difficulty of a simple thing like this when the location is on a 15th floor ledge. Also, during one scene when Cosick slips and almost falls, we are taken aback - my heart was pounding as I'm sure most everyone who sees this scene will be. Combining this drama within a drama with the excellent photography makes this tense film even more gripping (Joe Mac Donald contributed the sparkling black and white cinematography).

The formula for this film is a good one, but it is the package of taut direction, first-rate production and above all, the emerging trust and newly formed friendship of the two main characters that makes Fourteen Hours such an absorbing and rewarding experience.