Engineers in Space

April 19, 2012

Apollo 13 tells the story of the unfortunate NASA mission as a straightforward disaster tale, anchored by Tom hanks as Jim Lovell, the resolutely understated hero.  I consider this part of my examination of The Engineer as Hero in movies:  a lot of pilots and astronauts are engineering graduates, and Houston Mission Control is a hive of that species.  Hanks plays the hero in Steve McQueen mode, but more approachable.  His values are rooted in family, and he reveals a streak of spiritualism when he recounts his lucky escape as a fighter pilot, “lead home” by a trail of phosphorescent algae in the wake of his mother ship.

The film was entertaining, but for me, ultimately a bit dull and flat: I am not engaged by celebrations of folksy heroism, and the fascination of space was lost in the Hollywood adventure story of man-and-machine, despite the commendable restraint exercised by the film maker.  Although this is clearly a celebration of  an American Everyman’s triumph, he leaves the sentimental gushing for the musical score and Lovell’s mother, who, on cue, declares that if “they could make a washing machine fly, my Jimmy could land it.”

I grew up watching space launches, building models of the LEM, and hearing the roar of what we thought were engine tests at Rocketdyne, in the industrial section of the San Fernando Valley. The gadgets and the stories were neat, but for me, the essential terrifying strangeness of space was what fascinated me.  David Bowie captures it in his song, Ground Control to Major Tom:

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in my tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Just guys floating in the cosmic void, protected by a little tin can. Ron Howard has made a movie that could have been on an ocean liner, a mountain top, or an airplane coming in for a dangerous landing.  The archive footage of Walter Cronkite’s wonderment at the moonwalk conveys more of the magic of the enterprise than anything else in the film.  2001 is still the standard for man in space as far as I am concerned:  The shots of the space craft careening wildly through space seem hokey in comparison to the eerie progression of Kubrick’s machines.

Brave guys, those astronauts, and incredibly skilled and cool under pressure.  That’s how they picked ’em.  And the presentation of the work of the engineers on the ground was fascinating:  the technology they had to work with is left in the dust by what a kid carries in his pocket today.   And the need to have thought out every contingency in advance, to have provided the pilots with manuals and pre-printed algorithms for calculating things that today a pocket calculator could do in a flash, and the enormous technical bureaucracy that supports this was nicely shown.

But maybe I’m the prisoner of my profession here.  I’d heard of the sequence in which the engineers figure out how to improvise a replacement air filter to keep the pilots alive as a thrilling and brilliant passage, but it seemed to me that they figured out the problem exactly the way you’d expect a bunch of committed, smart engineers to do it.  Engineers love to jerry rig stuff just to get it working.  It’s called ingenuity.  Still, you do get the sense that it took guts to think they could carry this sort of thing off.  And for what?  To show the Russians, of course.

The film endorses the heroic view of NASA, and seems wistful that the public lost interest after Armstrong walked on the moon.  The reduction of the program by budget cuts is presented as a foolish tragedy of policy myopia.  Lovell justifies continuing the program after Armstrong by asking what would have happened if no one had followed up on Columbus’ voyage.  Well…ask a Native American that question… Lovell believes it though, and one of the more affecting moments of the film is when he realizes he will never walk on the moon, and we see his dreams of what it would have been like.

There’s hardly any relationship between the moonshots and 1492, however, other than the skill and courage of the men involved. Columbus sought land, gold, and slaves.  Lovell sought personal and patriotic fulfillment.  The justification for NASA after beating the Russians was only science, and robots do more of it better, and far more cheaply, without heroics or tragedy.  We have enough of that on Earth anyway.

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Alpha Noir

March 8, 2012

Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good.  The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so:  the control of tone never wavers.  Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!

I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s.  I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive:  In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz.  But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…

A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city.  Well, maybe not.  “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!

The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun.  He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist.  The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris.  Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC.  Lemmy drives American cars, of course.

Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s  a noir, it’s all rather deadpan.  A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him.  Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances.  How was he to know it was just a psychological test?  Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.

Lemmy is a hard-boiled type.  He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology.  I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone.  He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about.  But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior.  He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death:  “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.”  Hard-boiled, indeed!

 

Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks.  Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We.  Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies.  She’ll betray him, of course.

When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love.  The shot below is a portent of 2001.  With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died.  Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.

Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?

The use of sites is very clever.  While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.

Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation.  The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy:  then they pummel him into submission.  Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner?  Maybe not – it’s so French.  Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…

Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.


Altered States

December 27, 2011

Paddy Chayefsky had no business being angry about the treatment given to his screenplay for the movie Altered States directed by Ken Russell in 1980.  Reportedly, he was angry about the way his beautifully crafted dialog was treated.  Here’s a rant by whiz kid scientist Jessup (William Hurt) delivered while he’s raging drunk:

“What dignifies the Yogic practices is that the belief system itself is not truly religious. There is no Buddhist God per se. It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.”

Not far from the truth, but an absurd piece of dialog, in context.  All the characters speak in this stilted, intellectual way, which, along with the deadpan treatment of the action, gives the film a comic-ironic dimension.  Apparently, Paddy took the ideas dead seriously, but this story is ridiculous, and what redeems the film is Russell’s usual over-the-top imagery, in this case perfectly in sync with the psychedelic freakout ethos of this post 60s romp that seems trapped in Strawberry Fields.  Religious, mythic, erotic, pop-cultural, oh that Ken, he’s something else!

In this series of images from Jessup’s mushroom induced hallucinations with rural Mexican Indians, Russell recreates the craziness of pharmaceutical mirages and seems to be paying homage to that milestone of surrealism, An Andalusian Dog.

That Andalusian Dog

 

 

 

Man meets his inner lizard.

 

Pagan Goddess

Adoration

…………………  …………..

 

In stone, for eternity.

As I said, the plot and the ideas driving it are laughable:  it includes an extended interlude in which Jessup regresses, physically, to a primitive hominoid state, nearly kills some security guards, and finds peace only after breaking into a zoo and devouring a sheep raw.  I wanted nothing but to survive that night, to eat, to sleep.  Italo Calvino treats the same ideas, the bliss of pre-cultural consciousness, in his wry and funny piece, Interview with a Neanderthal Man, but, as I said, the screenplay of this film plays it straight.

During Jessup’s final trip, there are some nice images, and more homages to films, I think:

Could be Kiss Me Deadly.  What’s in the damn box?

Bill Gates freaking out on Windows?  Where did this primordial goo come from?  And who’s going to mop it up?

This definitely recalls 2001:  A Space Odyssey.

The Love Goddess saves the day!


Batting 500

May 2, 2011

I thought he would never be captured or killed – I was wrong.  Oh, well, I was right about those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The reasons for my relative sang froid regarding this event are illustrated by this quote from the journalistic blusterer, Ross Douthat:

They can strike us, they can wound us, they can kill us. They can goad us into tactical errors and strategic blunders. But they are not, and never will be, an existential threat.

This was not clear immediately after 9/11.

As with his fellow windbag, Thomas Friedman, as well as many, many, politicians and talking-head wannabee pundits, he takes far too long to learn his lessons.  The sense of those two sentences that are in bold was very evident to me in 2001, and to John Kerry in 2004, and to the writer of an op-ed piece that I recall from the NYTimes shortly after 9/11 (citations, please, if anyone can find it![Here it is.]) that stated that Osama bin Laden’s was a form of ‘politics’ doomed for the dustbin.  Yes, there were plenty of reasonable people who understood what was what, but the hysteria of people like Ross and his fellow scribblers, not to mention GWB, made it hard to understand what they were saying.


Over the Shoulder…

December 31, 2010

. . . and into the future, or the past.

I watched 2001:  A Space Odyssey again a week ago, as I do around this time of year, and noticed something new.  When Dave Bowman is in the pod preparing to blast off the door and enter the main ship through the airlock, he goes through a series of maneuvers and turns his back to the camera.  Briefly, he looks partly over his shoulder and then counts down.

Later, when he’s in the space-time-evolution-warp, he breaks a glass, bends down, and looks back over his shoulder to see what is making that breathing noise… It’s him, of course.  The movement of the body is the same.

Today, I felt myself making exactly that move as I looked over my shoulder to back out of a parking space, driving my little four-wheeled pod.

Happy New Year!


The adverts have arrived!

December 1, 2010

Just yesterday, I happened upon this essay in the NYTimes by William Gibson about the world according to Google – and today, looking at my recent post on Babylonian mathematics what do I see but an ad for Google!!  WordPress explains:

Note: To support the service (and keep free features free), we also sometimes run advertisements. We’ve tested a lot of different ad providers and currently use Google AdSense and Skimlinks. We try hard to make the ads discreet and effective and only run them in limited places. If you would like to completely eliminate ads from appearing on your blog, we offer the No-Ads Upgrade.

The upgrade costs about $30.oo per year.  I guess the free ride is over, but then, why should I expect to be given a good service for free?  Will I pay to be add-free?  I doubt it.  I’m pretty cheap.  Considering the content of my blog, it might be amusing to see how Google et al place ads on it.

BTW, the picture is by Kupperman, and anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love Kubrick and 2001!


MUNDO VIDEO!!

October 10, 2010

Homage to 2001

Daily Life

Iguana Fractal Generator

NYU 1978:   Self-Portrait

NYU 1978:  The Romance of  Machines

The meaning of life, according to Marcel Duchamp

Homage to Aligators…and Zappa

The story of Abraham and Isaac, the sacrifice on Highway 61

Oscar Wilde in an E.A. Poe favorite

The meaning of life again, from the zendo

Blasting the rock away…


To Infinity and Beyond (1978)

October 8, 2010

  

A video I created as a summer student at NYU using 5-inch tape reels and a very heavy recorder with a bulky camera.  Editing resources were extremely crude.  I’ve cleaned it up a bit, but the quality suffers from thirty years of sitting in a crate.

Music by Saint-Saens.  My world.


Drainage – the musical

August 31, 2010

Michael Kupperman is a funny guy, and pretty weird.  His Tales Designed to Thrizzle carries on the madness, but without that vaudeville duo, Snake ‘n’ Bacon from the earlier numbers.  This one, however, rises to new heights with its appreciation of DRAINAGE!  At last, my voice in the wilderness is finding echoes!  The connection with 2001 is beautiful!

In this issue, Kupperman tells the story of a new Broadway show, all about that essential element of civilization, what makes the world go ’round, drainage.  The leading lady of the production finds out a little late that it has been reworked into a musical.  The show must flow on!