For All Mankind

I was born at the start of the 1980's, so my memories of any of the missions NASA went on are minor. I remember when the space shuttle blew up just as it took off, and how freaked out the country was, I remember going on a school trip to an IMAX theatre to watch a cool documentary about space flight-I remember being totally jealous of these jocky looking guys who got to float through the air. I just sort of took the whole idea of a man walking on the moon for granted. Intellectually, you get it, "wow, crazy", but you dont really ever think about what that means. And I think that's because, by the time I was born, it had already happened-it was already a part of the world we live in. Watching For All Mankind, made me, for the first time ever, realize on a philosophical and emotional level, how amazing the Apollo missions really were.

Directed by Al Reinert, a houston journalist who wrote often about the space program and was fascinated by the NASA program. He started hanging around the NASA archives on his lunch breaks from his newspaper's office nearby, befriending the archivists who take care of the original negatives of the NASA footage. What he discovered was that except for the original live broadcast from the moon that took place in July of 1969, most news programs would always ask for the same footage over and over again, yet there was hours worth of material that was rarely, if ever, shown to the public. Beyond that, NASA would pull the material from copies, not the negative, so what the public was seeing was visually getting worse year after year.
NASA was vigilant about recording everything they could, purely for scientific reasons-they never looked at this stuff having any artistic value. Inversely, Reinert noticed that when the astronauts would return, they didn't talk about the nuts and bolts of the trip, but of the emotional, spiritual aspects of it.The film, is almost defined by what it isn't. It is not the definitive documentary on the how, or the why (call Ken Burns). Except for a brief intro stating that all we are seeing and hearing is from the astronauts themselves, there is no third person narration, no technical info given, no signifiers of who we are even watching on screen. Reinert figured correctly, that if you want facts about the space flights, you can easily find them elsewhere.

The film, by editing everything from all the Apollo flights that took place between 1968 and 1972, into one streamlined narrative, states at the outset that it's solely concerned with the collective experience of these space flights, not into breaking it down into detail.What the film is is a cinematic meditation on no less than the nature of man, the mystery of existence, and power of nature. The imagery is unquestionably some of the most beautiful ever filmed. By using footage pulled from the film negatives that's been barely screened, it's often both celebratory and bittersweet, exploring the spiritual enormity of this event for the people who experienced it, how intensely life changing, and often emotionally distancing an event it was. Every single scene is fascinating, from the surreal Franju-like juxtaposition of an astronaut lying on a recliner with a towel covering his helmet, to shots of the earth that are as close to awe inspiring as anything you have ever seen. Some of the most intense moments are shots from underneath the rocket as it breaks through the atmosphere, the entire frame going from sky blue to blinding white to sudden endless blackness. Your jaw just drops at the enormity of the accomplishment as much at the enormity of that alien sight and by the mere fact this was actually captured on film.
The variety and texture of the film is in some ways the most surprising part, with moments of humor, as when the astronauts listen to Merle Haggard songs as the radio spins freely in space, to heartbreakingly lonely, as one astronaut talks about watching his entire world literally disappearing as we see this tiny bright blue marble slowly fade away in a sea of black. Brian Eno's score, reused most recently in 28 Days Later, just pushes the entire thing over the edge into pure cinematic transcendence.
The entire milIeu of NASA's Ground Control in the late sixties is well captured, a snapshot of a time and place and of people that don't exist anymore. All the footage of men with crew cuts and horn-rimmed glasses pushing big plastic yellow buttons on their beautiful giant computers, while other, tougher looking texans huddle around smoking in blazers that look too tight, is just a space that is nice to exist in as a viewer. They all like soldiers, and probably all were in WW2, yet they are scientists, and they work for the government which carries a wiff of procedure and dryness, yet the whole thing looks incredibly bound up with a kind of All-American personality that is gone. It's endlessly fascinating to say the least.
Criterion's DVD comes with a great documentary on the making of the film, showing Reinert going through the archives at NASA, as well as a supplement on alan bean, the 4th man on the Moon, who currently does paintings of his space experience. The truth is, there is no need to buy most dvds, since you are only going to watch them once or twice, but For All Mankind is one of those incredible films you can just put on whenever, while making dinner.

posted by sammy at 10:46 AM

Blogger tahli said...

one of my top 3 movies, love it

2:58 PM  

Blogger Joe O. said...

Hey man, I'm a big fan of your comics and I've been looking everywhere for a copy of Crickets #2. Where in the world can I get a copy?

4:47 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, I miss working in a shop that carried new Criterion material; I don't keep up with what's coming out.

This sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation.

(PS: Read anything good this summer? I went through David Simon's "Homicide," Ahmed Rashid's "Descent Into Chaos," Will Self's "Great Ape," and McLuan & Fiore's "War and Peace in the Global Village." All could be recommended, aside from that particular Self.

The strange and exciting thing about taking your mind back to these earlier periods are the bizarre distortions of reality you're forced to submit to. "Oh yeah... there was a time before VCR's."

Anyway, thanks again for the recommendation. I've been putting mostly photography related material online lately. Feedback always appreciated. Ah, and porn! I never miss an opportunity to plug that I stock porn!)

9:28 PM  

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