Sunday, May 18, 2008
Formative Films: The Right Stuff
With this post The Man from Porlock begins a semi-regular new feature called "Formative Films," whereby I will reach deep into the vault of my own movie-watching history and pull out a film that affected me in some way for re-scrutiny. I should mention right off the bat that the term "formative" can mean many things: a film that challenged me; a film that pissed me off; a film that taught me to look at movies, or the world, or myself, in a new way. Heavy stuff, but hopefully with humor to spare. I also should leave fair warning that 1980s cinema will likely be a key focal area: the 80s were my coming-of-age years and an underappreciated era for movies, no matter what Steve Vineberg says. But any film from any era is fair game, as long I've seen it. Shall we begin?
Christmas 1984. The location is Phoenix, Arizona, and at a blustery 59 degrees, winter is in the air. I am fourteen years old. I am overjoyed to find among my presents a VCR, and the next day, when the nearest video store reopens, I waste no time in selecting The Right Stuff among my first batch of rentals. I remember that Siskel & Ebert raved about the film the year before, placing it #1 on each of their Top-10 lists, whereas the ludicrous Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved over at Sneak Previews had unceremoniously panned it. I also know that it was a box-office disappointment and, despite several Oscar nominations, lost out to Terms of Endearment for the big prize. Being an outer-space afficiando, and a budding film snob, such things don't concern me. Eagerly I put the tape on and watch the movie.
Eighteen hours later, The Right Stuff ended. I found it annoying. It was a lot of other things too: to paraphrase Richard Bach's memorable description of his reaction to The Deer Hunter in his book Final Cut, it was exciting, confusing, absorbing, exasperating, witty, superficial, thoughtful, moving, and long. But mostly it was annoying. Still, as I dizzyingly rewound the tape, and in rare yet palpably contemplative moments in the years that followed, I always felt a deep uncertainty in my reaction, at the root of it an unquestioning slavishness to my mentors. How could Jeffy and Mikey be right, and Gene and Roger be wrong?
Cut to present day. It's the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Right Stuff, and what better way to honor the movie than watch it again, with the anticipation of seeing the folly of my youth. I put on the DVD. Approximately three hours later (my sense of time has improved over the years), I still find the movie annoying. Maybe even more so. It's one of a handful of films that I would label a great failure: a movie filled with excellent performances and memorable scenes, but sets the bar so high for itself it can't possibly accomplish what it sets out to do.
For me, a big problem with Philip Kaufman's film -- something he had a better handle on in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other efforts -- is tone. The opening prologue, shot in stark black and white, presents grainy images of test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier. "Once there was a demon who lived in the air," a deep-fried southern voice intones. "They said whoever found it....would die." Presumably, the narrator -- Levon Helm, whom we later meet as Chuck Yeager's right-hand man, Jack Ridley -- is present to supply an underlying mythos to the story, but the effect is cornpone and irritating. Ditto a subsequent scene (as the film switches to color), when a pilot crashes, and Royal Dano's grim reaper of a minister breaks the bad news to the pilot's widow. The tragedy is undercut by the silliness of Dano's somber, black-clad appearance (I seem to recall Pauline Kael saying that he's always standing around waiting for something bad to happen); his grating singing at the funeral doesn't help.
Following this, the story morphs into a Western, complete with a hole-in-the-wall town (Edwards Air Force Base in rural California), a local saloon with a cliche-spouting older belle behind the bar, and Chuck Yeager, a pilot on horseback, introduced as our temporary protagonist. As played by the actor-playwright Sam Shepard (laconic is by now old hat in describing Shepard, but that's what he is), Yeager is no Man With No Name; quite the contrary, we are constantly reminded of Who He Is, with hushes of reverential awe. After Yeager breaks the sound barrier (Mach 1), Edwards becomes the military equivalent of Deadwood, a beacon for other aspiring pilots eager to strut their stuff, among them Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). After another of Yeager's seminal flights (where he goes beyond Mach 2), the film switches gears to the space race. Fearful of Soviet advances in aeronautics, American commitment to their space program formally begins -- only with Cooper and Grissom, along with Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and John Glenn (Ed Harris) recruited to join, while Yeager is left behind.
One of the minor curiosities I've always found interesting about The Right Stuff is the confusion between the actors' names and the characters' -- between the Shepards and the Glenns. Yet I think this underscores an important problem with the film: the lack of a central character. Yeager, who initially appears to fill this role, vanishes for long stretches of the movie; in his place we join Shepard, Grissom and Glenn on their missions. Each one temporarily becomes the movie's hero, each mission has its own flavor. Shepard's flight, as the first "free man" into space (i.e., neither a Russian nor a chimp), is exciting and glorious; Grissom's, which ends in a controversy as to whether or not he panicked and prematurely blew the hatch during an ocean rescue attempt, is quietly tragic; Glenn's orbit around the Earth, which cuts between the "fireflies" he sees outside his capsule and the mystical guidance of Aborigines on the ground, takes on the atmosphere of a Peter Weir film. While all three are certainly compelling characters -- as is Quaid's cocky, lively Cooper, whose flight climaxes the film -- none provides a stable center of gravity. (As for "America" being the main character, Ian Frazier would have something to say about that.) This would be less of a problem had Kaufman established a consistent tone.
I've never read Tom Wolfe's book, but being familiar with his other works I suspect he handled the mingling of satire and hero-worshipping sentiment more cohesively than Kaufman attempts here. Preferring the former over the latter, I'm pleased to say that The Right Stuff is loaded with funny scenes. The best of them are vaudevillian interactions between gifted comic performers: Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as a pair of clueless government recruiters; Donald Moffat's LBJ and Scott Beach's Werner von Braun-like German scientist; Quaid and Jane Dornacker's Nurse Murch. What makes me cringe are the scenes played as straight hagiography, like whenever the astronauts join forces against the bureaucrats ("You heard him: Light the candle!" etc.) or Yeager's final miraculous escape from death -- covered in grime, yet still chewing gum -- when we are assured by Ridley that he is indeed A Man. It would be hard to take these scenes seriously on their own, even less when they're repeatedly undercut by sight gags and irony.
Perhaps more than any other film, The Right Stuff helped to shape my critical sensibility. I learned that it was okay to disagree with Siskel and Ebert (and would do so plenty of other times over the years), that they were capable of being wrong; and that even dunderheads like Lyons and Medved could be right once in a while, that they could bring something to the table. Most importantly, I discovered that a viewer could have more than one response to a movie. Kael's review (one of the best, I think, from her erratic later years), which I caught up with in her collection State of the Art, aptly demonstrates this. The DVD case of the movie includes a blurb from her assessment -- "Astonishingly entertaining" -- that leaves out the second part of the statement -- "considering what a screw-up it is." The Right Stuff is indeed a glorious screw-up, one whose images (Caleb Deschanel did the cinematography) I recall as vividly as its errors: a recurring shot of Goldblum running down a corridor; a gorgeous transition from the engine of a plane to a tunnel entering into a lavish barbecue; and the conclusion of Yeager's first flight, after he breaks the sound barrier, and the familiar blue sky gives way to the mysterious vestiges of space.