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Posts Tagged ‘Todd Douglas Miller’

The least predictable franchise in cinema history is back again, nearly eight years after the most recent instalment: yes, it’s yet another movie in the Apollo series, Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11. On-the-ball readers will no doubt recall the 1995 movie Apollo 13, which launched the whole undertaking, and was a rather successful disaster movie in the slick and mainstream idiom, and bonus points go to anyone who can further recall the 2011 offering Apollo 18, which was a bit of a departure, being a rather quirky found-footage horror movie. The new film pioneers another new genre by being not just a prequel but also a documentary.

Well, yes, it’s a feeble conceit, but I have to get these things started somehow. I have occasionally reflected on the fact that we have been treated to two films about troubled entries in the Apollo programme (including an entirely fictitious one), but the closest we’ve got to a film about the actual Apollo 11 mission has been last year’s First Man, a slightly different proposition in terms of its tone and focus. I suppose you could consider First Man to be the first of a whole bunch of films coming out to commemorate the first manned Moon landing – shortly to appear, for instance, is Armstrong, another documentary focusing on the man himself. Apollo 11 takes a more general look at this most seminal moment in human history.

But really, fifty years! I imagine there are grandparents living today who were not born the last time someone walked on the Moon. As this achievement slips ineluctably into the past, with still no concrete sign of the prospect of people travelling again beyond low Earth orbit, it is perhaps no wonder it increasingly acquires the status of myth – with all the associations that accompany this. As well as films about the Apollo landings, there have also been an increasing number of films about the faking of the Moon landings, documentaries, dramas, and even comedies. It has almost become a cliché to allude to Stanley Kubrick’s role in this, with the conspiracy literature on the subject reaching almost encyclopaedic quantities.

If nothing else, Apollo 11 should do something to counter all of this, by going back to the basics of this remarkable story. Todd Douglas Miller is credited as the director, but one has to wonder to what extent he actually directed this film, at least in the sense the word is conventionally understood. It contains no footage filmed after 1969, unless you count some very basic graphics used to illustrate the progress of the flight; there is no narration, no interviews recorded after the fact. The credits even take pains to make clear that the minimal music score included uses only instruments and technology that existed at the time depicted in the film. All Miller has really done is select and edit together pre-existing pieces of film.

And yet, and yet: this is to be too dismissive of a film which often borders on the mesmerising. There may be little truly new here, but Miller has assembled this fifty-year-old footage with great deftness and focus. There is no backstory, no legacy – except, perhaps, for some brief archive footage of President Kennedy inaugurating the lunar project – the film begins with Apollo 11’s Saturn V making its way to the launch pad, and concludes with the three astronauts making their safe return to Earth. In between is the mission itself, shown mostly through unseen, or at least unfamiliar film.

Apollo 11 has received glowing reviews, and I must confess to having been a little sceptical about whether they were entirely warranted – there is a tendency sometimes to praise a documentary simply because its subject matter is praiseworthy, rather than because the actual film-making craft involved is impressive. However, the sheer quality and variety of the images here is very-nearly jaw-dropping. I had no idea the mission was so comprehensively documented, though of course it makes sense that it was: it feels like whatever image Miller wanted to achieve a certain effect at a particular point in the story, he was able to find it somewhere in the NASA archives.

This is, of course, a historical document, but one of the striking things about it is the incidental detail revealing the vast social changes that have happened in the last fifty years: the massed ranks of NASA technicians at Mission Control are almost exclusively white guys of a certain age, in identikit white shirts and dark ties, while there’s not much more variety amongst the crowds gathering to watch the launch – although there are some pretty eye-catching hats on show amongst the spectators.

I hope I am not being too provocative if I suggest that everyone should be educated about Apollo and the rest of the manned space programme, both American and Soviet, simply because it is one of the most important things we have achieved as a species. As part of this, Apollo 11 is certainly a vital, impressive document. I do wonder, though, if the decision to make the film quite so spartan and un-spun was quite the best one. We learn a lot about what happened and who did it, but very little about the technical challenges involved and the characters of the people involved (although given Armstrong’s noted aloofness perhaps this latter element is quite appropriate). Another consequence of the format of the film is that if something didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t get mentioned – for example, moving around inside the lunar module in bulky spacesuits, Aldrin and Armstrong broke the switch that would fire the rockets to take them off the Moon, and the highly-trained astronauts were forced to resort to sticking a felt-tip pen into the control panel to make the circuits operate. It’s this kind of quirky human story which the film is almost completely lacking in.

Still, as I mentioned, there are a plethora of films and books on this particular topic, and at not much more than ninety minutes in length Apollo 11 can’t cover everything. What it does succeed in is making these events feel fresh and real again, the plethora of details and new perspectives bringing new life to a story which is well-worn for some of us. A great achievement, and arguably a very important film.

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Here’s a good one, you’ll like this:

‘What do you call a dinosaur that ends up in court?’

‘Sue.’

Oh, all right, it’s a bad joke, but then most of the story of Sue the Tyrannosaur sounds like a bad joke. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Dinosaur 13 does a solid job of recounting it: but even so, it’s a bizarre tale.

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I was one of those children – couldn’t you guess – who was heavily into dinosaurs from an early age. Looking back, I can see now that this was the index case of a pattern of behaviour that’s been with me ever since: come across something interesting, then become completely obsessed by it and learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. To this day I can tell an apatosaurus and a brachiosaurus apart by sight (not an especially useful skill in rural Oxfordshire, I’ll grant you) and retain a lingering interest in and familiarity with the topic.

So even before seeing this film I was aware of the discovery of Sue, the largest and most complete specimen of tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. Tyrannosaurs are such charismatic animals that it’s startling to remember that back in 1990, when Sue turned up, only a dozen actual skeletons had been found, most of them less than half complete. This was one of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries in history.

Dinosaur 13 – a reference to this being the thirteenth tyrannosaur, which itself sounds like a pretty good title for a story to me – opens with some musings on the nature of fossil hunting and paleontology, before (ha! ha!) digging into the circumstances of Sue’s excavation. She owes her name to Susan Hendrickson, the paleontologist who stumbled across her fossilised backbone sticking out of a hillside in South Dakota – if you ask me, tyrannosaurs should have names like ‘Old One-Eye, the Hag Queen’ or ‘Golgotha’, but that’s just my cultural influences showing through.

The film uses VT shot at the time to show the dig in progress and the seemingly amicable relations between the team of commercial fossil-hunters responsible and the owner of the land where the remains were found. This man received $5000 for the bones, which may sound like a lot to you, or maybe not – the important fact is that this was the largest amount ever paid for a fossil, up to that point in time.

Sue’s bones were taken off to the team’s base and the meticulous task of preparing them began, something expected to last a couple of years. This was about the point at which I lost touch with the original story, which is sort of ironic as it’s also the point at which it gets really interesting. And absurd. And infuriating.

I don’t wish to spoil the film’s thunder, but: one day in 1992, a major FBI task force including over thirty agents and elements of the National Guard descended on the paleontologists’ institute and seized the fossil dinosaur, on the grounds that the tyrannosaur might actually be stolen property. The fossils ended up spending the best part of five years incarcerated in a shipping container, while one of the scientists ended up doing some pretty serious jail time too.

How on Earth could this happen? The answer is that it was a perfect storm of factors, which the film does a very good job of explaining. This is a movie with a lot of different angles to it, and one of the criticisms I would make of it is that it doesn’t quite give all of them the detailed attention they deserve. There’s some fascinating material at the beginning concerning the near-mystical experience of extracting fossils from the earth, which communicates just how this must feel with great vividness. There are also some fascinating references to the long-standing, ill-tempered schism between commercial fossil-collectors and their academic counterparts, which may explain some of the ill-feeling the discoverers of Sue attracted.

But most of the film concentrates on the more conventionally dramatic story of the various legal wrangles Sue and her handlers found themselves caught up in. The film doesn’t make much attempt at impartiality – although, to be fair, one of the FBI agents involved in the team’s prosecution appears, and calmly admits the logistics of one of the court-cases involved were ‘incomprehensible’ – but even so I suspect most impartial observers would agree that the fossil-hunters got screwed by a series of legal decisions that would be hilarious were they not so grotesquely unfair. The tale involves the federal government, local Native American tribes, the US customs system, and a number of other players.

The movie tells the story with commendable clarity and a certain degree of dry humour – one of the scientists recalls his surprise at facing a potential 350 year jail sentence for alleged fossil smuggling, complaining that this was more than Jeffrey Dahmer received for multiple murders and cannibalism – but never quite loses track of the emotions involved: one journalist recalls her growing feelings for one of the people she was supposed to be impartially reporting on, while another principal is reduced to tears by the memory of the government stealing ‘their’ dinosaur.

The story is slightly oddball one, but the film tells it straight – well, as straight as possible given it contains interviewees who say things like ‘Pete and that dinosaur were made for each other’ quite matter-of-factly – and I have to say that a little more visual invention might have made it more memorable and striking. Perhaps it’s the unique weirdness of this story that stops the film from sending any particular wider message beyond ‘life can be really unfair sometimes’ – it doesn’t seem to be making any particular point about the monetisation of fossils, or the political side of paleontology.

None of this stops Dinosaur 13 from being quite fascinating to watch, if ultimately rather sad. It’s really just the story of how something quite beautiful, elemental, and joyous is spoiled by base, petty, mercenary concerns: a David and Goliath story, for sure, but the problem is that here Goliath is definitely the winner. In its own way this is as bleak and horrible a story as any of those in films featuring more lively and homicidal dinosaurs.

 

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