Bad Boys for Life
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It has become commonplace for people to say that we live in a world filed with technology but lacking imagination and wonder. Instead of technology being feats of imagination, it is now a cold, commercially driven beast that seems out of control. We've lost our sense of wonder -- of being a part of something much bigger -- bigger than anything we can imagine or possibly experience. It seems that the things left that still could stir our imagination have been relegated to box office cash cows stripped of all wonder and imagination, or worse to silly talk by dreamers.
Mark Craig's 2015 documentary, The Last Man on the Moon, about Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan (and based on his book of the same title) takes you as close as is possible to that sense of awe and wonder that we so lack today. The film does this in a low key "non-hypey" way through anecdotes and commentary by Cernan and people in his life, but it also does this with an uncanny ability to show grandeur through cinematography and silence; it's a beautifully filmed movie filled not only with breathtaking stills of the moon, but scenes such as this...
The film starts at a Houston rodeo arena, and we see Cernan watching a bull riding contest. He watches a rider struggle to control a bull, and then the film abruptly cuts to archive footage of a test pilot inside a NASA centrifuge. The film could have started by showing Cernan in his space suit frolicking on the moon, or giving an important speech, but it starts with a man -- a simple man in the world surrounded at a rodeo by people who don't know him. This is the film's genius -- it depicts a man who tells us "Never shortchange yourself; you never know what fate has in store for you." and doesn't make him into a god. The film follows Cernan through the years as he was recruited by NASA to train to be an astronaut, his Gemini spacewalk, and his Apollo 10 and 17 missions. It chronicles his personal life, and gives a sense of what the man is doing now.
Making any kind of movie about the space program is difficult. There is so much material it's easy to get lost in a sea of archival footage, documents, and relics. It is hard to focus. As a filmaker you have to make decisions, and when faced with such a wealth of material those decisions can either make or break the project. If you focus on something, you miss out on other material, and with great people it is so very hard to encapsulate their lives in a 90 minute span of time. However, Craig strikes a nice balance between Cernan the man, his role in the Space Program, and the sense of gee whiz wonder of it all. After watching this film twice, I have a better sense of Cernan the man, and a better sense of the men and women involved in the era-defining dream that was going to the moon.
The astronauts are special individuals, but they're also people. Craig does an excellent job of not idolizing his subject; yet, he's respectful. Cernan and his first wife divorced, and I think a lesser filmmaker might have wanted to do some digging in an attempt to reveal more of his subject. Craig wisely avoids this kind of tabloid trap that has become all too common now. He approaches his subject with the respect and admiration he deserves, and it is clear that his purpose in this film is not only to document Cernan's accomplishments but to also inspire a new generation. Is that possible? Can a film, in a world filled with video game story telling and an ADD attention span do this? In a 2011 interview on Fox with Megan Kelly about the Chinese space program, Cernan asks "What is there to inspire your generation? We knocked on the door of the future...and we just backed down. What does that 13 years of my life mean to future generations? I haven't been able to answer that yet." I'm not sure the film has answers to those questions. I don't know if it's supposed to.
For much of history, the earth was largely unknown and unexplored. Most people never traveled beyond their village and what they knew of the world came from stories. What must it have been like to meet Sir Walter Raleigh, Columbus, Edmund Wilson, or Amundson? In Columbus' day, there was no internet, magazines, TV, films, etc. There were only people and the stories they could share. How amazing must it have been to hear tales of lands filled with bizarre creatures, new foods, and completely foreign landscapes? What must it have been like to listen to Raleigh tell tales of Indians, hurricanes, mountains, and a seemingly endless ocean? I'll never know, but listening to Cernan recount a brush with death while holding a charred helmet, or talk about drawing his daughter's initials near the lunar rover gave me that sense of human experience -- of the unknown being transmitted. I've never met Cernan or any other astronaut, but watching The Last Man on the Moon made me feel like I'd been there. I could see how the experience changed Cernan and gave him a deeper sense of appreciation for the Earth. For the 90 minutes I watched, I went from sympathy to empathy -- from a consumer of space images to someone with a deeper understanding of the stories behind the images.
At the end of Blade Runner, Roy Batty tells Deckard "I've seen things you wouldn't believe." In a world filled with the ability to create anything with CGI images that can't be true. But it's not about the things he saw, it's about his experience and being able to transmit that to another generation. We get it, when he dies, that what is dying is the narrator of those "things you wouldn't believe." Without the original narrator they are just dead images. We've all seen the images from the moon, especially the younger generation who sees those images manipulated in music videos or declared hoaxes crafted by Stanley Kubrick To demoralize the Russians. What we need is the person who was really there to tell us how being there affected him. That's what makes the images mean something. In the interview with Megan Kelly, Cernan says that sometimes it's hard for him to believe he was really there. "It was forty years ago, almost half a century." If it's hard for him now, just wait till he's long gone...how many people will believe that really happened? I believe it because I heard him talk about it and saw how it affected him.
Much of the footage used in the film will be recognized by many. The images have become so commonplace that they are now "stock" photography. They have lost something and became "Oh, yeah, I've seen those" kind of pictures. However, to hear Cernan narrate the images brings them back to life and returns them to the sacred instead of the profane.
It's tempting to think that this is a film for space program fanatics, and I'm sure many people will think it's just another documentary about a bygone era -- a "been-there-done-that" kind of film. It's not. It's a film for anyone who wants to regain that sense of wonder they had when they were a kid, and treats that sense of wonder with respect. At the end of the film, Cernan says "I walked on the moon. What can't you do?" We need more of that kind of thinking now, and we need more films that inspire us to think that way.
When one thinks of documentary films, one doesn't think of Penn and Teller, the pair of magicians who have made a name for themselves in the world of magic. Penn Jillette, the "talking" part of the team is known for hard-hitting TV shows that debunk, and being an atheist, often invited to debate with religious people on talk shows. When I learned that Penn and Teller were behind this documentary film, I was at first skeptical about the tone the film would take. Penn's style is hard-hitting and in your face--not the sort of thing that lends itself to discussions of Vermeer or art history. I have to say, though, I was pleasantly surprised by this film, which plays almost like a 90 minute expose of a magic trick, in this case one by Dutch master, Johann Vermeer.
The focus of the documentary is Tim Jenison, a sort of Renaissance man known in the world of video technology, who has an obsession with the 17th century painter. He has an idea that Vermeer used a simple lens and mirror system to paint his masterpieces. The film then follows him on his ten year journey, during which time he meets David Hockney, visits Vermeer's hometown, and also gets to examine, for thirty minutes, one of the Queen's Vermeers at Buckingham palace.
In terms of film making technique, there's not a lot to comment on one way or the other; it's well edited, the music is good, and the story points follow logically. The only nagging thing for me, though is I would have liked to have seen more art experts discuss Tim's project, either in terms of why it was reasonable or why it wasn't. We hear from David Hockney who recently wrote a book about lens systems and painting, but he is a proponent of Tim's method. Without countering opinions, the film feels lopsided. But, this is from the point of view that the film is about art history or rediscovering a method, and the film is about much more than that.
I think the real point of the film is watching Tim follow his dream for ten years, (a point mentioned in many reviews of this film) and not whether he possibly found how Vermeer made some of his works. I say "possibly" because we don't have any records of Vermeer's process, other than the paintings themselves, which Hockney says are documents that give clues to the process, a point that comes up during Tim's work when he discovers some interesting parallels in his and Vermeer's work. These discoveries seem awfully convincing. Again, I would have liked to have seen some art historians discuss the final painting and at least tentatively give some opinions on the matter. Without experiencing different opinions on this project, we are left wondering. I think that's fine in theory, however unless one has a background in art history, and Vermeer in particular, it's hard to know. The finished painting looks just like a Vermeer, but who am I to judge whether the method used was the same as Vermeer's. As I said, on some level the film isn't about that question, but it'd sure be nice to know. I keep getting pulled in two different directions. However, the title of the film is "Tim's Vermeer," and not "Vermeer's Magic Rediscovered."
This leads to an interesting question. If one doesn't know how something was made, but finds a way to duplicate the original, is the duplicate the original method? In other words, say someone shows me a box. I can hear a cricket inside the box--or at least I think it's a cricket--it sounds like one. When I shake it, I hear something move and the sound stops. If I leave it alone for a while the sound starts again--just like a real cricket. I then decide to duplicate this, however, I don;t have a cricket so I use a small sound player that turns off if it is moved too much. If I present the original box and my version to someone, it is not possible for him or her to tell them apart without opening the boxes. Does this mean that my box, with the player, is the "same" as the original? This is the position one finds oneself in when thinking about Tim's finished painting. Did he find the method or not? It sure looks like it, but who am I to judge? We may never know, unless documentation surfaces that sheds light on the subject, or a thorough examination of Vermeer's works are done in light of Tim's method.
One of Vermeer's paintings shows a painter painting a woman. The painter has their back to us, so it is not possible to tell their identity--it could be anyone. The painter is using a traditional painting method--a palette and arm rest; he is not using Tim's lens system. So, if Vermeer used Tim's method, he didn't expose this in the painting. On another note, many other paintings produced at the time show the same sort of masterly technique and we know that they didn't use Tim's method. Franz Hals, Jan de Brey, Gerrit Van Honthorst, and Bartholemeus Van der Heslt didn't use a mirror and lens, and produced works just as "photo realistic" as Vermeer.
Watching Tim produce his "Vermeer" is an amazing and inspiring process, and Tim should certainly feel proud. Hopefully, it will inspire the right people to do more research on Vermeer with Tim's method in mind. Some critics have mentioned that the film glorified a guy with a bunch of money and time on his hands to pursue his dream. Maybe, but I think there's some magic in watching Tim. He's a dreamer. I think we need more dreamers, whether rich or not.
In the end, though, there is a part of me that wishes Tim hadn't found this method. It is the same part of me that doesn't want to know how Copperfield made the State of Liberty or the Lear Jet vanish. Vermeer's paintings are a kind of magic, and knowing a possible method for how they were made, takes away that magic. Some people say that knowing how a trick is done doesn't take away from the beauty and artistry. I happen to disagree; I don't want to see the modus operandi. I don't want to know it was "just" a lens and a shaving mirror. As Tim shows in the movie, making his version is a very tedious and time consuming task--it took him a week to paint a carpet, an effort that looks marvelous when it's finished. In the end, though one has to ask themselves how much of Vermeer's genius was just hard work and dedication. Edison said genius was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Call me a dreamer but I prefer to think of genius as magic coming from the gods in the form of an effortless wind that pushes an artist's soul into unchartered territory. The point was made in the film that art critics didn't want to discuss the lens and mirror system because they felt it was "cheating," an accusation that Tim feels is childish. Maybe the critics are right--maybe it is cheating. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones gives a harsh review of the film, "Neither he nor the filmmakers show any sense of the greatness of great art. The film is a depressing attempt to reduce genius to a trick. On the commentary, Penn keeps crassly saying Vermeer looks "photographic" and "cinematic", and the film purportedly proves that all the artist's magic lay in the use of an optical machine." Hard to argue with that.
When it's all said and done, this is a great story and I look forward to seeing more documentary films of this sort from Penn and Teller. I prefer films that inspire me to "do something" after the film; research, think, or write. "Tim's Vermeer" certainly does that.