Friday, January 23, 2009

The Right Stuff

"The Right Stuff" (Philip Kaufman, 1979) Something of a miracle. Not just getting into Space. Making a movie of Tom Wolfe's distillation of the effort from the days of breaking the sound barrier post-WWII to the age of astronauts. Wolfe stripped away the Iron Curtain of PR flakkery to tell the story of the men who put their hides on the line to go farther, faster and higher than the earth-bound. And do so on "live" TV. Or in secret during a race for Space with the Russians. Wolfe opened the guarded doors of the test-pilot fraternity and told tales and punctured myths, while simultaneously creating myths anew—of the laconic "other" quality of pilots that pulled them out of scrapes, channeled their fear and kept them climbing the pyramid: the indefinable, ephemeral "right" stuff.

The book was optioned for the movies, but was considered too unwieldy and too expensive to turn into a film. But
Philip Kaufman, one of the up-and-coming USC film-school grads took a bare-bones, low-tech approach to the effects, combined it with stock footage of the well-documented space program, and combined it with an irreverent sophomoric humor that combined Wolfe's myth-busting with SNL spoofery. But just as Wolfe found a new glory glowing inside the heart of the flummery he was burning away, Kaufman found interesting cinematic ways to illustrate those truths and celebrate the gung-ho heroism of a team of competing fly-boys. Chuck Yeager is a horse-riding cowboy of Western tradition riding in to town to take on a challenge. John Glenn's description of "fire-flies" while in orbit, is tied to the bonfires of Australian natives praying for his safe return. And in this stunning sequence, two disparate incidents from Wolfe's book unite the newly-beknighted Astronauts with their spiritual mentor and comrade-in-wings.

It starts with the arrival of a new test-jet—
The Lockheed NF-104 Starfighter, which Yeager believes can break a record for altitude. With his wing-man, Ridley, he does an inspection of the jet working his way back to the exhaust port, which Kaufman pulls in on.

Kaufman takes us into the dark-hole of the jet-engine, and inside we hear echoing voices and whistles and the sound of drums, and before we can register the change, we're not in the negative space of the engine anymore, we've transitioned to another channelled tube of energy—we're traveling through a tunnel riding atop a limousine from an astronaut's perspective... President Lyndon Johnson stands on a flag-draped stage and welcomes the seven Mercury astronauts to an out-sized barbecue in Houston--the new home for the Manned Space Center, as well as the astronauts and their families. Their homes, their furnishings are all paid for by the Houston developers who are benefitting from Johnson's earmarks. The Mercury 7 are living the good life, while the Man who Broke the Sound Barrier makes a run for space.

Both these incidents happened and are mentioned in Wolfe's book, but they took place months apart, while Kaufman has them happening simultaneously. To what purpose will become clear later, but in the meantime, we follow Yeager (
Sam Shepard) as he vaults into the sky, his pilot's gear now more closely resembling the astronaut's flight-suits.

And in one spectacular shot, we see space bend and warp as we approach the feathery layer of a cloud-ceiling, then go through it...

...and the picture fades to an incident from that barbecue--an odd detail that Wolfe found funny and sad and a bit pathetic, but Kaufman turns into visual poetry. For some reason, the Houston event organizers chose as one of the entertainers stripper
Sally Rand, now in her 60's, doing her famous "fan-dance" that had wowed 'em at the 1933 Chicago's World Fair. But that was thirty years previous. And the elderly Rand tottered around the stage. To what end, no one can say.

But Kaufman takes that incident and marries it with a running theme throughout the film. The Moon has been a beckoning image throughout "The Right Stuff," and now, as the clouds that Yeagher is punching through become the delicate feathers of Sally Rand's fans, she dances to an orchestral version of the melancholy "
Clair deLune," by Debussey.

And it's lovely.

Kaufman stays on his images of empty space and feathers and lights, then to shots of the astronauts and their wives reacting to the irrelevence and embarrassment of it all. And then, something strange happens....

John Glenn (Ed Harris) looks over at fellow astronaut Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), with whom he's had a contentious relationship...

...and Shepard's not even watching the stage-show. He's lost in thought... is
Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin).

Glenn turns to look at
Gus Grissom (Fred Ward)...

...who is already looking at him.

Grissom turns and looks at his buddy,
Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid)

...who is his usual grinning self, but he's subdued. We transition back to Sally Rand...

... and a blaze of klieg-lights to Yeager trying to "punch a hole in the sky."

Yeager reaches top altitude, then his engines give out and he's given one tantalizing glimpse of the stars in space...

...before his fighter-jet begins to rapidly tumble back to Earth.

Unable to bring it under control, Yeager makes a fiery ejection...

...and Kaufman holds on him--trailing smoke, because as we'll see his helmet is on fire--and we watch his long, long fall through space as he tumbles through the silence--a modern Icarus...

...who disappears into the clouds.

The clouds fade back to the feathers of Sally Rand.

...and to the astronauts, who are somewhere else.

Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) begins to look pensive.

Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) acts like he hears something...

Glenn, on edge, looks to Grissom and Cooper...

Grissom is wary...

Cooper, head bowed, tentatively looks up...

as does Slayton...

And Shepard cranes his gaze to the ceiling...

We transition to Sally Rand, and on the soundtrack we hear a distant boom.

With a hard cut, we're back in the California desert.

Reverse angle to an ambulance approaching in the shimmering desert heat.

The driver points ahead "Sir? Is that a man?"

Amid the smoke and heat-waves, a silvery shape emerges.

"Yeah," says Ridley (
Levon Helm), "you bet it is."

As the music swells, Yeager carrying his parachute, his face burned, but still chewing gum, approaches the ambulance.

Yeah. You bet it is. It's great film-making, too. And a brilliant sequence by Kaufman that shuffles real time a little, but makes a point about the competitiveness of air-men, giving way to a brotherhood. All of the men in the sequence have competed with each other as well as Yeager to be "at the top of the ol' pyramid," going faster and higher than any person before. The astronauts were test-pilots competing with Yeager, then signed on to become astronauts, "spam in a can" in the test-pilots' jargon, achieving a fame Yeager never would...until Wolfe's book...and this movie

Now at this Houston fete, the astronauts "tune in" to Yeager's struggle, as if linked. Backed by an echoing ochestral version of "Claire DeLune," it is haunting and haunted, communicating viscerally, if not literally, of the bond between the men—Indefinable.

"The Right Stuff."


Salo said...

Great post! I came across your post looking for the title of Debussy's 'Claire De Lune.' Your breakdown has given me new appreciation for this scene and the artistry Kaufman exhibits. But I'm also thinking of how in (the modern) Ocean's 11 they use the same song to rip off this profound moment of comradery, i.e. the staring and grinning after the big heist. Hollywood can exploit beautiful music to such different ends. But nonetheless, what an unlikely cinematic climax, making this such a unique film overall.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Thanks for writing.

I love this scene, and wanted to do something with it for a long time.

And you are right, Ocean's 11 rips it off—they rip off a lot of stuff (catch all the Godfather references in Ocean's 13 sometime). But it serves the same purpose. And it's lovely, too, as the triumphant 11 stand and appreciate the dancing fountain at The Bellagio, when they should be high-tailing it out of town.

Henry Marks said...

Holy crap this is amazing. One of my favorite scenes frame for frame. Thank you.

DirectedBy said...

In my early 20's ... I worked on THE RIGHT STUFF as a casting coordinator for extras and as one of the 2nd string reporters. (Example, that's me jumping up at the 'Louise Shepard House / Diaper Truck' scene).

When we shot the 'Houston BBQ' scene of the Mercury Astronauts being feted & fed ... there was the 'Sally Rand Fan Dance' scene intercut with Chuck Yeager's NF-104 STARLIFTER 'Test Flight / Is That a Man?' Scene --

They shot the Fan Dance scene over 2 days using the talents of a young Peggy Davis, a lithe, little ballet dancer from the San Francisco Ballet playing a sixty-ish Sally Rand (a famous burlesque dancer of the 1930's through the 1960's).

The music being blasted over the loudspeakers at the Cow Palace in San Francisco was CLARE D'LUNE by Debussy. And there was upwards of 5000 extras listening and watching this -- as did I.

Thousands of us, cast & crew alike, were being swayed and seduced by the recreation of Sally Rand's actual fan dance held at the Houston Astro Dome in the early 1960's -- but even more so by the gorgeous melancholy of this visual realization of CLARE D'LUNE ...

... and it was sheer & utter bliss.

With Caleb Deschanel's evocative lighting -- combined with Ms. Davis' gliding dance ... and ... that oh-so-glorious music ... it was a wondrous moment in time to behold.

More than once, during one or more of the many takes, be it leaning on tunnel wall -- or sitting in one of the stadium seats in the velvet darkness just outside the frame of the set ... I was utterly & completely mesmerized ... and more than once, I cried like a baby. But these were tears of joy ...

I realized then, at 24 -- as I still do 33 years later at 57, just how privileged I was to be there ... right there ... on The Right Stuff.

I knew then ... I know now ... how truly fortunate I was to be even a small part of this lasting film -- this living art -- and how it turbo-charged my love of creating. Be it as a screenwriter, or as an artist, or directing commercials ... or just in these moments now -- sharing my memory of those days of wonderment, and it all has returned to my heart of hearts ... here .... now ... in these, the membership of my days ...

I was then ... as we all can be ... can continue to be ... blessed to behold the most humbling of collective emotions in this river of humanity we all swim in, with the arts.

Film, Music, Writing, Painting, Sculpture, etc., etc., ... it all matters to our journey in this life. So, please support The Arts.

Thank you Phil Kaufman for your film, THE RIGHT STUFF ... you gave us all a collection of moments that are still soaring in the forevers.


David Lyttle said...

This is one hell of a great film based on one hell of a great book and I agree the intercut between the seven world's greatest "pilots," Sally Rand and Chuck Yeager all to the strains of Clair de Lune was AMAZZZZING! I wish I could find a recording of the version used. It is not credited on the film and is not included on the soundtrack. Each time I watch this film I am almost moved to tears when Gus Grissom cries "Why doesn't anyone believe me?!" I only wish the film has shown he was eventually vindicated before his death.