Sunday, April 22, 2012

Don't Make a Scene: The Right Stuff

Levon Helm of The Band died last week.  When I heard the news I flashed on his few movie roles.  They weren't star-turns (Helm was, after all, a drummer), but he was one of the most successful of musicians-turned-actors.  His parts felt lived-in, authentic, spoken with an untrained cracker-barrel of a voice, and a face that had seen some years in the field, rather than hours in a makeup chair.  One line delivery of his has remains in my mind as the ultimate expression of parental love—from Coal Miner's Daughter: "You're my pride, Loretta.  My shinin' pride."

And, he was a pivotal part of The Right Stuff (of all things), despite playing a minor role—that of Chuck Yeager's wing-man, Ridley.  As such, he got the best line of the movie (see way below).  And, as the narrator, he set up the story of the test-pilots who punched a hole in the sky, the twang of his voice recalling the drawl of the airmen, keeping the feeling down to Earth, while taking the story into the heights of Myth.

We've made scene breakdowns of both aspects.  Here they are, lest we forget.

I

The Set Up: Tom Wolfe's book of the fraternity of test-pilots and astronauts, "The Right Stuff," was immediately bought for the movies, and stayed on the shelf for years. No one could crack it. Like the sound barrier, it resisted all attempts to translate into a movie. A lot of people tried. William Goldman, a veteran screen-scribe, thought he had the answer. In his book "Adventures in the Screen Trade," he wrote about the long struggle to put "The Right Stuff" on the screen, and his own solution to wrestle this behemoth ("Too many characters," "Not enough romance," "Too unwieldy a time-line!") between cover-sheets. His idea? Just tell a patriotic movie about the astronauts--you didn't need The Sound Barrier, and Chuck Yeager, and the story of the X-1! Just start the story with the selection of the Mercury Astronauts and their story and be done with it. American heroes! The crowds will love it!

Yeah, maybe. But it wasn't "The Right Stuff." Without Yeager and Breaking the Sound Barrier (everybody thought a British guy did it, anyway, thanks David Lean!), "The Right Stuff" had no "right stuff." It didn't set up the brotherhood or the laconic, gum-chewing "this-is-yer-captain-speakin'" just-another-day-in-the-upper-atmosphere-breeziness that runs like ice-water through the veins of pilots...and astronauts. But try to explain it, to set it up--that's tough. Until Phil Kaufman rode into town. Kaufman's solution was even more elegant--keep Yeagher in. Use him. And off-set the Astronauts' "spam-in-a-can" existence in a televsion-lit fishbowl, with Yeagher and his fellow test-pilots' "pushing the envelope" in obscurity...and finding honor in both.

Kaufman starts the movie with the failed attempts at Breaking the Sound Barrier, and turns it into almost a fairy tale* of knights on fiery steeds doing battle with "The Demon." And shows us the consequences of falling in battle. Then he brings in a new knight on horse-back--but it's staged more like an American Western: tall lanky, Gary Cooper-ish Chuck Yeager (playwright Sam Shepard) rides over the hill to meet the challenge--and come to grips with The Quest. Though Goldman disparages Kaufman's movie because it failed at the box-office (then it's gotta be bad, right, Bill?), this movie is more steeped in the Americana of movies than Goldman, with all his flag-waving, could ever have achieved. And it's an eyes-wide-open patriotism that exposes the foibles and the chicanery and the flummery and still acknowledges the heroism...and celebrates it. Is there a story there?

Yeah, you bet there is!

The Story: It's the start of the movie, there is no story yet. Action!


VO: THERE WAS A DEMON THAT LIVED IN THE AIR.

VO: THEY SAID WHOEVER CHALLENGED HIM WOULD DIE.

VO: THEIR CONTROLS WOULD FREEZE UP.

VO: THEIR PLANES WOULD BUFFET WILDLY,


VO: AND THEY WOULD DISINTEGRATE.

VO: THE DEMON LIVED AT MACH 1 ON THE METER...

VO: ...750 MILES AN HOUR, WHERE THE AIR COULD NO LONGER MOVE OUT OF THE WAY.

VO: HE LIVED BEHIND A BARRIER THROUGH WHICH THEY SAID NO MAN COULD EVER PASS.

VO: THEY CALLED IT "THE SOUND BARRIER."

VO: THEN THEY BUILT A SMALL PLANE,

VO: THE X-1,
TO TRY AND BREAK THE SOUND BARRIER.

VO: MEN CAME TO THE HIGH DESERT OF CALIFORNIA TO RIDE IT.

VO.: THEY WERE CALLED "TEST PILOTS."

VO: AND NO ONE KNEW THEIR NAMES.

Ground Control (over radio): WHISKEY KILO 28, PREPARE TO DROP.

X-1 Pilot(over radio):ROGER, GROUND CONTROL. THIS IS WHISKEY KILO 28,

GC: LOWERING AND LAUNCHING NOW.

Pilot: MACH .92....93....94...

Pilot: HIT A MILD BUFFET THERE.

Pilot: MACH .95... .96...

Pilot: .97...

Pilot: .98!

Pilot: .99!

GC: DO YOU WANT TO DECLARE AN EMERGENCY?
Pilot: NEGATIVE. WHISKEY KILO 28 ISN'T DECLAR--

(The pilot's wife is startled awake by the crash): Wha...!


(Cut to the Edwards Air Force Base Chaplain slowly walking, as he has so many times before to the new widow's door, to inform her of her test-pilot-husband's death. She stands in the doorway, dreading his arrival)

Pilot's Wife (sobbing): NO. GO AWAY. NO!

Pilot's Wife: NO-OOO!

(Chaplain sings):"LORD, GUARD AND GUIDE THE MEN WHO FLY"

"THROUGH THE GREAT SPACES..."

"...IN THE SKY"

"BE WITH THEM ALWAYS IN THE AIR"

"IN DARKENING STORMS OR SUNLIGHT FAIR"

"LORD, HEAR US WHEN WE LIFT OUR PRAYER"

"FOR THOSE IN PERIL"

"IN THE AIR"

"A-MEN"

(It is after the funeral, and a lone horse rider (Chuck Yeager) cross the desert, and confront the plane that killed his fellow pilot. The horse is spooked, but is led past the plane, its engines firing in a test. Then horse and rider continue their ride.)


_________________________________________
 II

"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...

...as 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...

...as 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."



The Right Stuff

Words by Philip Kaufman

Pictures by Caleb Deschanel and Philip Kaufman

The Right Stuff is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.





3 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Since blogging is about dialogue, I suppose the following comment might not be much use - but I've not seen The Right Stuff. Still, major kudos for this post - your meticulousness is impressive.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Criminy, man! It's on sale at Costco for $6.99!! It's a no-brainer! Just the cast, in and of itself, is amazing. And, as gargantuan an undertaking as this is, with disparate pieces that could have derailed the thing time and again, Kauffman still manages to boil the thing down to make it a cheeky history of 50's-60's "space-race" and make it resonate within itself.

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