Fandor’s Criterion selection this week was based around science-fiction. The genre was fairly loosely applied, as you’ll see from the first film I watched. As usual, I only found time to watch a few of the available films, but it seemed like a weaker group than usual. Of those available, I had already seen and enjoyed Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962).
The best film I streamed from Fandor this week was For All Mankind (Al Reinert, USA, 1989), which is an unusual breed of documentary. The film appears to take place in chronological order, showing a single spaceflight to the Moon, including a landing on the surface. I didn’t realize, until Neil Armstrong showed up halfway through, that the film is actually crafted from footage taken from all six successful Apollo landings. We hear voiceover from many of the astronauts present on these missions, but they are rarely if ever identified as individuals. The story the film is telling is that mankind went to the moon, and that we achieved this together (though this is undermined somewhat by the focus on the planting of the American flag).
The many cameras NASA sent with each of these missions were fortunately placed for the director. He found a collection of artful angles amongst the footage, which lend a real beauty to the missions. Granted, it may be impossible to find an unimpressive shot of the Earth taken from space. There is an inherent majesty to the image. More than one group of astronauts compare what they are seeing to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which made me smile.
I was underwhelmed by World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1973), which was originally created as a two-part television program, running for approximately three and a half hours. Klaus Löwitsch plays Fred Stiller, who becomes the technical director of a computer company once his predecessor mysteriously dies. The company has created a computer simulation of the world, filled with oblivious programs that think they are real people. Stiller grows suspicious when people start disappearing without a trace from the real world, and finds himself in the middle of a corporate conspiracy.
This is less exciting than it sounds. The sci-fi concept Fassbinder is working with is interesting by itself, but he avoids engaging with it as much as he can, in favour of extended scenes of people plotting in boardrooms. The only other Fassbinder film I’ve seen was Fox and His Friends (1975), and that film showed him to have a great talent for displaying human emotion and believable relationships. Unfortunately, World on a Wire can’t manage to get that right either. The story is told distantly, and later in the film when one character says, “I love you,” to another, it doesn’t make sense, because they’ve hardly shared a scene together. With no excitement to the sci-fi and no humanity to keep us grounded, this is a very long three and a half hours.
I’m a little confused by Criterion’s inclusion of First Man Into Space (Robert Day, UK, 1959) in their prestigious collection. On disc it appeared as part of a 4-pack of sci-fi and horror pictures from the same era (including two others from the same director). It’s certainly not the worst of the cheaply-made sci-fi films of the late 1950s, but it doesn’t do anything to impress, either. The plot follows a thrill-seeking Navy test pilot who ignores orders and flies as high as he can, breaching Earth’s atmosphere for the first time. He runs into a cosmic anomaly, and upon his return he turns into a bloodthirsty monster in a rubber suit. His brother is also a Navy commander, who hopes to contain the monster before it does too much damage.
I can’t discern any message or societal fear that serves to make this film anything other than a B-grade monster movie. There’s no fear of nuclear destruction, no racism metaphor and nothing about the communists. It does contain marginally stronger acting and scripting than is usually required in this sort of exercise, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome at just 77 minutes. I must be missing something here.