Earlier tonight, driving back along a straight unlit country road with a belly full of mushrooms and ale, and a head full of that gorgeous waitress who served us; Debussy’s Clair De Lune made a surprise appearance on the CD player. I’d totally forgotten that it was on the compilation of uplifting music I made for mum to listen to on the way to hospital the other day.
I turned it up and it sounded even more beautiful than I remembered, sailing through the darkness towards the soft-lit mauve tissue paper clouds waiting at the end of the road.
It was one of those moments you wish you could pickle and keep in your back pocket for a rainy day. Sometimes it’s the little unexpected things, you know?
Then, life being what it is, an unforgiveable moron dressed in jet black suddenly lept out into the road in front of me, testing my brakes and reaction time. But I plain refused to let it shit on the moment.
The striking beauty of the piece in that context reminded me of something I haven’t seen in a long time: a scene from the film The Right Stuff, which is one of those films you really need to get and see if you haven’t already. It’s too damned good to miss.
The film tells the story of the Mercury astronauts who were the forerunners of the Apollo astronauts – think moon landings. As such they got to be the guinea pigs who tested all of the new technology that was being developed at an unprecedented pace to compete with the Russians in the space race. All under the crowd-pleasing guise of getting the human race to the moon, while the real goals were more likely intercontinental ballistic superiority, weaponising space, and mining. But that’s a whole other story and there’s no room for it here. (phew they bought it – cos that’s all I know about it! bwa ha ha ha ha)
This film gives us a window on what it was like for these guys caught on the crest of a runaway wave that was moving so fast, they really had to make it all up as they went along. The best pilots who would’ve been plucked last year to be test pilots or instructors, were now plucked to try out for spaceman school. They didn’t even know what they were volunteering for, just that it was the latest thing, and dangerous. All they could do was turn up and be subjected to an unrehearsable series of bizarre physical and psychological tests. Tests designed to break them and weed out the lightweights – to see who had the right stuff to go up there.
Conversely it shows how quickly that wave steamrolled over yesterday’s heroes like Chuck Yaeger and left them in the dust.
Regardless whether you think these guys were altruistic pioneers or vain glory hunters, you’ve got to respect the balls required to sit atop a gigantic volatile firework and stick two fingers up to The Devil while they light it. Those things could turn into bombs or ovens at the drop of a hat, and sometimes they did.
So easy to watch from an armchair. A very different prospect when you’ve got to go and do it yourself I imagine. Especially when you’ve got a perfectly good young life going on and everything to lose. It takes a special breed, the same kind who go and climb skyscrapers or try out wingsuits. The risks the rest of us go out of our way to avoid are what those people actively seek out. That’s just where the juice is for them. Not something you can imitate – you’re either put together that way or you’re not. And there’s a disturbing side to that of course. Perhaps their curse is our blessing? Perhaps we exploit them for our own ends? Or perhaps it’s just a marriage of convenience.
Even if you’ve absolutely no interest in the space race, it’s a great film in its own right. Stunning cinematography, fidelity to the era, a female perspective, and some lovely humourous moments. Also a chance to see some fine actors in their prime – Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin. The dearly missed Levon Helm(drummer from The Band) even turns in a stellar performance in a supporting role.
Clearly I’m head over heels with this film and need to see it again urgently.
This is my favourite clip from the whole film, because I think it captures something magical. I think the inescapable beauty of the fan dance set to Debussy’s music, forces the astronauts to cut the flyboy crap, and collectively give a nod to the weight of their achievement. All elegantly juxtaposed with Chuck Yaeger’s calamitous test flight in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter; which draws a big fat line under how close to death these guys were during their 9 to 5.
Knowing Hollywood, that moment with the fan dance likely never even happened. But it’s a great moment in cinema if nothing else.
Just thought I’d give some of you good folks who aren’t aware of the film a heads-up here cos you seriously don’t know what you’re missing.
Anyway here’s the clip that features Debussy’s masterpiece, Clair De Lune(which means moonlight for the unfrenchicated among you):
[Apologies – the original clip has since been deleted. I couldn’t find it anywhere else. But someone has taken the clip and stripped the fan dance out. So please imagine it cutting in between this clip and the Mercury astronauts sat at a Texan dinner in their honour watching a beautiful fan dance to Debussy’s Clair de Lune … better still, do yourself a favour and go buy the film 😉 ]