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Technology, History, and Travel

Collective memory and space movies

Not very many films have been made about real-life space travel. Flying a rocket into space is always dangerous, but it usually doesn’t make for good story material. Spaceflight is clinical, precise, and often boring. It offers filmmakers little in the way of conflict. Something goes wrong on every space mission, but the vast majority of them end happily. Fictional space films set in the near-future and using recognizable hardware usually over-compensate for the relative safety of space travel by killing off large numbers of astronauts in their stories. (Most recent example: Gravity [2013].)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Fictional movie astronauts all trained, suited up, and ready to die. (Touchstone Pictures)

Let’s take a look about two non-fiction space films that cover a similar subject from very different angles: The Right Stuff (1983) and Hidden Figures (2016). The Right Stuff is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book by the same name. It is a long, sprawling epic about flight testing and the beginning of NASA’s space program in the 1960s. Although the book has a more serious, reflective tone, the movie Right Stuff is written almost like a cartoon, with the paparazzi and Vice President Johnson being especially over-the-top. There are many factual inaccuracies in the movie, but it is also quite fun to watch for the most part. The movie was hugely influential for developing the visual language of spaceflight and heroism in a high-tech era.

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

Seven of the masculine heroes of The Right Stuff. This corridor scene has been endlessly imitated and parodied. (Warner Home Video)

In the Right Stuff book, Tom Wolfe explored the masculine world of flight-testing and spaceflight, and tried to understand how and why the early astronauts were made into heroes. The movie is less self-aware, instead taking the astronauts’ heroism at face-value. It un-self-consciously portrays a sexist, racist time, and some parts are hard to watch now.

A completely different perspective is given by the recent Hidden Figures. While The Right Stuff wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test—and forget about portrayals of people of color in it—Hidden Figures is about three African-American women working at NASA Langley in Virginia in the early sixties. The characters (composites of actual women whose factual stories are explored in a book by the same name) perform the calculations that allow the first Americans to fly into space and return home safely.

The black computers of Hidden Figures in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

The human computers of Hidden Figures watching a space mission in their work room. (20th Century Fox)

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures is very much a product of its time, when Americans are being more reflective about race and gender inequalities. The story of black human computers (as the characters of Hidden Figures were called) would never have been told in a major feature film in 1983, much less in the early sixties. The film’s approach to race is a little sentimental, but overall I thought the movie was very well written and a good watch.

Apart from portraying social dynamics very differently from each other, the films also diverge in their portrayals of the technology of early space travel itself. In this respect, the otherwise cartoonish Right Stuff is much more accurate than Hidden Figures. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because it portrayed events that were much more in living memory in 1983 than in 2016. More than half of Americans alive in the early eighties would have remembered the early sixties, but a much smaller portion of the population would have remembered back that far by the mid-2010s.

Living memory of the early space age, combined with strategic use of stock footage to save production costs, meant that The Right Stuff faithfully portrayed the Mercury spacecraft, pressure suits, buildings, and control equipment of the era.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreate early NASA publicity photographs.

The cast of The Right Stuff recreating an early NASA publicity photograph. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

The Mercury astronauts were introduced in a famous press conference, which was recreated in The Right Stuff. (Warner Home Video)

Hidden Figures didn’t need to be as faithful. Several times while watching it, I suppressed a groan in response to inaccurate set design or portrayal of some other aspect of the technology. (The launch gantry for the Mercury-Atlas rocket was especially unfaithful to the original.) The filmmakers even depended on their audience’s not knowing the technology. At the beginning of the movie, the flight of a CGI Russian rocket is intercut with NASA engineers at ground control. The audience is supposed to think that this is a NASA rocket, until at the end of the scene the rocket rolls and—surprise!—there is a big hammer-and-sickle on the other side. (The surprise was lost on me because I recognized it as a Russian rocket from the start. The filmmakers were depending on most of their viewers’ not having built model rockets of that design as kids.) In reality, the Soviet rockets of the time didn’t have such big hammer-and-sickles on them, but the filmmakers needed to add this detail so the audience would know what they were looking at.

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The movie John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) neither looks nor acts like the real man. (20th Century Fox)

The further we get from historical events, the more our collective memory of them becomes fuzzy. The Right Stuff had to be visually accurate because the events it was portraying were more in living memory. Hidden Figures didn’t need to be that accurate, and it even needed to change some details in order to tell things to the audience that The Right Stuff’s audience would simply have known.

Traffic on Pasar Senen, Jakarta.

Jakarta’s bus-metro

Before visiting Jakarta three years ago, I read someplace that the Indonesian capital may be the largest city in the world without a metro railway. A couple of other cities could contest that claim, but Jakarta is certainly one of the biggest metro-less cities.

Instead of a metro railway, Jakarta has the Transjakarta Busway, a hybrid transportation technology that is effectively a bus metro. The buses run in their own lanes and stop at stations that can only be entered with a smartcard. The bus doors are high off the ground to meet the station platforms, so it is only possible to board the buses through the stations. There can still be quite a gap between bus and platform, more than on any metro I’ve ridden.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

Buses at a Transjakarta station.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A dedicated busway lane on Jalan Gunung Sahari.

A busway station

A busway station

Interior of another busway station.

Interior of another busway station.

At its best, the Transjakarta Busway is faster and more efficient than regular buses, which are at the mercy of all the other traffic in a city. It was also much cheaper to build than a metro railway, because the buses run on existing roadways rather than purpose-built tunnels. At its worst, the busway may not offer much advantage over regular buses, because traffic doesn’t always stay out of the designated bus lanes.

Jakarta was the first place I saw a busway, but then when I went to Yogyakarta in south-central Java, I found a small busway system in that city as well. When I moved to Jaipur later that year, I saw what appeared to be the ruins of a rapid-transit bus system. On one of the roads on the western side of the city, buses ran in their own dedicated lanes, but the lanes were not always open, and at other times non-bus traffic infiltrated the lanes.

To return to Jakarta: there is a metro railway under construction in Jakarta, but it has yet to open. When it does, the Transjakarta Busway will probably continue to operate alongside it.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Metro construction on one of the boulevards of Jakarta, 2015.

Indonesia has two other public transportation technologies that are worth mentioning: ojeks and becaks. Ojeks are motorcycle taxis. The passenger sits on the back of the motorcycle behind the driver. Thanks to their narrow profile, ojeks can weave through traffic. I understand that motorcycle taxis are common elsewhere in southeast Asia. It seems that they could be popular in India as well, but they have not caught on there for some reason—possibly because they would not be practical for women traveling alone.

The other distinctively Indonesian mode of public transit is the becak, a three-wheeled cycle-taxi. (The c in “becak” is said like ch in “change.”) Unlike the cycle-rickshaws of India or the trishaws of Malaysia, becaks have a passenger seat in the front, and the driver sits in the back. The use of becaks has fallen off considerably in recent decades, but they are still around, especially in touristy areas.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

A becak in Yogyakarta.

The turtle-taxis of Tabasco

I have written quite a lot on this blog about autorickshaws, the remarkable three-wheeled taxis derived from motor scooters that are used extensively in India. In this post, I explained the surprising origins of a common name for the vehicle, and in this one, I described them as a creole technology. This term, introduced by David Edgerton in his fascinating book The Shock of the Old, describes a technology that originated in one part of the world but took on new and different uses in another part. In the case of autorickshaws, scooter technology came from Europe, but this technology transformed into a ubiquitous urban and rural mode of transportation in India and elsewhere in South and Southeast Asia.

A Bajaj autorickshaw at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

Bajaj autorickshaws at Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi.

When I wrote those posts five years ago, I had no idea that there was an entire dimension to this creole technology that I had completely missed. It turns out that autorickshaws are not just used in southern Asia. They are also used extensively in Latin America.

On a recent visit to the state of Tabasco in southern Mexico, I got to go on a couple of rides in a pochimovíl, as autorickshaws are called there (apparently because the vehicle’s hard fiberglass shell is reminiscent of the Tabasco mud turtle or pochitoque).

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

A pochimovíl in a suburb of Villahermosa, Tabasco, southern Mexico.

The pochimovíles I saw were very similar in design to those I am familiar with from India, and in fact they were manufactured in India by the industrial conglomerate Bajaj. One of them even had a little sticker behind the handlebar that said (in English) “MADE IN INDIA.”

Interior of a pochimovíl.

Interior of a pochimovíl.

The only significant differences I could identify between Indian and Mexican rickshaws were accessories, like the fiberglass shell (most autorickshaws in India have fabric tops) and proper doors for the passengers. Since the driver sits in the middle of the front, an autorickshaw can just as easily drive on the right side of the road (in Mexico) as the left (in India).

Mexico and India are very different from each other, but as I observed in an earlier post, both countries share certain similarities in terms of economics and (at least in tropical Tabasco) climate, so technologies like autorickshaws/pochimovíles work well in both places.

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