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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.

Singapore Airlines planes at Changi Airport.

A nation without monuments

Every country has its monuments, which glorify great men of the past (and less frequently, great women), commemorate battles won and lost, and represent the nation’s ideals. Even colonies have monuments, erected on behalf of the colonial power and often paid for by the subjects. When a colony declares independence, the monuments of the colonial power are often the first to be torn down. In 1776, American colonists toppled statues of King George III. After 1947, when India parted ways with the British Empire, statues of British monarchs were moved to museums or shipped off to Canada.

The now-empty pedestals in roundabouts and parks were soon occupied by statues of the new heroes of the independent nation: Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhash, Pandit Nehru. Buildings and streets likewise received new identities: Kingsway in New Delhi became Rajpath, the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay became Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. For that matter, Bombay itself was rechristened, becoming Mumbai. Just about the only thing that wasn’t renamed was the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. A larger-than-life statue of the elderly sovereign remains in place in front of the wedding-cake building, but the interior now features a museum commemorating the independence struggle.

The example of India is not unique. Around the world, political changes usually lead to a flurry of renaming of streets and dismantling and rebuilding of monuments.

By comparison, the example of Singapore is unusual. Singapore has been an independent, sovereign nation for more than fifty years, but there has been little of the renaming and reinventing of the city-state that has happened in most other former colonies. A statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore in 1819, still stands cockily over the waterfront. Most streets retain their colonial names. While there are plenty of historical markers for the colonial period and the Japanese occupation during World War II, there are no statues for Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister—even though he served for more than thirty years and was a central figure in the modernization of the city-state.1

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in Singapore.

On first blush, it might seem that modern Singapore is lacking in a sense of identity, which other former colonies have gone to great lengths to cultivate. I certainly felt that way when I visited two years ago. But on further reflection, not having statues of modern heroes all over the place is a part of Singapore’s identity. It shows that the country is open to the world—or at least the modern, prosperous parts of it. With its gleaming high-rises and booming economy, Singapore itself is a monument to Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore's monument to the Great War, which is inscribed in honor of the fallen of World War II on the back side.

Singapore’s monument to the fallen soldiers of the World Wars.

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

A sign on Connaught Drive, pointing to a historical marker about World War II. (The marker is located on the site of a memorial for the Japanese-affiliated Indian National Army, which was dynamited by Mountbatten’s troops after they retook Singapore in 1945.)

  1. C.M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore (Oxford, 1988), 320-21. []
Brooklyn Bridges pan

Exploring Brooklyn’s battlefield

In 2014, I spent part of the summer in Washington, DC, researching for my dissertation at the National Archives and Library of Congress. On weekends and some afternoons, I explored the city and surrounding region, and I even made longer trips to Pennsylvania and New York. As I traveled around, I kept running across sites or artifacts associated with the American Revolutionary War. The more I saw and read about the Revolution, the more I became aware of how little I knew about that part of history.

I made up my mind to read The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff, the volume of the Oxford History of the United States about the Revolution. The book is long, so it took me a while (I had to take a lengthy break in the middle), but it was worth reading, because I learned much that I, as a historian of the twentieth century, had never before had occasion to learn. (Since my fateful summer of 2014, interest in the Revolutionary War has gone mainstream, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.)

While reading The Glorious Cause, I was particularly fascinated by Middlekauff’s narrative of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn—an engagement I had never heard of before. The Battle of Brooklyn (August 26-30, 1776) was the first major military engagement of the American Revolution after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence two months earlier. British troops, under the command of General William Howe, landed on Long Island and attacked the Americans under George Washington. (These events are covered in the Hamilton song “Right-hand Man.”) The American forces were protected behind the hills known as the Heights. The passes nearest the American positions in Brooklyn (then a village independent of Manhattan) were well defended, but the British circumvented the defenses by taking the lightly-defended Jamaica Pass to the east. A contingent of Marylanders died holding the main body of the British troops off at the Vechte farm, but most of the rest of Washington’s army escaped across the East River to Manhattan, surviving to fight another day.

In the 240 years since the battle, Brooklyn has grown to engulf the farmlands and woodlands where British and Continentals clashed. Scattered around the borough are sites associated with the battle, some marked with plaques, others not (but all listed in detail in this comprehensive guide). In addition to gentrified brownstones, hipster lofts, and forbidding project housing, Brooklyn has its own Revolutionary War battlefield. Brooklyn has it all.

In March this year, I spent a day exploring Brooklyn, looking for sites that had to do with the battle or the Revolution in general. I found two sites particularly interesting.

The first was Prospect Park, site of a pass where American troops were routed by Hessian mercenaries fighting on the British side. The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (whose other credits include Central Park in Manhattan and the US Capitol grounds) preserves part of the landscape of the battlefield, which has been lost under buildings and streets most everywhere else in the borough.

On a hillside in the park stands a monument to “Maryland’s Four Hundred,” who fell holding back the British (or “saved the American army,” in the exaggerated wording of the monument). The mention of the number of Marylanders is a not-so-subtle reference to the Three Hundred Spartans, who held the Persian army off at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, while the armies of other Greek city-states escaped to regroup and ultimately defeat the Persians. The placement of the monument to 400 Marylanders in the park, near the battle pass, is another reference to Thermopylae, because the Spartans died defending a pass. But despite the monument’s claim that the Marylanders performed their great deed “on this battlefield,” they did not fight in a pass; they fought on a farm, more than a mile from the monument.

Memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred” in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Misleading inscription on the memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred."

Misleading inscription on the memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred.”

The site of that farm is the other especially interesting site related to the Battle of Brooklyn. The old farm is also a park—not a grand park like Prospect, but a small municipal park with a playground and athletic fields. In the middle of the park stands the Old Stone House. Originally built in 1699, the Vechte Farmhouse went to ruin and was demolished around 1900, but then in the 1930s the stones were dug up and the house reconstructed from drawings. The ground floor contains a small, free museum about the battle and its context.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The Old Stone House isn’t exactly the Vechte Farmhouse that stood there during the battle. It is a twentieth-century building made of seventeenth-century parts. But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that there is plenty of continuity with the past, there and at other sites associated with the Battle of Brooklyn. There may be no national park for the battlefield, as there are for Saratoga and Yorktown. Instead, remnants of the eighteenth-century battle and its memorialization live on in twenty-first-century New York City.

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