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28 DECEMBER, 2011

Grierson: A Documentary About the Filmmaker Who Coined “Documentary”

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Why reality is a better storytelling tool than fiction and how film can be a conduit of democracy.

Pioneering Scottish filmmaker John Grierson (1898-1972) is often considered the father of documentary film and credited with coining the very term “documentary” in his review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana in the February 8, 1926, issue of the New York Sun. His 1932 essay “First Principles of Documentary” argued that cinema’s capacity for observing life could be a new art form, wherein the materials “taken from the raw” can be more real than acted fiction and the “original” actor and “original” scene are better lens for interpreting the modern world than their fiction counterparts. Above all, Grierson believed in the social responsibility of the filmmaker and the potential of film in helping society achieve its democratic ideals.

Grierson is a 1973 documentary about the father of documentary by Canadian filmmaker Roger Blais, now free online in its entirety courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada. Through archival footage, interviews with people who knew him, and footage of Grierson himself, Blais paints a lively and fascinating portrait of a man who was concerned not only with documentary film as an art form but also as a powerful tool of democracy. (Cue in The Power of Photojournalism.)

The film is also available on DVD from the NFB. For more on Grierson’s vision and legacy, dig around for a used copy of the excellent out-of-print book Grierson on the Movies.

via MetaFilter

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28 DECEMBER, 2011

Fashioning Apollo: How the Spacesuit Was Designed

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What Neil Armstrong has to do with combinatorial creativity, underdog innovators, and sports bras.

On July 12, 1969, only 21 layers of fabric, most gossamer-thin, stood between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and the lethal desolation of a lunar vacuum.”

So begins UC Berkeley architecture professor Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo — a fascinating voyage into the sartorial history of space flight through the parallel history of one of its key technologies: the spacesuit. Blending material science, iconic photography, and intriguing trivia (did you know that the Apollo mission’s computer-backup system was crafted into a binary pattern that was then physically woven into ropes?), the book itself is cleverly constructed as a series of layers corresponding to the 21 layers of the Apollo spacesuit.

The story of the Apollo spacesuit is the surprising tale of an unexpected victory: that of Playtex, maker of bras and girdles, over the large military-industrial contractors better positioned to secure the spacesuit contract. This book tells the story of this victory, and analyzes both the Playtex suit — a 21-layer, complex assemblage — and its ‘hard’ competitors. It is the clean lines of the latter that have traditionally captured designers’ imaginations: one noted critic described the AX-3 ‘hard’ suit as ‘the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.'”

For more on these competitors, as well as the evolution of the spacesuit over the following decades, see The Smithsonian’s excellent Spacesuits: The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Collection.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of the spacesuits is its testament to combinatorial creativity and the idea that everything comes from what came before. Monchaux writes:

A space suit is made out of a flight suit, a Goodrich tire, a bra, a girdle, a raincoat, a tomato worm. An American rocket ship is made out of a nuclear weapon, and a German ballistic missile; a ‘space program’ — a new organization with new goals — is made out of preexisting military, scholarly, and industrial institutions and techniques.”

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a closer look, and BLDG BLOG has a wonderful interview with de Monchaux.

Meticulously researched and captivatingly written, Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a fine addition to the year’s best history books.

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27 DECEMBER, 2011

The Voyagers: A Short Film About How Carl Sagan Fell in Love

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A thousand billion years of love, or what the vastness of space has to do with eternal mixtapes.

In 1977, NASA launched two unmanned missions into space, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. Though originally intended to study Saturn and Jupiter over the course of two years, the probes have long outlasted and outtraveled their purpose and destination, on course to exit the solar system this month. Attached to each Voyager is a gold-plated record, known as The Golden Record — an epic compilation of images and sounds from Earth encrypted into binary code, the ultimate mixtape of humanity. Engineers predict it will last a billion years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Golden Record was conceived by the great Carl Sagan and was inspired by his childhood visit to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he witnessed the famous burial of the Westinghouse time capsule. And while its story is fairly well-known, few realize it’s actually a most magical love story — the story of Carl Sagan and Annie Druyan, the creative director on the Golden Record project, with whom Sagan spent the rest of his life.

The Voyagers is a beautiful short film by video artist and filmmaker Penny Lane, made of remixed public domain footage — a living testament to the creative capacity of remix culture — using the story of the legendary interstellar journey and the Golden Record to tell a bigger, beautiful story about love and the gift of chance. Lane takes the Golden Record, “a Valentine dedicated to the tiny chance that in some distant time and place we might make contact,” and translates it into a Valentine to her own “fellow traveler,” all the while paying profound homage to Sagan’s spirit and legacy.

Carl and I knew we were the beneficiaries of chance, that pure chance could be so kind that we could find one another in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. We knew that every moment should be cherished as the precious and unlikely coincidence that it was.” ~ Annie Druyan

How sublime it is to lose oneself in the poetry of Lane’s closing words:

It’s hard to imagine the Golden Record being made now. I wish Carl Sagan were here to say, ‘You know what? A thousand billion years is a really long time. Nobody can know what will happen. Why not try? Why not reach for something amazing?’ There is no way to forestall what can’t be fathomed, no way to guess what hurts we’re trying to protect ourselves from. We have to know in order to love, we have to risk everything, we have to open ourselves up to contact — even with the possibility of disaster.”

via Short of the Week; HT MetaFilter

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