Saturday, November 30, 2019

Out of this world

It's worth remembering that Canton boasts not one but two arts centres. Chapter inevitably garners the most attention for its contribution to the artistic and cultural life of the area and the city as a whole, but Llanover Hall is also a real asset to the local community. While the former is more of a showcase for the work of professionals, the latter is where amateurs go to try things out and get their hands dirty.

Given that Llanover Hall was founded in 1969, a pop-up screening of Apollo 11 to mark its fiftieth birthday made perfect sense. I'll admit to going along more out of support of the venue - but I came away open-mouthed at the film.

Beautifully edited using footage shot at the time, and without any obtrusive/overbearing narration, Apollo 11 tells the story of the first successful manned mission to the moon, from the moment the rocket trundled along to the launch platform to the moment the astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - touched down back on Earth.

Even for someone well versed in the history and detail of the mission, I suspect that the film would hold plenty of interest - and for someone who wasn't, it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea, for instance, that the trio were kept in quarantine for 18 days after arriving home, due to paranoia that they might have brought hitherto unknown and deadly diseases or germs back with them. The way they ignored the warning lights on lunar descent was much like the way you might casually ignore an unfamiliar warning light on your car dashboard. Armstrong's reticence to step off the ladder and subsequent detailed description of the moon's fine-grained surface, meanwhile, made more sense in light of the theory that it would be akin to quicksand (hence the landing module's large flat feet).

Most remarkable, of course - even more so than the astronauts' self-discipline in not swearing - was the magnitude of the feat itself, achieved with less computer processing power than each of us now routinely carries around in our pockets. Had there been any tiny fault or minute miscalculation - and let's remember the problem with a valve immediately before take-off and the insane difficulty of the docking manoeuvre - and they would have been totally screwed. To put that level of trust in others takes serious guts.

For me, the real hero of the mission was Michael Collins. Left circling the moon like a taxi driver with the engine running, waiting (hoping) for his companions to get back from the surface and dock safely, he went out of radio contact and into the most terrifyingly complete solitude imaginable every time he passed behind the moon. Having the psychological strength to deal with that is incredible.

Much like 'The Other Side', Public Service Broadcasting's masterful track about the Apollo 8 mission, Apollo 11 succeeds in creating and sustaining dramatic tension despite having a basic "plot" that everyone knows.

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