Movies

doc talk | peter keough

Doc Talk: More moon, more Morris, more music

A scene from the documentary “Apollo 11.”
Courtesy of NEON/CNN Films
A scene from the documentary “Apollo 11.”

Perhaps the recent spate of films released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon will inspire a new enthusiasm for space exploration. Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11” certainly evokes the awe that the world felt at this mission and the spectacular images it produced. In one sequence two stages of the Saturn V rocket separate in a fiery, silent blast. The spent stage recedes into the circular black void and as it vanishes the glowing blue hemisphere of the Earth enters. It looks like a sublime cosmic mandala.

Drawing from a huge cache of previously unseen 65mm footage and over 1,100 hours of communications recorded among mission personnel during the flight, Miller weaves together a dramatic narrative that is subtle and still suspenseful 50 years later. In one sequence he compresses images from the lives of crew members Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins into a rapid montage that unfolds as the countdown to liftoff is announced. The result combines the intimately human element of the mission with a reminder of the vast technology behind it to re-create an event that briefly united the world.

“Apollo 11” can be seen on CNN at 9 p.m. on July 20 and midnight on July 21. The podcast series “Apollo 11: Beyond the Moon” is available wherever podcasts are accessible.

Go to www.cnn.com/shows/apollo-11-cnn-film.

Early Errol

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“Apollo 11” might boast stunning images from outer space, but Errol Morris finds plenty of extraordinary subjects to study back here on Earth. Morris’s first three documentaries established his unique and illuminating point of view and his distinctive style of mixing interviews, observations, and fictional techniques.

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“Gates of Heaven” (1978) takes a wry but respectful look at pet cemeteries, that extreme manifestation of the deep but undeniable grief brought on by the death of a beloved animal companion. 

Floyd McClure, owner of Foothill Memorial Gardens, in Los Altos, Calif., remembers his dog dying in his arms and burying him and how that inspired McClure to provide the same service for other grieving pet owners. Unfortunately, the genial, addled paraplegic doesn’t have the same kind of business acumen as the no-nonsense owner of the nearby rendering plant where deceased pets, livestock, and roadkill all end up in vats to be boiled down into tallow. These are two of the several smalltown eccentrics whom Morris allows to ramble on unfiltered about their values, plans, and opinions, an offbeat oral history laying bare their absurdity and humanity.

“Reality?” says one of the residents of the title town in “Vernon, Florida” (1981). “You mean this is the real world? I never thought of that.” Such incredulity is understandable after watching Morris’s profiles of these local eccentrics, a cast of characters like those in “The Andy Griffith Show” as imagined by David Lynch or Werner Herzog. 

A portly, obsessive turkey hunter, an old man who keeps a possum and a turtle in a crate, a young preacher who relates how God answered his prayers and led him to the van he needed, another preacher who delivers a sermon based on the word “therefore,” a trio on a park bench discussing how to commit suicide with a shotgun, and several other oddballs relate their free-associative life stories, which Morris edits together in a series of non sequiturs that add up to a world that is darkly comic, oddly familiar, and undeniably real.

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Morris follows only one narrative in his breakout masterpiece, “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), a riveting murder mystery with the fate of a falsely accused man at stake. Randall Adams was on death row in Texas for the 1976 murder of a policeman when Morris began investigating the case. He interviews Adams, various witnesses, the judge, the prosecutor, and finally David Ray Harris, a suspect who pinned the blame on Adams. 

The testimony is conflicting, and Morris illustrates the various versions of the crime in reenactments backed by the fugue-like music of Philip Glass. The title comes from a statement by the prosecutor in which he describes the police as “the thin blue line” separating society from anarchy. For Morris it is the line between truth and falsehood that his film tries to determine. 

All three documentaries re available on MUBI, “Gates of Heaven” beginning on July 24, “Vernon, Florida” on July 25, and “The Thin Blue Line” on July 26.

Go to mubi.com.

Tin Pan Valley

Many of the pop stars who helped define the music of the 1960s lived near each other in Los Angeles’s Laurel Canyon. With Bob Dylan’s dour son Jakob as a guide, Andrew Slater’s documentary, “Echo in the Canyon,” tours the former stamping grounds and glory years of these artists, starting with a genial Tom Petty (it was his last interview; he died in 2017, at 66). Petty plays the opening chords of one of his hits and jokes to Dylan, “You can’t afford the rest.”

Others are more generous, and the film is filled with past performances of such perennial baby boomer anthems as “California Dreamin’,” by the Mamas and the Papas; “Sloop John B,” by the Beach Boys; “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by the Byrds; and “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield. 

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The surviving canyon veterans are surprisingly candid about their high-flying sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyles. Discussing his difficulties getting along with his fellow musicians, David Crosby of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young says ,“I was an . . .,” completing his sentence with a familiar and unprintable term of disparagement. Referring to the intramural romantic escapades that disrupted the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle Phillips says, “I was a very busy girl.”

Some interviews offer insight into how the music evolved, and how the Laurel Canyon denizens casually dropped by each other’s homes to share a song or develop one together. This cross-pollination extended overseas to the ongoing British invasion, with Brian Wilson recalling how the Beatles’ LP “Rubber Soul” inspired him to write the songs on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Petty points out that “Pet Sounds” stirred the Beatles to create “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and Ringo Starr adds, “We loved the Byrds. They introduced us to a hallucinogenic experience.”

Dylan also performs some hits from that movement along with other younger performers inspired by the music, such as Fiona Apple, Beck, and Cat Power. Their cover versions are faithful, even rousing, but it kind of makes you wish that Petty had finished that song.

“Echo in the Canyon” screens for free at 8:30 p.m. on July 25 at St. Michael’s Country Day School Lawn, Newport, R.I., as part of newportFILM’s Outdoors series. It will be preceded at 7:15 p.m. by a live performance by the band Silverteeth and followed by a Q&A with Andrew Slater.

Go to newportfilm.com/films/echo-in-the-canyon.  

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.