Wednesday, April 13, 2011

First Orbit: a review of the Yuri's Night 50th anniversary film by Christopher Riley

Last night I was a guest panellist at a screening of the new film, First Orbit, created by Christopher Riley to commemorate Yuri Gagarin's historic spaceflight in 1961.

In answering questions afterwards, I came to the defence of Valentina Tereshkova and named normally unmentionable things in a room full of physicists and space geeks. But that's another story, and for the moment I just want to consider my first impressions of the film.

The music was wonderful, and it seems a shame that Yuri didn't have a nice ipod so he could have listened to it on his journey.  What sounds would he have heard?  I don't know if his attitude was continually being adjusted, so perhaps the sounds of thrusters were audible .... or perhaps it was silent except for his blood and heart, and the small mechanical tinklings of his instrumentation, until the rude voice of Korolev burst in on his solitude .... (It was very interesting to hear Korolev, whose identity was so long a secret).

As usual, despite the conceit of letting the images speak for themselves, the choices made in the film have a subtle effect.  I think the intent was to allow every person, every viewer, the sense that this could be them:  that this was a universal body, an accessible experience.  It could have been us, floating serenely along in the spacecraft.  His perspective is ours, as shaped by the camera view.

I didn't have a problem with that, but ohers among my companions last night found this more disconcerting, as if Yuri had been de-Russianised, de-personalised, by being subsumed or subverted into allowing his unique, intimate experience to be cannibalised by us.

And of course it was long.  Many people walked out of the theatre, perhaps to other engagements, perhaps just a bit bored.  For me that was part of the point, too.  Did he tire of the view?  After a while did he have a bit of a snooze, just waiting for something to happen?  Was he conscious, for every minute, that he was completing a circumnavigation of creation, dreaming this round Earth into being?  It was a mental exercise, a sort of discipline, to remain focused, and I felt that to be important:  I was not there just to be entertained, it was a sort of reenactment or perhaps just an enactment.

After his reentry, the film ended abruptly. There was no footage of Yuri back on Earth, a terrestrial being like before.  He lands, and it's all over, as if he didn't really return.  As if the person he had been was obliterated in the blackout of the descent, and the story continues in the body of another person, the one who takes a world tour and is celebrated and feted.  Dissatisfying at one level, but I didn't mind that either.  It's we who come back to Earth, in the dimness of the lecture theatre, those who stayed the distance.

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