Apollo 11 (2019)

I’ve never had much personal interest in the Space Race as a cinematic subject. Outer space itself? Sure, that’s where alien beasts and blackhole portals to Hell are found, so I’m always down the visit that arena on the big screen. It’s more the real-life Cold War story of Patriotic Americans beating Communists to the Moon to plant our own flag there first that generally bores me. Maybe it’s a question of over-familiarity. Titles like The Right Stuff, First Man, Apollo 13, and Hidden Figures are only the tip of the Space Race media iceberg, usually inspiring me to file away the genre completely in the same Dad Stuff category as Westerns, war movies, and James Bond films, none of which I have much enthusiasm for. I was still somehow lured in by the recent documentary Apollo 11, even though it’s a back-to-basics approach to telling this exact same story yet again. Assembling & restoring previously unseen 70mm footage from the NASA archives that documented the first successful mission to the Moon fifty years ago (apparently NASA has their own myth-making production company like WWE Studios & NFL Films?), Apollo 11’s only gimmick in refreshing the Space Race narrative is that it has no gimmick at all. It’s elegantly straightforward in its presentation of documentary footage from the historic event, assuming the audience is already familiar enough with the context of its importance to not need narration or talking-head interviews to walk us through it. That elegance does help cut down on the potential tedium of telling the same Space Race story yet again (as well as lessening the usual American jingoism that accompanies it), but that’s not what lured me to the theater for this particular Space Race rehash. What really had me on the hook was its promise of an irresistible combination you usually only see in science fiction: outer space imagery + analog synths.

The imagery on display is, itself, incredible. The restoration makes it feel as crisp & as vivid as it would if it were filmed just yesterday instead of a half a century ago and, since NASA was smart enough to document itself, the level of intimacy in access is literally unsurpassable. Of course, that’s a huge boon once the cameras are launched into space, but I was surprised to discover myself equally fascinated by the footage they captured on Earth. Apollo 11 is just as much an act of people-watching & a late-60s fashion look book as it is an outer space travelogue – from the Norman Rockwell families who camped out to watch the titular mission launch to the thousands of NASA workers who helped make that mission possible. The outer space footage is more of a one-of-a-kind affair, though, especially as it was paired with the sweet analog tones of the Moog synthesizer. Composer Matt Morton prides himself on crafting the score entirely with analog equipment that predates the 1969 mission. His ominous Moog tones combine beautifully with the 70mm outer space footage, especially in a proper theatrical setting. And since the movie has an overt fetish for gear of all sorts – analog musical instruments, NASA switchboards, spacecraft components, the cameras themselves – the logistics of capturing the footage you’re watching becomes just as much a part of the story as the logistics of flying to the Moon in the first place, to the point where there’s strong case to nominate Buzz Aldrin for Best Cinematography at next year’s Oscars. Apollo 11 may not have alien space-beasts, portals to alternate Hell dimensions, or episodes of murderous space-madness, but it has everything else you could want from space travel sci-fi: elaborate production design, memorable costuming, eye-searing visuals, technical mumbo jumbo, and an ominous synth soundtrack, all in a real-life document.

My favorite sequence in Apollo 11 is what I like to think of as the sex scene. After spending a night separated, one piece resting on the moon while the other orbits above, the two components of the Apollo 11 spacecraft reunite in a complex re-docking maneuver. The sequence is filmed from both units’ POV, as if the space ships are longingly staring into each other’s eyes as they gradually lock their open mouths together for an airtight kiss. Meanwhile, tender keyboard flourishes score the ritual, recalling cinematic romances like the Counting Crows escalator scene in Cruel Intentions (which recently enjoyed its own theatrical anniversary, just as significant as the moon landing’s). You don’t get that kind of patience or intimacy or ethereal beauty in most Space Race docs, mostly because they let redundant talking-head interviews get in the way of the good stuff. Apollo 11 is comprised entirely of the good stuff. It’s incredible that a film had to go all the way back to the story’s bare-bones origins to find a way to make it compelling again.

-Brandon Ledet

Nude on the Moon (1961)

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While we were performing our various autopsies on the best movies we watched in 2016, I noticed something embarrassing about my own viewing habits. Out of the near-400 films I watched last year, less than 40, a mere 10%, were directed by women. As a minor corrective to this massive oversight, I’ve decided to take the 52 Films by Women pledge this year, a very simplistic resolution that only urges that you watch one film a week directed by a filmmaker. It’s very little to ask of someone who watches film with any regularity, but I think it’s an important means of consciously paying attention to who’s behind the camera in your media production. My first step in achieving this goal, and my first viewing experience of this year overall, is proof positive that this 52 Films by Women pledge will in no way limit the variety of films I’m watching in terms of genre, style, or content; it will only make sure that a woman is behind them. The light sci-fi nudie cutie Nude on the Moon, directed by undercelebrated sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman (under the psuedonym Anthony Brooks), is not likely to be a typical inclusion on most people’s 52 Films by Women lists. It was a solid start for the year in my mind, though, considering how much it tickled my lowbrow sensibilities.

Two amateur rocket scientists tinker away with vaguely defined bleep bloop machines & chem lab beakers in order to pull off a self-funded trip to the moon. Ignoring the all-too-obvious romantic desire of his sheepish, but buxom secretary, the youngest scientist buries his head in his work until an inheritance payment from a deceased uncle fully funds the trip, newly energizing the ultra-macho nerd. The two-man expedition to the moon goes beautifully smooth . . . almost too beautifully smooth. The men land in a crater teeming with unexpected treasures: water, plants, “moon gold,” and, most treasurable of all, half-naked space aliens. The citizens of the moon are beautiful humanoid specimens, both male & female, who wear only shiny lamé booty shorts & dumb little antennas that allow for telepathic communication. Much like in the similar erotic fantasy piece Cat-Women of the Moon, they follow a matriarchal Moon Queen, except in this case the monarch is topless & means no harm for the Earthmen. Our two rocket scientist heroes frolic in this nudist colony for as long as they’re allowed, then return to Earth unharmed, but without proof of what they’ve witnessed. The only thing that’s changed upon their return is that the hunkier professor finally notices that his adoring secretary looks an awful lot like his beloved Moon Queen (both roles were played by an actress billed simply as “Marietta”) and he rapturously returns her affection.

As the title suggests, there’s not much more to Nude on the Moon than an indulgence in light-hearted kitsch. The main innovation Doris Wishman brings to the post-Immoral Mr. Teas nudie cutie genre is in transporting the typical nude colony setting to an extraterrestrial locale. Adding a sci-fi touch to its genre’s flimsy excuses to leer at beautiful, naked bodies makes the film a memorable novelty, especially in its dinky rocket ship model & ASMR telepathic space alien whispers. Nude on the Moon is careful not to frame its actors in the same shot as its kids’ science fair project moon rocket, which is only shown from a distance. We do get a close look at the astronauts’ space suits, though, which feature exposed skin where the helmet doesn’t meet the body and vaguely resemble either the green Power Ranger’s 90s getup or The History of Future Folk, I can’t decide. The dialogue is exactly as goofy as you’d expect, given the circumstances. For instance, an astronaut points for his Earth-buddy to notice a ladder that’s leaning on a wall, only to tell him in perfect deadpan, “This leads to the top of the wall.” All of this cheap sci-fi silliness combines with an original lounge crooner number “Moon Doll,” set to a a picturesque, starry sky moonscape, to pad out the film’s opening half, which has been tasked with the dubious honor of entertaining audiences before the film delivers on the nudity promised in the title. It’s all delightfully inane.

Don’t be surprised if when I recap the films I watched for the 52 Films by Women pledge at the end of the year, over half of my selections are Doris Wishman productions. Although this light nudie cutie territory is far-removed from the nastier “roughies” genre pictures her career would eventually devolve into (strangely mirroring Russ Meyer’s own sexploitation career path), it was wildly entertaining stuff. Making an interesting picture solely out of near-nude actors & cheap sci-fi effects is a much more difficult kind of genre film alchemy than you might imagine. Although Nude on the Moon didn’t quite match my enthusiasm for the less bawdy, but similar-in-spirit Cat-Women of the Moon, it was still a delightful novelty and I can’t wait to see what else Wishman delivered with that innate understanding of what makes this kind of half-cooked frivolity so appealing to audiences like me.

-Brandon Ledet