May 2022

Arts & Letters

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

By Shane Danielsen
Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

A fourth-grader in El Lago, Texas, a coastal suburb near Space Center Houston, Stan is surprised one day at school by the appearance of two men in black suits. They’re from NASA, they explain, and they want to recruit the boy for a top-secret mission. In preparing for the forthcoming Apollo 11 mission to the moon, they’ve realised that the engineers have made the lunar module ever-so-slightly too small… perhaps Stan could take a test flight and check it out? Just, you know, to make sure they beat those damn Russians.

Such is the shaggy premise of Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (Netflix), the latest feature from writer-director Richard Linklater. Had he not already used the title Boyhood, it would serve equally well for this film, which begins as a kind of benign fantasy but quickly expands into something else: both an evocation and an excavation of a late-1960s American childhood, almost Proustian in its wealth of detail. (There are times, in fact, when the volume of memories becomes overwhelming – I’m not sure Stan quite needs to list every TV show he loved back then.) It’s a tale of bravery and resourcefulness, as told to us by a kid who cheerfully admits, in the first few minutes, to being “what you’d call a fabulist”.

The irony is it’s actually not a voyage into space at all: it’s a journey back through time to the filmmaker’s own youth in Texas in the 1960s, during the chrome-plated heyday of the Space Age. Narrated by Stan as an adult – voiced by Jack Black – it lists the simple pleasures of a simpler time: days on the beach in Galveston and visits to AstroWorld, Houston’s answer to Disneyland. Playing on wide front lawns in the afternoon sun. Lounging in the back of pick-ups as they sped down the highway. (“It never crossed anyone’s mind that we were all just one slight collision or rollover away from being roadkill.”) All set to a soundtrack that ranges from Booker T to Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine”. (It ends, appropriately, with a version of Daniel Johnston’s sweetly hopeful “Rocket Ship”.)

Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s great Licorice Pizza, its narrative is so loose as to barely merit the term. No tidy three-act structure here – this is a seemingly random accumulation of incidents, impressions and sensations. Yet as with that film, there are also darker undercurrents, intimations of the violent, unstable world beyond their all-white suburb: the ongoing slaughter in Vietnam, the struggle for Black rights. The assassinations of various leaders. “As a kid,” says Stan, “you just figured it was all normal… That’s just how adults act.”

Both these films are about memory, and specifically how memory supplants and eventually deforms lived experience. By the time Stan’s family gathers around the TV to watch Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon, the boy’s fantasy and his recollection of the event have merged into one.

This theme is enhanced by the director’s canny decision to animate the action. Linklater is no stranger to this medium: both Waking Life (2001) and his Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006) used rotoscope techniques to create a kind of liminal space, neither strictly realistic nor wildly exaggerated. This time, he shot his actors on a soundstage against green screens – wrapping in March 2020, just days before the first pandemic lockdown – then spent two years editing and overseeing the animation alongside long-time collaborator Tommy Pallotta. Backgrounds were painted and the actors’ performances rotoscoped, and the two techniques were then combined. 

But there’s a wealth of archival footage as well, from clips of JFK’s 1962 address at Rice University (“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”), to footage of The Monkees appearing on The Johnny Cash Show, and these moments are rendered more crudely, almost as moving woodcuts, perhaps to suggest the low-res aesthetic of an analogue TV signal.

Somehow, it communicates both the awe-inspiring achievement of the Apollo program – which, as a closing title reminds us, involved the labour of more than 400,000 people, the largest peacetime effort in human history – and also its squandered promise of a glorious future. Dropped casually among the dialogue is an extraordinary fact: just 50 years separate the first non-stop transatlantic plane flight (in a modified World War One bomber) from the mission to the moon. Scientific discovery seemed to be in overdrive throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and human achievement seemed limitless. “No one doubted that, in our lifetimes, we’d have the option to live on the moon,” says Stan, “or maybe a nearby planet, probably in some kind of domed space-colony.” Yet instead, here we are: Earthbound and divided, squabbling like children as our home goes up in flames.

One sure way to judge how great a writer Patricia Highsmith was (one of the finest of the 20th century, in my opinion), is to note how conspicuously badly she’s been served by film adaptations of her work. There are exceptions, of course: Hitchcock crafted something queasy and compelling from Strangers on a Train; René Clément and Anthony Minghella each delivered their best films with versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley. But for the most part, a kind of dull proficiency obtains, with filmmakers dutifully depicting the glossy surface of her stories – the exotic settings, the languid, moneyed characters – while seeming to grasp nothing of the peculiar obsessions that pulse beneath them. The Cry of the Owl, The Two Faces of January, Ripley’s Game… all are solidly made, competently acted and thoroughly lifeless, utterly lacking the sly perversity of classic Highsmith. Even Todd Haynes’ Carol was a well-dressed bore.

To this pile of offcuts we must now add Deep Water (Amazon Prime), the latest version of Highsmith’s 1957 novel (already filmed in 1981 by Michel Deville, with Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant), which marks the return to the screen of director Adrian Lyne. An A-lister in the ’80s and ’90s, responsible for Fatal Attraction, 9½ Weeks and Indecent Proposal, Lyne hasn’t made a feature since 2002’s Unfaithful, which along with Jacob’s Ladder is, I think, his best film. Deep Water was supposed to mark his return to the big league. Instead, dogged by pandemic-related delays and then by the highly publicised break-up of its two leads, it wound up being unceremoniously dumped to streaming platforms by its studio.

Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas) are a couple in New Orleans, with a cute young daughter (Grace Jenkins) and a marriage sufficiently open that Melinda feels no compunction about screwing seemingly every guy in town. Vic, to use the current parlance, is a cuck, and doesn’t seem especially happy about it; the openness only runs in one direction, it seems. But one of Melinda’s past flings, Martin McRae, has disappeared without trace, and when Vic, on impulse, warns off her latest squeeze by claiming to have killed him, it sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in an actual murder. It also arouses the suspicions of Don Wilson (playwright Tracy Letts), a local author so prissily annoying that you hope for the very worst to befall him. 

Perhaps as a consequence of Lyne’s filmography, Deep Water has been billed as an “erotic thriller”. It is not. The sex isn’t hot enough and there’s not enough of it. Instead, there’s a little “tasteful” nudity from de Armas and many scenes of her flirting with a succession of men, with consummation occurring discreetly off-camera. And Affleck’s character has been more or less comprehensively neutered, reduced to gazing wanly at his wife as she grinds against some dude before slinking off to the basement to feed his pet snails. (This detail is a nod to Highsmith, a gastropod obsessive, who would keep dozens of them in her handbag, or in the pockets of her jackets.)

I’ve always been more impressed by Affleck as a director than as an actor: Gone Baby Gone and The Town, in particular, are both excellent films. Yet he’s mostly good here, despite the diminished complexity of his role. In the book, Vic regards his wife with scarcely concealed contempt: her dancing is “embarrassing”; her piano-playing “abominable”; her face, while superficially attractive, “didn’t improve when she drank”. His distaste is a consequence of their mismatched temperaments: he’s worldly and refined, a lover of “good music and good paintings”; she’s shallow, provincial and immature. “Vic had been very patient,” sighs the book’s narrator, “but the truth was that she had begun to bore him a little, too.”

Much of this was authorial predisposition: a first-class novelist, Highsmith was also a nonpareil misogynist, and her novels are densely populated with vain, silly or malignant women. But however impeccable its provenance, white male condescension doesn’t play so well in 2022, so screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam (Euphoria) Levinson depict Vic as still being under Melinda’s spell, captive presumably to the fact that, well, she looks like Ana de Armas. But by thawing the ice at the heart of this story, they set themselves a problem: why on Earth does Vic continue to put up with this mistreatment? Has he no dignity? “If you were married to anyone else,” she tells him, “you’d be so fucking bored you’d kill yourself.” Well, maybe. But what exactly is he getting out of this? It’s not like he even enjoys watching her cheat on him. 

Though prettily shot (by Denmark’s Eigil Bryld), the film never manages to settle on a tone, oscillating from moment to moment between steely thriller and campy farce. Its climax, with Letts at the wheel of a car careening out of control while he tries to type a text message (and howling “Goddamn fucking autocorrect!”), is some of the funniest shit I’ve seen in a long while, playing like a tribute to an almost identical scene from ’80s E.T. rip-off Mac and Me (a clip of which Paul Rudd would show, no matter what project he was ostensibly promoting, every time he went on Conan O’Brien’s talk show). Highsmith – nothing if not reliably perverse – might almost approve.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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