“Apollo 10 1/2”, review: Richard Linklater unites indoor and outdoor life
The genre is mostly about marketing, but major filmmakers nonetheless use its labels to play boldly with expectations, as Richard Linklater does in his new film, “Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood,” which is coming to Netflix this Friday. The film is an animated autobiographical fantasy, set in a suburb of Houston in 1969, which follows an eighth grader named Stan (voiced by Milo Coy) who is recruited by Nasa for a secret trip to the moon just before the historic Apollo 11 mission. From the outset, the film’s three genres intertwine. It is constructed expressly as a piece of memory, narrated by the adult Stan (voiced by Jack Black), which details the day he was called into action, at a kickball game during the school holidays. This game comes to life with meticulous vividness – Stan deploys strategies, sketches personalities, highlights the cruelties of school discipline – in a way that turns the telescope of time into a microscope and brings back childhood with a fanatical profusion of memorized details.
Additionally, the animation borrows and drastically revises Linklater’s personal history along with the form. “Apollo 10 1/2” is mostly rotoscoped, its drawings (or computer graphics) built on live-action video, like in 2001’s “Waking Life.” But, where the earlier film features a loose animation style and wavy to blur the harsh edges of live action shooting and create surreal distortions of the action, “Apollo 10 1/2” uses animation to replicate and exaggerate the sharp edges and fixed outlines of video capture, while replacing the intricacies of shading with uniform fields of bright color. The visual effect is a kind of blatant and unsettling hyperrealism, as adult Stan’s complex reminiscences are both illustrated and amplified by the images, which seem not so much to illustrate what he is saying as to embody the memories, of the interior, which he is describing, even bringing them to life. And, if these memories have frozen in Stan’s mind in the form of a kind of lived film, it is no accident: the very development of his mental life in terms of pop culture is the main subject of “Apollo 10 1/2”, and Linklater unfolds it playfully, exuberantly, earnestly, with a sense of style and speed to reflect his own excitement upon contact with it.
As soon as the young Stan launches into the Nasa space training program that adult Stan takes a break from the action, freezing the frame to set the scene for his childhood. What follows is a cinematic parenthesis, a series of elaborate, essay-like flashbacks that run about halfway through the film and completely dominate it, emotionally and thematically. Stan leaps into early public history from his own early childhood in the 1960s, pre-memory, to provide context for the Apollo moon landing program, the establishment of Nasa in Houston, the growth of the city’s suburbs and the centering of life on space, with a vision of the Astrodome and a word about its Astro-Turf, in reference to New York Jets quarterback great Joe Namath. (Cleverly, Linklater presents Stan’s background knowledge in a different animation style.) Stan’s father (voiced by Bill Wise) is responsible for shipping and receiving at Nasa, his mother (Lee Eddy) is a graduate student and he has five older siblings, three sisters and two brothers. (That TV family is also a fantasy element: Linklater’s parents divorced when he was a child, a story he tells in “Boyhood.”)
[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]
Stan (i.e. Linklater) seems to remember it all: the poor drainage in the fast-built housing estate, the pinball strategies of the bowling alley “thugs”, the weaknesses of his parents, grandparents and neighbors. It crams its memories onto soundtrack and screen with an urgency that reflects both love and loss, as well as a sense of wonder that spans multiple dimensions – both the sheer miracle of consciousness itself and the joys and fears of growing at the time in question. He remembers pop culture as inseparable from family relationships; it provides a core of common experience. Indeed, “Apollo 10 1/2” is a work of personalized sociology on a yet exemplary slice of experience – a slice which, under the microscope of the memory fanatic, expands thrillingly, reveals itself to be a world itself and a cinematic synecdoche for the whole world. The sheer importance of the space program in Houston – where, as Stan says, most of the adults he knew had ties to Nasa— highlights, as he puts it, the boundless faith in science and technology that promised a brighter, science-fiction-like future. Yet, at the same time, the United States was at the height of political turmoil and pessimism, due to the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the political assassinations of the time.
Stan defines his middle-class life as having both the privilege and the dissonance of isolation; he realizes that there were big problems in the world and in the country, problems that the adults all around him took very seriously, but which, for him, were a media phenomenon of the newspapers, the radio and, above all, television. “Apollo 10 1/2” is also a fanatical catalog of mass culture, television shows (popular and unpopular) that obsessed him and that he evokes as well as the specific design of televisions of the time and their peculiarities (the ends of the antennae on its parents’ own design are wrapped in foil to improve reception). Reruns, test models, Saturday morning cartoons, Janis Joplin’s interview of Dick Cavett and the annual broadcast of “The Wizard of Oz” all feature in the action, as do baseball cards (specific ), board games, snacks food, school lunches and pop music, whether it was the Top Forty his younger siblings listened to or his older sister’s sophisticated psychedelic rock album. And so, of course, making movies, with detailed memories of theaters and drive-ins, what he saw and who he went with, and what the movies themselves meant to him at the time. (as in a corny baseball field explanation of “2001” and a tribute to “Countdown,” a movie about the moon directed by Robert Altman).
By the time Stan, after rigorous training, reaches the moon (in a twist too beautiful and too central to mess up), it’s a small step for a boy who is a bonded and deeply acculturated member of humanity. The depths of his connection to the wider world also clash with the cruelties of the time (including the prevalence of corporal punishment), the difficult games children played and the dangers they were unquestionably exposed to, and the taking of dawning awareness that his little world was far from representative. He learns that the space program itself is controversial, and that Nasa is almost entirely white, as is his own neighborhood and school. Stan recalls the beginnings of his discernment of a gap between his family, his environment and the world at large.
Even these dissonances are part of the film’s great, grand harmonies: in addition to its impassioned emphasis on the power of observation and memory, the film’s blend of autobiography and fantasy also defines and expands the very notion of experience. For Linklater, television, films and music, the scents of street games, consumer goods and industrial design, are essential experiences – and the fantasies themselves, as will be recalled later, are also basic elements of lived experience. “Apollo 10 1/2” unites inner and outer life in a form of cultural autobiography, and it does so with a unique sense of cinematic style and form. It takes pride of place alongside other recent films such as ‘The French Dispatch’, ‘Zola’ and ‘C’mon C’mon’, in which layered narrative complexity refines and amplifies emotional expression. characters and filmmakers. Like Terence Davies in films such as “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Neon Bible”, Linklater deploys such an original cinematic form to explore the development of an artist’s sensibility, the infrastructure of his own creative impulse.