This is real life, this is Columbia

COLUMBIA by The People’s Elbow at The Springhill Institute

“Do you see it? Do you see the crack?”
“The crack was already there when we took off”

When I first heard about the Columbia project, I got confused with the Challenger disaster and just remember thinking that I should feel as if it was a sick thing to base an artwork on, while actually feeling nothing. Even when I was told more about the history of the space shuttle Columbia, and I realised my mistake, I wasn’t very clear on the details. I suppose I must have heard about it in the news, but it was just something I hadn’t really paid attention to. I find it difficult to relate to any kind of tragedy; my strongest emotion is usually guilt that I don’t sympathise as much as I imagine I should. But at least that guilt proves I’m not a sociopath, right?

I was interested in the plan of making the exhibition ‘the making of a movie’. I know from my own work that the usual expectations of the audience can be disrupted by blurring the boundaries between what is preparation/behind the scenes and a finished artwork; and who is the performer or audience when visitors are encouraged to participate rather than be passive observers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you can always learn something.

The People’s Elbow were particularly interested in how to make a film about something that was not the real focus of the news story – what were they actually doing up there anyway? They decided to fictionalise the events leading up to the break up of the shuttle, based on what little they knew about the crew and the mission. They were also keen to make it as filmic as possible, within the restraints of the space, their lack of budget and the fact that filming/sound would be done and characters would be played by whoever was in the gallery at a particular time.

I was too busy to take part in the first few days of shooting, but when I did arrive I was shown around the ‘set’ and we viewed rushes of what had already been filmed. What I saw was funny and well composed, and there were easily identifiable characters. I was pretty jealous – my own non-budget no-set-cast film was having trouble – but I soon got involved.

I didn’t really know what was going on as I took part in the filming, I was told to put on different costumes, told to say lines, told how to act. It was quite enjoyable in an odd way, I just turned my head off, and became a robot. Of course there were times when my self broke out. I had to crawl through several holes to get from room to room, which wasn’t easy for my fat arse, and once when I was in the background of a scene I realised I had been staring fixedly at something for too long and burst out laughing. In the final film, I am consumed by horror and can’t enter the illusion at these points, but that has an interesting, defamiliarising effect. The final scene was shot on the same night that the film was going to be premiered which ensured that everyone who first saw it would feel particularly involved. Columbia was also shown a few weeks later with scenes added that had not been finished for the opening night, but I have not made a distinction between the two versions here, for no good reason other than I’m a sucker for what people wanted something to be like over what it was actually like.

The film opens with a scene of the astronauts being shaved, a familiar scene from war films, however the implement used is a huge cooking spatula, which sets the tone for the uncanny humour we experience throughout. The gung-ho rock music over this cuts suddenly to silence and clouds, another precursor to the unsettling use of sound and it’s absence that runs throughout the film.

Perhaps knowing that people aren’t very familiar with the crew, there is an overtly contrived exposition by Husband to his family, and here we learn the relationships that have been given to the crew, based on what little was known. The central dynamic is that Husband idolises McCool, and despises Brown, mirroring the simplistic characterisations of Hollywood, but exaggerating this to absurd levels.

When we first see all the astronauts together, they are in slow motion and there is overblown choral music, perhaps an angelic requiem, another cinematic cliché to signify heroism and subtle tragedy. Sound effects are used to give filmic qualities and heighten tension, but also gives authority to less than perfect sets and acting. Over-lighting is used partly to hide the sets, but this gives the effect often used to signify heaven in films.

At one point in the take off sequence, the boom mic and soundman are entirely visible in shot as the Chief says “…and that’s how we do that ladies and gentlemen!” I don’t know how accidental this was, but I find it significant as a message of intention – the People’s Elbow show you what they are doing, show the techniques of illusion making and manipulation in their work, in mainstream films, and in society (American in particular).

Weightlessness is only used now and then, which heightens its dreamy, hallucinogenic effect. “I’m so high I could be in heaven,” says Chawla as “she“ floats. Old-fashioned comedy music plays as sweets and astronauts fly around, but when we cut to the outside shot the silence of space makes their jollity seem ironic in face of what we know happens.

When the crack in the wing is discovered we see Brown silently swearing. This is a guaranteed crowd amuser, used in many films aimed at teenagers, but also shows how his fears will be ignored and dismissed as paranoia. The crack in the wing is the Lacanian fissure in their idealistic world-view that is too horrific to look at. McCool often suggests that Brown’s worries are indicative of his own mental state, and that he needs to adjust himself, rather than anything else. Is this simply a suggestion that we create our own reality; a reference to how dissenters are subdued and distracted by self-doubt and self-analysis; or is McCool trying to point out that they all need to right themselves with the universe before certain annihilation? The problem is often described as “cosmetic”, and it always makes me think of how social and political problems are disguised, hidden and dismissed by those in authority, even if it will lead to destruction.

Clark’s son rushes in to see the television, but where we expect to see him watching his mother in space we see an episode of a space animation, Ulysses 31, where a starship is being damaged. This highlights the difference between fictional disasters where something can always be done to make things OK again, and the actual disaster, where nothing could be done. In fiction there were explosions and excitement, but everything is alright. In fact (as presented in this fiction) the crew get on with mundane everyday tasks, but then die meaninglessly. This disparity is mentioned again later when Brown compares their situation to Star Wars saying they won’t have a happy ending: “This is real life, this is Columbia”. Of course, trying to say the events depicted are real and not fiction is a common filmic technique.

By this point, everyone is drawing away from Brown, we seem to be seeing things through his eyes, everyone is smiling like Stepford Wives, lines are repeated, slowed down and speeded up in a way that signals hallucination or insanity in the traditional manner. The futility of their activities is shown by Clark showing off a model of a space station while babbling about how important it is in a way that reminds me of under-critical post-modern claims that hyperreal simulacra are more valid than actual truth. Has he gone mad or have they? He leaves them to look at the wing, becoming a literal outsider. The buzzing sound associated with him fades away, which is a relief to the audience until the silence becomes uncomfortable too. The space scenes seem too long, I’m told there’s a reason for this, and it does leave enough time for us to feel Browns isolation on more than an intellectual level.

Back on board there is a shadowy scene with McCool talking to Brown about the buzz of an insect that is reminiscent of the Kurtz scene in Apocalypse Now. We associate the insect with Brown, because of the buzzing noise that accompanies him which gets louder during the course of the film. He is being turned into scapegoat, a Christlike sacrifice and I’m also reminded of the exclusion of Piggy in Lord of the Flies but that’s probably because it was burned into my brain during school days. McCool seems to be trying to find meaning in a meaningless event, as this film is.

There is another space walk by Brown, with psychedelic effects that suggests of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which ends with a visit to a Russian Space Station. It is becoming increasingly unclear whether what we are seeing is actually happening or in the fevered imagination of Brown, but this just means we identify with him more. The red-lit, visceral partying of the Soviets is in strong contrast to the dutiful, clinical American mission, but could also suggest hell. Perhaps the whole film is some moment of death vision, where Brown is struggling to find his path to the afterlife, as in Jacob’s Ladder.

At the start of the final scene of Columbia we hear “Action!”, the first of many breaks in the filmic illusion. The set and actors inside the shuttle can be seen in the background of shots of mission control, multiple uncertain looks at camera, people fluffing lines and grimacing, lines repeated. These are extreme forms of what has been happening throughout the film and are interesting on many levels: it reminds us that the making of the film was the artwork rather than the final film; it startles us out of being captured by the narrative so that we can be critical about what is being presented; it becomes a film about film and film’s impact on the space programme; and it is part of what makes the film post-real. This is not a standard post-modern analytical distance and suspicion of ‘truth’, but uses transparent fiction to transform our experience of reality.

I didn’t know anything about the people who died in Columbia before I took part in this project, and that didn’t really bother me. This could have been a worthy dramatisation, using a documentary style to tell their story and while I would have learnt some facts, possibly even shed a tear, but I would still essentially not give a fuck. Instead, I feel like I know these people: Brown chews gum and is a bit paranoid, McCool plays chess and philosophises, Husband shadowboxes and is weirdly paternal to his crew. Of course I know that these are just characterisations made up by the scriptwriter in bored moments at work, but that just makes me feel more protective towards them. These are people completely turned into fiction, their originals are dead, they don’t even have a fixed face associated with them here, but we gave them existence by becoming them and accepting their continuity as we watched them in different actors. When we see actual footage of the break-up on entry of the space shuttle, we feel that we are watching ‘our’ crew die, and the jump to ‘real’ film coincides with the ‘post-real’ feelings we have.

Most films based on actual events destroy the reality, turn it into fiction so that the truth vanishes. A post-real film can use it’s own explicit falsity to highlight the illusion and manipulation that are presented as truth by authorities and the media. The whole space programme is based on fictions: that astronauts are heroes; that we need to do things before the ‘other side’; that progress is going ‘out there’ rather than solving problems ‘down here. Many people have wanted to become astronauts because they enjoy the escapism of science fiction, but end up serving the militaristic interests of the establishment.

Columbia asked “What were they actually doing up there anyway?” and the answer it seems to have given is “Becoming Science Fiction”.

The 28th and final flight of Columbia (STS-107) was a 16-day mission dedicated to research in physical, life and space sciences. The seven astronauts aboard Columbia worked 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, successfully conducting approximately 80 separate experiments. On February 1, 2003, the Columbia and its crew were lost over the western United States during the spacecraft’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Seven asteroids orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter were named in honour of The Space Shuttle Columbia crew, Commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; Mission Specialists Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown, Laurel Clark; and Israeli payload specialist Ilan Ramon.

© April 2004 (Originally published in a.a.s. maga-zine #2

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