Monday, 25 January 2016

On DVD: "Star Men"

Star Men is a "let's get the band back together" documentary with a twist: rather than ageing rock stars, we're watching greying astronomers heading out on the road once more. The subjects of Alison Rose's film are four graduates of Cal-Tech - three Cambridge scholars, and an American chum - who come to be reunited in California, on a road trip touring the sites of many of their greatest discoveries a half-century before. As one of the English contingent says upon his arrival on the West Coast, immediately establishing a tone for the whole venture: "Jolly good".

Much of what follows is indeed just gentle enough for Silver Screen viewing. Interviewed separately, the astronomers rake over memories of their wartime childhoods, their college days, and the effects Hubble et al. had on their thinking; once bundled in the same car, these old boys engage in mild ribbing about the public school system, and there's a minor crisis as their vehicle gets stuck in the snow. It could have functioned perfectly well as no more and no less than a document of four duffers on wheels, and yet Rose - a more curious filmmaker than these initial interactions suggests - senses that astronomy is a science possessed of a spectacle and wonder that lends itself remarkably well to a cinema screen.

Roofs open to let light in on vast hillside telescopes; Rose's own camera pores over the colour maps of stars her subjects proffer by way of credentials; timelapse footage details the firmament shifting o'er our heads. Visually, the film is as in thrall to the heavens as the astronomers are themselves, but Rose also has an ear for the philosophy that lies behind that which the star men practice: she's happy, as we are, just to sit at her subjects feet and listen, a skill often undervalued in contemporary documentary. We're thereby offered an insight into how the astronomers linked up their data with what Darwin had observed on the ground a century or so before, the kind of innately fascinating proof that would justify the rental cost on its own; any Dawkins-ish militancy as to the supremacy of science over religion is tempered by the speakers' stout C-of-E upbringings: they politely suggest there's more than one way of seeing and seeking out higher things.

The film attains another level entirely when, prompted by the frailty of one of their travelling companions, the men start to ponder the great beyond - what death represents to them, what it means to us all; whether, in the grand, galactic timescale of things, 'tis better to burn out than fade away. The result forms the sort of independently produced documentary no suit would commission - in its emphasis on empirical data and lived experience, it's not "sexy", in the pitchable sense - yet which actually proves immensely engaging and rewarding to watch: by not rushing to judgement and playing a cosmically long game, these guys have come to make sense of at least a part of what can often seem a pretty senseless universe. Men this naturally self-effacing would doubtless reject any term so dramatic as hero, but you do emerge from Rose's marvellously inquisitive, questing film convinced we could do with more of their wise, quietly profound kind.

Star Men is available on DVD through Verve Pictures.

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