The context of “Dave Not Coming Back” is almost mythic in its progress. A feature film in narrative style would have harmed its poignancy but the irony of a documentary film that was initially being made to document a rescue of sorts in a deep water cave located in the desert plains of South Africa is mind boggling in its own structure of Bushman’s Hole. This freshwater sinkhole descends to close to 1000 feet underwater. Many have dived it. one such diver, not a full professional, (the title character of Dave) set the world record by going to the bottom where he found the body of a former diver who was lost a decade earlier. The initial documentary footage done in 2005 was created to capture that effort and its success. What it turned into was something much darker and human. The only way to recover the body was to have a string of divers almost relay the body up since otherwise they couldn’t rise to the surface that quick or risk bad decompression sickness. From nearly 1000 feet it takes near 12 hours stopping at different depths to decompress. Without giving too much away, something went wrong but watching the layers being pulled away including footage actually taken by the man who went down to the very bottom is both harrowing and strangely prescient and moving but also disturbing. These kinds of stories are the ones that sometimes people who lived them don’t want to tell because of guilt but with others, it is about setting the record straight. Don, who was almost hand-in-hand with Dave (who didn’t come back – hence the title), recreates in a way but also shows his path without overwhelming the story (which on its own is harrowing as well — yet he survived). Balancing the new info, underwater recreations (to a point) [done by Don] and footage going down into a mine shaft plus some beautiful drone bridges of the actual sinkhole from above, it is a story that perhaps most of us in the US never heard about but it is universal. It also needed time to simmer and manifest if you will. This event was very unique, tragic but also deeply human and ambitious but also fraught wit themes of regret, ego and legacy. Ultimately it creates a texture vision into the mindset of explorers, the motivations that drive them and the ones that are left behind. Many of the worlds and footage are prescient yet paint a distinct picture of a moment in time, perhaps secular from the world but undeniably global in its universality.
Werner Herzog always has an interesting way of looking at things where it is never one thing but perhaps another. After his stunt on “The Mandalorian”, perhaps his stint into alien worlds provided a slightly different perspective. While “Fireball: Visitors From Other Worlds” in many ways is straightforward, its unconventional narrator gives the ideas its push. Apple backed this film which is equal parts at times indulgence versus metaphysical voyage with an idea of how existential it really could be. Herzog examines the idea of organisms and the intermingling of history and art. It is not done in an obtuse way but rather in a roundabout way of examining the human spirit. Herzog sees people in a different way. It is hard to say if he is operating at times as we only see him jump in once (yet his voice narrates the entire process and was written by him so the voice is inherently of that bent). The perspective goes away from norms. His camera lingers on the subjects not asking for quotes most of the time but taking in their faces. That says so much more than any of the talking heads that interact with Clive Oppenheimer (who co-directed). Oppenheimer is himself a documentary filmmaker and volcanologist who worked with Herzog on the different “Volcanos” (so they obviously get along). Oppenheimer has less presence than perhaps some of his interview subjects whom Herzog perhaps stays on a bit too long. It is not about what they are saying per se though the details are there. It is about how they are acting when it is being said. There are textures of obsessive compulsive elements in many of the subjects or just a jitteriness like a professor in India who sits in the belly of a crater. Some just can’t stop moving either out of nature of excitement. One of the more interesting is a Jesuit Brother that works for The Vatican and is also a planetary scientist. His discussion of the paradox of science and God is not contradictory per se and yet explains the right balance. Herzog seems to see these elements and adds to the slight undercurrent of beautiful madness. The ending sequence takes this to a visual extreme but examines and reamplifies the nature of the meteors and the history they both create and tell.
The essence of documentaries in modern days is trying to keep away from talking heads and using seldom seen imagery to affect this idea. Ken and Ric Burns with their bigger productions have established this while others including with films like “the Kid Stays In The Picture” find new technological ways to bring their characters to life. In “Sisters Wirth Transistors” all of the music had been curated and on display for years and yet only a small sub set of the population knew about it. This is not club electronic dance music but the creation of true electronic music itself. Most of us even in the business, first really heard this intention with Wendy Carlos with her soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange”, a theme from “The Shining” and then “Tron”. But the path before then is undeniable and fascinating. From the first air harmonizers to the complex structures that many of these women created, it paints the portrait of women in this sector (and many others) as not being taken seriously for their groundbreaking work. Delia Derbyshire breaking down the essence of certain sounds is like textbook in creating electronic music before computers. Pauline Oliveros has a story even more dynamic because of her more experimental approach as an exploration of self. Wendy Carlos’ story and how identity played a part into it is an eye opener. Unfortunately we only see a brief view into her life then with what footage is available. Carlos apparently has become somewhat of a recluse after her run of great soundtracks. But the film only examines “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” which again might have to do with clearances and footage available.
The symphony of sounds that run through the film really gives a sense of the talent that was passed over in many ways but yet the power of their voices still resonates, With everything that can be done with computers, it is not the same sounds. Like with chemical reaction on film, CGI cannot replicate true natural occurrences. That is what made Bebe Barron and her husband’s approach in the 50s with sounds so interesting. Her husband had the technology but Bebe found the way to compose it which gave way to the “score” for “Forbidden Planet” which is still ahead fo its time. The explanation of a certain pivotal scene is so metaphysical in a certain way that it gives one a glimpse into a reactionary creative process like no other. And yet the studio wouldn’t let it even be considered a score because they thought Barron would take work away from her male counterparts. Oliveros makes a good point that throughout history “why haven’t we heard of great female composers” on the range of Bach or Mozart. It was simply not encouraged. Of course now in certain circles again, film scoring for women is more accessible but it is still very hard. “Sisters With Transistors” exposes this travail while still reflecting the beauty of creation though certain angles (like that of Wendy Carlos) still remain vastly unexplored.