“Here’s me in pink stretch pants,” notes Mary Bubb. She’s a space reporter in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at the moment sharing some of her memorabilia with filmmakers Ross McElwee and Michel Negroponte. She smiles as she remembers a friend telling her, “Not everybody has their pink ass on the cover of Newsweek.” Mary’s recollections as a pool reporter provide something of a background for Space Coast, a film McElwee shot while he was still a graduate student at MIT in 1979. Like his subsequent, more famous documentaries, this one appears mostly observational, with subjects occasionally speaking directly to his camera, addressing him as Ross. As it shows the early version of what came to be his signature visual style—handheld, amiable, incisive—the film also indicates his inclination to see in everyday stories the significant rhythms and substance.
And so: even as Mary pursues her work, showing up at each launch (always with a new hat of her own devising, fashioned to be “very symbolic of the mission,” she explains), the film follows two other residents of the Space Coast, Papa John Murphy and the Reverend Willie Womack. All offer their wisdom on the landscape changing around them, the declining economy, the closing of launch pads, the frustrations of the community, the way the world works. For the most part, Papa John keeps himself distracted with TV and his family, wrestling with his daughter Diane (currently unable to find a job) and watching Happy Days and religious programming. “Jesus had to have been an extremely rugged individual,” he submits, “He lived the life of a fisherman, he wasn’t no pansy.” Willie takes his sons hunting, narrates McElwee, in “an abandoned housing development.” Each scene in the film offers a small glimpse of the various lives in Cape Canaveral, and together, they reveal the reshaping of a culture, built on ambitions unmet and options unknown.
Space Coast screens on 23 January at The DocYard at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, followed by a Q&A with McElwee and Negroponte. It’s the first in this season’s terrific biweekly documentary series, conceived to showcase “what is innovative, interesting, and inspiring in documentary.” Space Coast is all of that.