One of the most disappointing films of the year is this documentary about one of the most fascinating men of our time: John Dobson, who advocated amateur astronomy through his invention of the Dobsonian telescope mount and his lifetime of teaching people to build their own low-cost telescopes. Dobson spearheaded the “sidewalk astronomy” notion of setting up telescopes on streets and in parks and encouraging people to peer (for free, at least in Dobson’s case) into the heavens.
At 89 years of age, with a long white ponytail and a quicksilver wit, Dobson is a brilliant raconteur who can process the intricacies of astronomy into layman’s English. His lectures are among the most popular in the country, with audiences of eager stargazers joining him in classes and parks to learn about the stars, planets and comets.
Alas, “A Sidewalk Astronomer” does little justice to this fascinating subject. The film is a sloppily made, disorganized and (incredibly, given Dobson’s brilliance) thoroughly boring experience. We learn very little about Dobson’s life, and what we gain comes in slivers of conversation dropped randomly throughout the film (his birth in Beijing, China, and his years as a Vedanta monk in the Ramakrishna Order in a California monastery). The film mysteriously makes Dobson the center of attention but never bothers to explain why he is at the center. Instead, we are treated to his endless lectures on space and a host of his witty anecdotes – but the man himself is a cipher. And all of his lectures and anecdotes are sprinkled about with no rhyme or reason; linear storytelling is not in evidence here.
“A Sidewalk Astronomer” should’ve been left on the sidewalk.