Monday, January 22, 2007

Random Movie Report #17: Space is the Place

I feel vaguely unqualified to write this review. SPACE IS THE PLACE is a film about Sun Ra, cultural cynicism and the black experience in the early to mid 70s, and, obliquely and possibly unintentionally, the black separatist movement. My sum experience with all of these elements can actually be expressed as a negative number. But, hey, a good critic can analyze anything. And this isn't really the hardest film to follow. It's a sort of science fiction/fantasy/art film hybrid with a basic plot wrapped around songs by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and extensive philosophical ramblings by the artist/character/cosmic god himself. Come to think of it, maybe this is the kind of movie I'm suited for.

We open on a strange planet full of bizarre, multicolored, plasticine flora, through which Sun Ra- who spends more or less the entire film clad in Egyptian regalia- wanders, accompanied by servants with mirror faces. He observes that this strange and tranquil paradise would make a good second home for the black people of planet Earth, and decides to set out on a mission to take them there, using music as a power source. After a brief visit to Earth in 1943, where his strange atonal jazz causes a major disturbance in an integrated nightclub, he returns in the present (well, the 70s anyway), landing in a giant spaceship that looks like a pair of eyeballs and attracting mass attention with his message of a black exodus from the soon-to-be-destroyed planet Earth. As Sun Ra's music and his "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" Employment Agency attract attention, reporter Jimmy Fey (Christopher Brooks), a witness at the landing, falls under the corrupting influence of the Overseer (Ray Johnson), a debonair Satanic figure out to stop Sun Ra's holy mission. Throughout, we cut to Sun Ra and the Overseer playing the cosmic game of mankind's future, watching for the fates of various souls.

The storytelling in this movie is pretty fragmented, leaving the audience to infer a lot, but the basic premise isn't hard to grasp if you're willing to accept the surreal imagery. Originally conceived of as a concert film, SPACE IS THE PLACE is more a platform for the music and musings of Sun Ra than anything else; it's not quite an all-out musical, but it is, from all accounts, the essence of what his ideas were all about. In concerts and albums, Sun Ra portrayed himself as pretty much what he is in this movie, a cosmic god-figure sent to show people, specifically black people (sort of- I'll get to this later) the way towards peace and enlightenment. To him it was a kind of allegorical vessel for a general message of freedom, love, and transcendence through art. As much as this may have seemed outdated after the fall of the counterculture and the general cynicism of the early 70s, the imagery keeps it fresh, and the story takes this cynicism into account. There's something vaguely defeatist about the fact that "space is the place", that the only hope for humanity is to give up on a corrupted Earth. And of course, the idea of black people leaving Earth to find a new home has parallels with the then-current concept of black separatism, in which many African Americans flirted with the idea of returning to Africa as a way to finally free themselves of oppression (the movement seems to have peaked in the seventies, and though there was no mass exodus of blacks to Africa, it did revive an interest in African culture.) And here's where it gets really interesting.

In the film, Sun Ra is explicitly interested in getting black people off the Earth. Since said planet is about to be destroyed, this presumably does not portend good things for white folks like your humble reviewer. At some point, Ra (who wrote all his own dialogue) suggests that the way things are is an inversion of the natural order, and that the blacks should be on top. And yet, at the risk of spoiling things, among the people specifically shown getting into Sun Ra's spaceship at the end is a hispanic prostitute. There are white audience members at the climactic concert, and whites and blacks alike apply for jobs at Outer Spaceways Incorporated (the two white applicants we see coming in both leave, but they're not so much actively rejected as they just can't grasp Sun Ra's idea of cosmic employment.) The Overseer is black as well (though amongst his minions are two white NASA scientists-I think- who want to discover the secret of Sun Ra's power), and getting things really complicated now, Jimmy Fey tries to back out of going with Sun Ra, only for Ra to demand that the black part of Fey remain with him. (The non-black part is just as dark-skinned, though this may have been a budget issue.) Not to mention, the director and producer of this film are both white guys.

Digging around the net for some info on Sun Ra, I happened across a quote by him where he said that he used "blackness" and "darkness" as metaphors for something good existing in all people, and that seems to explain the racial element of this film, or at least clarify it slightly. To be appropriately "dark" is more a state of mind, of soul, of being oppressed or downtrodden and wanting salvation. In an odd way, this eschatological fable has parallels to the modern Christian concept of the Rapture; God collects the good people and takes them off of Earth, leaving the bad people and Satan himself to witness its destruction. It's less judgmental, though, and less hostile- we don't revel in the punishment of the doomed in a kind of 70s Afrocentric LEFT BEHIND. In general, it's not an aggressive movie. It's more serene, even lighthearted at times, resigned to things going bad in the world but hopeful of salvation.

I don't want to weigh the movie down too much. Made on the cheap and emulating in some ways the science fiction films of the 50s, SPACE IS THE PLACE is really sort of fun, also incorporating blaxploitation and just-plain-comic elements. And there's the music. It's arty jazz of an almost minimalist quality at times, with repetitive lyrics recited as much for the sound as their meaning. In short, it will drive some people up the walls. I'm told this isn't quite Sun Ra at his peak, but though I wasn't completely won over, I was made very curious. And I keep humming that damn "Outer Spaceways Incorporated" tune to myself. It's catchy. (Props are due to June Tyson, who provides many of the vocals.)

Overall, I was left wanting to know more about Sun Ra (who passed from this world in 1993), both his music and the persona he created. The film articulates a basic theme of art freeing the mind and soul in a way that I'd never quite seen before. Though not really compelling or dramatic as a narrative, and without much real emotional "oomph", the movie is intriguing and stimulating, and gets you thinking just a bit. If this seems like the kind of movie you'd enjoy, you're probably right.

Written by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith
Directed by John Coney

Grade: B

1 comment:

mrG said...

If it gets you at least curious about your chances for an alter-destiny, then the film did it's duty ;) It's also interesting to read here how you'd come into the realms of Ra via the spiritual aspects of the film; not that it doesn't happen, just that most people connect with Ra's music first, and only later start wondering "How does he do that?" and that leads them into the world of the solar-myth. As you'll discover, there are many paths that lead to Sun Ra ;)

I know it's a bit of self-promotion, but it does have some links to other material that might help you connect with Mr. Mystery: Getting To Infinity started out as a pointer to the Chill Room radio special on Sun Ra, but just kinda extended itself on out into the invisible beyond ...