Saturday, March 21, 2015

Space Is the Place (1974)

          According to avant-garde jazz musician Sun Ra, who portrays a weird science-fiction version of himself in Space Is the Place, “Music is all another tomorrow, another kind of language, speaking things of nature, naturalness, the way it should be—speaking things of blackness. The void. The bottomless pit surrounding you. You are music. Everyone’s supposed to play their part in this vast arkestra of the universe.” If you can parse more than a fraction of the far-out rap Sun Ra lays down throughout the dialogue and storyline of Space Is the Place, then you might be able to groove on the overall experience. Otherwise, you’re likely to be left utterly flummoxed by the picture, which is a unique hybrid borrowing tropes from blaxploitation dramas, freewheeling concert movies, trippy sci-fi sagas in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and vituperatively Afrocentric agitprop.
          One gets the sense that Sun Ra wanted to use Space Is the Place as a means of delivering a heavy message concerning African-Americans’ potential to transcend the boundaries of a racist society, but the medium muddies the message. At various times, Space Is the Place is boring, confusing, dissonant, silly, and weird. And because of the way all these qualities coalesce into self-aggrandizing chaos, the picture lacks even the simple power one might expect from an impassioned personal statement. After all, what is a viewer to make of a musician who plays a character bearing his own name, then purports to have spent several years in another dimension before returning to Earth like some sort of messiah destined to uplift his race not only into dignity but into a new plane of being?
          Fitting its title, the movie opens in the stars, where an odd spaceship that looks like a pair of flying eyeballs zooms through the cosmos before entering our planet’s atmosphere. The picture then cuts to Sun Ra wandering through a forest while festooned in his preferred attire—the glittering costume of an Egyptian pharaoh—and unleashing his first salvo of empowering gobbledygook. “Music is different here,” he says, “not like the planet Earth. [This is] a place for black people—it would affect their vibrations for the better, of course. [I’ll] teleport the whole planet here through music.” The high-minded nature of Ra’s speechifying loses credibility in the next sequence, during which Ra portrays a strip-club pianist circa 1943. The pianist pounds keys with such supernatural ferocity that hurricane-force winds blast through the club, things start to explode, and a pastie blasts off a stripper’s breast. Hard to reconcile spiritual rhetoric with anatomical close-ups more suited to an exploitation flick.
          In lieu of a proper plot, Space Is the Place presents a series of marginally related episodes, some of which involve Sun Ra playing concerts, some of which involve Sun Ra visiting youth centers to recruit volunteers for space travel, and some of which involve Sun Ra playing a Bergman-eseque game of chess with a Death figure dressed as a pimp. Running through the picture is a nonstop barrage of tunes by Sun Ra and His Arkestra, a massive real-life ensemble including enough percussionists for a marching band. Their songs are relentlessly dissonant, freeform, and screechy. Like the film itself, the music in Space Is the Place communicates through an idiom fully understood only by its creator.

Space Is the Place: FREAKY

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