Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov. 2003)
Blacks Off Earth Now!
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
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“A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey’s on the moon.
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon.
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still, while Whitey’s on the moon.”
When William S. Burroughs completed his paranoid masterwork Naked Lunch in 1959, not even his closest friends—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso; born cheerleaders all, and no slouches in intuiting the teleology of social control—would have labeled it out-and-out prophecy. And yet a mere half-century later, we’re confronted with a totalitarian state that insatiably advances its influence and exports its dissatisfaction; a quisling media reduced to advocating these imperial ambitions; religious zealots as the new carnival barkers; a police apparatus bent on self-perpetuation; universal surveillance; lawless outlands designated as zones of amoral commerce; and addiction masked as consumer need. Not to mention a far-right party (which Burroughs labeled the “Liquefactionists”) dedicated to liquidating everyone but themselves.
Visionaries, it would seem, often turn out in retrospect to be mere stenographers who have become somehow temporally misfiled.
The same may well prove true of free jazz pioneer and denizen of Saturn Sun Ra, whose legendary 1974 cult film Space Is the Place has just been lovingly restored by Plexifilm in a special 30th anniversary edition. This chronicle of interplanetary black colonization, NASA conspiracy and an epic Manichean poker match for the fate of the world-kind of a quasi-documentary Buckaroo Banzai filmed in the middle of proto-revolutionary, Cointelpro Oakland-contains 20 minutes of newly restored footage (mostly interracial sex scenes), interviews with the director and producer (middle-aged white men) and home movies of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra goofing and playing in front of the Pyramids in Luxor, Egypt in 1972 (at roughly the same time that Kenneth Anger, equally besotted with Egyptian imagery, was shooting scenes for Lucifer Rising with Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithfull at the same location).
In 1971, Sun Ra and his band had traveled west from Philadelphia at the invitation of Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party to Oakland, California, where they lived in a Panther house and Sun Ra taught at Berkeley. By 1974, amid increasing factionalism, no less than Eldridge Cleaver had kicked them out, and they were headed back to “the City of Brotherly Shove.” But not before producer Jim Newman and director John Coney lured him into a prospective half-hour concert for the local PBS affiliate, which somehow mutated into one of the oddest documents ever committed to celluloid.
The film opens amid a welter of space jazz, on what looks like a yellow Sony Playstation controller drifting through space-actually Sun Ra’s spaceship, captured in pre-digital blue-screen on 16mm film. As the mothership lands on a lush tropical planet (in reality Golden Gate Park), Sun Ra and his entourage stroll through an enchanted garden the equal of the fantasy sequences in Heavenly Creatures-with floating bubbles and hovering trilobites topped with red orbs encased in glass and exotic flowers bearing fruit of orange hands and wine glasses. Draped in flowing robes and an Egyptian headdress topped with a large sun dial, Sun Ra (who wrote all his own dialogue) proclaims, “We’ll set up a colony for black people here-see what they can do on a planet all their own, without any white people there… Another place in the universe, up under different stars.” Then as he conjectures relocating them via “isotope teleportation,” “transmolecularization” or simply teleporting the entire planet through music, we see Sun Ra suddenly spinning clockwise away from us into deepest space, like the lifeless Gary Lockwood, Jr. in 2001. All this before the opening credits.
Suddenly it’s 1943, in a Chicago nightclub, where a local gangster (the Overseer, played as a kind of satanic pimp by Ray Johnson, one of the bank robbers in Dirty Harry) demands that Sun Ra-then a piano player known as Sonny Ray-be ejected for his discordant style. Sonny’s jazz arpeggios quickly escalate into overpowering chord inversions, as glass shatters, smoke billows from the piano, the dancers are blown out of their tops and the crowd riots and stampedes toward the exits. Just as quickly, Sun Ra and the Overseer are faced off against each other across a red velvet table in the middle of a vast desert, where they compete in an arcane card game using a modified ghetto-fabulous Tarot deck (featuring Cadillac Eldorados and nude sirens) for the fate of the earth.
From there, Sun Ra wanders through contemporary Oakland as the contest plays out-convincing the locals he’s a galactic emissary, opening a storefront “Outer Space Employment agency,” and generally using music to cure the addicted, raise the drunken, reform the exploitive and search out the enlightened.
“Are there any whiteys up there?” asks a skeptical youth at a neighborhood rec hall.
“They’re walking up there now,” says Sun Ra, with his implacable hipster academic delivery. “They take frequent trips to the moon. But I notice none of you have been invited.”
Meanwhile, two field agents from NASA (including Morgan Upton from comedy troupe the Committee) sit in cramped, smoke-filled rooms hunched over reel-to-reel tape recorders, combing through his every word for some sign of conspiracy. After an attempted tryst with a couple of the Overseer’s call girls-where, pointedly, they can’t get it up-the NASA gumshoes kidnap Ra and hold him hostage in an abandoned warehouse. “Come on, Ra,” one of them says, “how do you convert your harmonic progressions to energy? There’s a black space program, isn’t there?” As a specialized form of torture, they leave him trussed up and trapped in headphones that play an endless brass band rendition of “Dixie.” But Ra escapes, the chosen are beamed out of their settings as economically and decisively as the luckless beauties in Mars Needs Women and all are led aboard the spacecraft, in what seems very much a template for the last scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind three years later. (In fact, the five-tone melody used for alien contact was lifted from the intervals in Sun Ra’s “Lights on a Satellite,” recorded in 1960. “Did you ever see Star Wars?” he once asked an interviewer. “It was very accurate.”) As Sun Ra’s spaceship seeks the new black world, the earth supernovas behind him.
Threaded throughout the narrative are live performances of the Arkestra, which were actually filmed at a soundstage on the Embarcadero owned by the Mitchell Brothers, who were just then in pre-production on their breakthrough feature Behind the Green Door. In fact, the two projects shared production costs, a platform built for the band was used to mount a sex contraption in the porn film, and Space Is the Place cast member Johnnie Keys appears as one of two black studs who pleasure Marilyn Chambers using an elaborate pulley system in the latter.
Director Coney, in the accompanying interview included on the DVD, claims the film was “an homage to cheesy science-fiction films of the ’50s and ’60s” like Rocketship X-M (1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Traces of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, LeRoi Jones’ (later Amiri Baraka’s) play The Black Mass and Black Muslim theology can be detected-notably the concept of the Mothership, in which Black Scientists were to return to earth to mark the end of the 25,000-year reign of the white mongrel race, and which was in turn appropriated wholesale by George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Clinton name-checks Sun Ra in the liner notes to the 1974 LP Standin’ on the Verge of Getting’ It On; other noted acolytes include Pink Floyd, the MC5, the Grateful Dead and, perhaps oddest, Bobby Beausoleil—star of Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, inspiration (through his nickname, Cupid) for Arthur Lee’s band Love and confederate of Charles Manson (and convicted murderer)—who toured California throughout the mid-’60s in a copycat group called the Orkustra.
The Overseer can be one of the Celestial Overseers from The Urantia Book—inspiration to Stockhausen, Elvis and Gene Roddenberry in his creation of Star Trek, which Sun Ra reportedly was reading from daily. The robed, hooded, mirror-faced being accompanying him in the opening scene seems taken from Maya Deren’s Meshes of an Afternoon, shot in 1946 but unavailable until much later (although with the extent of Sun Ra’s readings in arcane and secret texts, who knows?). Or the cosmology could just as likely have come from outer space itself. Biographer John Szwed, author of the exhaustive Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, puts him, in his East Village days, in the same company as Moondog and Joe Gould—legendary eccentrics who walked the streets to the delight of an uncomprehending public. One of Sun Ra’s favorite stories, commemorated in the song “Advice for Medics,” was that when he played a mental hospital in Chicago in the ’50s, a woman reputed not to have moved or spoken for years walked slowly to the piano and screamed at him, “Do you call that music?”
Sun Ra rarely slept, lived on vitamins, fruits and food supplements, and ardently believed he had been abducted by aliens at an early age, through a process he termed “transmolecularization.” He considered music a physical, celestial force capable of transforming governments, enlightening races, curing disease (Norman Mailer once claimed a Sun Ra performance cured his cold) and, yes, propelling spaceships, for which he and his band were merely the collective antennae. Gibberish? Pseudo-science? Mumbo-jumbo? Exactly what they said of Burroughs and his Mayan scholarship, South American miracle drugs and language-as-a-virus theories around the time Space Is the Place was first gestating. And yet, just this week, no less than NASA has detected a pressure wave traveling through space from a black hole in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster 250 million light years away—a sound wave 57 octaves below middle C on the piano, with a frequency of once every 10 billion years. According to scientists, it is a B-flat.
“It is possible,” says Andy Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, “that other galactic clusters are singing in other tones.”
Nothing to do now but wait.
DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.