SPACE IS THE PLACE
Produced by Jim Newman and directed by John Coney. Script by Joshua Smith , in consultation with Sun Ra. Photography by Seth Hill, Pat Riley, Emiko Omori. Effects by James Catania , Thomas Stern.
Cast includes Ray Johnson, Christopher Brooks, Barbara Deloney, Erika Leder.
Music composed by Sun Ra & performed by the Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra - Kwame Hadi-tp, cga, vib; Wayne Harris-tp; Marshall Allen-as, fl, ob, bsn, kora, perc; Danny Davis-as, fl, acl, perc; Larry Northington-as, cga; John Gilmore-ts, d, perc, voc; Eloe Omoe )-bcl, bgo, perc; Danny Ray Thompson-bs, perc; Sun Ra-p, Mini-Moog syn, Farfisa org, Hohner Clavinet, Rocksichord; Lex Humphries-d; Ken Moshesh-cga; June Tyson-voc, bells (Sound track album: Space is the Place on Evidence Records)
North American Star System & El Saturn Research 1974. Restoration and DVD production by Plexifilm 2003 (Europe 2005) including interview with Jim Newman & John Coney, plus Sun Ra home movies.
THE SOLAR MYTH APPROACH
I never saw Sun Ra in the physical body. Perhaps I was a little afraid, anxious that the radiance of his Solar Myth might be diffused by the close encounter of a gig, that the Arkestra's rites might not fully embody the infinite enigma of Mister Ra's recorded sound-world. Or maybe it was my mismanagement of space/time. Briefly in New York in 68, I tried to catch him at Slug's - on the wrong day. I was always a light-year behind the Man from Saturn.
And my only experience of Space is the Place prior to this Plexifilm release was a murky nth-generation bootleg video which had twenty minutes excised. The film never had proper distribution and after a few screenings in the seventies, it became an underground legend, only appearing occasionally in truncated form as a backdrop lightshow for the Arkestra's concerts. Now according to director John Coney we have the definitive cut, restored to its full eighty-two minutes from a bright print. It's not Ra's only appearance on film. There's The Cry of Jazz, Edward Bland's 1959 polemical documentary and the quasi-abstract short Magic Sun aka Magic City, from 1966, as well as numerous concert videos. But this work is unique.
Space is the Place exists in a multiverse of genres - a militant blaxploitation free-jazz absurdist sci-fi cosmodrama. It seems to have begun as a double homage, Jim Newman's desire to document Ra's visionary music merging with John Coney's love of fifties low budget science fiction movies like First Space Ship on Venus. Ra's lifetime vision of expanding the cosmic consciousness of African Americans was superimposed on the street life of the early seventies Oakland 'hood . "It was a time of dislocation, " recalls Coney, placing the film in the context of the Black Panther movement and the radical paranoia of the Vietnam years. Afro-Futurist ritual drama blended - explosively - with the iconography of Shaft.
The title sequence shows Sun Ra's space ship among the stars. It's a curious yellow vehicle with blazing solar eyes painted on its twin hulls. a kind of interstellar catamaran. June Tyson's voice intones:"The End of the World" , introducing the film's apocalyptic premise. We pan across a painted backdrop of an Edenic garden to find Ra, robed and pharaeonic, musing in a glade as alien inflatable life-forms float around him. "The music is different here - not like Planet Earth - we could set up a colony for black people - bring them here through transmolecularisation - or teleport the whole planet here - through music..." Ra is accompanied - or stalked? - by a hooded figure whose face is a blank mirror. Then there's a glimpse of Ra prone and entranced, floating in the void.
We move from dreamtime to earth time, 1943, Chicago. We're in a funky night club (perhaps like the Club de Lisa where Herman 'Sonny' Blount was once MD, in the years before he became Le Son'y Ra). The chorus girls shimmy to Ra's boogie piano as a regal black dude in a white suit sweeps in with a clutch of young women.
This is the Overseer. "If he sees something he wants, he gets it." His name suggests the slavery-era supervisor who takes care of business for white folks while his style reflects the stereotype of the big-shot ghetto operator in films like Superfly , the Mack who runs the rackets, shifts the drugs and pimps the girls. He has literary antecedents, like the mysterious white-suited B.P Rinehart in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, an elusive shape-shifting figure, part crook, part preacher, controlling the action in the chaos of Harlem. If you want to put a neo-Gnostic gloss on it, the Overseer is the Archon who keeps the people enslaved in their sensual addictions; while Ra is the Divine Spark of the Pleroma who strives to lift them to a higher plane.
The Overseer sneers at Ra's playing and exhorts the club owner to bring on more girls. Ra responds by playing freakish riffs and menacing chords. His deep space vibe causes a massive release of energy, which shatters glasses, tears down the drapes and destroys the piano. Audience and perfomers flee in terror through the smoke.
The two antagonists face each across an altar-table in the desert, like Death and the Knight in Bergman's Seventh Seal, and begin a game with futuristic Tarot cards. The Overseer flashes the Chariot (a Cadillac) but Ra trumps him with Judgement (Ra's space ship) which takes us into footage of the Arkestra in full cry.
"I played a gig with Sun Ra in San Francisco around 1967-68. The auditorium was full of pot smoke and the groove was on. The music was fierce, fun and free... one of the memorable moments was the sax section (Marshall Allen etc.) chasing me throughout the room when I began raining sheets of multiphonics from my tenor against them in defense. It was thrilling and electrifying. " (John Celona)
The energy music of Ra's "tone scientists" drives his ship. In the control room he boots up his Moog over rumbling baritone saxes and percussion. The band members are a swirl of robes and hieratic helmets - Nubian or Neptunian? - as they churn up the polyrhythms. The ship heads earthwards, eyes flashing, transmitting its message across California:
CALLING PLANET EARTH
Initially the landing site scene has generic elements that have been familiar ever since Klaatu and Gort opened the hatch in The Day the Earth Stood Still. There's a frenetic commentator, DJ Jimmy Fey, and an anxious crowd clustering around the ship. As in Close Encounters, the ship emits pulses of light and music - but the sounds are harsh, compelling, a barrage of horns and synths.
When Ra emerges from the ship, he's accompanied by an entourage of Egyptian deities - hawk-headed Horus, Anubis, and Thoth, the ibis-entity scribe-god who teaches science and the arts of communication. Robed dancers glide around him, their mysterious grace contrasting with the mechanical routines of the night club. As John F Szwed has shown in his masterly biography Space is the Place Ra's years of immersion in Egyptology and esoteric mysticism encouraged him to re-present the ancient pantheon and its mythos in a radically Afro-centric way: "I come from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago..."
Ra's logos , as transmitted to Jimmy Fey via a perspex "translation helmet" is a cryptic challenge to the status quo of the Overseer: "I am the altered destiny... the presence of the living myth..." "What is the power of your ship?" "Music..." His procession crosses the skyline in silhouette (another allusion to The Seventh Seal?) as we move through montages of the void, the Arkestra and dancing gods.
"GREETINGS, BLACK YOUTH!"
Jimmy Fey, overwhelmed by Ra's revelation, is taken off to hospital, with the Overseer in pursuit. The mysterious Game continues, and then the action moves to the streets, where a wino sprawls on the sidewalk outside a ghetto youth centre. Two of the youth steal his shoes and swagger inside, to join a confused throng of pool-players, young militants and an acapella vocal group.
The scene has acquired a strange period quality, partly because of the early 70s fashions (vast afros, flares, dashikis) and the music - choral Philly soul a la the Delfonics. Rap avatars like Afrika Bambata and Grand Master Flash have yet to materialise. Sun Ra, however, does manifest in the midst, wearing golden astronautical boots. The kids snicker at his "moon shoes" and take him for "some old hippy" but he suggests that they are mere myths themselves, marginalised, ill-disciplined and therefore excluded from space. "NASA takes frequent trips there - none of you are invited..."
After a blast from the Arkestra, with Ra orchestrating the cosmos from his keys, while the Overseer gambles with the young street dudes, the film moves back to the hospital room where Jimmy Fey lies entranced. Doctor Overseer wakes him with a high five and offers him the possibility of "partying " with two nurses in return for co-operating in controlling Ra. The girls strip (to distant piano boogie) but just as Jimmy is about to make a move he's ordered out into the corridor where he peers, indignant and bare-assed , through the keyhole - a sudden lurch into low farce, not dissimilar to the dire British sexploitation comedies of the seventies... Apparently Ra initially found this scene amusing , presumably as a comment on the absurdities of sexual obsession, but the whole soft-porn strand in the film was cut in the first video edition.
SIGN UP WITH OUTER SPACEWAYS INCORPORATED
Meanwhile white men in suits, agents of NASA and/or FBI. crouch over a tape deck in a basement, like clones of Gene Hackman or the Agents of Burroughs' Nova Express. They're bugging the Man from Saturn. Synths drone as the camera dollies up the sidewalks towards the store front of the Outer Spaceways Employment Agency, where Ra interviews prospective cosmonauts. A white NASA engineer is discouraged by Ra's warning that "we creators never receive money" - an accurate enough account of Ra's struggles over decades to sustain the Arkestra - while a blonde temptress who wants to "get high" with him is told sternly that "space is not only high - but low...." The street winos huddle on the corner but their laughter is overlaid with the high harmonic scream of Marshall Allen's alto.
Meanwhile the plot against Ra thickens and curdles like alien soup. The Agents plan a stake-out in the desert, where Jimmy, acting as an agent of the Overseer, offers Ra the ultimate Temptation in the Wilderness for an avant-garde big band leader - the chance of a major record deal and PR campaign.
Now Ra sits in an ancient Packard convertible with Thoth and Horus as his masked minders, making a royal progress through the streets of Oakland. The bemused population stares. Jimmy, in radio reporter mode, asks him why he's talking to ghetto blacks. "The black man needs to feed upon the food of discipline and research and science... the people have no music that is in coordination with their spirits..."
Cut to the street boys in the youth centre, listening to the show, as Fey plugs a new Sun Ra album. An angry young blood decides that Ra has sold out to the capitalist neo-colonialist establishment! At one level the notion that Ra's avant sounds could be top-40 fare is a joke; but the scene also underscores the ambivalent relationship that he had with the political rhetoric of the Black Power movement and specifically the Oakland Black Panthers, who at one stage had housed the Arkestra - and then evicted them for being ideologically unsound.
The Overseer and Ra still play their games, wagering their bets on "Earthly Delights" versus "Altered Destiny." In a pool hall a drunken pimp describes how he beat up his "bitch" for not turning enough tricks. This, says the Overseer, is the human material that Ra has to alter. Ra isn't deflected from his mission. He plays his Joker and demands a live concert.
The Overseer and his girls arrive at an up-market brothel where he has arranged rest and recreation for the NASA agents. Once again the women seem ready to entertain Jimmy and again the Overseer excludes him from the bedroom. When the agents arrive and clumsily try to start partying , Candy (the black girl) jokes about "rocket experts that can't get it up." The farce turns ugly as the enraged agents give all the women a savage bloody beating.
But Ra is raising the vibe with the Arkestra, then symbolically raising the dead. "Forces have been set in motion..." In a rite that recalls the Adeptus Minor Ritual of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a grey-faced figure (perhaps Ra's chief acolyte Marshall Allen) lies in a coffin. Ra gestures, hooded figures dance in front of a hieroglyphic mural to empower a resurrection. Appropriately the scene was shot in the Pyramid Vault of the Rosicrucian Society in San Jose.
Then we're suddenly back on the street as Ra is bundled into a van, kidnapped by the agents in order to sabotage the concert. The street boys hot-wire a Studebaker and set off in pursuit. Meanwhile in a empty warehouse Ra is tied up and urgently interrogated by the agents. "There's an African Space Program, isn't there?" Anticipating the psy-ops techniques of the CIA in Panama and elsewhere, they bombard him with music - in this case a tinny brass-band recording of Dixie. But when they go off to a burger bar, the boys mount a rescue. Now there's another generic element in the narrative mix, a staple ingredient of rock'n'roll movies - will Ra make the big gig on time?
At the packed auditorium, Jimmy Fey is out front, trying to pacify a restless crowd with bad comedy routines. The Overseer orders him to send the people home. But Ra arrives, with more capes and cloaks than James Brown, to an Apollo-type reception. He leads the Arkestra into a slow call-and-response chant with June Tyson, punctuated by screeching horns and mystery chords, a deep space sermon. The agents, waiting in the wings , try to take Ra out with a pistol shot. One of the street boys blocks it, saving Ra, but losing his own life. It's time for Ra to go but it's also time up for Planet Earth. Inviting a small group of the youths and girls aboard the ship , he takes off. On the control room monitor, he watches the Earth explode.
Some critics, despising the low budget production values and/or disturbed by the music, suggest that the film is only a sci-fi spoof, an Ed Wood style freakshow, and that Sun Ra is merely a comic turn dispensing loony-toon metaphysics . But Ra's screen presence, his combination of composure and gnomic wit gives it an odd centre of gravity. The pre-digital blue screen FX - perhaps because they are so obviously a convention - seem to allow a greater suspension of disbelief than the elaborate CGI confections of blockbuster sci-fi while its conflation of clashing genre expectations and sudden shifts of tone only reinforce its subversive effect. "Surreal" is an over-hyped marketing term these days but the film is truly surrealist (in Andre Breton's sense) in its vision of a heightened dream-like reality breaking through daily life on the streets.
And the conundrums of the movie match the paradoxes of Ra's life and work. He explored the ancient heritage of African percussion while pioneering the use of synthesizers and electronic keyboards. An icon of radical black culture, he questioned some of the assumptions of progressive black politics , especially as the mass black audience ignored the challenge of his music. Regarded by the media (when he was regarded at all) as prophet of " the new thing" and " free jazz'" he was steeped in the lore and craft of pre-war big bands like Fletcher Henderson and rehearsed his players for hours at a time, demanding a mastery of complex scores that often stretched them to the limits of their technique. The Arkestra were kings of infinite space but there was never much bread working with Sunny...
While I was in San Francisco, one of the bass players I worked with, Joe McKinley, played with him on a permanent basis until Sun Ra missed a couple of paydays. Joe said he was cheap and tight. I don't remember any pay from my stint... when he came to San Francisco State with the large band and entourage of wives and girl friends, during solos, the women would go out into audience and sell their paintings, art, batiks, etc.. (John Celona)
His concept of discipline extended beyond the purely musical, to demand a personal commitment and even a monkish communal life-style for core members of the band. Drugs and booze were banned. Neophytes earned the chance to play through performing mundane chores like carrying instruments or guarding the door during all night rehearsals. The brief grainy "home movies' of The Arkestra on tour show them in procession up the slopes of the Great Pyramid or dancing across a bridge in the twilight, following Ra on his mystic pilgrimage into the unknown.
The aspirational drive in Ra's music is perhaps an overlooked aspect of his legacy. Since Space is the Place was made, black American astronauts have crewed the Space Shuttle (two of them, Ronald McNair and Michael Anderson, have died in flight) but much of black American popular culture over the last decade seems to have drifted into a routine commodification of violence and misogyny. Ra has been called "the missing link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy" and there's a clear connection between Ra's affirmation of blackness and Chuck D's assertion of black autonomy. However, one can't imagine Ra being very impressed by Snoop Dogg or Fifty Cents or the whole "bling" sub culture of consumerism that surrounds newer mutations like gangsta rap. Following the mythic logic of the film, the Gangsta with his guns, hos and bitches is the Overseer in new threads. Sun Ra's constant motivation was force people to look beyond the stereotypical role they had been given and create new identities for themselves - just as he, Herman Poole "Sunny" Blount from Alabama, had done.
Since his death in 1993, Ra's influence has been identified everywhere, from Coltrane to the MC5, from Sonic Youth to George Clinton. I've even done my own one-man tribute. Space is the Place inevitably doesn't do justice to the range of his output (across seventy albums) or to the full perplexity of the Sun Ra mindscape. But this Unclassifiable Filmic Object repays close Contact...
© Paul A Green 2005
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