The difference between an “eccentric” and a poseur is, I think, a matter of empathy. An eccentric inspires fondness and even a little reverence, in part because the true eccentric isn’t putting on airs. He really is what he is. A poseur does it for the attention, and in such a way that you can tell they could just as easily be doing anything else.
Jazzman / bandleader / multimedia artist Sun Ra was as genuine an eccentric as could be, in much the same way that Wesley Willis or Jandek or Armand Schaubroeck were unfakeable. Any one of them could have taken shorter roads to drawing attention to themselves, but all of them, Ra included, wanted to express what they felt was themselves rather than simply wink at the audience. And when Ra did wink at the audience, it was in such a way that it didn’t blow his cover. His showmanship was not a pose in itself, but one of the genuine forms his eccentricity took—something, again, that can’t be faked.
Sun Ra left behind tons of evidence that he was the real deal.Among them was this one-of-a-kind 1974 feature film which has since gone on to be the most enthusiastically-discussed and least-experienced component of Sun Ra’s entire catalog (barring, maybe, the Nuclear War album which languished in limbo for years on end as well). Space Is The Place, like Sun Ra itself, cheerfully defies categorization: it’s a symbolism-laden art film along the lines of El Topo; an homage to both cheapie and high-concept SF movies (The Day The Earth Stood Still, Plan Nine From Outer Space); a blaxploitation flick; a softcore T&A reel; a concert performance film; a socially-conscious “message” picture; a Man-Is-Gonna-Getcha conspiracy thriller; an Everything-You-Know-Is-Wrong exposé / documentary … by the time you’ve enumerated all the things the film contains, you’ve almost run out of ways to talk about what the film is.
Space Is The Place is many things; boring isn’t one of them. It’s impossible to predict within the context of any one scene what we’re going to experience next, and so what it doesn’t have in coherence it more than makes up for in variety and loopy humor. It opens with Sun Ra and members of his “Intergalactic Solar Arkestra” on what I assume is another planet, an Eden-like environment of harmony and natural beauty. Ra cannot abide by the idea that brother men may be suffering down on earth, so he climbs into his spaceship (which has a cockpit outfitted like a pimp’s rumpus room, complete with color TV and eight-track tape player) and flies to earth with the aid of cheesy special effects to offer his brothers a chance to ascend to a world of their own.
More plot than that would be impossible to relate, as the film turns into a series of allegorical / comic-sketch vignettes that detail Sun Ra’s experiences trying to bring his message to the people. He’s harassed by the government and misunderstood by his own people, but through it all he radiates calm, looking authoritative and wise even when decked out in his Techno-Egyptian getup and tooling around in an oversized Caddy. (The prices at the gas pumps read $3.50 and up, which I am not entirely sure was something staged for the film, and which oddly enough makes it all seem less dated, not more.) The most symbolic of the scenes involve him in a card-game duel of wills and wits with the sinister Overseer (Ray Johnson), a “pimp/overlord” who represents, I guess, the antithesis of black liberation. The end of the movie is appropriately Seventies-cynical: after a good deal of struggle, Ra does bring back a cadre of faithful with him—but the rest of the planet seems more interested in blowing itself up than learning from his work.
What struck me most about Space was not the sheer eccentricity of the ingredients or the almost total lack of a plot, but the tone of the film. It’s clearly been informed by the black-cinema “message” movies of the period (everything from Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Assss Song forward), but it’s got a more playful, tongue-in-cheek attitude towards its own material than many other movies in the same rubric. I suspect Sun Ra took himself just seriously enough to know when not to take himself seriously at all, and left it to his audience, whatever color (or species) they might be, to fill in the gaps and create their own interpretation. His eccentricity runs through this film in more than just its visuals, and he also supplies plenty of his music—enough to see why he and his Arkestra acquired a cult following that continues as long as his records remain in print.
Few people got to see Space the first time around in ’74—it must have seemed unmarketable—and when it did surface again in 1992, it was on VHS and in a cut-down version that threw out some of the racier subplots. Ironically, that material had been added by the director (John Coney) against Sun Ra’s wishes, presumably as a way to make it more marketable—in much the same way the gorier material in Gerard Kargl’s still-largely-unseen Angst was added by the producers as a bid for more box office. The long version is the one Plexifilm picked for its DVD reissue, although I suspect they may not have had much choice in the matter given the film’s rarity. Having it in any form is worth it, if only for the sake of convincing others it is indeed possible to make a film like this with a 95% straight face.