Part 11: Visions from the edge of a genre
Pretty much from science fiction’s start as a genre, its fans have played border patrol, making distinctions between hard and soft science fiction, science fantasy, space opera, and so forth, one subgenre after another. Such distinctions can be useful, particularly when there’s no judgment attached to them. There’s a big difference between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke pondering what might be out there and what it might mean in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the way Star Wars follows Flash Gordon’s lead in transporting swashbuckling fantasies into outer space, but that has nothing to do with either film’s quality. (In many respects, Star Wars serves as the fulcrum for the period covered in this column, the point at which the science fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s gives way to the science fantasy of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But we’ll get to that.) Yet even the most scrupulous taxonomy has its outliers, some of which reside so deep in the outer limits that they don’t seem to belong to science fiction at all.
Often that’s because they actually don’t belong there, or at least don’t worry too much about fitting in. Some are the works of creators happy to take what they need from science fiction and leave the rest. For the 1968 feature Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime (which Michel Gondry has cited as an influence on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), Alain Resnais collaborated with French science-fiction writer Jacques Sternberg to create a story using a familiar science-fiction element—time travel—toward unfamiliar ends. As the film opens, Claude Ridder (Claude Rich) is finishing a hospital stay after a suicide attempt. Released to his own devices, he’s almost immediately set upon by a group of scientists seeking a human subject for their experiments in traveling to the past, having previously limited themselves to mice. With nothing to lose, Claude agrees, allowing them to escort him to a room dominated by a giant object that looks a bit like a carefully arranged stack of raw chicken, hooked up to wires. Inside, he finds a couch-like object so perfectly fitted to his body, it might have grown around him. He sinks into it, and soon disappears into the past.
At this point, Resnais hasn’t yet strayed too far from venerable science-fiction tropes, but he soon does. The science here is a means to a metaphorical end, a way to explore how we remember the past through methods available only to movies. Claude awakens one year earlier, in times that seem happier. Rising from the sea after snorkeling, he greets his lover, Catrine (Olga Georges-Picot), and they talk about their plans for the rest of the day. Then the film jumps back to the present, briefly showing Claude in the time machine before repeating the moment. Then repeating it again, each time joining the scene at a different point. It isn’t the last time the film shows that beach, or the lovers’ seemingly innocuous exchanges. Claude revisits it throughout the film, replaying it without variation. Yet it takes on a new meaning each time. Adrift in time, Claude revisits other moments of his life: his work at a publisher, his first meeting with Catrine, their last encounter (Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime waits to explain her absence), tender moments on a train, fractious moments behind closed doors. Resnais flits from one scene in their relationship to another, sometimes letting them play out in their entirety, sometimes showing only a few seconds before cutting away, other times returning to show more of what he’s previously only shown in part.
It’s a movie very much made in the editing room, in sync with contemporaneous experiments in editing like Richard Lester’s Petulia and John Boorman’s Point Blank. Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime goes further, however. As with Last Year At Marienbad, Resnais is less interested in telling a straightforward story than he is in finding ways to fold a story into itself. Unlike with Marienbad, it’s possible to untangle Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime, but it’s more effective, and moving, as a tangle. It’s easy to enough to figure out what happens to Claude and Catrine. The mystery is in why. Writing about the story in Film Comment, David Gregory Lawson observed:
The time-travel premise evokes the habit of replaying one’s personal failures, the need to supply some sort of narrative to heartache and true love alike. But it is still impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when Claude and Catrine began to drift apart, where the resentment sprouted from, and just as impossible, time travel be damned, to nail down that moment and examine it: as with scanning back and forth through the same few seconds of film, you can only find that moment in stillness, in retrospect.
Even if time could be compartmentalized into a series of moments, the symmetrical gig lamps Virginia Woolf dismissed with such annoyance, there’s no containing what happens between those moments. Events can be captured, replayed, and scrutinized ad infinitum, but they often keep their meanings to themselves. “We are, the movie reminds us, what we remember, with a consciousness built from reminiscences that flicker, fade and repeat, flicker, fade and repeat. It’s no wonder that movies enthrall us! Cinema is a time machine,” Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times. For all its wild imagery and lab-coat-clad scientists, Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime is ultimately about much more common forms of time travel.
Dargis wrote about the film on the occasion of its long-delayed American première. Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime played France, but never made it to American theaters (beyond a belated screening at the New York Film Festival two years later) or any form of home video until it played a handful of 2014 dates in major cities. By then, it had become something of a time machine itself, a reminder that even striking films from great directors could get lost, and look even better—and as radical as any contemporary work—when rediscovered. Resnais, who worked until his death at age 91, was still alive when Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime played Film Forum in New York in February. He died as it started to make its way across the country, suggesting to those who saw it that time is far too mysterious to only move in one direction, and that the past never dies. It resurfaces, when least expected, to exert its pull.
Je T’Aime, Je T’Aime’s semi-lost status probably owes something to the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, where it was scheduled to compete. Five years later, Cannes proved much kinder to Fantastic Planet, awarding a Special Jury Prize to the animated feature set far from Earth in a future that finds humanity living as barely tolerated pests on a planet of gigantic blue aliens. Adapted from the 1957 novel Oms En Série by Stefan Wul, the film reunited animator René Laloux and writer/cartoonist Roland Topor, who previously collaborated on a pair of surreal, satirical short films. A past collaborator of Alejandro Jodorowsky and a future collaborator of Roman Polanski (who adapted his novel The Tenant) and Werner Herzog (who cast him as Renfield in his remake of Nosferatu), Topor had earned a reputation as an enfant terrible, a term that followed him until the end of his life, turning up in the lede of a 1997 obituary. Topor’s art is sometimes reminiscent of work by Charles Addams and Gahan Wilson; it has a strong morbid streak, a quality that surfaces throughout Fantastic Planet.
But other qualities dominate the film. Taking cues from Gulliver’s Travels, Fantastic Planet considers what it means to be human by taking humanity out of its usual context. Way out of it. The humans who have survived some unspecified disaster on Earth live as wild creatures, and occasionally as pets, of the Draags, blue-skinned, big-eyed humanoids with little regard for the little people they call Oms. As the film opens, a young Om mother runs with her infant son, attempting to climb a hill, only to be repeatedly flicked down to its base by a giant finger. A later shot reveals that the finger belongs to a Draag child, treating the Oms the way human children treat ants—as amusing playthings whose lives are of little consequence. After their rough play kills the mother, an adolescent Draag named Tiva, daughter of the Draags’ Great Master, takes the orphaned baby home, dresses him up, and names him Terr, never considering that her actions could have momentous consequences.
As the film progresses, Laloux and Topor reveal more details of life on the Draags’ planet, both for humans and its native residents. For the latter, it’s mostly boring, or at least non-eventful. Draag children learn automatically via “infos.” Draag adults mostly check out, leaving their bodies through meditation. Humans have it rougher. Those in the Draags’ care enjoy little freedom. Those in the wild live in tribes, hovering together in fear and superstition. In time, Terr becomes a Prometheus-like figure, learning alongside Tiva and bringing the information to the wild humans in hopes of liberating them, a process that meets with considerable resistance from Draags and Oms alike.
Fantastic Planet has developed a reputation as a head film. Roger Corman distributed it in the States, it aired on the USA Network’s stoner-friendly Night Flight series in the 1980s, and Jennifer Lopez’s character can be seen unwinding to it in The Cell. Nothing in the film discourages this. The combination of Alain Goraguer’s hypnotic jazz-funk score—itself something of a cult item—a deliberate pace, a far-out world populated with unusual creatures, and philosophizing about The Big Questions all but guarantee it would find that kind of following. So does the combination of Topor’s art and Laloux’s paper cut-out animation, which sometimes resembles psychedelic woodcuts in motion.
It’s a head film with an agenda, however, one unabashedly on the side of those who stand up to oppression, even at the cost of their own lives. Laloux made the film with Czech animators who, five years after the Prague Spring, probably had specific models in mind for those with their fingers on the restraining collars that keep the Oms in line. The film is vague enough not to offend anyone in particular, which has also helped keep it timely, applicable to any situation in which an underclass struggles against those who refuse to see them as equals, or maybe just can’t. It’s also timely because of its curiously hopeful ending, which finds a peaceful end to the conflict between Oms and Draags. In an otherwise-positive review for The New York Times, Howard Thompson complained of its “tame windup” that “dampens and flattens” the film. Yet at the tail end of a story that pits savage humans against cerebral, often pitiless aliens, an ending that sounds a hopeful note counts as a final surprise. We might never find such endings on Earth, but perhaps it’s not too much to hope for better possibilities in the stars.
Fantastic Planet wasn’t alone in looking up and out in search of a better world. The jazz musician Sun Ra had been looking beyond Earth for years. His whole life, really: Though records show him as being born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914, by his own account, Sun Ra came from Saturn, and would one day return there. Over the years, Ra developed a cosmology combining elements of Freemasonry (the black-run Masonic temple was one of the easier places for an African-American kid to read books where he grew up), Egyptology, UFOlogy, Theosophy, numerology, and any other elements that fit his particular way of seeing the universe, one deeply concerned with finding a world where people of color had a better shot at happiness than in this one.
His music matched his thinking. A childhood prodigy and gifted keyboardist, Ra could play mainstream jazz beautifully, as evidenced on albums like 1959’s Jazz In Silhouette. But Ra wasn’t interested in mainstream jazz, or mainstream anything. He wanted to explore music’s far reaches—bringing in everything from big-band to Latin rhythms to discordant free jazz, and recording a decades-spanning discography filled with titles like The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Cosmic Tones For Mental Therapy, and Art Forms Of Dimensions Tomorrow. To that end, he assembled a like-minded crew he dubbed his Arkestra, and he moved them from city to city and held them to a strict code of conduct and discipline. Biographer John Szwed describes life with Sun Ra as more than a gig. Members of Ra’s Arkestra committed themselves to a way of life that included middle-of-the-night lectures on arcane subjects. The lineup fluctuated, but many stayed with him for years.
For Ra, spreading the word and making music were one and the same, and his message often presented what’s out there as better than what’s down here, a cosmic ideal to which Earthlings should aspire—even if he didn’t officially count himself among their number. To that end, Ra never tried to find common ground with popular culture, but for a little while, pop culture moved in his direction. Rolling Stone put Ra on the cover of a 1969 issue, helping bring his sounds to a receptive counterculture. Around the same time, Miles Davis started to make inroads into the rock world via Bitches Brew. Where Ra and his Arkestra’s outrageous stage garb once set them apart, they didn’t look as strange amid the funky, Afrocentric black fashions of the early 1970s. Sun Ra remained a freak, but the world around him had tuned in to his particular strain of freakiness. But was it ready to go to space? In interviews, Ra spoke of transporting his followers to space “mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
“You might think I’m kidding,” he told Rolling Stone. “But I’m not.”
Filmed in the early 1970s, but never much seen until it appeared on VHS in the 1990s (shorn of 20 minutes) and on DVD in the early 2000s (restored to its full running time), Space Is The Place puts that message to film. Inspired in equal parts of by blaxploitation and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the film casts Ra as himself, a mystical musician in a cosmic struggle with the wicked Overseer (Raymond Johnson) for the fate of humanity. After a long absence, Ra descends into Oakland via a spaceship that looks like a giant pair of eyes, and sets to recruiting others to the cause of interplanetary relocation by opening an Outer Space Employment Agency. He meets resistance, however, both from those interested in keeping the inner city in thrall to vice, and from NASA agents who want to keep the secrets of space travel all to themselves. (Asked if white people will have a place in his cosmic utopia, Ra brushes the question aside, noting that white people have gone to space already. “They take frequent trips to the moon. I notice none of you have been invited.”)
The sole directorial effort of John Coney, Space Is The Place combines concert footage, action scenes, dream sequences, and science-fiction elements, with mixed success. Ra’s performances—colorful costumes and all—translate beautifully to film, but awkward elements like a subplot involving a brothel favored by lecherous NASA scientists seems like the stuff of another movie. The film gets the spirit right, however, conveying Ra’s conviction about space’s infinite possibilities, and the interplanetary transportive potential of music. It’s never more affecting than in its opening moments, which depict Sun Ra bedecked in an Egyptian headdress on another planet, the promised land he’d been talking about for years, saying, “The music is different here. The vibrations are different. Not like Planet Earth. Planet Earth sounds of guns, anger, and frustration.” He’d found a place on his own wavelength, one science fiction pointed him toward, even if he had to follow his own path to get there.
Next: Feeling gravity’s pull