It’s part avant garde jazz concert, part low budget blaxploitation movie, part UFO cult propaganda video. (Outlaw Vern)
This is another one of those posts where I basically say, “Just go read this other guy’s review.” Outlaw Vern’s review covers most of the interesting angles that I could think of, and he was actually able to follow the plot much better than I was. The quote above is a pretty good compressed synopsis of what the film is up to. The other thing I would add is that the complete movie is currently available on YouTube, which is how I watched it. And it’s well worth watching! It is a crazy-unique film. I’ve never seen anything else like it.
I can’t remember where I first heard of the film, but after reading Vern’s review I discovered that I already had it saved on Netflix in case they ever picked it up on DVD. (Which they still haven’t done.) When I posted about it on Facebook, a friend pointed me to YouTube, so to heck with Netflix. Sun Ra is someone I’ve been wanting to check out for a long time, but his music catalog is so vast that it’s been difficult to know where to start. Watching the film has actually gotten me started on the process of trying to figure that out. In reading about him on the internet I’ve learned more about his history and about the development of his fascination with science fiction, Egyptology, and the ideas of folks like Madame Blavatsky, as well as with the different phases of his musical career.
I’ve written elsewhere about the connection between science fiction and Madame Blavatsky, and Sun Ra fits right into that universe. One of the things that caught my eye in the credits of Space Is the Place is a thank you to the Rosicrucians, and apparently there’s a scene in the movie that was shot at a Rosicrucian temple in the Bay Area. (The film was basically a production of a Bay Area PBS station.) The melange of pseudo-scientific ideas espoused in Space Is the Place really are more religious than scientific. They have a crank or crackpot quality to them, but leavened with a good sense of humor and theatricality.
The blacksploitation element of the film is just as weird as the sci fi religious aspect. There’s some casual female nudity (and one bare male ass) that feels strangely out of place, but it’s also part of a larger theme of black degradation that Sun Ra, in the story, is attempting to alleviate. The women are used as sex objects, and the film exploits their nudity and sexuality, but we also see them beaten bloody by two white men (after the women snicker at their inability to get it up) and treated with contempt by the satanic black figure who is trying to defeat Sun Ra in a kind of wager or game for the souls of black people. Two of the women are accepted by Sun Ra for migration to the planet where select black people will be liberated from their earthly chains, but of course the white woman doesn’t make the cut. The politics of all this is very knotty and unusual.
This is an extremely low budget film, and it feels amateurish because of that and because of its unorthodox/crackpot ideas. That is, it’s amateurish in the sense of a labor of love, not of commerce. The unorthodoxy is expressing a singular vision that gives the movie real power. It has deep roots in dreamland, and it lets you know it. “Your ignorance will be your salvation!”
[Screencaps from Barger’s Jazz Boutique.]