Men in Orbit (1979)

Film exists in a lot of odd little categories.

Like any other art form, it can be driven by all sorts of strange circumstances, whether strong personalities, odd opportunities, or a particular place and time that brought certain things together. The results are often interesting, but rarely satisfying for outsiders.

For about a decade (75-85 or thereabouts), a few theaters and art programs in New York city sparked what was called the No Wave movement.  The feature length films they created were made with minimal means, on near-zero budgets, usually on Super 8 film.

One of these young filmmakers was John Lurie, best remembered for his musical work and his starring role in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise.  When assigned to make a film in an art class, he got together with several of his friends and created this forty-minute film in a New York apartment.  Using whatever odds and ends they had at hand, they turned the tiny apartment into a space capsule, with Lurie and fellow No-Waver, Eric Mitchell, as astronauts.

Considering its cheapjack origins, the opening is moderately impressive, as stock footage shots of a rocket on its launchpad (not the Saturn V shown taking off later in the film) alternate with shots of his astronauts walking through what looks like a hospital corridor, to a strong guitar and drum accompaniment.  After a brief medical check, we see shots of mission control, and then the astronauts in their capsule.

Curiously, the film has a certain visual appeal, as the camera seems to drift around the capsule, creating a feeling of weightlessness.  But Mitchell has a bad case of the giggles, probably caused by the fact that both actors just took a tab of LSD!

What happens in the rest of the film is remarkably banal. Mitchell complains to the unseen voice of Mission Control that Lurie won’t talk to him; they carry out mundane tasks like eating burgers out of styrofoam boxes, shaving and taking a nap; they talk to their wives; smoke constantly; and struggle to use the bathroom facilities, all with a constant running commentary on their actions to Mission Control. In the end they decide to stay in space.

And that’s about it.

Those of us who grew up in the Seventies will find this banal chatter familiar, as this was the routine of every space mission, where the crew constantly updates Mission Control on their smallest tasks.  By then a lot of people were aware of how dull of space travel could be, a reality reflected in John Carpenter’s Dark Star, and Alien (which came out the same year as Lurie’s film.  But wasn’t quite as ironic).

While Men In Orbit was one of the best remembered of these No Wave films, it was considered lost until Lurie turned up a videotape copy.  He himself didn’t think the film was that important, but it has now been safely preserved for the ages, thanks in part to the Orphan Film Project, who included it in their Orphans In Space DVD set.

If they’d been a little more disciplined, with less improvisation and a stronger script (and not laughing so hard at their own jokes!), this could have been a far better film.  As it is, it is curious oddity and mostly of interest as a relic of its age.

It certainly isn’t for the average viewer.

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