by Tony Schwab, staff writer
“A Space Program,” the new film by sculptor Tom Sachs and documentarian Van Neistat, shows an entire simulated space expedition to Mars, undertaken with a 1:1 replica of a NASA Apollo lunar module constructed by Sachs. Actors take the place of astronauts, technicians and mechanics and explain their often very specialized jobs. A series of extremely charismatic narrators explain the mission at each step. An audience watches, and cheers when the most difficult procedures are accomplished. The launch, half educational and half performance art, comes together into a movie that captures the wonder of space better than the vast majority of sic-fi films.
Sachs has a great love of the many textures and surfaces that make up the NASA station. There are sections of the film devoted to an explaining the many uses of steel, the superiority of plywood and the many layers of a NASA space suit. Each of these seems too detailed to be completely made up, and yet not quite right. As with the rest of the film, there is half sincerity to these lectures.
The soundtrack of the movie is remarkable. It plays like a catalogue of every sound ever used to represent space. There are simple bells, talking computers, electric guitars, unspecified clicks and a huge range of synthesizers.
The film can best be understood as a sort of dramatic recreation of a space launch, of the type found in museums. Like these, it aims to entertain its viewers by both building up the accomplishments of space travel and by cutting these down to size with humor. It brings this tone perfectly when, at the end of the launch, the astronauts step out and greet the viewers, smiling like heroes. The movie then shows the station bare, except for a janitor. It seems the movie will go out on a simple, touching note. Then that least understated of rock songs, Debaser by The Pixies, blares over the end credits.
The two influences that seem most clear are Guy Maddin and Errol Morris. Like Maddin, Sachs loves to constantly change visual patterns, and to go on long digressions. Like Errol Morris he loves to humorously blend fiction and documentary. Like the work of both Maddin and Morris, A Space Program is the work of a clear obsessive, meticulously devoted to making every detail of his work totally personal.
The movie is clearly very unique. Whether it is enjoyable is another more complicated matter. At only 72 minutes, it is somewhat repetitive. Beautiful images and music can only go so far when the narrative is so vaguely defined. The movie is not exactly slow, but hazy. Watching it gives one the feeling of having stumbled upon a very obscure public access station.