A Space Program

The artist Tom Sachs and his team of bricoleurs build a handmade space program and send two female astronauts to Mars

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  • ★★★★½ review by Joe on Letterboxd

    "Permission to press play." "Permission granted."

    Has a very funny, deadpan sensibility that is like music to my soul, and pulls off the simultaneous trick of documenting a cool art installation depicting a homemade mission to Mars.

    Possible advertising tagline: "You'll laugh at a cartoon drawing of an astronaut hanging herself."

  • ★★★★★ review by Dave Starsign on Letterboxd

    It must first be said that I am biased. I've been an art lover for most of my life. Tom Sachs is one of my favorite artists. There's something very 90's in his work. I say this because it was when musicians like Beck were creating work that was based on a pastiche of different influences and Michel Gondry, the filmmaker, was making his name as one of the most inventive, clever and quirky music video directors during the last creative era of MTV (that would eventually end around the turn of the new millennium).

    One of the joys of the internet as we've come to experience it in the last few years is how easily available videos have become. I remember when everything had to load, the quality was low and it was just a reality that video content was going to be the most compromised. I somehow stumbled upon the old Nutsy's World videos about 6 years ago. They were low quality but brilliant. There was one of a toy race car track where the players put money on the cars and drove them to a weed dealer who was djing behind a bar. There was another one of a tiny version of a self-made McDonalds. And there was one of the biggest boombox on the planet that required about 5 people to push it down the street.

    Shortly after, I started seeing really creative videos on YouTube about two brothers racing around Manhattan; one on a bike, the other on a motorcycle. Then there was the one where they were stealing bikes and nobody was paying any attention to them. These two jesters were Van and Casey Neistat, who as it turned out, both worked for Tom Sachs and created the Nutsy's World videos. Van seemed like the more charismatic of the two, Casey seemed like a troublemaker.

    In the years since, Van has sort of gone awol from social media, while Casey has embraced the possibilities, building a fan base with his witty videos until he eventually started daily vlogging and his subscribers grew so much that he's now one of YouTube's most famous celebrities. I still have not idea what happened between Van and Casey, but it seems like they don't really speak much to each other, much less, collaborate. I was a fan of Casey's early videos but the daily vlogs tend to retread a lot of similar territory. Because Van has become kind of mysterious, I'm always on the lookout for anything he's done.

    He's since collaborated with Tom, making the amazing "Ten Bullets" video, as well as "A Love Letter To Plywood", "How To Sweep" and "Color". I'm impressed with how spontaneous, how funny and intelligent they are. There are some allusions to Eames's industrials, Sesame Street animations, and Michel Gondry-like craftiness. In the world of high art, Sachs is probably considered the lowest brow of the high art scene. He and his staff of "bricoleurs" have created everything from handmade guns to a scaled version of an aircraft carrier but perhaps his most ambitious work of art was the Space Program exhibit.

    This film serves as a documentation of the exhibition, which is an interactive presentation, where a more theatrical performance unfolds but it also mixes in crudely made stop motion animation, has excerpts of Ten Bullets ("sent does not mean received", "sacrifice to leatherface"), Love Letter To Plywood and there's even an Eames industrial segment for an IBM film thrown in. Much like Wes Anderson or Woody Allen, Sachs and Neistat have created their own world vision and it's a fun and refreshing ride.

    I saw Tom Sachs give a presentation in Austin where he announced that the Boombox Retrospective was coming and that A Space Program would be premiering at SXSW the next year. I went to the World Premier of the film during SXSW and I loved it. Being pretty familiar with his work and his videos, A Space Program was like an expanded version of A Love Letter To Plywood. How would I describe this film to someone who has no idea of Sachs or Neistat's work? I liken it to the Max Fisher Productions in the movie Rushmore. Fisher is a precocious but academically terrible high school student who loves starting clubs and putting on stage plays of films like Serpico and Apocalypse Now. They're very cleverly done, despite their limited resources. The sets in A Space Program are actually the art pieces themselves. They were built using plywood, steel pipes and an assortment of umbrellas, tv sets, dj mixers, a winnebago and even an atari video game.

    It works perfectly. It's roughly made, but so well-thought out, that it manages to satisfy both audiences who admire the craftsmanship and artistry of the "set pieces" and those who appreciate fun storytelling. The artist takes the art seriously enough to matter, but not to the point of being pretentious. My dad, who is pretty creative in a more blue collar, less academic type of way, loves the Tom Sachs works of art I've shown him. He was impressed by the skill and technique but got a kick out of how tongue in cheek it all was. I feel like fans of This Old House would still enjoy Sachs's work.

    This second time watching the film was actually better than the first because the audience was so into it. We were laughing the whole time. It's a really funny film. Which is refreshing (to use that word again) because most art "documentaries" are so precious and serious. The genius of the film is that it's not a straight-forward document of the art installation with talking heads and interviews (well, not the usual kind anyway). It almost feels like a mockumentary in the vein of This is Spinal Tap where things are absurd, but there's no winking at the audience. The closest comparison I can draw is to Orson Welles's "F For Fake", a brilliant "film essay" which is part documentary of two fakers (an art forger and a writer who later turns out to be a con man himself). I rented that film on a whim when it was only available on VHS because the video store (Vulcan Video for anyone from Austin) I went to had such an interesting recommendation from the staff, I wanted to see it, even though I'd never heard of it. In F For Fake, Welles presents the film in an unconventional, revolutionary way. This film was made in 1975 but it looked ahead of its time. There was so much frenetic editing, he pauses the film as he narrates, often times looking right at the camera from his editing bay, and he also tacks on other segments that are purely fictional onto a quote-unquote documentary. The experience is unique and memorable. It creates a different category and it's a fun ride. A Space Program is similar in its unconventional approach and how fun it is to watch the whole thing unfold. There's a bit of mischievous creativity going on. One of my favorite sequences was the launching of the vessel into space. Sachs made use of security cameras, walkie talkies and a control console that looks and sounds pretty convincing as a low budget replica of a NASA station. He uses mirrors and a propane torch to simulate the boosters igniting, and clever uses of cameras placed on toy rockets, fog machines and a globe rising from a static low angle camera to simulate the vessel leaving earth on its way to Mars. The rest of the film's plot is essentially irrelevant. Two women will colonize Mars to harvest opium. That's about it, but how it tells the story, the little details in their space suits, the materials used to create the props, the landing of the capsule, all of those things are captured brilliantly. I have no idea how much distribution this film is getting, but judging from what I've seen, it's probably limited. I hope this film will eventually make its way to a larger platform because it's a cult film in the making.

  • ★★★★½ review by Jared Duesterhaus on Letterboxd

    Tom Sachs regenerates my soul.

  • ★★★★½ review by Adrian Charlie on Letterboxd

    Originally posted this as part of my SXSW coverage in 2015 for NextProjection.com nextprojection.com/2015/05/30/sxsw-space-program-review-np-approved/

    Count this as my favorite discovery at SXSW. A Space Program will polarize audiences. In fact, many people walked out during the World Premiere screening. The mockumentary/performance piece is sci-fi by way of Wes Anderson. Writers and directors Van Neistat and Tom Sachs constructed the basics required for space travel: space shuttle, space suits, communication devices and an elaborate control room all in the style of 1970s NASA. For example, the members of the control room wear their hair short, wear horned rimmed glasses and drink a lot of coffee.

    The mission is to send two women to Mars and to answer the question, “Are we alone?” The audience is treated to introductions from every member of the team. The introductions may throw off some of the audience because the engineers talk about building a spacecraft out of fragile materials like plywood and other materials that would not survive space travel. There should be no remaining questions about the tone, style and direction once the shuttle launch sequence is over. By this point you’re in or you’re out, hopefully the former. A Space Program serves as an artistic performance piece with many moving parts. Everyone involved is invested 100%, following Sachs’s and Neistat’s vision with such devotion that for a while the audience will forget they’re watching a performance.

    The set and spacecraft design is meticulous. Sachs is a renowned contemporary artist. Part of the fun of watching this film involves recognizing childhood toys used as part of mission control’s elaborate control center. The spacecraft and panels appear basic on the surface but much work went into each piece. Wes Anderson is a filmmaker known for attention to detail in his films and these sets feel reminiscent of one of his films. Not to take credit from either artist, that’s meant as an observation and as a compliment. For example, a landing procedure is handled by the old Atari game, Lunar Lander. The landing sequence is absolutely hysterical as the film treats it as a major set piece. The sequence is funny, suspenseful and highly effective. There are more set pieces like this that we have seen from the likes of 60s/70s era NASA films. There is no doubt that Sachs is winking at the era, having a lot of fun with it but never disrespecting that era.

    The entire performance takes place on a stage with a live audience. Remember that iconic sequence when Michael Bay launched his oil drillers into space in Armageddon? Sachs puts his spin on that sequence by using simple tools such as a miniature rocket model with a man firing a blowtorch to simulate the takeoff shots. The audience is also treated to hand-drawn shots that would otherwise serve as storyboard in other films, but those drawings serve as the shot on the big screen. Some of this is also handled by a man wearing black gloves and a long sleeve black shirt to simulate a spacecraft flying in space. Again, this sounds absurd but it works beautifully on screen.

    Those craving a complex, character, dialogue driven narrative may be disappointed with A Space Program. All members of the mission are important, yet there’s little room to pick a favorite. Each person is vital to the mission and each gets their time to shine. The mission and story are simple: send two women to Mars and bring them home. Many of the space exploration beats are present: friction in the spacecraft, landing on an alien planet and the suspense of whether they’ll make it home. The execution of each beat is so unorthodox; you cannot help but lean closer and pay attention.

    It’s a challenge to describe this movie without giving away spoilers. No matter how blatant the approach of the filmmaker, satire often misses with many audiences. A Space Program is a wonderful film, packed with laughter and quiet, human moments. This is bold, original filmmaking that plays off like a breath of fresh air. This is one of those films that should be brought up when any film lover quips, “Hollywood has run out of ideas.” A Space Program will divide audiences but if you’re all aboard for the ride you’re in for one hell of an experience.

  • ★★★★★ review by Mike Scholtz on Letterboxd

    This may be the best thing I saw at the Portland Film Festival. It may be the best thing I've ever seen.

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