227. CHRISTMAS ON MARS (2008)

“‘Eating your spaceship’ became one of the central themes of what the movie meant.”–Wayne Coyne

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury

FEATURING: Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Mark DeGraffenreid

PLOT: It’s Christmas Eve on Earth’s first Mars colony, and Major Syrtis has the job of organizing the festivities. But the colonist tapped to play Santa Claus, Ed-15, has gone mad from space sickness and has committed suicide by running outside into the deadly Martian atmosphere without a space suit. Fortunately, a new arrival at the colony, a silent green man with antennae sticking out of his forehead, mutely agrees to don Santa’s suit….

Still from Christmas on Mars (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • A psychedelic post-punk band, The Flaming Lips were formed in 1983 and released eleven albums before completing Christmas on Mars. Their music frequently contains science fiction references and their stage shows are known for their elaborate theatricality.
  • The idea was sparked by a Flaming Lips Christmas card frontman Wayne Coyne designed featuring a Martian in a Santa suit.
  • The film, written by Coyne, was in development for eight years, as the band worked on it every few months in between other projects. Most of the sets were built in Coyne’s home or backyard. Some of the early production is documented in the Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks (2005).
  • Co-director Brad Beesley also directed many of the Lips’ music videos and the Fearless Freaks documentary. Co-director George Salisbury was also credited as editor and produced the DVD extras.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: I wouldn’t want to spoil the hallucination’s impact, but it involves a marching band and an imperilled baby. (That’s not the strange part, though).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Anatomically incorrect space(wo)man; marching band of death; Martian Santa

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although from its lava lamp opening to its twisted happy ending, Christmas on Mars pokes at strangeness time and time again. But what really sets it apart are its many, many vaginas: more vaginas than you would see at a Georgia O’Keefe retrospective organized by the American Gynecological Association. No other movie in existence has so graphically exploited the weird potential of the human (or alien) vagina.


Original trailer for Christmas on Mars

COMMENTS: Christmas on Mars is a movie made by amateurs, which is both a weakness and a strength. It’s an outsider’s view of what an art movie should look like, done without the experience to really pull it off properly. With band members handling the main roles, the acting is predictably bad (although scripter Wayne Coyne had the good sense to write himself a part with no dialogue). The dialogue, direction and editing do no favors for the few pro actors who show up in small parts (Adam Goldberg, Saturday Night Live’s” Fred Armisen, and Steve Burns, the guy from “Blue’s Clues”). There are too many clumsy pauses and overlong reaction shots. The special effects are comparable to visuals you’d find in an independent music video. Pacing is not good. There are too many ponderous monologues (e.g. “life and its billions of decisions isn’t just some endless series of events…”). And yet, this very lack of cinematic sophistication gives these filmmakers a creative freedom that people “in the business” will never know. With an existing fan base and success in another arena, they are not desperate to be liked, and feel no need to pander. Wayne Coyne and company aren’t afraid they’ll be blackballed from making movies just because they throw the occasional breathing vagina up on screen, so they put all their ideas up there, no matter how “out there” they might seem. YOFO (you only film once).

Like a lot of amateur movies, Christmas on Mars blatantly recalls its influences, while at the same time being so cinematically naive that it looks like no other movie out there. Although not directly influenced by them, Mars will inevitably draw (unfavorable) comparisons with the other culty black and white rock band movie excursions: Oingo Boingo’s wild and dangerous Forbidden Zone and Corey McAbee’s absurdist space opera The American Astronaut. More to the point, Mars plays like a ragtag collection of homages to 2001: A Space OdysseyEraserhead, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. That last comparison is somewhat farcical, but there is a deliberate invocation of cheesy B-movie aesthetics to many parts of the film (right down to the fashionable faked film damage artifacts of the opening reels), and Coyne’s green Martian makeup is only slightly less ridiculous than that on display in the 1960s kiddie flop. From ‘s movie Mars takes its drab gray lensing, babies used as monsters, and an anxious industrial atmosphere. The legacy of 2001, seen especially in the movie’s melting-Crayola, dialogue-free four minute opening, weighs heaviest on the film (so much so that one wag joked that this film looked like 2001 done on a budget of $2001). Not only do those abstract visuals invoke Kubrick‘s portentous fable, but Mars‘ infant inevitably recalls the Star Child, together with its eschatological implications (although the end symbolism is much different than Kubrick had in mind). Other parts of the movie may remind you of ‘s Dark Star or The Wizard of Oz. And yet, despite all the nods and references to other cult movies, the film feels fresh, because it follows no formula. The echoes of other movies drift in at random, and you never have much sense as to what is around the next narrative bend.

And did I mention that there are vaginas in this film? Because there are lots of vaginas, coming both in symbolic slit and explicit gynecological exam photo form. Do not play the Christmas on Mars “take a sip every time you see a labia” drinking game or you will find yourself passed out on the floor before the credits roll. Just to perform a quick and dirty “count the vagina” experiment: a nebula in a constellation forms a graphic glowing vagina less than four minutes into the film. As the camera zooms in, an oval opening appears in the sky, and we see the face of a planet (Mars) with a suspiciously vaginal longitudinal fissure. Cut to the space colony, where the outpost’s lone female is crawling out of her womb-like bedroom through a portal that looks like a female condom. Later a technician reaches through a familiar looking aperture in the wall to fiddle with some dials hidden inside. That’s only fifteen minutes into the film, I’m already tired of counting, and I suspect I might have missed a couple of vaginal instances. And I didn’t even mention the bloody squirming egg yolk, because it seems like ovarian symbolism should get its own category.

Mars wallops us with its vagina imagery, but the fascinating thing is that it’s in service of a larger symbolic structure. All the vaginas—cosmic vaginas, artificial vaginas, vaginas in space suits—are references not to sex, but to birth. Specifically, the birth of the first child born in space (on Christmas Eve, no less), in whom Major Syrtis would like to invest a messianic faith: “if that baby makes it, we’re all going to make it.” Of course, this being a Christmas tale, the child’s spirituality gets mixed up with the mythology of the fat, white-bearded God proxy in a red suit (“Santa’s gonna save us all,” says the one of the crewmen). Syrtis describes Santa in religious terms, as a “magical character” who represents “selflessness, generosity, sympathy for human suffering.” Besides the Christ child and the jolly old elf, Christmas on Mars adds an additional layer of spiritual confusion, UFO cult style. The alien who appears mysteriously out of a glowing spaceship (which he then eats) shows hints of omnipotence coupled with a silent benevolence. This gives the film at least two savior figures: one from outer space, and one born in outer space. Heck, the film’s first monologue—where a grown man reflects on his childhood cruelty to a pair of moths—is even a reference to original sin. It all adds up to one of the most narratively twisted Christ allegories ever.

Christmas on Mars was a hit with almost no one. The film is not prominently featured on the Flaming Lips official website, and when you finally navigate to the appropriate page that mentions it, you only find a notice that the DVD is “sold out.” The movie’s fortunes among the band’s fanbase were not helped by the fact that there are no actual songs in the movie; the soundtrack, while solid and well-received, is entirely instrumental, resembling something from Bernard Hermann scored to space rock synthesizers. Mars never played in normal theaters or even festivals, but was marketed almost exclusively to Lips fans. Those few non-fan moviegoers who somehow caught it either considered it too weird, or complained that its weirdness was too calculated.

Mars is certainly susceptible to the second complaint. While it’s not impossible to manufacture a cult movie, there is a Zen art to it; the harder you try to be casually weird and unique, the more difficult it becomes to pull it off. But while Christmas on Mars is no canonical cult classic, it’s also not as prefab as its critics suppose. The heavy reliance on vaginal imagery makes it special, and the unexpectedly sincere religiosity puts it over the top. Although the Lips may be aiming for “weird for weird’s sake” to some extent, there is also a don’t-give-a-damn casualness to Coyne’s pet project. He’s got nothing to prove creatively; he’s just trying to get the filmmaking bug out of his system. The result is a vagina-laden Christ allegory with Martians—a film that is as much outsider art as arthouse attempt. As Major Syrtis says to his green-skinned friend at the onset of one oxygen-deprivation hallucination, “Something is weird in here. Do you feel…? I think I feel weird…” He looks up and sees a glowing spaceman with a pulsating face holding a dead baby. “Okay, I definitely feel weird,” he concludes. Christmas on Mars definitely feels weird.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

less flashy and flamboyant than the alternative rock band’s psychedelic concerts… But this mostly black-and-white, dreamlike yuletide fable does possess its own dorky DIY charm…”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety (contemporaneous)

“It’s all about textures: black-and-white images with psychedelic bursts; dashes of David Lynch, the ’70s midnight movie ‘Dark Star’ and ‘2001’; an echo of ‘The Wizard of Oz’; and, in a riff on maternity, maybe an iota of ‘The Matrix,’ abetted with homemade-looking but sometimes lyrical effects.”–Andy Webster, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…a true DIY labor of love that doesn’t trade on the band’s cult status; it succeeds (and fails) by its own weirdness… a shockingly humorless, even dull film.”–Aaron Hillis, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Christmas on Mars (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Christmas on Mars | Psychiatric Explorations – There’s a wealth of information on the film at this Flaming Lips fansite page, although many of the links are now dead

2008 Christmas on Mars Interview – Co-director George Salisbury’s interview with Wayne Coyne (this interview is one of the extras on the DVD)

Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne Talks Christmas on Mars – Interview with Pitchfork magazine after the film’s release

Wayne Coyne on his film Christmas on Mars – A promo recorded by Coyne for Rolling Stone’s website

‘You’d Be a Great Director ‘Cause You’re Such a Weirdo’ – 3 minute MTV story on Christmas on Mars

DVD INFO: The Christmas on Mars DVD (buy) was released by Warner Brothers Records. For some reason, the DVD comes with Russian subtitles, which are turned on by default. As you would expect, the audio is top notch, offering stereo or surround sound options (the disc also comes with optional “Zeta Bootis surround sound intros”). Extras include interviews with writer/director Wayne Coyne, lead Steven Drozd, and band members/actors Michael Ivins and Kliph Scurlock. There’s also a featurette self-explanatorily entitled “Christmas on Mars, From Drawings to a Movie: Inside Wayne Coyne’s Endless Yellow Notepad.” Finally, press “Enter” at the 57:52 mark for an Easter egg, a deleted scene featuring Modest Mouse’s Issac Brock.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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