Man in Orbit:
An Interview with John Lurie
By Andrea Callard
When I sent 22 boxes of materials to New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, I knew I had kept things but I had no idea I had “saved” anything. Later I was told that the original film of John Lurie’s Men in Orbit (1979) was otherwise lost. It was not unusual in the 70s for Super 8mm filmmakers to cut and edit their original footage, handle it many times, then screen the results using unpredictable projectors, without ever making prints or video copies. Keeping track of everything one made did not seem so important at the time. One just moved on to the next compelling idea.
Ours was the first generation to take in events and form a global TV audience in the millions. Internationally popular bands modeled compelling and fun ways to work together and also challenge the status quo. New Wave and New American films screened in theaters, especially in college towns. Over 100,000 people worked collaboratively on the space race between the USA and the USSR. This conjured hope, ambition, confidence, and adventure, with the industrial collaboration supported by taxpayer enthusiasm. The war in Viet Nam depleted and divided the country. During the 1970s, the large industrial cities of the U.S. slid into recession. Some 800,000 people moved away from NYC that decade. Some things were difficult and dangerous in the city, but there was a lot of cheap open space downtown. My many talented peers and I arrived downtown with a sense of freedom and fun and dogged work ethics. Small groups of artists working together began to re-imagine and regenerate the cultural fabric of the city. During 1977-79, Collaborative Projects, Inc. (COLAB) had a weekly public access cable TV show broadcasting from Jim Chladek's ETC Studios on 23rd Street (later renamed Metro-Access Inc.). The All Color News was the earliest iteration, and subsequently Potato Wolf. Both were live TV, or mixtures of live TV and pre-recorded material. Red Curtain followed (1979-83), as a way to show completed artist films and tapes.
The version of Men In Orbit that appears on the DVD compilation, Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films From the Final Frontier, originated from a 3/4” U-Matic videotape that went to the Fales Library in 2004 as part of my papers. The tape in question was marked, simply, “June 4.” It included a transfer of my 1977 Super 8mm film, 11 thru 12, as well as a collaborative piece organized by Jenny Holzer, and, as it turned out, Men In Orbit. It had been compiled on the tape for a 1979 broadcast on Red Curtain. The titles match the character generator labeling on other tapes broadcast by COLAB from ETC Studios, so I believe that they were added for that broadcast.
Men In Orbit was previously screened three times on April 11-13, 1979, at 9 p.m., as part of a month of screenings at the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. New Cinema was a small theater space where people we knew showed films – an earlier version of the neighborhood micro-cinema idea.
At the time, I barely knew John Lurie but I remember how focused he was when he worked in my loft, where COLAB’s 3/4” U-Matic video editing decks were housed. I knew Michael McClard better – a Men In Orbit collaborator, and the voice of Mission Control in the film. We were both friends with the artist Robin Winters, as we were all students at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1970s. James Nares was Men In Orbit’s cinematographer. I probably met James in the crowd around Barnabus Rex, a neighborhood bar on Duane Street, in TriBeCa. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1975, James and a dozen other people came along on a three-day canoe trip I orchestrated down the Delaware River.
Recently, at the time of this interview, I re-watched Men in Orbit twice and remembered that astronauts Lurie and Mitchell dropped LSD before “taking off.” They are madly giggling about eight minutes into the piece. Below are the things I wondered about in an e-mail conversation I had with Lurie on October 20, 2011. Nesrin Wolf facilitated our communication.
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Andrea Callard: At least four of the nine people listed in the credits were filmmakers at the time. How did the idea for Men in Orbit come about? How did the group decide to work together and what were the dynamics of the collaboration?
John Lurie: The driving force behind all of this was Eric Mitchell, who basically demanded that everyone make a film. I doubt much would have happened without his unstoppable and sometimes annoying energy. He had an idea to open a theater using the films that we would all make.
AC: Was there a written treatment or script?
JL: There was dialogue for the actors playing Mission Control. Everything with Eric and me in the capsule was improvised.
AC: How was the sound of the film planned or thought about? Was it shot in Super 8mm film with a separate sound system, Super 8mm sound film, or something else?
JL: I was pretty pleased with the sound. We had a pre-mixer that was fed directly into the camera. I probably put more thought into the sound than the camera. And what James Nares did was more than brilliant, achieving a weightless quality by floating the camera, constantly, above us. It was shot in Super 8.
AC: Men In Orbit begins with some expectant, exciting sound, chords probably, accompanying the astronauts as they move with a group of others through a corridor on the way to an adventure. Musician Arto Lindsay plays one of the pre-flight physical doctors. Did he make the introductory sound? How was the “outer space” ambient white noise was made?
JL: The opening music is James Nares on drums and me on guitar. The white noise came from the broken TVs and radios that were pouring out static. We also over-recorded the clip on mics.
AC: After the ironic and endearing, “Song for Our Wives,” we see the wives on the TV monitors, then hear the wives talking with you and Eric from behind the camera. The way you are all in your own world together for the moment feels sweet.
JL: That was Becky Johnston and Mary Lou Fogarty. They were really our girlfriends at the time, and they were really within the containing space as they were standing three feet outside the capsule. But the sweetest thing of all that was my brother Evan, who was really my little brother at the time. He had just moved to New York and I called him at 3 a.m. to come over immediately to play the harmonica beeps in the background. He rushed over and patiently played his beeps.
AC: James Nares’ visceral camera work is a strength of Men In Orbit. While framing you and Eric Mitchell as astronauts from a ladder, in a dance of sorts, he seems to become an unseen third astronaut. Was this foreseen, planned in advance, or did you all simply trust him to know what to do?
JL: James Nares, and Michael McClard as Mission Control, saved that movie.
AC: How, or who, edited the film (or video?)
JL: I edited the film in Super 8. I hated doing it. I like editing but hated cutting up these tiny bits of film after trying to see it through this ridiculous viewfinder. It took months with glue stuck everywhere.
AC: How did the staging come about?
JL: I was forever collecting junk and filling my apartment with it. I don’t know why, really. There used to be a lot of great junk in New York. The film cured me of this, after I made the capsule and Mission Control in my apartment.
AC: You and Eric were strapped into your seats facing yourselves on two TV monitors and you also appear on two monitors behind your heads; lots of you two but no pictures of space around you or the Earth except as represented by Michael McClard’s voice of authority over the audio?
JL: Is there a question? The $500 budget prevented me from filming in space.
AC: The look of the film is stylish, expedient, DIY: orange crates, bathtub as desk, vacuum cleaner hoses, motorcycle helmets. Did anyone in particular determine how it would look?
JL: Yes, that was all me. But, again, I did not remotely envision what it would look like in the end. James’ work was extraordinary.
AC: The film starts out as a bold and charming spoof, then slows down awhile, regains some velocity, then stops. But it doesn’t really stop. Was Men In Orbit an important part of how you launched yourself on a long creative journey that in time shifted to the Lounge Lizards, more acting and filmmaking, composing, painting, and maybe other things? Do you see continuity between the buddy/road movie of Men In Orbit and the pairings/journeys of your other films, and/or how you live and work now? What does it feel like to show it again now?
JL: It was great back then. It was all energy and ideas. There was no concern for money or credit. It was really pretty wonderful. Very soon after that everything changed for the worse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andrea Callard is a New York-based artist. Her artwork and films have been exhibited at MoMA, P.S. 1, the Walker Art Center, White Columns, Exit Art, and her new feature-length compendium, Talking Landscape, screened at DOXA 2013. In 1980, Callard assembled the lobby of The Times Square Show, a seminal exhibition by Collaborative Projects, Inc. (aka COLAB). In 2011, Congress preserved her short films 11 thru 12 and Fluorescent/Azalea. Currently, Callard produces media for Green Planet 21, documenting and promoting their industrial recycling and sustainability initiatives.