I spend a lot of this review essentially disparaging the director of this film, who has embarked on a career largely focused on perpetuating his own cult of personality. I admire that. I also admire how utterly mysterious this guy is. To remain mysterious after literally jobbing yourself, after putting your phone number on the header of your website, takes some doing. You can read about this cult of personality here. You can look on his website here. Whether his persona is some kind of knowing ironic send-up of the jobbing actor is not for me to say, because I don’t know. If this is, indeed, a stunt, then I will say that this Woodruff guy has got Tim and Eric, and Eric Andre, utterly beat. But as I say, I don’t know. You have to take these things at face value; and I’m sure after reading what I had to write, you’ll understand what face value means.
Every now and again, a film comes along that redraws the map a little on what you thought cinema was capable of. This can be good (A Bout De Souffle), or it can be bad (the August Underground Trilogy). Films that open your eyes to new pathways in the medium are, necessarily, few and far between, but they are always miniature landmarks in the lifetime of the committed viewer. Roger Ebert spoke of the top-shelf of the mind, a place where films stay and leave a lasting impact, where other, lesser films simply come and go.
Dennis Woodruff’s Spaceman is, I fear, one of these films. It is also an anguished film of deep despair, and I utterly lack the lexical faculties necessary to convey the sheer valley of existential hopelessness that it plunged me into. I am being 100% sincere when I say that if I found out that Woodruff held his actors at gunpoint, I wouldn’t be surprised. It is the sound and vision of a mind coming untethered from itself, and I genuinely worry about the mental states that led to it.
The plot? Woodruff plays an alien who comes to earth, for reasons unknown. That is the plot. He meets various people, including a reporter, a woman with a jealous boyfriend in a club, and potentially another alien. He goes on a tour of L.A, where the film was shot. He steals a dog, and kills two people, maybe more. He has a gun. He wears a blue bodysuit, and has open-toed brown sandals.
We learn about his planet; there are no women, everyone lives underground, and his entire species looks like him.
A lot of the film is composed of shots of Dennis walking around, getting lifts, occasionally firing his ray-gun at strangers. Other shots of the film show Dennis talking to the camera in a clipped, brusque voice. Sometimes in films the rules of the game are broken; if someone looks into the camera, this is known as a mistake. When a film does it intentionally, it is known as breaking the fourth wall, and is often used to serve a higher purpose, as in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. In this film, there are no mistakes, and there’s no breaking the fourth wall either. Sometimes we see shots of the film we are about to watch being filmed, on a tiny handheld digital camera. Vertov played with this technique in his masterpiece, Man With A Movie Camera, who I somehow doubt Woodruff has heard of.
This film exists in a place beyond. To compare it to, say, Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’, that film is glistening jewel of comprehensibility. We knew, in that film, roughly when a rule was being broken, or a mistake being made. You cannot do that here. I have never been less able to discern the methods of production of any film I’ve seen before, and I wrote an essay about Stan Brakhage for my MA.
A stray thought: Woodruff either knows more, or less, about the human condition than any living human, but no more, and no less.
The dialogue has a certain chopped and screwed quality to it, like listening to The Books, which I recommend you do instead of watching this film. What is disturbing about this is that it isn’t down to bad mixing, or bad sound editing (this film had no sound editor). We have literal, actual, diegetic evidence of the dialogue being said in front of us. There is no reason for it to sound so disconnected, and yet there it is. I took a transcription for you, in a scene where Woodruff is being interviewed.
Interviewer: “So it’s kind of like Japan, what you’re saying?”
Spaceman: “I don’t know Japan.”
Interviewer: “Okay, it’s not important. Do you like cheese?”
Spaceman: “I like Swiss Cheese. May I have a cigarette?”
Though I will claim that, as bad as this reads, there’s an anguish to this exchange, and all other exchanges in the film, that can’t be understood through reading alone.
There is a musical sequence where Woodruff attends an anti-Bush rally and loudly proclaims that he is having ‘so much fun’. Later, he will be asked what he does for fun, and claim that his planet has no such thing. All the mysteries of human nature occupy this claim.
This film is an affront to every notion I have ever had about cinema and what it can, should, would, or could do. This makes HG Lewis look like Robert Rossellini. It’s a flat digital K-hole, unsettling and dull. There are outsider works of art, and then there’s this. I have sat through corporate training videos, early gore films, avant-garde pornography, Godard’s Maoist works, the Lasagna Cat videos, Trash Humpers. I’ve seen No Wave filmmaking, I’ve listened to the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, James Chance, The Residents. And whatever frisson of unseated artistry, of the profound other, of that sense that this shouldn’t be seen, exists in those, is blown up to epic proportions in this film. I do not mean that as a recommendation. This film doesn’t exist to be watched.
After this film, grass will seem greener, tastes more vibrant, beauty more apparent. But at what cost?
(Dennis Woodruff, if you read this please can you explain your film for me)