'A Space Program': SXSW Review

A Space Program Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SXSW

A Space Program Still - H 2015

A performance film with just enough sly humor to amuse those who aren't sure what it's all about

Artist Tom Sachs hand-builds a mission to Mars.

Brand-conscious contemporary artist Tom Sachs has played with logos from Chanel, Sony and Nike in the past, emphasizing the clumsy nature of his hand-made replicas to comment on luxury and consumerism. He tackles a more historically substantial icon in A Space Program, building a make-believe mission to Mars under the swooping logo of NASA. The film, directed by Sachs collaborator Van Neistat, is less an introduction to the artist than a wink-laced performance film documenting an installation that filled New York City's Park Avenue Armory for part of 2012. Denizens of art circles are its most natural audience; with a bit of priming, though, the film would be accessible and entertaining for those who've never heard of Sachs.

Things kick off with bits of short films designed to help Sachs's young studio assistants understand what is expected of them on the job. Both funny and illustrative of an admirably detail-oriented work ethic, the films were shown in full to visitors at the Park Avenue exhibition before they were temporarily enlisted as part of the artist's workforce.

After these and some mock-heroic introductions to key crew members ("Lieutenant" so-and-so, "Sergeant" whatshisname), we meet the two woman who will be the first humans on Mars. The movie treats the action more or less as if it were real, allowing us to critique the plywood-built illusions and enjoy Sachs's quirky touches on our own. The astronauts climb inside a life-sized landing module whose provisions aren't exactly NASA-approved (instead of astronaut ice cream, their inventory includes bottles of whiskey, romance-enhancing candles and Al Green cassettes).

Tension builds during anticipation of the space voyage's action beats — the liftoff, simulated with a crude model; the lander's descent to the Red Planet, envisioned via an ancient Atari videogame.

Once on the planet's surface, a play-acted search for signs of life risks stretching this conceit too thin. Soon, though, our two interplanetary pioneers are squabbling, perhaps going stir crazy, and allowing the film to engage in some amusing therapeutic talk that incorporates everything from Charles and Ray Eames film clips to a mock tea ceremony.

Neistat stays true to his subject's oddball sensibility, right down to the hand-lettered credits that crank slowly across the screen after the mission's end. In this alternate reality, a resourceful dreamer needn't be alienated from fields of endeavor usually requiring years of training or unthinkable wealth. Imagination, seriousness and a small set of shop tools are sufficient.

Production company: Cinderblock Productions

Director-Director of photography: Van Neistat

Screenwriters: Van Neistat, Tom Sachs

Producers: Tom Sachs, Erum Shah, Hailey Gates

Executive producers:

Editor: Ian Holden

Music: Grey Gersten

Sales: Liesl Copland, WME

No rating, 72 minutes