Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sprays of Heaven: IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976)

"Help means so much more than giving you weapons." 

What happens when a peaceful rocket full of sexy East Germans are lured to a western colonized planet and are subject to drugs (the red spray is "spicy" while the blue spray is "sweet"), erotic dancing and orgiastic staring contests?  Das ist die frage in Gottfried Kolditz's colorful, cool and just plain weird film, 1976's IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (Im Staub der Sterne). Classy is the word I use to describe this crew, four women and two older guys, well-dressed and even-tempered. Nice hair.

Answering a distress signal, this East German rocketship (from the planet Cynro) emergency lands and is greeted first by a woman dressed like Pocahontas driving a combination school bus-railroad handcar who comes rumbling up to the ship in welcome like she's Robby the Robot in FORBIDDEN PLANET. Suko stays behind to spy while the rest ride over to the club to sit on divans and catch snide insults from the local bosses. Someone wants this spaceship to go home, but first, why not invite them to the party? Pocahontas comes by later with prismatic plastic fantastic invitations for each of them.

The "boss" of the planet is a fey German artiste who gets his hair painted blue and is forced to play with lite-brite and a keyboard that controls a disco dance floor full of pythons and gel-lit frauleinen. Don Draper this guy ain't. And let me tell you, his army sucks. Mostly the battles consist in a lot of standing around, working up the nerve to bust a cap, like a high school dance in Hell. These cavorting hedonists never speak, but spend most of their time spraying drugs of one color or another into their mouths, brainwashing nosy visitors with pen flashlights and doing licentious dances. The costumes aren't up to Mario Bava PLANET OF THE VAMPIRE standards but nonetheless pretty fetching, with an uncanny resemblance to UN peacekeepers. And it's nice that they change clothes about five times a day and stay color coordinated with each other, as if through telepathic EFSP (Extra-Fashion-Sense Perception). The patterns and styles are elegant and mod without being tacky or cumbersome, and they go well with the natural blonde shag haircuts of the majority of the crew. Jana Brejchov√° is the hottie commander (at right). She was once married to Milos Foreman!

In a way, DUST OF THE STARS is the perfect Iron Curtain counterpart to the American space fantasia of 50's sci fi films, ala: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON/MISSILE TO THE MOON/QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and THREE STOOGES IN OUTER SPACE, wherein dopey male astronauts land on a planets run by space women with a hankering for new blood... in their lineage and on their mandibles. In DUST there seems to be mainly dudes on the planet, at least with speaking roles (aside from Pocahontas) and the men are in weird Studio 54-esque "boytoy" attire, all ready to offer a hit of primo "spray" to any crew member with an open nostril, er, I mean mouth. And the girls in the crew are the ones who call the shots! The two men on the crew are clearly both well-laid and mildly emasculated... a perfect Euro combination that Americans can only sneer at in envy. Both Paul Lind and Mae West would have loved them!

Kind of like HELL HOUSE (the Halloween 'haunted house' wherein Christian kids finally get to dance, pretend to do drugs and worship Satan in their own way), the licentious dancing and spraying of the aliens here presumably was acceptable to the East German censors because it was negatively depicted as a trap-- set by Decadent Western Imperialist aliens--to ensnare good honest Communists.

The parties these aliens throw are awesome, but for my money nothing can beat the black tights beatnik bar modern expressionist dancing of CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. Man, those girls just nailed it! And though one of the two men on the Cynro crew is pretty smart (usually in these films, only one paranoid crew member smells danger while the others consider him a buzzkill), the commander is a woman--and competent! Navigating her sometimes overly compassionate female emotions with the same objective grappling of, say, Kirk on STAR TREK grappling with his shoot-from-the-hip egotism, and between all of the crew is a sexually relaxed vibe (they sleep with each other and make no big deal of it? Man, those East Germans!). My favorite is the girl at lower left; what a magnificently sensual pout!

I think her name is Miu. She's played by Regine Heintze, and I love her. Also, I love the offhand way that the film's sexuality and lovely female forms are displayed without any leering and/or slavering. It's like the characters in this film actually have sex rather than just winking and drooling and then finally having one chaste kiss like they're David Manners at an ice cream social. In DUST, they just do it and forget about it. The Germans have no patience for lovelorn leering! Stand straight! Are you slouching?! Achtung!

I am grateful to Netflix for having this film on instant stream and thus indirectly introducing me to the wonderful site known as Teleport City ("Bringing you yesterday's tomorrow... today!"). I love what their writer says about the loose nature of the crew (remember this was the 70s, pre-AIDS awareness, when sex wasn't a four letter word):
Now, in addition to their refreshing gender make-up, there are other things about the Cynro crew, only subtly hinted at for the most part, that make them just a little different from what you'd normally expect from the militarily-ranked team manning your average movie starship. I think, also, that these things are meant to suggest the way things roll back on Cynro. For one thing, this gang is just a tad more touchy-feely with one another than the behavior of those serving aboard the Enterprise and its like have accustomed us to. Secondly, Suko, as a not-all-that-in-shape middle aged guy with thinning hair, clearly has the arrangement to beat onboard the vessel, as he seems to be the boy toy of at least two of the female crew members, including the Captain and her blond colleague Miu. Miu, for her part, also might have a thing for the ladies, as one later scene seems to suggest. While all of this implied hanky-panky provides the opportunity for a bit of casual nudity and light petting between the cast members, it's all presented very matter-of-factly, with none of the exploitational hubba hubba you might expect. Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman this is not -- and the tone seems to suggest that the egalitarian ethos observed on this lots' home planet extends to everyone getting an equal piece, not just of the proverbial pie, but of each other, as well.
Now I don't know about you, space neighbors, but that seems pretty cool to me. If the wall hadn't come down, I might be tempted to hurtle it. I would disagree with Teleport City about the score (they don't like it). Yes, it's a bedroom-ish low fi casio-guitar soundtrack, but it's superb in its monochromatic moodiness; it's low-fi shoegaze twenty years ahead of schedule and as such is 100 times better than those super-slick-hyper-cliched Danny Elfman orchestral/children's choir cues that have been deadening so many big budget sci fi and fantasy films here in the states in the last 20 years.

Similarly ahead of his time is the fey "boss" of the bad guys, a prancing Caligula-wannabe who parties with snakes and likes to change his hair color to match his mercurial mood. He could be knocking back drinks with any 1990s Manhattan loungecore crowd and everyone would assume he's in advertising -- but it's still only 1979 and he's a Communist playing a decadent Colonialist oppressor. And we think those East Germans were behind the times? In 1979 they were partying like it's 1997, which is to say, hard and unsmilingly.

In typical Communist fashion, the action break-out finale looks more like a labor strike than a shootout, replete with hundreds of confused, identically-dressed male extras hacking at rocks, locking arms and shuffling around in nonviolent protest. No one seems very militarily coordinated on this planet, with opposing armies running to and fro like herds of awkward antelope, but they look good, specimen-wise. Boasting a mix of modular architecture and muddy grassland roughly parallel to Gene Roddenberry's TV special futurescapes of the era, the film earns extra points for the natural and uncanny weirdness of East German design and the refreshing lack of western sexism. Not once does any male say anything condescending or object to a woman in charge. And our director manages to make the women all seem both vulnerable and strong, smart and gullible, i.e. like anyone else -- all while never missing a chance to show some sexy thighs (below left).

Much more bizarre in terms of sci fi plots is the moral quandary the crew faces: If they intervene on behalf of the oppressed workers of the planet then they'll have to stay around like a peacekeeping delegation and will probably get involved in an interplanetary war; if they just leave then they've turned their back on a people in need. This quantry makes a good modern parable for a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Liberia or Darfur--or the reason, for example, that George Bush Sr. was too smart to invade Iraq ("no exit strategy").  By the same token, the conquering Tem people know they can't kill or attack the visiting ship directly if they want to avoid an "inter-galactic incident," but the miners are all fair game, used as human shields, slave labor and so forth --again, just like real life!

Another perhaps more controversial analogy is with modern UFO philosophy--i.e. the notion that we're (as in earthlings) under the rule of trans-dimensional aliens who harvest our genetically modified souls and have worked their way into the fabric of all levels of social leadership. The space travelers tell the enslaved Tekk: "We can't build a force field around your planet so you can develop undisturbed like we would like"-- a lament very similar to UN policy toward underdeveloped nations undergoing exploitation by slick multi-nationals, or the way grays try not to disrupt our evolution even as they tinker with our DNA on the sidelines.

Whoa! Don't think I'm crazy. I've just been reading Nigel Kerner's new book all weekend. It's not that I 100% believe we're a soul farm stud on Orion's Belt, but if we in the First World can't/won't imagine there might be some extraterrestrial race for whom we're a Third World primitive society in the midst of being exploited (we learned Colonialism from somewhere) maybe we deserve all we get, or may have already gotten. Plus, our East German rocket comrades bear more than passing resemblance to the "blonde" aliens sometimes seen cruising around in saucers or European dance clubs.You will now please erase this nonsense from your mind. Alles ist schone. Alles ist schone...

Due to budget or obscure Communist censorship laws we don't see too much violence or special effects; most of the attacks are offscreen (we hear about them on the ship's radio). The big climax just involves one "important" death, which causes "the Boss" to smash his orbs, if you know what I mean. On both sides of the squabble there's a remarkably etched-in sense of collective teamwork, decision making and leadership skills. But hey, we don't have to see scenes just because the rickety sci fi framework plot requires them;  we've seen it all before -- fill in your own blanks, let your tongue feel the spray, and dig those astro-boots (right).

In the end, DUST says more about Communist fantasies of western decadence, Binaca-style spray drugs and open-sexuality than a whole festival of Amerikanische schweinhunde filmen ever could. Most devastating is the implication that the need to get high and exploit nude bodies is perhaps just a Capitalist-conditioned response to the repression and misery instilled by our Puritan forefathers. These East Germans don't need to do all that because they just have casual sex with each other, wear cool clothes, and forget about it. With a crew of beautiful, healthy German women to give your aching head a maternal massage as needed-- and/or dance while you eat breakfast, maybe you'd be just fine as a cog in the people's machine. After all, what else are you exploiting the workers and getting high for, anyway?

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