The biennial Orphan Film Symposium, currently under the auspices of NYU, is a fabulous rummage sale—or “research initiative”—in which all manner of cinematic artifacts are exhumed and shared. This year’s edition, devoted to matters interplanetary, further occasioned a DVD, “Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films from the Final Frontier.”
Among the orphans: Soviet docs on meteorites and teenage cosmonauts; AT&T, USIA and DoD informationals; a bit of televised Grand Ole Opry riffing on outer space; a haunting documentation of a 1961 chimp recovery; William Shatner (in full “Star Trek” regalia) leading a 1968 Christmas parade in Columbia, South Carolina; an anonymous animated cartoon “A Trip to the Planets” from the 1920s; and a 42-minute relic from the Lower East Side super-8 No Wave, John Lurie’s 1979 “Men in Orbit.”
I contributed a little something on the Lurie opus for “Orphans in Space” but it was gratis (with no backend residuals), so I guess it’s OK to plug both the movie and the DVD. One of the funniest neo-Warhol movies ever made, “Men in Orbit”—which was shot by James Nares—tricks out an old-fashion Lower East Side tub-in-kit as a space (and time) capsule, using a clunky video monitor to represent mission control and importing a couple of McDonald’s Happy Meals as astro-chow. Sky Lab was in the process of falling back then and the chain-smoking astronauts, Lurie and Eric Mitchell, are clearly in the midst of some pharmaceutical journey to inner space. The performances are completely behavioral–once you break the boredom barrier, it’s a fabulous documentary.
Another chunk of old New York cultural history that recently went into DVD orbit, Bram Van Splunteren’s “Big Fun in the Big Town” is a 40-minute Dutch TV documentary on hip-hop in situ. Over the course of a week during the spring of 1986, the enthusiastic reporter shuttled back and forth between the South Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side, documenting performances and interviewing a host of luminaries—from the old sage Grandmaster Flash to the newly ascendant Russell Simmons and Run-DMC to teenaged LL Cool J, living with his grandmother in Queens. Amazingly, until it was screened two years ago, at the Maysles Film Institute in Harlem this still fresh little travelogue was itself an orphan film–at least in the town where it was shot.