No, You Eat Your Own Spaceship
The Flaming Lips Finally Unveil Christmas on Mars

As many of you know, I’m a journalist in real life. Contrary to what some in my profession believe, good journalists strive to cover everything as impartially as we can. This means that even though I may feel a certain way about an issue, or an election, or a political party and its adherents, you should never be able to tell, and I should never tip my hand. Sometimes I’m successful at this, sometimes not – I’m a pretty opinionated guy. But I do try.

That’s why I’ve been suspiciously silent on this election we’ve just been through. I covered both the presidential and local races for my paper, speaking with Democrats and Republicans alike, and had they known which way I was pulling, I fear those conversations would not have been as easy. So forgive me for reserving public comment until after the election.

That said, holy crap. We just elected Barack Obama president of the United States.

I wasn’t really sure we would. In fact, I didn’t breathe easy until Obama took Ohio, remarkably early on election night. That’s when I realized this thing was really happening. Beyond the result, which I’m obviously pleased with, I’m proud of the voter turnout across the country. This was an important election, and I think people realized it.

You may remember that I used this column to implore voters to turn out for John Kerry four years ago. My disdain for George W. Bush’s administration has been well documented, and thankfully, that seems to be a bi-partisan disgust at this point. Four years ago, I spoke up, not because Kerry was the best candidate I’d ever seen – far, far from it – but because I knew the country would suffer under a second Bush term. And I was right.

I kept quiet this time partially because of the reasons stated above, which have only magnified for me in the last four years, but also because it seemed like my guy wasn’t going to need the help. His biggest ally turned out to be his opponent, John McCain, who ran a campaign so ludicrous it made Obama’s camp look like stone geniuses. From picking Governor Know-Nothing as his running mate, to suspending his campaign for a few hours as a publicity stunt, to suggesting the government should buy up all the bad mortgages in America while simultaneously calling his opponent a socialist… McCain deserved to lose.

Which is a shame, because the John McCain of four years ago was a much worthier candidate. He’s a genuine war hero, and for all his self-important “maverick” talk, he really has spent his career standing up for what he believes is right, even if it means going against his own party. I used to like John McCain, but after this election, I don’t even know who he is anymore.

So Obama was the only real choice, as far as I was concerned. But unlike in 2004, when Kerry left me feeling like I needed to rally the troops out of their desperation, I found it easy to like and support Barack Obama. Do I agree with him on everything? Of course not. Do I think he has a strong grasp on what makes this country great, and what can make it great again? I certainly do. As he is fond of saying, his story is one that could only happen in the United States of America, and it’s clearly given him a unique perspective, a vantage point from which to view this damaged land.

What did it for me was his “A More Perfect Union” speech, delivered during the height of the Jeremiah Wright controversy in March of this year. I might be out on a limb, but I think it was the finest political speech of my lifetime, and any man who can pen those words deserves a shot at realizing his vision, I think. (You can read and watch the speech here.)

It’s going to take a lot of work to dig us out of the hole the Bush administration put us in, and I fear many will be disappointed in President Obama at first. He doesn’t have a magic wand, and it will likely take his entire first term just to turn the economy around, if he manages even that. I’m keeping an eye on his early decisions, too – I’m not sure how I feel about the pick of Rahm Emanuel for chief of staff, for instance.

But Obama’s win is like a symbolic turning of the corner, like light breaking through the darkness. Talk to people in Illinois who know Obama, and served with him, and Republicans and Democrats alike will tell you he really believes in his message of hope and unity. After eight years of George W. Bush, what we need is a president who will work for all of us, not just the privileged few, not just the oil companies and campaign contributors. Will Obama be that president? I don’t know, but I hope so.

And for the first time in nearly a decade, that hope seems founded. And that’s a good feeling.

* * * * *

I can’t believe I’m about to type this next sentence, but here goes. In two weeks, I expect to review Chinese Democracy, the 15-years-in-the-making new Guns n’ Roses album. I’m more convinced than ever that this is actually going to happen now – I’ve heard clips from all 14 songs, seen reviews in Rolling Stone and other reputable magazines, and personally inquired at my local Best Buy. Provided Axl Rose doesn’t pull one of his patented shit fits, pulling this from the shelves at the last minute, we should have the product of his last decade and a half on the 23rd.

At the very least, Chinese Democracy offers an opportunity to talk about obsession. Listening to some of the finished product, it’s pretty clear that Rose has been obsessed with this album for a long time, tweaking and re-recording and getting everything just how he likes it. But there’s a fine line between being a perfectionist and allowing a project to consume your life. It’s a line many artists walk, and at least Rose finally managed (fingers crossed) to get his project out there, folly or not.

Although it only took half as long to finish, you might slot Christmas on Mars into that same category. For seven years, the members of the Flaming Lips have been working on this thing, a full-length feature film shot in leader Wayne Coyne’s back yard. We’ve been hearing about this forever – teaser trailers were released five years ago – and now it’s finally finished. Christmas on Mars is out now on DVD, following a short theatrical run, and it comes packaged with the Lips’ soundtrack on CD.

So what the hell is it, and why did it take seven years? Well, first let’s talk about the movie. Here is the best I can do as a short summation: imagine an equal mix of Eraserhead, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Miracle on 34th Street. (No, really, imagine that.) The movie is mostly black and white, and has that ‘50s B-movie sheen to it. It’s played deadly straight by people who are not actors (with a couple of exceptions), but even when it’s unintentionally funny, you get the sense it’s exactly what Coyne and his merry band want.

Plot? Well, here goes. The movie is about Christmas on a Mars colony. The crew of astronauts (played mainly by the band) experiences trouble with their gravity unit, and everything’s going badly. So to cheer up the crew, one of the men organizes a Christmas pageant. The only trouble is, the crew member meant to play Santa Claus kills himself. Meanwhile, a strange experiment in artificial birth is taking place, timed to happen at midnight Christmas day. (There’s lots of birth imagery in this movie, and this is, of course, a literal virgin birth.)

Coyne himself plays a powerful alien who wanders by – he keeps a spaceship in his mouth, you see – and ends up dressed in the Santa suit meant for the dead crewman. You have to see that to believe it. Oh, and there’s a vivid nightmare sequence (starring real actor Adam Goldberg) in which dozens of marching soldiers with vaginas for heads stomp on a baby’s skull. The film keeps switching back and forth between silly and disturbing, and somehow, even in black and white, it manages a psychedelic edge.

Overall, it’s a fascinating trip. Somehow, the Lips have managed to make a movie that captures visually the singular sound of their band. The film is ramshackle and eerie and dark and abruptly shiver-inducing, but at its core, it’s full of childlike wonder. Listen to The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, and that’s what comes out most strongly – this is a band full of wonder. Christmas on Mars is clearly the work of amateur filmmakers and actors, but it’s like the “sweded” versions of Ghostbusters and other movies made by Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind. It’s earnest and full of heart, which makes everything else not only forgivable, but lovable.

Now, about that soundtrack. I know what you’re expecting, but believe it or not, Christmas on Mars is a real movie, not an extended music video, and as such, the Lips have written a real score for it. The CD contains 30 minutes or so of instrumental goodness, mostly eerie soundscapes like opener “Once Beyond Hopelessness.” Coyne never sings a word (although there are wordless vocals here and there), and the primary instrument is spooky synthesizer. “Space Bible with Volume Lumps” comes closest to being a pop song, with its twittering beat and synth-trumpet blasts, but for the most part, this is transporting and atmospheric.

And it’s great. When it comes to the Lips, Coyne’s voice is the biggest sticking point for me – I love everything else about The Soft Bulletin, for example, and the chance to hear the band tackle their orchestral leanings full on without lyrics is a remarkable one. “In Excelsior Vaginalistic” (just take a minute to deal with that title) is a sweeping wonder, with a sound like sunrise breaking through the clouds, and “The Gleaming Armament of Marching Genitalia” (take another minute) is ominous and unstoppable. This music is as left-field and wonderful as the film it accompanies.

So was it worth seven years to complete Christmas on Mars? Ultimately, only Wayne Coyne can tell us that. Viewed one way, the finished product is ridiculous and amateurish. But the whole endeavor pulses with life and joy, even through the darkness – it’s like Ed Wood and Frank Capra collaborating on a sequel to 2001, but with more vaginas and fetuses. There’s nothing quite like watching someone’s dream come true, however, and this is clearly a labor of love for the Lips. Nothing beats good old-fashioned heart and soul, and this project practically overflows with it. It’s a delightful early Christmas present for very strange people, and I’m glad to count myself among them.

Next week, I hope to catch up a little bit, before dedicating columns to Chinese Democracy and the re-release of Daniel Amos’ masterpiece, Darn Floor Big Bite.

See you in line Tuesday morning.