Working To Code: The Educational and Industrial Cinema of Tom Sachs

This SXSW it happened that I was remarking over lunch on the bizarre character of "space nuts", people who are obsessed with NASA and who, in Texas anyway, tend to be very military, conservative types. Most space documentaries are equally buttoned down, which struck me as a trifle incongruous. Then a friend recommended that I check out the doc by Van Neistat and Tom Sachs depicting Sachs' exhibition that simulated a Mars landing mission. Sachs is a big deal artist, though I will confess I had never heard of him before watching A SPACE PROGRAM.

The doc does a good job of recording the many different components of the Mars Mission installation, and it shows the process as if it were an actual mission - with preparation, take-off, Mars landing, scientific collection, departure from the Martian surface and return to Earth. The filmmakers slyly play on our ideas of spectacle and they delight in including absurd, dissonant and perverse details, like the attempt to grow opium poppies on Mars using the scrapings from a poppy seed bagel, and many pseudoscientific explanations that are just wrong.

Sachs and his team are bricoleurs, which is to say they use materials commonly at hand. Much is made of plywood and epoxy glue, and there are a number of Charles and Ray Eames style explanatory breakouts. It's very, very funny.

We're not sure what will become of A SPACE PROGRAM, whether it will get theatrical or online distribution, or none at all, but it drove me to check out some of Sachs' and Neistat's other films, some of which document the Sachs house philosophy and most of which tend to propagate an idiosyncratic and insular studio culture. These are very funny films and there are more where these come from.

10 BULLETS is about "working to code" and it lays out several very practical and helpful techniques as it explains to employees of Sachs' shop what is expected of them as employees:

COLOR propounds Sachs' theories about color via a number of oddball pseudo-authoritative chapters. The section on purple is guaranteed to offend short musical geniuses who reside in the Minneapolis area.

LOVE LETTER TO PLYWOOD is just that, a paean to the "queen of building materials", plywood.

A retrospective show of Tom Sachs' boom boxes is on display until April 15 at the Contemporary Austin.