It's no secret that Wayne Coyne enjoys acting like an alien.
The Flaming Lips frontman exists in a universe far, far away from the orbits traveled by conventional pop singers (Oklahoma City is just his earthly mailing address). The Lips' first big college radio hit, "She Don't Use Jelly," was about a woman who uses Vaseline instead of butter (and a man who blows his nose with magazines). In the late '90s, Coyne spent an inordinate amount of energy experimenting with different ways for fans to experience his music, whether that was through a concert of car stereos ("The Parking Lot Experiment"), personal stereos ("The Boombox Experiments"), or pocket radios ("The Headphone Concerts"). Having run through ways to affect people's ears, Coyne concentrated on their eyes, growing Flaming Lips live shows into carnival-esque spectacles of legend — with confetti, balloons, dancers in Santa and rabbit costumes, Coyne walking over the crowd from inside a giant plastic bubble — which continue today. Yet at its core, the Flaming Lips' music has never sounded as extravagant and eccentric as their shows. Listening to their songs, I find myself wishing they'd get as freaky on tape as they look under the stage lights. They whip up buoyant pop with whimsical lyrics and bright electronic flashes, but I've yet to get snagged by their songs alone. An artist like Coyne has great value in our pop music landscape, where few acts seem to experiment with anything more than their stylists. But to these ears, his skills lie more in his performance savvy — which he possesses in spades — than in the core sonic repertoire he's helped create in the studio.
Now Coyne is hitting the big screen as a true alien — a man in green with deely-bopper horns on his head and shoulders — in the movie he cooked up, co-directed, and co-stars in, Christmas on Mars (the film screens in San Francisco this weekend). Once again, the result is a beautiful, eye-boggling thing of wonder that skimps on the core (a plot, perhaps?). But it gives you instead another wonderful look at the magic that happens visually when Coyne sets his mind to grand productions, this one seven years in the making.
Christmas has the sort of loose storyline that allows you to insert your own meaning as it comes to you (or as the drugs kick in, whichever comes first). The basics, though, are that at an isolated space outpost in the future, Christmas is under siege from ... something, and babies are being made by scientists ... for some reason, and Coyne is really cool as an alien pulling glowing suns from his mouth. Steven Drozd, the Lips' multi-instrumentalist, plays Major Syrtis. Syrtis holds an authoritarian position at the space station, although he mainly gives the camera stoned expressions and has cool hallucinations — literally seeing stars emerge out of nowhere, or, in my favorite scene, thinking his co-worker is cutting into a gooey fetus instead of a sausage. As the main character, Drozd gives no clues as to where the film will be going (perhaps that's due in part to his mental state; earlier this month Coyne told Pitchfork that Drozd was in the throes of his heroin addiction during much of the filming in late 2001 and early 2002). Along the way, Syrtis interacts with various other characters, all of whom seem anxious about ... something, including comedian Fred Armisen, who offers the pearl of wisdom that humans aren't supposed to live in space before inquiring how the Christmas carols are coming along.
But while Christmas won't be winning any awards for original screenplay, and the Lips' musical contributions are limited to the film's score, it's worth watching for visual creativity alone. With detailed sets built on the Coyne compound (where household appliances got repurposed as parts of the space center), each scene expands on the charm of a Lips' concert. Old-fashioned ideas of artistry (like landscapes straight out of '50s sci-fi flicks) are countered by modern stylistic flourishes. As an example of the latter, the movie is primarily shot in grainy, David Lynchian black and white film stock, but it flashes at just the right moments into color. One example: A woman "cooking up" a fetus is suddenly scrambling Technicolor eggs on the stove, to trippy effect.
If you have the patience to leave aside questions about what this film is supposed to mean, and don't try too hard to understand why Santa is so upset, and you turn off your brain while your eyes enjoy to the ride, there's a good 85 minutes to be spent in the company of Coyne's grandiose imagination. I realize that's a lot of ifs, but Wayne Coyne is one artist worth a brief suspension of disbelief.