Did I grow up in the 1970s, or just watch them on TV? Like many people in my profession, I spent way too many childhood hours sprawled in front of the tube, drinking in endless cop shows, sitcoms, and movies of the week as my mom implored me to go out and play. "You can watch that later," she'd say. "It won't be on later," was my invariable reply. I couldn't have been more wrong: just about every program I ever wasted my time on back then has been reissued on DVD, and with the advent of YouTube even the commercials are only a few keystrokes away. In the vast digital depository of American pop culture, everything—and I mean everything—will be on again later. Now I'm stuck writing this review when, to be honest, I'd much rather go out and play. Payback is a motherfucker.
Underground video artist Damon Packard is roughly the same age as I am and probably spent even more time parked in front of TV sets and multiplex screens. Since the late 80s he's created a series of no-budget movies that recycle visual and aural elements from 70s horror and sci-fi into creepy, arty, extremely personal works. His original stories are cheesy genre retreads, shot on the fly around Los Angeles, but into this footage Packard weaves a multitude of clips from old movies, trailers, and making-of documentaries (the latter two more legally accessible than actual releases), along with TV news footage that links his stories to contemporary political issues. His tightly woven editing and psychedelic video effects help conjure up the glitzy feel of 70s entertainment, but what makes his movies important is the singular way their paranoid fantasy scenarios process that scary decade of Watergate, Vietnam, Patty Hearst, Jonestown, and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Raised in Akron, Packard worshipped Steven Spielberg, and like his hero he spent his teens obsessing over 8-millimeter projects. His first grown-up film was the 20-minute vampire thriller Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988), followed by the full-length fantasy Apple: The Legend of a Young Elfin Girl (1995) and the eerie, impressionistic short The Early 70's Horror Trailer (1999). After years spent living in cars and tents, Packard inherited some money and made the audacious 118-minute feature Reflections of Evil (2002), which was framed as a TV movie from the early 70s but veered into all manner of nightmarish reverie and gave full play to his love-hate relationship with the fantasy factories of Spielberg and George Lucas. Though self-distributed, the movie won Packard his first serious critical recognition, and five years later he followed it with the sci-fi adventure SpaceDisco One. On Monday, University of Chicago Doc Films will screen the latter as part of its ongoing series "Cine-File Selects," with an introduction by local filmmaker and Cine-File contributor J.B. Mabe.
The odd thing about Packard's movies is that they're heavy on premise but light on actual plot; with their bursts of imagery and omniscient voice-over narration, they often play like trailers for themselves. SpaceDisco One riffs on two futuristic, dystopian narratives, incorporating footage from the camp classic Logan's Run (1976) and the gloomy George Orwell adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). One of Packard's main characters is Winston Smith, Orwell's obedient party member turned thought criminal, and the other two are women descended respectively from Logan, the movie character who fled a utopian community to avoid being executed on his 30th birthday, and Francis, the agent who was sent to track him down. But Packard also drops in vintage commercials for Atari video games, interview segments with British director Ken Russell, public domain footage from the legendary turkey Night Train to Terror (1985), and shots of Lorne Greene and company from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.
With ingredients like these, SpaceDisco One might sound like pure kitsch, but onscreen any such tone is undercut by Packard's aggressive experimentation: live-action scenes teem with freaky video effects, and the soundtrack maintains a low boil of ambient music, strident sound effects, modernist scores from 70s movies, and Top-40 dance hits. The opening-credit sequence, set aboard the starship SD-1, is a dazzling montage of roller disco footage flattened out with poster effects and augmented with patterns of stars and sunbursts, as well as prismatic flares of color—all this while Stephanie Mills, on the soundtrack, belts out the 1980 pop hit "Never Knew Love Like This Before." Near the end of the movie, as the two female antagonists confront each other, Packard turns the soundtrack over to voice-over narration from a Logan's Run promo documentary, and the onscreen action is intercut with bizarre images of human heads encased in bubbles and masked faces staring at TV screens that pulsate with abstract video art.
As a student of late 70s Hollywood, Packard has always drawn his moviemaking juice from proto-blockbusters like Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The chronology unrolled in titles near the beginning of SpaceDisco One gives a pretty good indication of how he feels about America since then: "1978 / Happiness, celebration, love, fun, drugs, creativity . . . 1979 / Same as above . . . 1980 / Some changes (Peter Sellers dies, Dorothy Stratten murdered) but otherwise things are still good . . . 1981 / Same as above, knife-kill movies saturate cinemas . . . 1982 / Good year for cinema. Fantasy orgasm of filmic phylum . . . 1983 / First signs of dramatic shift. Flannel sweaters and poofy hair, bad music. Atari bankrupt. . . . 1984 / DRAMATIC SHIFT OCCURS!! Party over, rules, restrictions, fear, punishment, jail time." At this point Packard's staging of the Orwell story kicks in, played out against the modern architecture of Los Angeles—the spectacularly gaudy Universal CityWalk in Hollywood becomes the futuristic avenue where the Ministry of Truth is located.
Nineteen Eighty-Four may never be made into a movie again now that its literal calendar date has passed, yet SpaceDisco One brilliantly turns that handicap into an asset. As Winston Smith sits in a garden before a silver, rotating abstract sculpture, listening to his party mentor sketch out a horrific future without Big Brother, that future turns out to be our present: "Imagine a crowded LA county jail cell with a single toilet in the middle. Imagine an endless flood of bad trailers for dumb motion-picture comedies with Jennifer Lopez and Will Ferrell and Lindsay Lohan. Imagine a state of perpetual sleep deprivation, a muddled mindset of endless foggy-headedness. Imagine a cell phone eating away at your brain, destroying every quadrant of it. Imagine an unending state of constipation from stale, bready foods and no liquid of any kind, causing the bloated body to fill with toxins and poisons." When Packard wants to conjure up a land of surveillance and intimidation, he uses video clips from NBC's reality show To Catch a Predator and audio clips of talk-radio conversations about domestic spying after 9/11.
Of course the movie's whole chronology is scrambled anyway: Orwell's story was set in 1984, Logan's Run in the 23rd century, and the only way Packard can reconcile the two sets of characters is with a goofy meta-movie pivot in the final minutes. But no matter: SpaceDisco One takes place not on a time line but on a thematic plane, weaving together past, present, and future into a collage of human rage and government oppression. At one point Packard cuts in news footage of a shouting, shirtless man as he takes a crowbar to a car stopped in traffic, then night-vision surveillance tape shows a half dozen young women beating the shit out of each other in a darkened club. Texts from World Trade Center conspiracy theorist David Icke and commentary from talk-show host Alex Jones evoke a world of secret global power structures. It doesn't really matter what decade it is, Packard implies, because evil and chaos will always triumph. As we all learned to say in the 70s, have a nice day.