Experimental Response Cinema: 'Orbit! Films About our Solar System'

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By Zach Endres

Why did we name the planets after Roman gods?

There's probably a simple explanation, but I have my own theory. Like the Roman gods, the planets are larger-than-life empyrean bodies, and like the Roman gods these planets have an intimate relation with the tiny Earthlings who observe them. We at least subconsciously saw in these celestial bodies the tenants of ancient gods, who held a power too vast to be contained on Earth, yet were somehow able to fiddle with our lives on a day-to-day basis. The planet Jupiter doesn't actually come down from its cosmic Mount Olympus to lay with its lovers, but it does flex its influence in more ways than you'd expect.

For example, when I was a child I purchased a book at one of those book fairs that were set up in our elementary-school library. We always looked forward to these rare occasions for the sole reason that we were let out of class early to explore. The book I found was hefty, its cover bordered by a bland beige, but within that border was a picture that depicted a series of orbs, overlapping slightly and placed in a ring-like manner around a massive ball of fire. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and yes, Pluto, all huddled around Mother Sun in a factually inaccurate but artistically forgivable composition.

After finding this book, I spent many nights gazing at the pictures inside, fantasizing about the wide, star-ridden blackness that hung over my head and all that it contained: the red eye of Jupiter, the receding icy hairline of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the tilt of Uranus ... Although I knew I'd never visit them, I found a means to relate to them via that book as I sprawled in bed with a flashlight. They seemed so far away, but that book brought them closer to me, and they truly became my neighbors. Distant gods found their way into my life, and they weren't so distant anymore.

Just as I found a personal tie to the planets, a handful of experimental filmmakers took those seemingly far-off spheres and connected with them in their own ways. A collection of 12 experimental short films commissioned by Cinemad and Rooftop Films screened under the banner of "Orbit!" at the Fusebox Festival on April 30. If you missed the shorts, many are available to watch online.

The "Orbit!" films came from all over the country and ranged from comedic to absurd to serious and political, but were brought together in the confines of this series by a mutual interest and exploration of the domain between the sun and Pluto: our solar system. Each film took on a particular planet, and each filmmaker personalized said planet in their own unique way, forming a bond with a celestial neighbor like a kid with a book under the covers at night.

From Brent Hoff's Look at the Sun, a found-footage collage of the sun that pieces together NASA recordings to express the filmmaker's awe of this nearest star, to Travis Wilkerson's Pluto Declaration, which quips satirically about the loss of Pluto's "right" to be a planet, these films are just as varied and intriguing as the planets they depict. Watch Look at the Sun below:

Jessica Oreck uses Venus to critique our destructive perception that baked skin equates to feminine beauty, using footage of wrinkled, tan bodies to deter Earth from going down the same path as its scorched sister planet. Mark Elijah Rosenberg creates a more personal ode to the Mars Rover in No Message Received, a one-shot film (embedded below) in which a scientist chats passionately after his cringe-worthy interview about the little rover that could, and forever will, on the red planet.

Ben Coonley's Mercury sing-songedly jokes about our obsession with photographing the craters of Mercury while naming them after historically significant Earthlings. Deborah Stratman creates an abstract epic about comets and the fear they invoked in humans of the past with her film ...These Blazeing Starrs!, embedded below:

And here's Jupiter Elicius, from Houston filmmaker Kelly Sears, which paints the off-kilter portrait of a meteorologist obsessed with the storms of Jupiter.

Also in the mix are Mike Plante's look at Earth with Copernicus Resurrected, the short I Seen the Moon from Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, and a musican ode to Saturn by Jacqueline Goss and Michael Gitlin, Scan Platform Problems (Close to You). Bill Brown's film Uranus dips the program briefly into a coat of political satire, as shown below:

The whole program is summed up by a potentially inebriated Neptune, God of the Seas, in Neptune Calling! Filmed in Austin, this all-encompassing short harkens back to the other shorts in the program as Neptune (played by local actor John Merriman) soaks in his bathtub, phoning the other planets in the search for companionship.

The fact that so many different filmmakers can draw such vastly different material from the planets shows the truth about our relationship with them. These aren't just massive objects in space to be viewed through a telescope; there's more to it than that. I had all but forgotten about my book from that long-ago book fair, but as soon as I sat in that East Austin factory and began watching these experimental films, it all came back to me, my own personal experience with the gods.

Even though these planets are almost too large and distant to realistically fathom in our everyday life, like the Roman gods they have an intimate connection with our culture, our arts, our lives—and on such an individual basis. The gods aren't so far off, it seems, and the proof can be found in the inspired work of experimental filmmakers, or the late-night readings of a boy after a long day at school.

Zach Endres is an Intern at the Austin Film Society