So, let me tell you a story.
A couple months ago now, I was mid-way through “The Magus,” the singular book that defeated my dad Walter’s attempts to read straight-through due to its insipid protagonist. A random strain of conversation from that time went thusly:
J: “Hey dad! Didn’t they do a film of this that’s supposed to suck?”
W: “Oh yeah! I showed it for Conjure Cinema. It’s actually the one article for the blog I haven’t been able to suffer through. I’ve been stuck on it for years, and just can’t bring myself to sit and rewatch the film to write anything about it.”
J’s inner monologue: Wow that’s no fun; hey I’m a writer! I’m a film student! I can help about that :D
J: “Well heck, dad: if we sit and watch it, I’ll do the write-up for you and you can be back on to the other, more fun movies!”
W: “Well gosh, son, that’d be swell!”
*TIME PASSES; I WRITE THE ARTICLE*
J: “Phew! That film sucked but now you can write all the other films up!”
W: “Oh **** the next one is Unarius 2.”
I said no, absolutely not. I'm not writing this film up. I know how bad it is, I thought. I’ve heard how it broke the backs of better men than I. I have no spear to use on the Space Brothers.
But like a true writer, I’m out of money, and here I am loaning out my brain and fingers to get a paycheck. Christmas is coming up soon.
SO, UNARIUS! What is it? It’s a religion! A UFO religion, although it actually didn’t start out like that, nor does it say it’s a cult. From the light research I’ve done, they actually seem like very nice folks, especially the founders, Ernest and Ruth Norman. “Unarius” is in fact an acronym, for: “UNiversal ARticulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science”. It was founded in 1954 in good ol’ California, and, as best as I can tell, was centered around spiritual healing from the teachings of elder extraterrestrials who channel themselves through the leaders and will one day revisit Earth to promote peace. Ernest Norman specifically was focused on the spiritual side; Ruth was the Archangel Prince Uriel. In a way, it’s all centered around mindfulness as much as any form of spirituality, with a large emphasis on reincarnation and what effectively is karma: do bad thing, get regressed life--do good thing, get closer to being as advanced spiritually as a Space Brother.
“Um,” I hear you ask, not wanting the answer but too curious to be completely afraid, “but what is a ‘Space Brother’?”
Oh ye uninitiated into the wonders of “Unarius 1: The Arrival”, let me share it with you so you have the context for “Unarius 2: Roots of the Earthman”, back to back, just like Walter and I marathoned them today:
UNARIUS 1: THE ARRIVAL
(NB: The original review of The Arrival can be found here: http://www.conjurecinema.com/2009/09/arrival-august-1991.html )
Unarius 1 is fifty minutes of an acid trip that you’re not sure will go bad or not.
The summary of this no-plot film is: a very clean-shaven, Texan-accented caveman in 160,000 BCE stumbles upon a rather interesting and intensely bright UFO in the Californian desert. He approaches it, the door opens, and a man in a crappy bald wig that isn’t remotely blended to his skin smiles menacingly while extolling the virtues of his alien people. They’re the Space Brothers, adorned in their flowing robes and joyous 70’s Yellow-Submarine sets: they come with Peace and Love, and show our hero Zan how his past life was spent on another planet in vaguely Indian clothing, having visions of Archangel Uriel drifting her arms open in a hug. But plot twist: Zan decided to go with a guy from The Empire™ instead, who’s dressed all in silver with flimsy shoulderpads and not enough makeup to make his hands silver too, who promises untold riches NOW, it could be all YOURS for $9.99! Just FIVE payments of--
Anyway, Zan is sent on a mission of The Empire™ to subjugate another planet. Zan’s spaceship is a Schick Razor adorned with lights and video effects. His staff on the ship are robots, all of whom are hyper-expressive and have wigs that look like they were rejected from Cats: The Musical. Zan blows up a planet that refuses to surrender, despite the pleas of the Prince of the planet, played by the same menacingly-happy “bald” Space Brother, now with a wig on. Then Zan gets zad, because he blew up a planet; he felt “as surprised and as unhappy as the four million people dead”. Literally a line. Oh.
Zan sees how the Space Brothers definitely want to help him and how In No Way Is This Sketchy as he climbs aboard their starship and heads for the skies. (God I wish I had just listened to “Come Sail Away” by Styx instead for 2.5 hours today.) On the ship, he goes down a corridor populated by more grinning fellows, to Ruth Uriel Norman’s arms and she embraces him and smiles in the scariest way I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to be mean; Ruth seems nice in all the stories I saw, just the shot was lit odd or something and it made me shudder. There’s lots of video effects of whirling starscapes, glittering around Zan and Uriel, and the film ends.
(NB: The above-mentioned sequence can be seen below, from the beginning to the 4:15 mark, with BONUS material featuring Ruth Norman/Uriel talking about 'Art' afterwards. Click if you dare, but some things can't be UNSEEN ...)
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Phew, fifty minutes, but quite fun in the right mood. There’s almost no plot, the accents are hilarious, everyone is so earnest and it’s got a ton of charm. Without any amount of insincerity, it’s very fun to watch. You can tell everyone is completely believing in every bit of it, and there’s a serious chunk of change put into the effects. “Unarius: The Arrival” is a sweet, if very weird and semi-painful experience.
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“Unarius 2: Roots of the Earthman” is ...
You know what, I’ll use the word I said at the fifteen minute mark or so, when the leader of the cavemen pulls out a RUBBER HALLOWEEN MASK, famous rubber masks from the Bone-Stick times, and puts it on.
I guess I should try and summarize the plot. Uhh, well, here:
UNARIUS 2: ROOTS OF THE EARTHMAN
Zan and his dad who looks like a taller guy around the same age, Zanther, have an argument about Setai, a priest who exerts his will all over Zanther’s tribe of cavemen. It’s now 156,000 BCE. Zan harrumphs away into the Californian desert and sees the Space Brothers’ ship, cueing the events of “Unarius: The Arrival”. After two days with the Space Brothers we don’t get to see because, you know, budget, Zan’s brother Sarth and Sarth’s woman Ilor find Zan and they all go back to the Zanther tribe, telling about the “Gods” Zan’s met, about all the pacifistic ways he’s brought with him.
Zan’s father listens to him, agrees with him and trusts him, and then the priest of their primitive Angry Vindictive and Only God “Baal” comes and chastises Zan and everyone who believed him. Zan’s father privately chastises Zan, leading to this exchange:
Zanther: “Tell me the truth!”
Zan: “I’d rather cut off this arm than lie to you. You taught me since I was this high to tell the truth. They--”
Zanther (cutting him off): “Tell me the truth!”
Zan: “The truth is that they--”
Zanther: “The truth!”
Zan: “They are real; I told you the truth!”
Zanther: “Sometimes lying is better.”
Zan gets zad again and goes to bed without joining in the big supper of one tiny charred piglet “boar” and some water/wine/spirit-juice. Setai the high priest gets frisky with his woman, Thor, whom Walter and I nicknamed “Shelley Duvall” because of her thin, angular face, and tendency to wail like Wendy Torrance from Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.” (Much respect to Miss Duvall.) Zanther is glum.
Ilor, I think?, talks about Zan’s blasphemous gods, and Baal’s #1 Superfan Setai freaks out and commands her to dance naked until she drops of exhaustion, or she’ll be fed to Baal--a tall statue close? maybe? to the tribe that spews fire and has some silly eyes and a big ol’ belly for burning heretics.
Zan leaves in the cover of night with a few friends who believe in him. Sarth and Ilor lie in bed and Ilor gives an ultimatum to the very-flamboyant, wearing a wedding ring Sarth (good for him!) to join his brother or leave her. He leaves her.
Zan’s party camps out very close to the main tribe, talking about how they’d be punished by death for going out into the Californian desert to look for the Space Brothers if they were caught, but how nobody will look for them. They try to sleep but are woken by a search party. Thor is captured and screams the whole time. Sarth falls down a hill and hurts his ankle. Zan tricks the search party away and rejoins his group in one scene. All the men are incredibly misogynistic. Zan doesn’t know if he’s leading them the right way, and has a flashback to being on the ship, with its shag carpeting and lounge chair, surrounded by even worse bald caps that aren’t even covering the bottom of people’s hair. Zan’s party gets to a plateau where they feel the peace of the Space Brothers, whose ship is “only over that ridge!” and Zan points to somewhere MILES AWAY.
Sarth the White rejoins them as an initiate of the Space Brothers and a face devoid of his 70’s adult-film-stache, which actually makes him kind of handsome now. He’s grinning as well, and I was waiting for him to lead the party off a cliff with a smile like that. Back at the home of the main tribe, Baal’s #1 Simp Setai has a crisis of faith in front of the art-project statue, and Uriel in a ball of light visits him and says, “You’ve been regressing all these people through fear! Be better!”
Zan’s party get to the BRIGHT ship, the Space Brothers welcome them and say “yeah Thor’s fine, all the other tribe won’t find us since they aren’t trying to get enlightened, but Zan and all the people brought here will be taken into our arms and Uriel’s arms.” And the film ends.
* * *
So, “Unarius: Roots of the Earthman”.
Well, let’s start with the piece of this film that explains the pain: it wasn’t scripted.
Like, they didn’t have a “script” or “actors”.
There’s no way they didn’t have an outline of how events would go, but all the dialog, all the decisions physically, all the interactions are improvised. Oh-- no, sorry; they were all “past lives channeled and reenacted by the Unarius members in the film”. So in every scene, when people talk over one another--when one guy talks in third-person caveman and another says “Hey can I have some water over here?!”--when Zanther the chief tries to rouse his people and they all grumble and pout--when the women scream and won’t stop screaming, or talk all at once about women’s rights in the new world and one of the men of Zan’s party says, “Women are just to be slept with,” yeah that’s--
That’s “channeling” baby!
Like, no joke, this film is inexplicable. It’s misogynistic as Hell, FOR NO REASON since Ruth Norman DIRECTED AND SUPERVISED IT. Prince Uriel herself directed it. Why, for the love of God why, is it so anti-women?
Look, with a real film like “The Magus” I can talk about normal film things. As a film student and as someone who has analyzed films for a living, I know where to point out things about the production, or the direction or design choices or music or anything to keep an article flowing.
The problem is, this isn’t like any other film. This is two hours--TWO HOURS OF MY LIFE--where a group of people in the desert meander and discuss a not-in-any-way-subtle religious drama. It’s got next to no lighting, it’s got no good acting, it’s got no credibility to any of the events happening. Every time you think “oh, they might be cavemen,” something breaks the mood: the southern drawls, the clean-shaven faces, the frightening wigs, the fact one woman is just wearing a pink shawl, the out-of-nowhere “send away for it with a coupon from Famous Monsters of Filmland!” rubber mask Zanther wears for one scene and DOESN’T APPEAR AGAIN ANYWHERE ELSE, the incredible misogyny, the hair peeking out of the bald-caps--
I just ...
The music, I thought, was very good. The music which, as Walter screamed while watching, “was John Barry’s score from King Kong (1976)!” and “the finale of The Lion in Winter!”
I think what makes “Unarius: Roots of the Earthman” such a soul-crushing experience is precisely the opposite of what makes “Unarius: The Arrival” such a joyously weird one. The uncertainty of “Roots of the Earthman”--the uncertainty of how the performers will act, the uncertainty of how to even shoot it (it’s all handheld shaky-cam, literally home-movie quality with zoom-ins and the like), the uncertainty of whether to dub in post or keep the audio from filming live (they do both)--all of it leads to a very challenging experience. It’s hard to share in any of the experiences or majesty of the story being told because of how loosely it's being done. It’s impossible to take anything seriously when you aren’t certain how to convey it, due to its unpredictability. It’s hard to believe in anything being shown, because you can see the brains of the performers stuttering to fit in the structure of the story to whatever dialog they feel like saying.
“Unarius: The Arrival” may not be Oscar-winning, and it may not even have a story as much as a propaganda message about Space Brothers, but it’s purposeful. The shots capitalize on the best angles. The effects have specific motion to them, specific marks for the actors to hit so that the shots work. The music is generic but it seems like it’s actually theirs. And the dialog, though delivered poorly most of the time, is deliberate in its intention and message scene-to-scene. “Space Brothers: Good, The Empire™: Bad.” More than that--everyone’s heart is in this film. The actor playing the main Space Brother has a smile like a shark seeing a fish, but he’s still genuine in trying to portray infinite love. Zan is purposefully incredulous; even The Empire™’s robots are grinning and cackling with evil glee. Everyone wants to be here to share their story and their views, because this is actually sharing doctrines about past-life-choices and internal goodness. It’s all sharing what’s believed in by the Unarius members; it’s not a wild improv exercise that went rogue about the lives of people on the fringes of the mythos.
If I can point out one scene that highlights this schism in Part 2, it’s this.
Setai, in his hut of tiger-furs, has a priest come to him and say “What if Zan’s right and the people who left with him shouldn’t be sacrificed to Baal?” Then Setai gets angry, and as the priest begs for mercy, he sticks his hand out, and in a POV shot puts it on-- on the priest’s-- face? And kind of jiggles the guy’s cheek-fat gently? While the guy acts in agony?
And you can hear the crew laughing.
Maybe people’s hearts were in “Unarius 2: Roots of the Earthman”. Maybe the scenes like where a woman just runs off into the bushes and has a baby, and everyone else leaves her there on the roadside of a desert without food or water or company to get home are necessary for the plot. Maybe the actors believed in the “channeling”. But you can very, very easily see, beyond the main cast of Zan, Zanther, Sarth, and Setai, where and when the background actors just stop caring scene-to-scene. Whether it’s in the lackluster running in the chase after the “heathen” group, dialog that sounds like casual people trying to fake what to say just to get the shot done, or the quiet anger on the faces of basically every woman there, it’s painfully apparent, and it’s honestly disheartening. Especially when you look at the timecode on the VHS after what feels like 15 years and see there’s still half an hour left.
Speaking of that pain, let me share an anecdote, which was the main reason I resisted this film:
When my dad showed this for Conjure Cinema, it was at one of the UFO Parties, and it was actually a guest’s first time at CC. When the first tape ended, as my dad tells it, she said, “Oh my God that was the worst thing I’ve ever seen!”
My dad said, with a grin, “That was only part one. It’s a two-VHS film.”
To which she burst into tears.
And people, including my dad, started to laugh and chuckle of “oh she’s exaggerating to be funny--”
No, she was actually so distressed by this film’s badness that the prospect of another fifty minutes of it made her cry.
So, I mean, what more is there to even say? “Unarius 2: Roots of the Earthman” has very little budget and practically no appeal. The laughter dries up in the daunting face of the next two hours being… this. The set design is like burying your head in the sand with an ostrich in comparison to the way-too-dazzling lights of EVERYTHING in “The Arrival”. The cinematography, to borrow a phrase from Joel Hodgson, attributed to MANOS: The Hands of Fate: “Every frame of this movie looks like someone’s last known photograph.” The music is stolen. The channeling actors drag you into the depths of despair and the religious nondrama of the plot is almost Ayn Randian in resisting authority to chase the dream of a chosen individual. I listened to “2112” by Rush seven times writing this (it’s 21 minutes long and very good if you haven’t heard it), just to clean my soul with a coherent sci-fi story.
|Not in the film; just wanted you to see the Sweet Ride!|
The one genuinely decent thing is the editing, which manages to keep things coherent (as much as is humanly possible). It trades off a documentary feel and a cinematic feel scene to scene, but what it makes me realize now is that, in shooting extra coverage to have all the shots they needed, they would’ve had to have either multiple cameras and sound people at once, or reshoot the same scenes again, and again, and again, which puts another strain on “channeling.” My best guess is that all the many LONG scenes of crowds talking were one-take wonders with multiple cameras or one cameraman not paid nearly enough, and scenes like Setai’s Gripping Punishment!!! were refilmed to get the most dynamic angles. And because those cinematic, less “realism” scenes are so brief by comparison, thinking about “wait, wouldn’t the angry mob see Zan and the cameraman hiding just off the road they’re running down, since this is supposedly not scripted and anything could happen? Whose Roots of the Earthman Is It Anyway?” confuses me even more.
I guess, to wrap up, let me share another anecdote, one that evens the score a little:
So there was a day back in college when I got home, and Walter was in the basement absolutely losing his mind over a film. I went down and tried to watch the ending with him, wherein a Bigfoot-- thing-- was with the “chosen kids” in a Flying Saucer, heading out into the stars to defeat an evil force they’d spent the last two hours defeating.
Dad was beside himself because “for the tenth time, I tried watching anime and this is what all anime is like for me, Justin; what the **** was THAT?!”
The film is called “The Laws of the Universe: Part 0” and it’s an independently-made animated film from a Japanese UFO Cult called Happy Science. I don’t know how on earth he found it. It’s on an unmarked DVD now in my house. It bothered my father greatly.
(NB: SHARE the joy/pain! Check out the trailer below):
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So there you go, Stacey, if you’re reading this, wherever you are, however life has treated you and however much peace you’ve found. Whether or not you’ve been embraced by Archangel Uriel--Walt’s feather’s were rustled as well by a horribly bad two-hours of UFO propagandism.
Unarius did more films, none of which were shown for CC (thank God I don’t have to write those up). Ruth Norman passed away in 1993, rest in peace, and in 2001 the Space Brothers did not arrive. Unarius continues on to this day, believing in its principles and in prophecies of Visitation. And for what it’s worth to any members reading this, I want to simply say that, while I absolutely did not like “Roots of the Earthman”, I can still find admiration in the devotion it takes to make something like that, and like “The Arrival”. Honestly, if the doctrines are, as it seemed by research, about bettering oneself, then there’s no pursuit more admirable in this life, or any others you may have in future cycles.
But in regards to “Roots of the Earthman”, to quote Conjure Cinema-goers when Zan first met the smiling visage of the frightening Space Brother…
USE THE SPEAR, ZAN!!!
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Coming Up Next: We continue our review of past CC films with the 1978 TV Movie version of The Thief Of Baghdad, with an impressive cast: Roddy McDowell, Terence Stamp, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi and an uncredited Marina Sirtis! Your Conjure Cinema Curator takes the center seat once more, with thanks to Justin for getting us over the last two road bumps. Watch for it!