June 21, 2007

The Weekend We Made Contact

NYC conference and arts festival spotlights the best, worst and weirdest of 60 years of UFO cinema

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Saucer Painting 2, one of artist Alex Rohr's UFO-themed works exhibited as part of the weekend's UFO's: The Culture of Contact series in the East Village (Photo: Pioneer Theater)

Jeremy Vaeni, who estimates his first abduction by aliens occurred some time around age 3, acknowledged he doesn't have a lot to prove at this weekend's UFO's: The Culture of Contact conference and screening series at the Pioneer Theater. He's not presenting his own documentary, and he's not planning to convince you to believe him. And neither, he said, are the other abductees, researchers and experts who will discuss UFO phenomena between showings of films like Invaders From Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Starman and Contact.

"I guess the basic message is that for whatever reason it's time to come out of the closet, as it were," Vaeni, 33, told The Reeler in an interview this week. "Let's make this legit. Let's see what happens if this becomes less of a fringe thing. Does that promote open contact in some way? I don't know. I really didn't want a bunch of kids in Spock ears there. I really want to attract mainstream, sort of semi-sane people, so I'd much rather go for the movies that connect with people that way."

The result is a three-day multi-media festival combining lectures and films at the Pioneer with live music at the Lit Lounge (complete with a "psychic brainwave" light show), staged play readings, art exhibits and other events around the East Village. Timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold's UFO sightings in Washington state on June 22, 1947 -- the first widely publicized events of their kind and collectively the source of the term "flying saucer" -- The Culture of Contact is as much a celebration as it is an inquiry, perhaps even more so. After all, as Vaeni added, the beings with which he's interacted for most of his life reach out in abstract ways; an equally abstract art fest seemed like a reliably sensible way to reach back.

But Vaeni said it's also a means of reclaiming UFO culture from a skeptical mainstream, one that marginalizes its proponents as victims hiding in shadow and deferring to therapists or, worse yet, a gang of freaks drunk on space mythology. Cinema has been notoriously inconsistent in its depictions of ufology and abductee experience. For starters, don't look for Fire in the Sky, the 1993 adaptation of Travis Walton's famous book about his own abduction, in the Pioneer program. "That movie was a lie that had nothing to do with the reality of his experiences," Vaeni said. "It's just that the producers thought that fear sells, so they went with a fictionalized account with these little monster beings that had nothing to do with what he really saw and experienced."

By the same token, that overlap (and appeal) of fact versus fiction is one of the weekend's most compelling themes. "This is a much more interesting situation than when people talk about mockumentaries," said Pioneer programmer Ray Privett, who first worked with Vaeni on a screening of his film No One's Watching in 2006. "Or the blending world between documentary and fiction features, where the idea of fiction is truly in the minds and experiences of the viewer in a much more profound way than normal. And listen: They're human, too -- or at least I think they're human -- and a lot of these guys seem to enjoy silly and not-so-silly UFO films. There's a camp aspect to it. But there's also this unique approach to the question of fiction and nonfiction in the presentation of the films."

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Indeed, said UFO Magazine publisher William J. Birnes, to the three generations that have come of age since the Arnold sightings and the infamous UFO crash alleged to have occurred in Roswell, N.M., the legends perpetuated in movies function as a buffer against more authentic inquiry. "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," said Birnes, who will deliver a lecture Friday night about the latest evidence proving high-ranking officers recovered a flying saucer and its passengers near the Roswell Army Air Field in July, 1947. "There's kind of an 'Oh, yawn' attitude to a lot of this stuff, and Roswell has an 'Oh, yawn' attitude to it -- (despite) the fact it's like one of these paradigm-shift moment in human history, because it was here that human beings actually came into contact with objects from another world and creatures from another world. All the witnesses who talked about it for 60 years have been dismissed, derided, humiliated, insulted and threatened with death while the government keeps this thing as much of a secret as it could. But it's an open secret; everybody knows about Roswell. To most people, the fiction of ufology is more important than the fact of ufology."

Vaeni trusts his own conclusions on the basis of having little choice; three years after his last abduction, he said, a recent electroencephalogram (EEG) measured highly abnormal, deep-sleep brain waves from an energy that makes his body "do weird things" mimicking tai chi rituals. ("I'm a fat white guy," he told me. "I have no real interest in that kind of stuff.") The most he said he can prove to himself is that he isn't lying or crazy; his (and others') efforts to adapt and live with the knowledge is the focus of both his documentary and his book I Know Why the Aliens Don't Land!, and he'll discuss his experience with other purported abductees during panels convening Friday night at the Pioneer and Sunday at P.S. 63. Renowned alien abduction researcher Budd Hopkins will be at the theater Saturday at 5 p.m for a lecture of his own.

"We're not going to win the hearts and minds of people," Vaeni said. "We just want to do something kind of cool and fun, and if people are informed in the process, great. But mostly, we just want to have a good time with it. But we do definitely want to have a look back on Sunday and make a cohesive picture out of our experiences -- where we can dump what doesn't work and keep what does."

And of course skeptics are welcome. "For me, I'm not a believer," Privett said. "But I'm curious to hear what they have to say. And also, I admit I'll probably be entertained by it. And who knows? Maybe I'll learn something."

UFO's: The Culture of Contact takes place at the Pioneer Theater and other venues around New York; visit the theater's Web site for program and ticket information.

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