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Unseen Filmed Object: The Long, Strange History of UFOria
UFOria is the best romantic comedy about aliens ever made, although it is not actually about aliens. It is, as The Hollywood Reporter put it, about “the need to believe in something, the potency of individuality, [and] the fine line between celebrity for its own sake and espousing a cause.” Cindy Williams stars as a rural grocery store clerk named Arlene who believes she has been chosen to lead humanity onto a space craft for our next phase of existence. Fred Ward is her love interest Sheldon, a hapless drifter who only cruised into town to make some dough with his phony evangelist buddy (Harry Dean Stanton). Surrounding them are a flock of hilarious townies and a country music soundtrack that fits the film like a glove.
Variety called UFOria “a snappy, beautifully written piece of work.” The New York Times raved that the film was perfectly cast and compared it to Preston Sturges. Unfortunately for the public, UFOria was as fleeting as a saucer in the sky. There were only sporadic appearances after its 1980 filming. Today, UFOria only available in a low quality VHS upload to YouTube. So why was this movie suppressed? And what’s keeping it that way?
The story of UFOria begins in 1975. That’s when writer and director John Binder read an article in The Los Angeles Times about Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, the two cult leaders alternately known as Bo and Peep. Bo and Peep were trying to convince people that Jesus had left Earth on a space ship and that another ship would be coming soon for the rest of us. “I remember thinking it could be a funny movie but only if the spaceship really comes,” Binder said. “I mean, Spielberg had not made Close Encounters by that point.”
Binder was already in movies — he’d worked sound for 1970’s Woodstock and for 1972’s Marjoe, another Oscar-winning documentary about (surprise surprise) a phony evangelist. Binder wrote UFOria, originally called Escape, and shopped it around. Cindy Williams was interested by the time the script got to Melvin Simon Productions; Simon agreed to get moving on UFOria and inked a deal with their partner 20th Century Fox for distribution. The film was shot about an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles in the cozy confines of Lancaster, California. Photography was completed by March 1981. Seven months later, the MPAA gave UFOria a PG rating. Release was imminent.
Or so it seemed. Suddenly UFOria vanished, shelved because 20th Century Fox executives got cold feet. An angry Binder vented about the situation to Rolling Stone in a June 1983 issue. “This film would have been distributed if another company had had it. It might have encountered some difficulties, but if the picture had been made by Dan Melnick or something like that, that company would have found a way to sell it. Certain choices were made.”
Binder was also frustrated with Melvin Simon president Milton Goldstein for not holding Fox to the terms of the distribution contract. Goldstein responded by saying UFOria’s shelving was a mutual decision between the production companies because they were still trying to figure out the correct marketing angle. “Sure, we can enforce the contract,” Goldstein said. “But we feel it needs a special type of distribution. We’re still trying to find a handle on which way to market it. We don’t want to take a risk on a special picture.”
Binder conceded that UFOria was a different kind of animal. “The movie’s very unusual. The humor’s a little surprising. It has a peculiar tone to it. It’s funny one minute, it’s slightly serious the next. It runs on sort of two tracks. There is some letdown because people are expecting a Close Encounters kind of thing, and it’s not. I thought that mostly younger people felt they were being hoodwinked with all the humor because it doesn’t have that visceral payoff that kids are used to. Kids do not handle irony anymore.” On top of that, there was the obvious problem with UFOria’s name, not to mention the fact movies set in our “redneck” heartland were rarely box office winners.
Binder also credited Melvin Simon with continuing to pay interest on UFOria’s $5 million dollar budget during this release hiatus instead of simply writing the film off for tax credit. As fate would have it, by the time of the Rolling Stone article, UFOria had been picked up for distribution by Universal Pictures. Alas, Universal didn’t really know what to do with the film either. Against Binder’s wishes, the studio refused to screen UFOria for critics or open it in large metropolitan cities, opting instead to do test screenings in Peoria and Rockford under the title Hold On To Your Dreams. The movie did not, as the old saying goes, play in either Illinois city. UFOria only survived after this because of Charles Lippincott, a marketing bigwig at Lucasfilm, who saw it, loved it, and got the movie into the 1984 Filmex festival in Los Angeles.
The Filmex screening delighted reviewers. “Unquestionably a pleasure,” wrote Variety. “A tasty slice of contemporary Americana that’s an oasis amid so much somber fare,” said The Los Angeles Times. Theater chains started requesting UFOria. The movie enjoyed a seven week run in Boston in 1985. That same year, UFOria ran for a week at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times was there: “If anything, [UFOria] seems even more fun than it did when it was shown at Filmex last year.”
A New York premiere scheduled at the Bleecker Street Cinema for January 3rd, 1986 was tempered by Universal’s refusal to fork over any budget for advertising. Bleecker’s booker J.D. Pollack hired publicist Lauren Hyman to spread the word about UFOria. This attracted New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, who loved the movie.
“It’s anybody’s guess why it’s taken so long [for UFOria] to get here,” Canby wrote in his review, “though somebody seems to have goofed…it’s about the most enjoyable movie of its kind since Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Jonathan Demme’s Handle With Care, both of which it resembles…[John Binder] lets his comedy build through a leisurely accumulation of bizarre details, as well as through dialogue that sounds absolutely accurate, even at its craziest. The film is also perfectly cast. As Arlene, Miss Williams comes across as someone who’s as utterly sweet and sincere as she is possibly schizoid.”
In a later column, Canby declared, “Every January should have at least one movie like UFOria.” Bleecker Street Cinema showings began selling out, and Binder felt vindicated. Universal was quick to remind the director and anyone else reading reports about UFOria’s comeback story that art house success was not real world success. Even the meager advertising budget the studio had spent wasn’t being recouped by the film’s box office. A true wide release never came, unless you count the VHS of UFOria that eventually arrived.
UFOria is not on DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, Hulu, or any other streaming service. Some have cited the expensive soundtrack, which includes music by Brenda Lee, Hank Williams, Jr., Waylon Jennings (a hero to Ward’s character in the film), and John Prine. I say Universal can afford to take a loss on this one. It’s a gem. Expertly restore it, lovingly package it, remind viewers what we had with Cindy Williams, Fred Ward, and Harry Dean Stanton. I’m sure Minions: The Rise of Gru brought in enough to finally put UFOria out properly.
There is one chilling postscript to UFOria. The cult that inspired Binder to write the movie in 1975 was, of course, Heaven’s Gate, which made grim headlines in March of 1997 after 39 members were found dead in a mass suicide near San Diego. It wasn’t clicking when Binder heard the news until his wife mentioned Bo and Peep. Bo, alias Marshall Applewhite, was among the dead (Bonnie “Peep” Nettles died from cancer in 1985). Binder let out a hollow chuckle in disbelief, his emotions tinged with sorrow.
“Back in the ’70s, you didn’t take UFO stuff seriously,” Binder told The Los Angeles Times shortly thereafter. “Bo and Peep looked like a hundred other prophets riding around in Volkswagen buses. They were nuts, fruitcakes, but they were American fruitcakes and basically harmless. You could relax and have fun with it.”
Fortunately I Have The Key To Escape Reality
In conversation this weekend about beloved TV themes, I neglected to mention or even think about “Illegal Smile,” which was of course the theme to ABC’s 1974-75 dramedy “The Texas Wheelers.” Offering the one-two punch of Gary Busey and Mark Hamill, “The Texas Wheelers” told the story of a rural Texan family being raised by their less-than-reputable father. ABC axed the show just four episodes in—despite a solid premise, “Wheelers” had no game against NBC’s wildly popular time slot rival “The Rockford Files.”
The most outstanding aspect of “The Texas Wheelers” to me remains the wry but hopeful loser anthem “Illegal Smile,” a tune that woke me up to the genius of John Prine’s eponymous ’71 debut album. Look no further for concrete evidence that sarcasm often cuts deeper when accompanied by heartfelt acoustic guitar (it doesn’t hurt that Prine’s vocalization of his various laments is nearly flawless in its cadence / emotion). What a shame it took my unhealthy man-crush on Luke Skywalker to unearth such beauty.