The Flaming Lips' 'Christmas On Mars': Wayne Coyne's Chinese Democracy? In Bigger Than The Sound

For the Lips, it isn't the destination but the journey.

On The Record: The Most Trying, Insane And Important 86 Minutes Of Your Life

There is a moment — and this moment is really dependent on your tolerance for shots of bleeding infants and labia — in the "Christmas on Mars" film when you sort of want to rip your eyes out. Or at least have some sort of psychotic episode.

This is probably exactly what the Lips (or, more specifically, mastermind Wayne Coyne, who directed the film and spends a majority of its 86 minutes wandering around with antennae sticking out of his head as "The Martian") intended. After all, they've sort of made a career out of pushing audiences to the brink. For 25 years now, they've prodded, poked and run relatively unchecked through the music industry, making — like, physically, with their hands — their own brand of unique madness. It hasn't always been pretty, but it's certainly been interesting.

And if you consider all of that, well, "Mars" is their masterwork.

Of course, that's not to say that the film is particularly good (it isn't), but when you're talking about the Lips, "good" is a relative term. And this only became apparent to me after I sat through the entirety of "Mars," a seemingly endless dirge of listless camera work, poor acting and droning background music that is periodically interrupted by the occasional scene of an atrocity (an exploding baby head, a fetus cut with a knife and fork) or psychedelic genitalia (on the heads of astronauts or a marching band, nonetheless). Oh, yeah, and it's also about Christmas. Sort of.

There are cameos by Fred Armisen, Adam Goldberg and the guy who used to be on "Blues Clues," and they're all pretty terrible (also, despite what you've read, neither nor Isaac Brock are in the film). There's no dialogue for the first seven minutes of the film, and when everyone eventually does start talking, you sort of wish they would shut up. Shot on grainy 16mm, the film is hard to watch, and its editing (or lack thereof) could generously be described as languid. Though, to be fair, all of that is largely immaterial.

See, the one thing I liked about "Mars" actually had nothing to do with the film itself — rather, about halfway through, I had the sudden realization that it completely sums up every single feeling I have about the Flaming Lips themselves. Both good and bad.

And here they are: The Lips are amazing, unless you really look and listen closely, in which case you realize that they're sort of not. At least not anymore. They have been coasting for nearly a decade now, getting by on smoke and mirrors — their gimmicky live show, 5.1 channel surround-sound versions of their albums, landing homemade UFOs at the Oklahoma City Zoo — while ignoring the fact that Coyne can no longer sing (at least not live), and their musical output has become increasingly uninteresting. Ever since 1999's excellent The Soft Bulletin — which ushered in the current "sonically expansive" era of the band — they've sort of been spinning their wheels, releasing two albums in the '00s, exactly one-quarter of which was any good (the first four songs on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots).

Then again, perhaps none of that matters. Because, like I said, when you're talking about the Flaming Lips, everything is relative. Like "Christmas on Mars" itself, the band is less about the end destination as it is the voyage getting there. The trip is the thing — and making "Mars" was certainly a trip, as it was famously in (and out of) production since 2001, shot almost exclusively on sets Coyne himself built and stars a guy (Lips multi-instrumentalist Steve Drozd) who kicked heroin during filming. It's a testament to the spirit of the band and to the twin DIY and "Never Say Die" ethics of Coyne — the same kind of ethics I just criticized a paragraph ago. To him, finishing "Mars," building a spaceship for their stage show or recording an album about mystics and magic are all the same thing — they're all inevitabilities, not eventualities.

And in that regard, "Mars" resembles perhaps nothing quite as well as it does Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, another long-in-the-works (and equally insane) project currently (supposedly) being docked by himself. Both are testaments to the ego and determination of their respective masterminds. Both have become industrywide punch lines and the subject of countless rumors. And neither was ever expected to see the light of day.

I'm not the first to make this comparison, but here's where I differ from others: The beauty of "Mars" is that — like Democracy — it doesn't matter if it's any good or not. What's important is that it's finished. Both Coyne and Rose heard all the detractors, but they shouldered the load, gritted their teeth and pulled their respective projects across the finish line. The trip is the thing.

And, ultimately, though I may write some bad things about them, that's also why I'll always listen to whatever the Flaming Lips are doing. Because the voyage is so enthralling — not to mention inspiring. I'll watch whatever half-baked space oddity they cook up next (and probably do so while actually half-baked), because they've earned that kind of respect. It hasn't always been pretty, but it's certainly been interesting. And even when it's pretty bad, hey, at least they're trying — really, really hard.

Questions? Comments?