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Journey into Unarius with 'Children of the Stars'

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UFO parking only: a Unarius student patiently waits.
COURTESY OF BILL PERRINE

arts@sfbg.com

FILM El Cajon — between balmy coastal San Diego and arid desert mountains to the east — is just the sort of place where the dream of California living came true for a lot of industrious working-class people in the post-World War II boom years. It's also where their boomer children and generation-next grandkids are currently seeing that dream slowly expire.

It exploded in the original golden age of suburban planning, by 1960 going from podunk burg to major 'burb with 25 times the population it had had two decades earlier. Such rapid growth is seldom pretty, and today El Cajon mostly looks like a rusty old conglomeration of strip malls, ranch-style homes, and motel-like apartment complexes that probably were a little tacky to begin with. It's certainly not the first place that might come to mind when pondering where groundwork might be laid for the coming landing of space vessels from the 32 worlds of the Interplanetary Confederation, who will arrive at last to save we holdout "Eartheans" from our endless cycles of self-destruction.

But that is exactly what El Cajon has been for nearly a half century, since Norman and Ruth Norman settled upon this place to headquarter their Unarius Academy of Science. While the Normans are long gone — from this crude mortal plane of existence, at least — their philosophy (or "UFO religion," as some put it) lives on in a center that still ministers to and teaches an increasingly elderly community of devotees.

It also attracts a certain number of gawkers, as Unarius (Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science) has accidentally generated its own spin-off "cult" of worshippers at the altar of camp. In the 1980s, public access stations across the nation began airing the nonprofit organization's self-produced films and videos portraying aspects of their mythology, notably the many past incarnations of Uriel née Ruth Norman — female, male, and otherwise. (These include myriad famed emperors, prophets, geniuses, and the Statue of Liberty.) Enacted by Unarius "students" in elaborate costumes with fanciful sets and FX, these are among the most flabbergastingly wonderful "home movies" ever made — crazy narratives with the aging Ruth decked out in enough wigs, chiffon, costume jewelry, and miscellaneous spangles to float an entire convention of drag queens. If you visit the El Cajon facility, expect its keepers to be polite but wary: They're happy to spread the gospel, but know you're probably there for the kitsch value.

Everybody can be happy with Bill Perrine's Children of the Stars, the centerpiece of Other Cinema's latest "Incredibly Strange Religion" program at Artists' Television Access this Saturday. It has scads of footage from such Unarius superproductions as A Visit to the Underground City of Mars, which if you haven't seen such before will make you want to immediately track down their complete original versions. But it also cannily limits itself almost exclusively to interviews only with the remaining faithful. They unfailingly seem very nice, ordinary, good-humored, and not prone to hyperbole (let alone insanity), even as they testify to the occasional outlandish doctrine or personal experience.

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