AMERICAN ASTRONAUT, THE(director/writer: Cory McAbee; cinematographer: W. Mott Hupfel III; editor: Pete Beaudreau; music: the Billy Nayer Show; cast: Cory McAbee (Samuel Curtis), Rocco Sisto (Professor Hess), Gregory Russell Cook (the Boy Who Has Seen a Woman’s Breast), Annie Golden (Cloris), James Ransone (Bodysuit), Joshua Taylor (the Blueberry Pirate), Tom Aldredge (the Old Man), Peter McRobbie (Lee Vilensky), Bill Buell (Eddie), Mark Manley (Henchmen), Ned Sublette (Henchmen); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bobby Lurie/William “Pinetop” Perkins / Joshua Taylor; Bob Lurie & Cory McAbee Productions; 2001)
“It can be perceived as a pleasant antidote to the Hollywood mainstream comedy.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The American Astronaut reminds me of an imaginary Flash Gordon meets Flesh Gordon made for TV serial as staged by Ed Wood Jr. It’s a rip-roaring drug-free hallucinogenic rock ‘n’ roll musical/comedy/sc-fi cult film set in outer-space with cheesy sets that could have been lifted from old-fashioned westerns. The American Astronaut is the anti-screenplay that might be the primer for all such screenplays. Director/writer/star Cory McAbee is wonderfully reckless with abandonment for the rules of the game in filmmaking. He provides a screenplay that has a refreshingly childish sense of mischievous joy, moments of inspired madness, a daredevil enthusiasm for the art of film and a bravado intelligence. But at times the film is alarmingly altered by stand-offish displays of juvenile vulgarity, which put holes in the good work accomplished. In any case, McAbee for the love of film and the good of his being defies what a screenplay is supposed to be like according to the film school crowd’s way of thinking and presents a truly unique auteur-like work.
The shadowy photography is inspired by Arsenic and Old Lace. Shot in 27 days in Queens (where a sandy beach becomes the floor in outer space), this shoestring budget film is an ode to the Midnight Movie and an inspiration to indie filmmakers to make their film and not worry if the money is there to get it released. After an initial contract with Artistic License Films and BNS Productions in 2001, McAbee took back his baby and is working on his own to get it theater releases. It was shot in flinty black-and-white, which greatly augmented the original screenplay with the fitting look of a 1940s B-film. The artful film is bizarrely funny, but it is almost impossible to say for sure what it might be saying without at least a few viewings. Even then, it hardly matters because the film is probably not supposed to make sense–instead taking great joy in blurring reality and fantasy. The director seems to take special delight in providing innovative homemade special effects that give anti-techies like myself sports winning goosebumps to know how polar opposite the film looks compared to one of those Hollywood blockbusters with all the bells and whistles.
The arch villain and narrator, who refers to himself as the birthday boy, Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), only kills those he has no reason to kill. But mad scientist Hess in his strange way loves his old friend the galactic astronaut for hire Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee), an interplanetary trader of rare items, whom he tries to kill but is frustrated by Sam’s unusual responses. There’s a broadly hinted at homo-erotic romance between the two, though their love has no definition and can be perceived in many ways including just plain friendship because their paths crossed in space travel or was just your plain semi-healthy mentoring one. They have an on-going love-hate relationship that started prior to the film and will continue afterwards; it will be resolved only according to how each viewer imagines it. All the characters seemingly knew each other from before, which is why they are not that surprised when a character opens up and suddenly goes into a wild cowboy dance or acts weird. It’s worth noting that McAbee seems to take delight taking a poke at the usual depiction of cowpokes or astronaut movie heroes, as all the space travelers are depicted as either loonies, thugs or untrustworthy traders.
Poker-faced Tom Aldredge marvelously plays an old man in a bar on the all-male outer-belt asteroid Ceres, who tells a childish joke and goes into a long monologue about the “Hertz Donut” causing no laughter when funny but eliciting howls of delight when not funny. McAbee does a grand job of consistently keeping the viewer off balance as to what to expect. The out-of-this-world sex scenes are reminders of how it might have been in junior high school where students are separated by gender and awkwardly react to stories or contact with the opposite sex. The males in Jupiter snicker with delight over stories about females, while the maidens in Venus are all gooey-eyed on having an adolescent boy they groom for life around to please their sexual fantasies. Dawn Weisberg’s matching costumes for the women of Venus, dressing them as southern belles in hoop skirts, was priceless.
Purposely conceived like a record album meant to be played over again and not fully absorbed in one sitting, this film is meant to get better (not clearer) after many viewings. Undoubtedly an acquired taste, it’s perfecto for the El Topo or Eraserhead underground audience, yet might surprisingly delight fans of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir–a more reserved film but one also noted for its lighthearted philosophical speculations. The film has started to gain attention by word of mouth while playing at film festivals, and will be coming out on DVD in the near future. It can be perceived as a pleasant antidote to the Hollywood mainstream comedy.
The core of the story has Samuel journey to Ceres to bring bartender Eddie a cat for whatever nefarious purposes and he stays long enough to have his photo snapped while taking a dump and win a trophy at a saloon dance contest with his old dancing partner Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) — famous for smuggling fruit. Blueberry tips Samuel off about the Earth relatives of a deceased stud on Venus, who are hoping to get back his remains if they can deliver to that planet a replacement adolescent stud. The complex plan involves a multiple swap of Samuel delivering a cloning device for a “real live girl” to the all-male mining planet of Jupiter in exchange for a teen clad as a centurion who is called for good reasons The Boy Who Actually Saw a Female Breast (Gregory Russell Cook). He in turn will be sent to the nearly all-female planet of Venus as the stud replacement. Unexpectedly Bodysuit comes aboard Samuel’s spacecraft in exchange for chocolates and cigarettes. He’s an adolescent who stinks because he does not bathe and is being booted out of his outer space retreat to be returned to Earth. Meanwhile the ever-dangerous Hess is in hot pursuit of the Nevada native Samuel, planning to kill him on Venus.
McAbee’s first love growing up was as an artist and didn’t arrive on the rock scene until he was a teenager. He’s the driving force behind the San Francisco-based (now relocated in New York) cult rock band called “The Billy Nayer Show.” Previously he made The Ketchup and Mustard Man in 1994 and a number of other short films and animations. He has for some time been combining a career in films with his music.
If you put on your silly hat and don’t try to act more grown-up than you have to, you might be surprised how truly refreshing this indescribable work of art is and how different it is in a good way from any other film on this planet. The comic space opera is served well by the pulsating music (especially the catchy song of “The Girl With the Vagina Made of Glass”), the shadowy photography by W. Mott Hupfel III, the deft editing by Pete Beaudreau, the understated performances by a fine cast and the imaginative direction of the multi-talented Cory McAbee. I also must say that though McAbee gave an animated performance he, nevertheless, leaves much to be desired as an actor and the film would have been better served with another lead.
REVIEWED ON 8/3/2004 GRADE: B +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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