The American Astronaut
d. Cory McAbee / 2001 / USA / 94 mins
I don’t like the auteur theory. The desire to champion an individualistic, creative approach to cinema may be noble but is undermined by a lot of contemporary debate about authorship and neglects to examine how film is ultimately a collaborative medium. I’m guilty myself of attributing a film to one man’s vision, as are most reviewers and critics who do so for the sake of simplicity. You may have noticed how my headings make reference solely to the director of the films I write about. I’m fully aware of my hypocrisy and you can take this little ramble as a taster for a feature on authorship I plan to write. It’s something that bothers me the more and more I write.
BUT. Here’s where I contradict myself… As The American Astronaut feels to be an incredibly individual work. A marriage of creative ideas and limitation of budget, resulting in a steampunk space-opera-musical-comedy fashioned from handmade costumes, well-worn sets and cobbled together props. Its scrap-like mentality pulls together myriad ideas that are easily recognisable individually, but puts them together to create something completely unpredictable. Roughnecks burst into song and dance routines, barns float through space and a cat is the first of many items to be traded for The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast. It’s been likened to Eraserhead, but owes just as much to the old Flash Gordon serials and the theatrics of Laurel and Hardy.
The plot follows Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee), a hard-boiled space-trader on the lookout for a fast buck. On delivering a cat to Ceres Crossroads Bar, he takes on a mission that sees him trading items between the two sexually segregated colonies of Jupiter and Venus whilst being hounded by his nemesis, the psychotic Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto).
McAbee writes, directs and stars in this movie, performing the music with his band The Billy Nayer Show and even painting the backdrops that form the special effects and the promotional artwork that advertised its release. The entire film is shot in black and white and the plot is broken up with frequent musical interludes, featuring eyebrow raising songs such as The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass. With a minuscule budget, the movie still manages to visually impress with extraordinary lighting that casts streaks of light amongst shadowy landscapes and careful mise-en-scene. Considering the variety of creative ability on show, McAbee soars far more than he falls. The American Astronaut is consistently engaging, its well meaning humour injects not only character but also more than a few laughs for every surprising twist that Curtis faces.
Surrealism is abound but always grounded through a twisted logic rivalled only by Hess’s own inability to kill those he has an unresolved issue with. Like Hess, the film takes pleasure from the nonsensical. There are a couple of sour notes; McAbee as a lead can’t compete with some of the terrific performances from his fellow cast and the knowing juvenile humour never develops into the story of sexual/societal development that is so frequently hinted at. The ride is exhilarating whilst it lasts and perhaps a more meaningful exploration of this segregated solar system would dampen that somehow; the only justification for the flat, abrupt ending is that it apes the serials that inspire it, leaving its audience with an appetite for more of Curtis’s adventures.
Despite its flaws, American independent cinema doesn’t get much better than this. Almost impossible to dislike as long as you’re in a good-humoured mood, McAbee manages to compete on every level with the average contemporary blockbuster for thrills and visual finesse, doing so through an obvious love for much of cinema’s diverse history and a desire to see it reach new heights.