If you go into Cory McAbee's The American Astronaut with a straight
face, you deserve what you get. Any film that bills itself as "a musically
driven space western" has pretty much laid it all out on the table. It's
going to be campy. It's going to be silly. There's only one question left: is
this good camp, or bad camp?
With The American Astronaut we're in luck, because camp doesn't get
any better than this. In fact, calling it camp isn't really fair. The American
Astronaut doesn't wear labels comfortably. Too wicked to be camp, too earnest
to be satire, too odd to be a straight-up comedy, it's all of those things,
with a soundtrack so good you'd feel cheated if it hadn't been integral to
The American Astronaut is the inspired work of artist / actor / musician
/ filmmaker Cory McAbee and BNS Productions, home of his experimental musical
group The Billy Nayer Show. Astronaut brings the band's music and storytelling
together with a handful of Broadway performers, the lowest-rent sets a space
musical can buy, and enough enthusiasm to make it all gel.
McAbee stars as Samuel Curtis, a space trucker making his rounds through the
solar system in a rickety slab of a space ship, moving deliveries from Earth
to Jupiter to Venus and parts in between. Bringing a package to a the Ceres
Crossroads, a desolate bar on a more desolate asteroid, Curtis takes on a complex
delivery job which might land him enough cash to retire in South America in
style, meets his old friend and dance partner the Blueberry Pirate, wins a dance
competition, and barely escapes a mass-murdering psychopathic professor who's
been dogging his trail for years. The job takes Curtis to an all-male mining
colony on Jupiter (where he's to trade a real girl - or what will grow into
one, anyway - for the local hero, The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast),
a ranch-house lost in the middle of space, and a clan of inbred Southern Belles
in need of a new man on Venus.
Didn't I tell you it was going to be silly?
The story kicks into comedy at once. Two rural toughs corner Curtis in the
bathroom and intimidate him with the most menacing song-and-dance number I've
ever seen. The foreman of the Jupiter mine exudes square 1950s father-figure
intensity as he barters away his young hero for a real girl. The Boy Who Actually
Saw a Woman's Breast proudly wears a thin brassy costume straight out of a 1930s
Flash Gordon serial. I haven't even gotten to the Venusian belles, or Curtis
belting out the Billy Nayer Show classic, "The Girl with the Vagina Made
of Glass." And the insanity of the murderous Professor Hess raises just
enough surreal fear to give it all a little balance.
Shot in a grainy, stark black and white more reminiscent of Treasure of
the Sierra Madre than Commander Cody and the Radar Men from the Moon,
The American Astronaut takes its low budget for all it's worth, playing
up its retro feel in the cheap furniture of Curtis's space ship, the still paintings
that serve to illustrate the ship's flight through space, the New Jersey basement
standing in for the Ceres Crossroads, and a gleeful lack of attention to anything
resembling physics. If you're looking for an accurate treatment of gravity,
interplanetary travel, or the weather on Venus, you're missing the point entirely.
The soundtrack to The American Astronaut should be available sometime
in October 2001; listen to excerpts on the
website, and if it sounds like your cup of tea you won't go wrong buying
it. Look for the movie on the film festival circuit, and in limited release
in October 2001 in New York and November in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and check the
website for other release dates. The American Astronaut is indie
filmmaking at its best, clever and iconoclastic, unpretentious, rather demented,
and unafraid to be goofy, embracing the limitations of low budget and low profile
to create a show that's purely fun. It's not for everyone, but you'll be awfully
glad if it's for you.