The American Astronaut
August 20, 2005
The American Astronaut (2001) is the missing link between Guy Maddin and the early films of David Lynch. Cory McAbee’s movie is shot in glorious black and white film stock with unabashedly lo-tech special effects that reside at the opposite end of the spectrum of another retro-SF film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004). The American Astronaut has the same grungy, industrial look and feel as Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) with the same fierce, independent spirit.
Samuel Curtis (McAbee) is an interplanetary trader who lands on Ceres, an asteroid that resides in the cluster between Mars and Jupiter. His best friend, the Blueberry Pirate (Taylor) entrusts him with a mission to find the remains of Johnny R. on Venus, a planet inhabited by beautiful women who can reproduce without the help of men, and return the remains to his family. Along the way, Curtis seeks out the Boy (Cook) who actually saw a woman’s breast to provide the women of Venus with a man. They are, in turn, pursued by Professor Hess (Sisto), a deadly, yet tormented killer who looks like a high school science teacher from the ‘50s. He’s armed with a ray gun that reduces anyone who crosses his path to piles of dirt.
McAbee’s film has the same kind of surreal, non-sequiter moments and dialogue that is the hallmark of Lynch’s movies. For example, when Curtis and Blueberry are talking in a bar, an old man gets up on the stage and tells a convoluted joke that comes seemingly out of nowhere that the audience finds hysterical. The punch-line? “I’ve never understood this joke but then I’ve never been to Earth.” This is just a sample of the wonderfully skewed logic that screams instant cult film—the kind that you would see at a midnight screening.
The American Astronaut is one of those independent films that successfully creates its own distinctive world through music and imagery. The score, by McAbee’s band The Billy Nayer Show, sounds like the offspring from the union of Man or Astro-Man and Neil Young’s work on the Dead Man (1995) soundtrack. It has a dark, twangy feel that is perfectly suited for this SF-western hybrid, complete with impromptu musical numbers that only add to the off-kilter vibe. W. Mott Hupfel III’s textured black and white cinematography recall’s Jim Jarmusch’s early work—circa Down By Law (1986) and the aforementioned Eraserhead.
Writer-director-star Cory McAbee has created a unique movie quite unlike anything else out there. While he shares the lo-tech retro look of Guy Maddin’s films he isn’t interested in recreating the silent era of cinema. McAbee does share a fascination with industrial machinery and the ‘50s with David Lynch, but he isn’t interested in exploring the dark underbelly. McAbee is far more optimistic. The American Astronaut is a fun, off-beat film for people who like something a little different. It has more energy and inventiveness than most of the big budget Hollywood films out there proving yet again that a lot of money can’t make up for a lack of ideas and how necessity truly is the mother of invention.
There are several galleries that include a series of cool, sidewalk artwork promoting the movie on various city streets all over the country by Cory McAbee; on-the-set pictures; storyboards and the corresponding stills from the movie; a collection of movie posters; and production artwork.
“Ceres Jump Test Footage” is a brief clip of McAbee hopping around a city street trying to mimic the lo-gravity depicted in the movie.
There is an audio commentary by McAbee that was shot live at a screening in a Brooklyn bar. He alternates between questions from the audience and his own screen-specific comments. There are the usual queries: when was it shot? What as the budget? And so forth. McAbee claims that he was inspired by Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) for his depiction of space travel via illustrations. McAbee enthusiastically answers questions and recounts production anecdotes in this engaging, entertaining track.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.