LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)

NOTE: By popular demand, The American Astronaut has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made! Please read the official Certified Weird entry. This initial review is left here for archival purposes.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge

PLOT:  A space pilot trades a cat for a “real live girl” whom he can exchange for the “Boy Who

Still from The American Astronaut (2001)

Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” whom he intends to swap in turn for the remains of a dead Venusian stud in order to collect a reward.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  Genrewise, The American Astronaut could be described as many things—space western, garage band musical, nonsense comedy—but the one thing it indisputably is is a cult movie.  That is to say, it’s a specialized and peculiar little flick that has a devoted group of followers, and a larger contingent of outsiders who are nonplussed by its popularity.  I have to admit that in this case I lean slightly towards the second group.  American Astronaut is very weird (it has a character named “the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast,” for goodness sake), but some of it is tedious, like ninety minutes spent watching a clan of hipsters swapping in-jokes you aren’t let in on.  I can sense the magic other people get from the pic without being able to directly experience it myself.  This is a movie on the cusp of being certified as one of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, but it will require some reader acclaim to sway my opinion towards adding it to the List.  So get to promoting the movie in the comments, Astronaut fans.

COMMENTS:  How many movies can boast a line like “Gentlemen, the Boy Who Saw a Woman’s Breast has left our planet” or a musical number like “The Girl with a Vagina Made of Glass”?  How about a villain who is incapable of killing unless he has no possible grudge against his victim and a “real live girl” who (in this early stage of her development) is just a suitcase that plays a rock tune when you lift a slat on the casing?  The American Astronaut creates a unique, absurd, but consistent universe through a dry, deadpan DIY approach.  It’s set in a boy’s cosmos, where women are strange creatures who live on one planet while the men live on another.  The movie’s nonsense proclivities are a narrative film incarnation of the free-associative lyrics of writer/director Cory McAbee’s mildly punkish band, the Billy Nayer Show.  One song goes, “A-E-, A-E-I, A-E-I-O-U, I owe you nothing, but sometimes you owe me I-U-A-I-E”; another consists of one singer repeatedly chanting “no” while another harmonizes with a rhythmic “tee-nee-oh-yeah.”  When they start smiling and singing about “the baby in a jar with glasses on and a gun,” it seems like a return to the real world.  Visually, the movie does an excellent job disguising its low-budget origins with black and white photography that keeps the backgrounds in deep shadows, suggesting the existence of a wider, deeper world than they can actually afford to show.  Silhouettes are used to create an illusion of grandness, as when the Boy Who…—dressed, as is his habit, like the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco winged helmet—dances in a spotlight for the workers of Jupiter and casts a massive shadow on the crumbling factory wall behind him.  The musical numbers, which sometimes sound like fractured nursery rhymes with odd, childlike melodies, and sometimes like a tight-knit garage band, aren’t half bad.  It’s amusing that the featured singers (for the most part) aren’t glamorous rock star types, but average-looking middle aged white guys; paunchy, baggy-eyed bartender Eddie (character actor Bill Buell) rocks harder than anyone in the cast.  It’s easy to see, and to admire, the love and care that went into the production; predicting whether this highly peculiar vision will click with you in particular is a trickier proposition.  One downside is that McAbee’s spaceman-for-hire isn’t the charismatic rake in the Han Solo mold the film wants him to be; the star is outshined by his co-stars.  Another minus is that the film is slow to get into gear, starting off with longish and not particularly rewarding scenes of McAbee shaving and taking a long spacewalk to the Ceres bar.  Things don’t start to take off until the dance contest kicks in, about twenty minutes into the running time.  That’s when my favorite scene occurs.  It’s a long, rambling warmup joke about “hertz donuts” told by an aged emcee (Broadway veteran Tom Aldredge) with multiple misemphasized punchlines.  The bar full of rogues and roughnecks laugh at all the wrong places as the shaggy-dog gag drags on and on, ending with the comedian confessing “I’ve never understood this joke” amidst peals of laughter.  The tale is a condensed metaphor for the American Astronaut, a movie that paces itself like a comedy but, when it comes time to tell a joke, consistently zigs into nonsense when you expect it to zag into a laugh.

The American Astronaut has a small but rabid cult, but it could have a much bigger one if it had landed a distribution deal.  As it is, the film is mainly sold through McAbee’s personal website, and has never received the widespread distribution from Netflix or other rental outlets it would need to become a breakout cult hit.  The professionally-made DVD features an interesting, off-center variation on the director’s commentary—McAbee discusses the picture while screening it for a bar full of patrons who ask him questions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A sui generis, love-it-or-hate-it exercise in homegrown American surrealism.”–Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, L.A. Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Rob” who called it “A strange little film put out by the band the Billy Nayer Show” and added, “It may not make your list, but it’s definitely worthy of watching. The movie features a character known only as ‘The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast.’  I’m pretty sure you couldn’t not watch that.”Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (2001)”

  1. Man, oh man, I love this film and been waiting for the review. I own it and have watched it a couple of times. Is it weird? Yeah, at times. Is it tedious? Also at times. It certainly is cool as hell though. My favorite scene wasn’t mentioned here…when McAbee’s character goes into the bar bathroom to do his business and is interupted by two space thugs who promptly set down a turntable and do a crazy choreographed dance number in front of his bathroom stall door, “Hey Boy, Hey Boy”. Very strange and funny. I personally also liked that slow spacewalk early in the film cause that instrumental guitar song fit it perfectly. When an atmospheric/ambient song is used right it is magic. The toilet bowl swim in Trainspotting set to Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” comes to mind. Not all the musical numbers do work though. “The Girl With The Glass Vagina” tune is awful. And maybe it was just me but I felt there was some underlying homoeroticism in this. From The Boy Who Once Saw A Woman’s Breasts’ fancy get-up and make-up… to the leather-clad space gimp…well, you get the idea if you’ve seen it. But, the alien thing they discover in the barn to the silouetted dance number you have pictured above, there is just a ton of cool imagery to behold that as you said, truly outweighs the budget here. I’ve yet to see Stingray Sam but if it’s in the dame mold as this, which I’m guessing it is, I’ll love it as well. It was from this website that I first heard of this movie, so thanks to you and your in-the-know readers I found a classic. Should it make the list? I think so. It’ll give the list some extra cool cred.

  2. I’m with Eric. I saw this film at a special screening several years ago, and have been in love with it ever since. I have to pick and choose which of my friends I want to show it to, because I know it’s not for everyone. It is, at times, painfully slow; a lot of the scenes that are among my favorites have been cited by people I know as examples of why it’s “idiotic”; but there are a lot of scenes that are just unforgettable. My personal favorite is the Rio Yeti number. And you were dead on about the bartender. That songs still pops into my head all the time. “How can you keep on smiling when you see yourself in the mirror smiling?”

    I’m really pulling for this one to make the list. At the very least, its weirdness is undeniable.

  3. This movie is one of my most-watched films, I just love the weird, ambiguous world McAbee has created and I can’t get enough of the soundtrack. I think the black and white photography is beautiful (plus the use of paintings for animation is so cool) and I dig all the performances. I disagree with your comment about McAbee being uncharismatic as the lead- I find him very likable and just a little bit nutty, and he really works for me as the star.

    So yeah, you already know I really want this to make the List since I suggested it!

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