QUESTIONER: What are the most common comparisons to other films that you hear?
CORY MCABEE: There’ve been a few. Because it’s in black and white people sometimes say Eraserhead, but other than the fact that it’s in black and white I don’t really see much… [laughter]. I get a lot of “cross-betweens,” like “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.” [laughter]. That’s a very large area to cross between…
–Cory McAbee at an American Astronaut Q&A session
DIRECTED BY: Cory McAbee
FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge
PLOT: Astronaut Samuel Curtis arrives on the asteroid Ceres, where he meets his old friend the Blueberry Pirate, enters a dance contest, and trades a cat for a Real Live Girl (who consists of cloned cells in a box). His commission requires him to go to Jupiter where he will swap the Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whom he will then take to the all-female planet Venus to exchange for the remains of an expired stud. Along his journey he is pursued by maniacal “birthday boy” (and film narrator) Professor Hess, a man who can only kill if he has no reason to do so.
- Writer/director Cory McAbee is the songwriter and lead singer of the band The Billy Nayer Show; the then-current lineup of the band (minus McAbee) appears in the movie in the Ceres dance contest sequence.
- McAbee was working on a script entitled Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest when he got the idea for American Astronaut and decided it was the more interesting project. He completed the script for Werewolf Hunters in 2002, but negotiations with financiers fell through. Pre-production resumed in 2011, but the actor cast as the lead died, and the project is again on hold.
- The American Astronaut got its limited theatrical release September 21, 2001, only a little more than a week after the 9/11 tragedy.
- After our first viewing we declined to place The American Astronaut on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately (read our shortsighted initial review), but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won our third readers choice poll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast dressed as the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco helmet and thick black eyeliner, raising the roughnecks of Jupiter’s morale by performing a song and dance number in a spotlight on a stage in a cavernous warehouse.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The fact that it’s an absurdist musical comedy space western, for one thing. The American Astronaut is an incredibly personal affair—Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred, composed the songs, helped paint the backdrops, and probably sold the popcorn on opening night. McAbee brings a particular and peculiar set of personal preoccupations to the project: space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, Busby Berkeley, the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism, among others. It’s a galaxy of influences with competing gravities, and whether they appear as a meaningful constellation or just a meaningless mass of lights may depend on where the viewer is standing. The movie probably makes the most sense when seen from Mars.
Original trailer for The American Astronaut
COMMENTS: Since it’s such a spaced-out movie, it’s appropriate that The American Astronaut‘s most memorable scene is a rambling monologue where an aging emcee (played by Broadway veteran Tom Aldredge) struggles awkwardly to deliver a long joke, with multiple mis-emphasized punch lines. He’s the warmup act for the dance contest, the improbable social event of the season among the all-male clientele of pirates, smugglers and thugs for hire who frequent the Ceres Crossroads, an asteroid-based saloon. After a couple of warmup jokes that meet with stony silence from the audience, the comic launches into the tale of one Mr. Stevenson, who was fond of asking people he met through his long and eventful life if they would like a “hertz doughnut.” The bar full of rogues and ruffians laugh at all the wrong places, giggling through the set-ups and remaining quiet during the actual punch lines, as the shaggy-dog gag grinds on and on, ending with the comedian confessing “I’ve never understood this joke” amidst peals of uncontrollable laughter.
The tale is an exemplary example of American Astronaut‘s style. The 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. Astronaut’s nonsense proclivities are a narrative film incarnation of the free-associative lyrics of writer/director Cory McAbee’s mildly punkish rockabilly band, the Billy Nayer Show. The film contains enough songs to qualify as a musical; the numbers, which sometimes sound like fractured nursery rhymes with odd, childlike melodies, and sometimes like the rockabilly stylings of a tight-knit garage band, are silly as hell, but not half bad. When Sam, the astronaut hero, heads to the men’s room in the asteroid saloon, a couple of thugs shadow him in at the bequest of a mysterious character at the bar. As he sits in a stall minding his own business, they set up a phonograph player and launch into a song: “Hey boy, hey boy, I got a message for you…” An ominous prelude, but the tune continues “…about a thing called love, and the stars above, and a little white dove…”, all accompanied by knee-slapping hick choreography. The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast’s big number, meant to inspire the lonely miners of Jupiter, 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.” At one point two characters spontaneously harmonize, one singing the word “no!” repeatedly while the other chimes in with a chorus consisting of the phrase “Rio yeti!” They also pass time on lonely spaceship rides by singing about “the baby in a jar with glasses on and a gun,” so when Sam croons his big love song to the Queen of Venus—“The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass” (“so perfect and pure, and gynecologically demure”)—it feels like a return to reality.
If the songs are pretty weird, then at least the guys singing them match. It’s amusing that the featured singers aren’t glamorous rock star types, but average-looking middle aged white guys; paunchy, baggy-eyed bartender Eddie (Bill Buell) rocks harder than anyone in the cast. The lineup doesn’t feature any familiar faces or leads; The American Astronaut‘s universe is composed entirely of character actors and first-timers. We’ve already mentioned craggy Tom Aldredge, who delivers the monologue of a lifetime with his mangled “hertz doughnut” joke (the comic timing and dedication necessary to stick with a bomb of a joke for three agonizing minutes is truly a thing of beauty). Gregory Russell Cook, who indeed looks like the kind of teen Adonis the belles of Venus would get soppy for, makes the best impression among the good guys, and bowtied Rocco Sisto is a charmingly petulant villain. Unfortunately, as the featured player McAbee’s spaceman-for-hire isn’t the charismatic rake in the Han Solo mold the film wants him to be; the star is consistently outshined by his co-stars. He’s comfortable belting out a tune, for sure, but he’s less magnetic for the rest of his screen time. I would have preferred to see what amateur Joshua Taylor, who played the fruit-smuggling “Blueberry Pirate” and looks the part of a planet-hopping space rat, might have done in the role.
The American Astronaut creates a unique, absurd, but consistent universe through its dry, deadpan DIY approach. The film’s look is cheap, but it never (well, seldom) looks campy. Rather than parodying a gleaming hi-tech sci-fi look that the budget couldn’t match, it creates a dusty space reminds us more of the saloon of an old B-Western than Star Wars‘ cantina. The asteroid Ceres is a dive bar, Jupiter is a warehouse, Venus is a campground, and Sam’s spaceship looks like a bachelor’s studio apartment. Spaceflight is depicted through a series of inky matte paintings. Astronaut disguises 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 create the illusion of grandeur, as when the Boy Who… dances in a spotlight for the workers of Jupiter and casts a massive shadow on the crumbling factory wall behind him. Though patched-together from spit, baling wire and necessity, Astronaut‘s look works: visually, you buy in to this universe, particularly since the dialogue, situations and characters have already convinced you that nothing in this solar system is real or to be taken at all seriously.
Because of its intense originality combined with a lighthearted, playful spirit, Astronaut is a movie only the most ruthless reality-worshiper could hate. That’s not to say that you will automatically love it, though. 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. 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 indeed (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 in on. I can sense the magic other people get from the pic without being able to directly experience it myself. But magic, and charm, it clearly has; the only way to know for sure if you’ll fall under its spacey spell is to give it a spin in the DVD player.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For its first half-hour or so, ‘The American Astronaut’ looks like midnight-movie nirvana in the tradition of ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘Pink Flamingos,’ tweaking viewers with the delicious sense that they’ve never seen anything quite like this before. Unfortunately that blast-off heralds an orbit to nowhere, with initial delight fading as pic runs out of ideas all too soon…”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)
“Imagine a Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dalí.”–Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
Cory McAbee – The American Astronaut -There are lots of film clips, stills, bonus audio commentary, and an amazing amount of supplemental material to be found on McAbee’s personal site, including information on how you can host a screening of the film
IMDB LINK: The American Astronaut (2001)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The American Astronaut Press Kit – A text-only version of the original pressbook for the film
List Candidate: The American Astronaut (2001) – Our original assessment of The American Astronaut
DVD INFO: Copies of the self-released DVD can still be purchased from the official site, although the stock may be depleted by the time you read this. Per McAbee’s blog, there are no plans to press any more copies at this time. Used discs should be available at Amazon or other online marketplaces for the foreseeable future; it would be extremely sad if this unique but poorly distributed movie were to go out of circulation permanently. As is to be expected in cases where people who love the film also produce the DVD, the disc is packed with special features. Most impressive is the director’s commentary which, appropriately for movie that’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen, is a one-of-a-kind: McAbee stands in front of a screen playing the film in a bar and discusses the picture live while the patrons ask him questions. Other features include extensive galleries of stills, storyboards and promotional art; test footage for the “Ceres jump”; and trailers for this movie along with one for McAbee’s follow-up, Stingray Sam.
(This movie was originally 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.)