Space is a lonely town. That’s the tagline to Cory McAbee’s “American Astronaut” (2001), a combination of science-fiction, western and musical informed by noir sensibilities and art film alienation. The overt genre mixing, low-budget, nearly spoken-word offbeat lyrics and ultra-dry humor made sure that the film never blasted out of cult obscurity and onto the public radar (it grossed $38,000 upon release), but McAbee’s film shows a brave idiosyncrasy and inspired eclecticism that makes it a personal favorite. I only wish he could have picked a better title, one that insinuated the originality and insanity on display.
In the near future, the “American Astronaut” of the title is Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee again, looking like Hugh Jackman), a Nevadan space-trader who smuggles rare goods to those in need. The film starts off on the asteroid Ceres, a rundown watering hole where grisly space-cowboys come to get drunk and compete in a popular dance contest. Samuel rendezvous with the Blueberry Pirate to exchange a cat for a “real life girl” contained in a suitcase-size music box. The girl is just the first acquisition in a bizarre trading game that could get Samuel rich, but could also get him killed. That’s life when you’re trying to make a buck with Professor Hess on your rear jets.
The music, courtesy of McAbee’s own Bill Nyman Show, is admittedly eccentric and might not appeal to everyone’s tastes. The alt-rock instrumentation ranges in tempo and contains sly undercurrents of wit, as when old fashion western musical cues slide into the mix during a miner's tale or when Egyptian-style tunes flavor a series of sand dune images that are actually the vaporized remains of spacefaring ruffians. The largely untrained voices convey a variety of borderline nonsense lyrics including an ode to vowels, a narrative space odyssey and a sexually explicit serenade. The casually spoken-word delivery and surprising rhymes keep everything off balance while establishing a musical identity that defies comparison.
Walrus Rating: 8