Saturday, April 28, 2007

Review of American Astronaut

"American Astronaut" will play at Splice tomorrow (4/28/07) at 2pm. It will be the final Splice for the year and my last (sniff) as your president. Enjoy!

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.

Professor Hess is no ordinary maniacal villain; he’s our obnoxiously immature narrator who frequently reminds the audience and all those who will listen that it’s his birthday. His motivations are explained during a silent slide-show that is amusingly frustrating, but it all seems tied to his perverse reverse-logic and strangely “familial” relationship with Samuel. Most relationships in McAbee’s future have all but broken down, with sexual politics upturned in surprising ways, families either split or resentful and friends existing somewhere in the gap between greed and vengeance. The performances are so brave and bizarre that it’s downright endearing, and sells lines that would be too silly, awkward or unintelligible for most “serious” films to pull off.

Despite a budget that would seem to make filming impossible, McAbee creates an impressive visual style almost unheard of: a mix of high-contrast B/W noirism with touches of western iconography and an almost naïve sci-fi setting that harkens back to Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other 1930’s comics. Harsh spotlights and other cones of single-source hard light illuminate the minimal stages, cramped cockpits and barren landscapes in a way that oddly evokes both seedy nightclubs and old horror movies (it was probably cheap, too).

[Image: An immortal future-cliché of the sci-fi western: the lone wolf looking at the spaceship against the desert sky.]

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.

McAbee’s storytelling abilities are often at the mercy of his image-crafting and spontaneous musical riffs, but the episodic narrative possesses its own outsider charm that protects the non-sequitur distractions and bumpy pacing from being an insurmountable flaw. The action takes its time and stretches the short running time in last third, but the writer/director wears his temporal disjunction on his sleeve. During the screenwriting workshops where McAbee worked on the script and shopped around the idea, nearly everyone told him he had to cut a five-minute standup joke that appeared not far into the film. To McAbee’s credit, the joke scene remains and provides one of the most memorably absurdist exercises in audience expectation.

The ending is undeniably anti-climatic, but in a way that fits with the mood of intergalactic ennui. There’s a Jim Jarmusch-style eye for dark humor that can spot the inherit boredom and emptiness in the lives of its human-oddity cast while still elevating the unpredictable dialogue to cult quotability. How do we interpret Samuel’s alarm clock that repeats, “What did your father teach you? What did your father teach you? What did your father teach you?” until it is deactivated by the correct response: “My father taught me to kill the sunflower.” The computer finishes its automated routine with deadpan sincerity, “Congratulations, Mr. Curtis. You are now awake.” And why should the trigger-happy Professor Hess (wielding a raygun no less) be narrating to us with NPR monotony and signing off with, “and oh yeah… it’s my birthday!”

Walrus Rating: 8

Oh, and one last question to ask yourself after seeing the film: Is it possible this could have inspired TV’s “Firefly?” Hmm…


Unknown said...

"Why don't you take off your boots and float around awhile...?"

"You have been sprinkled with lucky stardust. Yes, you have."

Mad Dog said...

Y'know, I was asking myself a few years ago why there wasn't a sci-fi musical. Don't I look the fool!