November 29, 2001

Cornell Cinema

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Original. Bizarre. Entertaining. Pointless. Stunning. Overwhelming. Defiant. These are not the adjectives used to describe an average movie, but then again The American Astronaut is the farthest thing from an average American flick that I can think of. This unusual musical disregards all the trappings of Hollywood, and even of most independent film, in favor of something entirely new.

Contrary to the other unique elements of The American Astronaut, the plot of the film seems at first to be quite standard for science fiction: an intergalactic trader, Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee) makes a delivery on the planet Ceres where in return he receives another package to deliver. He is then told to continue exchanging these deliveries for an eventual profit. But these deliveries aren’t your typical UPS packages. Curtis has to trade a clone of a Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast, then exchange him for Johnny R., essentially a sex slave to the women of Venus, and return him to Earth to reap a reward. This isn’t supposed to make sense. From the beginning to the end of the film, expect to understand little but to enjoy it for what it’s worth.

The American Astronaut is the product of performance artist, Cory McAbee. He not only wrote and directed the film, but he also stars in it. His band, the Billy Nayer Show, provides the film’s musical interludes. It seems as though McAbee was determined to shoot a film and rebel against all conventions of plot and character, and the musical genre fits McAbee’s style perfectly.

The film challenges past conceptions of the musical. Unlike traditional musical numbers which develop the plot, the songs are like momentary music videos. Many of them are wonderfully campy with dark-humor lyrics and tunes that should be just as popular as those from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Perhaps it is because they seem so randomly inserted throughout the film that the film hasn’t yet achieved cult status.

The film is the result of years of reworking a script that was selected for the Sundance Writers’ Lab in 1998. For a decade, McAbee had been developing the script and composing songs for it. McAbee has said that the film is partly autobiographical and was inspired by a time in his life when he was traveling around and meeting strangers.

This is especially interesting since the film feels as if it was created on a whim and that much of the luscious cinematography was an experiment. The power and originality of some the black and white footage gives Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer from Pi, a real run for his money. The outerspace landscape of the film allows for an exotic production and W. Mott Hupfel III capitalizes on the opportunity to use a variety of shots, at times using effective still photography.

The film is so hard to describe because what remains in the viewer’s memory is not the good acting or the character development, but rather weird individual moments. These scenes remain as dots, not fully connected in this wonderfully messy film. And anyway, it doesn’t help to try and describe a film that one needs to see to fully understand, so go see The American Astronaut instead.

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