October 31, 2002

Out there in Outer Space

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The American Astronaut is not a film. Not just a film, I should say — it’s a multimedia, universe-spanning, uproariously fun experience. The brainchild of eccentric San Francisco filmmaker Cory McAbee, who also stars in the film, The American Astronaut is a surreally hilarious musical with the bizarre soundtrack provided by McAbee’s own band, The Billy Nayer Show.

This unique movie follows the adventures of the space pirate Samuel Curtis (played by McAbee), who is trying, by a complex series of trades, to get a suitable boy for the sex-crazed women of Venus. All along, Curtis is pursued by the homicidal birthday boy Professor Hess, who will, by some nonsensical twist of logic, only kill someone if he has no reason to do so. As a result, Hess is chasing Curtis so that he can forgive the pirate for some past slight — and then, once he no longer has any reason to do it, to kill him.

This set-up should give you some idea of what the film is like — a totally unpredictable pastiche of off-the-wall space-faring adventures and western good guy vs. bad guy motifs, interspersed with an occasional musical number. These musical interludes are certainly worthy of note, as they provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The first of these comes with a bathroom performance of the warped barnyard stomper “Hey Boy” by two thugs, who square-dance awkwardly while calling out the song’s lyrics.

Even better is “Party,” which finds the fractured Hess singing this schizophrenically jubilant song as he dances amid the ashes of an entire room of incinerated victims of his laser gun. Another scene mocks Pulp Fiction with a dance contest in which two pirates waltz back and forth and stalk around each other to take home the trophy. Finally, Curtis’ charming delivery of “The Girl With the Vagina Made of Glass” to the women of Venus is a hilariously over-exaggerated scene.

Along the way on his interstellar journey, Curtis is accompanied by The Boy, who was a hero on his home planet of Jupiter because he was the only person on that all-male sphere who had seen a woman’s naked breast. The Boy elevated the morale of Jupiter’s other men by holding periodic rallies where he would describe the sight to them — “it was soft and round, now get back to work.” The two travelers also meet up with Bodysuit, the untamed son of a group of silver miners who live in a floating barn in the middle of space, and a bar comedian whose jokes prompt laughter at all the wrong places.

The film is shot in shadow-strewn, high-contrast black and white, and the set construction is utterly lo-fi. Despite the limitations of this low-budget production, however, McAbee creates an evocative setting — the atmosphere of the Old West via the Star Wars cantina, with everything looking dark and soiled. The special effects are obviously unconvincing, but that’s actually part of the appeal — no amount of high budget computer animation could match the hilarious cut n’ paste nature of a barn randomly floating in dead space or a depiction of Venus which was obviously filmed at a public park somewhere in California.

The American Astronaut is one of the most original, purely unique films you could ever imagine seeing. Traces of all kinds of things — vintage sci-fi, spaghetti westerns, (off-)Broadway musicals, film noir, dark comedy, surrealism — bubble up in this insane stew, but the final product is really not quite like any of these things. It needs to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

Archived article by Ed Howard