November 13, 2003

Join The Cult

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It makes a weird kind of sense that in a University where it can sometimes require walking upwards of a mile just to change a class, the only time you’d ever find such disparate organizations as CU Tonight, The Fanclub Collective, Cornell Cinema, and Risley working together harmoniously would be to bring a no-budget cult flick to campus for the third time.

Not that there haven’t been problems along the way. “We’re all out of Pop Rocks. We gave away the last ones today,” said Jason Livingston, the Cinema’s Managing Director. Livingston explained that the collaborative production came about because of the Cinema and the Fanclub’s mutual desire to work together. Originally they proposed having Yo La Tengo come and play with a silent movie, but were unable to make arrangements. Then, spurred on by the rabid fan base at Risley, and news that the Bill Nayer Show was on tour, the Cinema and the Fanclub began planning the return of The American Astronaut. This time, thanks to the Fanclub, the film will be accompanied by the band who wrote the soundtrack. The perfect venue, the Willard Strait Theatre (“it can screen 35mm film, and it has a stage,” said Livingston) was provided by the Cinema. The funding was provided by CU Tonight, Cornell Concert Commission, and Risley. No word on who bought all the Pop Rocks and the Tang.

Risley provided something even more important than money: an extremely loyal viewership. Some of them first saw the film when it was screened by the Cinema in November 2001, successfully lobbied for its return in 2002, and have no intention of missing the show this year. What kind of film inspires this near religious devotion? It is worth noting that the only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of members. Cult films, which include everything from Reefer Madness to Eraserhead, have grown increasingly popular in recent years. While “cult” is actually more a marker of finance (cult films are made outside the studio system for very little money, and usually look it) than style, the term usually denotes a film that is in some ways excessive. Too much gore, for example (original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), or too much Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man). They take themselves more seriously than their Camp cousins. The genre has never been well defined, and it’s easier to give an example. What follows is Andy Guess’s review of American Astronaut.

American Astronaut

You have a hillbilly rock band in need of publicity and exposure. You know a little about moviemaking. What do you do? Make a black-and-white existential sci-fi western musical, of course.

Cory McAbee caught on to this obvious course of action with The American Astronaut, a 1950s George Pal-inspired movie for which his band The Billy Nayer Show did the music. McAbee also happened to write, direct, and star in the film. When the primary goal of a film is to showcase its music, plot usually takes a back seat. Here, the lack of traditional causal logic is conveniently explained away by Astronaut’s nihilistic philosophical undertones and refreshingly sidelined by its self-consciousness.

If nothing else, those who originally saw the movie at Cornell Cinema two years ago remember one image: Professor Heiss (Rocco Sisto), the villain, dancing gracefully around hundreds of piles of sand, each created when he vaporized one of the human inhabitants of Jupiter.

Samuel Curtis (McAbee), the titular spacefaring anti-hero, spends much of the film evading the impending threat of the Professor while attempting to trade a Real Live Girl for The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, among other perfectly logical space transactions. The Professor, meanwhile, patiently takes his time tracking down Curtis, whom he intends to kill for an unknown reason. This is a problem, however, because Heiss can only kill those whom he has no reason to kill. This profound paradox is solved, in his mind, by resolving to forgive and then kill Curtis.

All this and more insanity is to be offered in The American Astronaut, which serves as a fitting companion to last weekend’s Rocky Horror Picture Show performance at Risley.

And if you don’t like the movie, close your eyes and enjoy the soundtrack and the Tang.

American Astronaut will be screened on Friday at 9:30 in WSH. Admission is $3.

Archived article by Erica Stein