The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2001)

“Imagine a Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali.” – ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“More original than almost anything you’ve seen this millennium.” – SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

“Now that’s entertainment!” – FILM THREAT

“Surprising and hilarious! May be the most wonderfully strange film experience you have this year.” – ELLE MAGAZINE

Drafthouse Films LogoSpace travel has become a dirty way of life dominated by derelicts, grease monkeys and hard-boiled interplanetary traders such as Samuel Curtis.  Written, directed and starring Cory McAbee of the legendary cult band The Billy Nayer Show, this sci-fi musical-western uses flinty black-and-white photography, Lo-Fi sets and the spirit of the final frontier.  We follow Curtis on his Homeric journey to provide the all-female planet of Venus with a suitable male, while pursued by the enigmatic killer, Professor Hess.  The film features music by The Billy Nayer Show and some of the most original rock ‘n’ roll scenes ever committed to film.

Also included are McAbee’s hour-long, genre-defying space western Stingray Sam, his 52-minute fantasy Crazy & Thief, and his award-winning short films Reno, The Ketchup and Mustard Man, The Man on the Moon, and Billy Nayer, collected together here for the first time and providing a comprehensive review of one of America’s most audacious independent filmmakers.

Special Features:

  • Live audio commentary with writer, director, and star Cory McAbee
  • Gallery of production stills, storyboards, graphic designs, and sidewalk drawings
  • Ceres walk test footage
  • Trailers
  • Stingray Sam, McAbee’s 2009 musical-comedy, sci-fi-western serial recounting Stingray Sam and the Quasar Kid’s mission to save a kidnapped girl, with behind the scenes extra footage
  • Crazy & Thief, McAbee’s 2012 fantasy about a seven year-old girl who takes her two year-old brother on a voyage through a world of homemade mythologies
  • Reno, a 2007 short starring McAbee as a singing cowboy bragging about his travels through Nevada
  • The Ketchup and Mustard Man, a stream of consciousness-narrated musical
  • The Man on the Moon, McAbee’s short film about a dejected husband exiled on the moon, shot on a Fisher Price Pixel Camera
  • Billy Nayer, an animated short film direct by and starring McAbee as a singing bar patron
  • 24-page booklet of photos, production stills and promotional materials, plus a new interview with Cory McAbee

“Hertz Donut” Edition – Package Includes:

This proposed release would probably be better titled The American Astronaut: The Complete Cory McAbee as we’ve collected nearly all of Cory McAbee’s film work into a single collection.  Perhaps it would be better (and likely preferable to McAbee) to split this proposed release into two separate editions – one for The American Astronaut (2001) and one for Stingray Sam (2009), with special features and short films spread across the two titles.  A dual release would likely make the most sense, but our real desire here is to discuss McAbee’s highly inventive and thoroughly entertaining 2001 feature-length film, The American Astronaut, and so we’ve given it top billing.  The remainder of McAbee’s filmography is surely worthwhile and we’ve included much of it and its supporting material here in acknowledgment of the same; but back to The American Astronaut.  We’ll summarize the film and discuss our reception of it below, but those looking for more detail on The American Astronaut‘s production should consult the film’s press kit.

McAbee’s comic space-western-musical is a world entirely its own; one that manages to be entirely implausible yet internally consistent to its particular parameters.  The American Astronaut exists in a context where space travel is personally achievable in clumsy, ramshackle crafts, where women have retreated to Venus to live in Victorian propriety, and where men toil across the solar system as interplanetary truckers, miners, and drifters, having long settled into lives devoid of feminine contact and the social arrangements that flow from it.  McAbee stars as Samuel Curtis, a space-faring trader who delivers a cat (named “Monkeypuss”) to a saloon on the asteroid of Ceres and is enlisted by his friend and notorious fruit thief, the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), into a plan that crosses the solar system shuttling different passengers around, all in an effort to eventually collect a promised reward.  BP is disintegrated by Curtis’s nemesis, Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), but the trader has BP’s plan and sets out for the mines of Jupiter to trade a “Real Live Girl” growing in a cloning device for The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast (Greg Russell Cook), a young man who gets to dress up as an art deco Hermes and acts as the miners’ sole source of entertainment by describing the breast he once saw (“It was round and soft.”).  Curtis’s plan then calls for him to travel to Venus to trade The Boy for the remains of Venus’s former stud, Johnny R, then return the body to R’s family for a sizable reward, however the trip from Jupiter to Venus is interrupted by a visit to a primitive space station (read: barn) drifting through space where mutated silver miners trade their child named Body Suit (James “PJ” Ransone) for supplies and a promise he will be sent to Earth.  Yet, when Curtis arrives to Venus and discovers Professor Hess already there, he makes a surprise amendment to the plan that effects them all.

The American Astronaut inspires a lot of “X meets Y” comparisons in an effort to describe the singular nature of McAbee’s genre-mashing world.  It’s been called “a Laurel & Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dali,” compared to Guy Maddin, David Lynch, and William Klein, and described as “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.”  Its been connected to “space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, Busby Berkeley, the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism.”  Its been called “somewhere between Six-String Samurai and Dead Man (but a science fiction musical)” and has reminded of “Harlan Ellison, Dr. Strangelove, and Dark Star.” Its been encapsulated as being “if Hugh Jackman from Oklahoma played Han Solo in a musical Flash Gordon set in the 1920s.”  Together with Stingray Sam, which does bear a strong kinship to the world of The American Astronaut, they have been called “Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers,” “Maurice Chevalier meets Flash Gordon,” “Superman and the Mole Men meets Gene Autry,” and “Aelita Queen of Mars meets It’s Always Fair Weather.”  It’s easy to complain about the reductive nature of such descriptions, but between them all does exist The American Astronaut.  We’ll offer one of our own, one that hasn’t already been promoted, and actually spend some time unpacking it – The American Astronaut is a movie for those film fans who wish David Lynch’s Dune (1984) looked more like Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) and had the humour of The Cowboy and the Frenchman (David Lynch, 1988).

The Dune comparison is more than a simple sci-fi connection.  The American Astronaut‘s opening monologue describing the organization of our solar system easily brings to mind Dune‘s long exposition on that film’s planetary kingdoms, and both films concern themselves with children and the legacies they inherit.  McAbee has denied seeing the connection to Eraserhead beyond each film appearing in black and white (preferring to acknowledge his love of Dennis Potter), but The American Astronaut shares the deep blacks and silvery greys special to Lynch’s film.  Both have a modest, almost DIY production designs (McAbee’s decision to represent space travel through a series of monochromatic painting is particularly effective), and Curtis’s apartment-like spaceship does recall Henry Spencer’s rectangular apartment.  There’s also an idea within The American Astronaut about loneliness and the division between men and women that connects with Eraserhead‘s compulsion for coupling and its fear of fatherhood.  Both mine tension from the desperation arising from the separation of the sexes.  Lastly, Lynch is not often thought of as a funny filmmaker, although he definitely is and The Cowboy and the Frenchman epitomizes his absurdist brand of non-humour.  McAbee’s film employs the same fascination with non-jokes (“Hertz Donut!”), relishing in the appearance of humour and bravely stretching it beyond the limits of the simple non sequitur, through discomfort, and into the stratosphere of ridiculousness.  More often than not, McAbee uses song and dance to infuse his film with absurdity, but the music is always sincere and expertly crafted in its cheeky wackiness.  The American Astronaut seems to synthesize these competing Lynchian tropes to produce something outside of Lynch’s filmography and something particularly McAbee-esque.

American Astronaut PosterIt took 4 years for The American Astronaut to find its way to DVD through a partnership with Facets.  McAbee reportedly explains the delay as being due to difficulties in finding a label he could trust.  That disc now seems to be out of print and DVD editions sold directly by McAbee now also seem to be out of print.  It would be great to see The American Astronaut make its way to Blu-ray and a format that would do justice to McAbee’s lovely, shimmering black and white.  The film seems ripe for rediscovery and Drafthouse Films seems like the kind of credible label that McAbee desires (and brings with it the opportunity to get the film back into theatres).  A few different posters for The American Astronaut exist but we prefer the “Space is a Lonely Town” treatment used for the Facets DVD.  With its image of Curtis in his spacesuit delivering Monkeypuss in the cat’s tiny pressurized chamber, that poster puts special focus on McAbee’s beautiful textures and lived-in world while creating a teasing, ambiguous image that encourages further inquiry.

Credits:  Our cover summary is largely taken from previous DVD editions of The American Astronaut, as are the special features.  Similarly, the additional swag is taken from McAbee’s website and much of it is available for purchase.  We need to thank reviews by G. Smalley, Walter Chaw and Bill Chambers, Tim Lehnerer, The Post-Punk Cinema Club and others, as well as interviews with McAbee conducted by Justin Dimos, Simon Abrams, and Kevin Kelly.  Each had their own subtle insights and influences on this post and we appreciate their being available.

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One thought on “The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2001)

  1. Pingback: Space Station 76

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