Cory McAlbee’s “The American Astronaut” will no doubt inspire many confused questions among a significant number of people and I doubt anything I offer will quell the searching for these viewers.
On the surface, what we have is this run-on sentence: Space cowboy Samuel Curtis (Cory McAlbee) is headed to a saloon located on the asteroid of Ceres to deliver a cat and meet up with his old pal the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), an intergalactic fruit smuggler who sets him up in a scheme to provide a tiny girl in a box to all-male mining community on Jupiter in exchange for their local hero, The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Gregory Russell Cook), promised as the next boy stud to the women of Venus, in trade for the body of the previous stud, all the while evading the obsessive murderous tendencies of Professor Heiss (Rocco Sisto), who keeps wanting people to sing him “Happy Birthday,” though no one will ever comply.
And that’s really keeping it bare bones.
What McAlbee delivers here is far more than the sum of its parts — with the tagline “Space is a lonely town.” McAlbee manages to examine male solitude and alienation from women, and the urban legend quality of what men concoct in regard to women.
He mixes it up with some lively, off-kilter music, comedy, characters, mixed up with some Flash Gordon imagery, creative work-arounds for special effects, and some of the most gorgeous black and white cinematography you are going to find anywhere.
McAlbee’s eye for interesting faces and ear for sharp dialogue is undeniably unique.
Of course, what I say the movie is “about” is hardly important — it’s one of those films that you get out of it what you will, or you take it as it comes. Either way, you fall for its considerable charms and you happily acknowledge the loads of talent that nestles within.
One thought the film brought to my head was, “Thank goodness someone still makes weird, cool little films like this and I live in a place where people have the opportunity to see them.”
Back in the day, you had to live in New York City (or San Francisco, McAlbee’s stomping ground) to see something like this, usually at midnight. For a second there, I thought it was all going to change in this new wired, digital world we live in — you’d think freeing up film production and distribution via computer and Internet would make all sorts of good weirdness visible, but it really hasn’t for most people.
The buffer zone once provided by having to complete a real film and getting it distributed, it turns out, was actually a pretty important part of the process leading to quality — and, even then, the process can break down, as in the case of that over-rated bag of affected film school trickery, “Pi,” which some might clumsily compare this to.
It’s a wretched comparison because “The American Astronaut,” is the genuine article. So many parts of it stay with you the next day as vivid as the first viewing — the two weird dancing guys in the bathroom in the bar performing a catchy rockabilly song; the shaking, crusty old man who delivers an endless and uncomfortable monologue about “Hertz Donut” (don’t ask); the eerie hillbilly in the space barn who deposits his weird son Bodysuit (James Ransone) in Sam’s care — and you can’t shake them. You know that they add up to something and even if it isn’t all in place the next day, you’re exhilarated enough to explore the mysteries that McAlbee offers.
“The American Astronaut” is as strong a feature-length directorial debut as David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” or Guy Maddin’s “Tales of the Gimli Hospital.” Miss it at your peril.