The American Astronaut, now on DVD after years of essentially “touring” college campuses and bars, takes on three genres not often engaged by indie filmmakers: sci-fi, Western, and musical. Writer-director Curtis McAbee does not shy away from a challenge.
McAbee also stars as Samuel Curtis, kind of a Han Solo-style smuggler, charged with shipping the dead body of the only male inhabitant of the “all-female” planet Venus back to Earth. To get the body, he must provide Venus with a young, live male (Greg Russell Cook). And to obtain this specimen from the all-male mining planet of Saturn, he must provide Saturn with a female. The finer points of this complicated-sounding plot soon turn elusive, as many of the characters are incinerated by the raygun-wielding Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto). He wants to kill Curtis because, as Curtis “explains,” he doesn’t have a reason.
The gender-divided planets (McAbee likens it to a “junior high” version of sexuality on his DVD commentary) is American Astronaut‘s funniest conceit. The male being sent to Venus from the all-male mining planet functions as sort of a figurehead ruler, because he once saw a woman’s breast; it’s his job to motivate a pack of sullen miners by telling them this story—in a manner as detached and cool as possible—every morning, presumably as instructed by the mining boss.
When “the boy who once saw a woman’s breast” (this is the only name given him) is traded for a woman, the mining boss plans to raise her, marry her, have sex with her, and usher in an “era of sexually explicit conversation.” Amidst the genre-mashing, satire emerges: those in charge of the mining planet will regale the workers not with promises of sexual freedom for themselves, but with the fact that sex occurs at all.
Indeed, the setup alone contains enough strangeness enough for several movies, and McAbee pushes on. He finds time for several songs and “dance contests,” and gives his over-gesticulating amateur actors plenty of space to have fun with them (for what it’s worth, the actors’ graceless movements really do bring to mind square-jawed Western actors stomping awkwardly through musical numbers). Sometimes, especially during exterior shots of the spaceship, the film switches to a series of stills, like a kitschy gloss on La Jetée. The dialogue incorporates Lynchian riddles, especially in the case of Professor Hess, who constantly tells everyone it is his birthday; this is the kind of movie where even the sane characters never ask why he does this. It’s a roundabout way of creating nonsense.
This brand of willful peculiarity at times seems designed to boost Astronaut‘s rep as a cult attraction rather than to serve the film itself. Some song and dance sequences go on too long, and McAbee is more than willing to give five minutes of screen-time to an old man telling an elaborate, fumbling joke. McAbee says on the DVD commentary that he began making short films, and indeed, Astronaut begs to be cut down to a terrific 30 or 40 minutes.
At an hour and a half, the film is transporting to look at but only intermittently fun to watch. The beautiful black-and-white photography goes a long way towards creating the movie’s scrappy but otherworldly universe. Even the sight of Curtis dry-shaving in a mirror looks eerie and unfamiliar. When McAbee says the film “cost one or two million, but doesn’t look it,” he isn’t complimenting the production values (the movie looks more like an innovative use of $500,000; by way of explanation, McAbee says only that “some people were paid more than others”).
American Astronaut is the kind of Sundance curiosity for which DVD—as a format—is ideal. It includes galleries of amazingly detailed drawings, storyboards, and sidewalk promo art, all supporting the notion of American Astronaut is more art project than movie. The commentary track is more substantial (if no less exhibit-oriented) than these extras; recorded live in a bar in Brooklyn, it features McAbee taking questions from an audience as the film is projected behind him. On the DVD, the viewer can switch “angles” during his talk—you can watch the film with his comments on the soundtrack, as on a typical commentary track, or you can watch the filmed Q&A. It’s a neat artist’s trick, the equivalent of providing not just a print of a painting, but a photograph of the painting as it is arranged in a museum. But an extended art project is not quite the same as a feature film.