[27 September 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Cory McAbee lives in a time warp. Or perhaps more accurately, a parallel universe. Wherever it is, the place is populated by ‘50s retro flights of fancy, unbelievably arcane songs, and a penchant for all that is kitschy and cool. As frontman for San Francisco’s infamous cult combo, the Billy Nayer Show, McAbee has created performance art out of Las Vegas lounge schlock, resulting in brilliantly perverted pop songs. Backed by various musicians, McAbee invents musings that are part They Might Be Giants and part The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and bathes then in a phony baloney sincerity that gives smarm a new coating of eel oil.
He was also responsible for one of 2001’s best films, The American Astronaut. Combining most all of McAbee’s interests—the conservative corruption of the Eisenhower era, sci-fi freak-outs, and visually arresting imagery—the movie is a monochrome rock opera filled with unforgettable characters and equally enduring ideas. Perhaps no other film in the last 10 years has so perfectly captured one individual’s ideology.
Overwhelming praise for Astronaut led to interest in his previous films. Still, to call The Billy Nayer Show: The Early Years (new to DVD from Facets Video), a window into this auteur’s world would be a bit of an overstatement. As engaging and entertaining as Astronaut was, The Billy Nayer Show is strangely insular. Certainly, there are glimpses here of what made his big screen spectacle great, but there’s not enough creative context to let us comprehend even early signs of his “genius.”
It is obvious from the three films in this collection—Billy Nayer (1992), The Man on the Moon (1993), and The Ketchup and Mustard Man (1994)—that McAbee is in love with language. He relishes the juxtaposition of words and combinations of sounds and sentiment. Both Moon and Man feature vibrant monologues, as McAbee lets his inner anarchist loose and watches conventions of communication fall away. From a purely verbal standpoint, these movies are amazing demonstrations of lyrical and literary dexterity.
Visually, they are equally stunning. For Man on the Moon, McAbee used the infamous Fischer Price PXL 2000 toy cameras (the ones that recorded onto audiotape cassettes) to tell the story of a cuckold trying to escape his shame with an interplanetary exile. The heavily fragmented images resemble transmissions from another planet, and while the material is contrived at best (the funniest thing in the entire 20-minute exercise is a hilariously racy song about Santa Claus), the look is stupendous. Billy Nayer, the two minute music video included, also uses novelty to get its point about the fakeness and hypocrisy of life across. McAbee hand-tinted the negative, one frame at a time, to create a seething cartoon caldron of color in which a suave animated singer croons about love.
Both clips are compelling, but neither suggests the true scope of McAbee’s madness. If any film in this compilation compares with The American stronaut, it would be The Ketchup and Mustard Man. But it’s hard to get a handle on what McAbee and his bandmates want to do here. Half rock and roll rave-up (with odd songs like “Seven” and “Ham”), half undeniable debt to David Lynch (call it Eraserhead meets the Elephant Man’s papier-mache twin), this long-form music video is unlike anything you’ve seen while not under the influence of a powerful mind-altering drug. McAbee plays two roles, the darkly handsome inner self of an obvious genetic mutant, and the mutant itself. Wearing a series of deformed striped orbs over his hands and face, Mutant McAbee trades stories with the inner self. Together they forge a bizarre saga about a little princess, her cat-hating daddy, and the doctor who won her heart.
As in Astronaut, McAbee reinvents the rules here. Songs start and stop at random, and interchange rhythmic elements as rapidly as they modify their presentation. Stanzas end without rhymes, and choruses can carry on for longer than the melody line allows. McAbee sometimes sings “normally.” At other times, his voice comes pouring out from the snaggle-toothed void of the bulbous-headed homunculus. His nattily dressed band presses on, delivering a combination of show tune and psycho-pop. The whole thing screams pretension and artifice.
It’s McAbee’s look, that Rat Pack meets rat feces façade, that wins us over. It’s so over-the-top, so totally mannered and manipulated that you feel you understand the joke, even when McAbee is not providing any pathways to comprehension. It’s the same impression you get while watching him perform live (the DVD includes a couple of concert clips, along with some ancillary PR material). McAbee is all about the veneer.
Nothing here matches the abject brilliance of Astronaut, and more times than not, the short running times seem minutes too long. Still, The Billy Nayer Show: The Early Years serves as a useful primer for the artist’s later work. It may not explain how he found his way from performance-art piñata to masterpiece, but that’s part of the McAbee mystique. He lives in his own private space. We’re lucky he lets us look in once in a while.