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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The American Astronaut (2001)

Written and directed by Cory McAbee

Cory McAbee:  Samuel Curtis
Rocco Sisto:  Professor Hess
Gregory Russell Cook:  The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast
Joshua Taylor:  The Blueberry Pirate
James Ransone:  Bodysuit

There's a lot of movies let down by a low budget, with the creators' collective vision betrayed by bad acting, terrible effects or shoddy props. I'm sure you're thinking of a couple right now (the incredibly dire CGI baby kaiju in the 1998 American Godzilla leapt immediately to my mind--though they were far from the only thing wrong with that movie). But sometimes there's a movie where more money wouldn't make it any better, and might just make it worse. Dark Star wouldn't be nearly as charming if it didn't look like the filmmakers had to beg, borrow, and steal to get everything made. Hollywood Shuffle, being a movie about the dearth of opportunity for black filmmakers in the Reagan years, actually benefits quite a bit from the visible paucity of funds. And today's film, supposedly made for between one and two million dollars, wouldn't be any better if it cost ten times as much. The low budget means--among other, obvious things--that the creator doesn't have to compromise on their vision. And looking up there at the credits you'll see the same person wrote, directed and stars in the movie. His band, the Billy Nayer Show, also performed the songs on the soundtrack and score of the film. What you're going to see in this one is what Cory McAbee wanted to put on the screen. And what he wanted to put up there is a retro-science fiction rockabilly musical about gender roles.

The film opens with a lecture about the solar system and scientific classification; the narrator gives a brief description of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter while a stark black and white diagram shows the solar system; Ceres is mentioned as the first one discovered back in the late 1800s. Then you get a hint as to what the movie's going to be like as the narrator continues, mentioning Ceres' size and location made it a great place to build a bar, albeit one "frequented by roughnecks and thugs". The narrator switches to another subject, telling the audience that the story of how he became a father began at the Ceres Crossroads. And oh yeah, it's his birthday. This last tidbit is revealed as the image fades to a man in a suit and bow tie hunched over a beer glaring at the camera--he looks malevolent, but maybe everyone in the movie's universe looks pissed off and sunken-eyed. Then he smiles and it's a damn shame that Rocco Sisto never played the Joker.

During the opening credits, there's one of those budgetary setbacks turned into a bonus--the American Astronaut of the title pilots his ship (which looks a little like an art-deco locomotive nose on the front of a shipping container) through the asteroid belt. Every time the ship is shown in flight, it's a painting of what's happening at the moment (including a collision with an asteroid and the near-crash landing on Ceres itself). For the money that he had, McAbee could have made some kind of a model but it would have looked cheap and unconvincing; the paintings look much better and give the film a distinctive aesthetic quality, especially when intercut with shots of the lead struggling with the controls in the spaceship as he dodges the asteroids. This sequence, wordless and fragmented, gives the viewer plenty of glimpses at the world of the film--space travel is routine, if dangerous, and the technology in the one-man spacecraft features pressure gauges and control levers rather than computers and touchscreens; it's as if space travel is using the technology of the 1940s or perhaps even earlier, and by implication the people who make their living doing it would be closer to long-haul truckers (think of Dan O'Bannon's influence on space travel as seen in Dark Star or Alien) than the square-jawed military explorers of the Star Trek franchise. And yet, whatever else the protagonist is, he reveals something about himself when he combs his hair and shaves his beard and moustache--without water, soap or shaving cream--to get himself presentable for whatever it is he's going to do on Ceres.

His reason for landing on Ceres is revealed at more or less the same time--he's delivering a cat to the bar's owner in exchange for something else and is soon stumbling and skipping in the low gravity outside the Ceres Crossroads, carrying a pet carrier that resembles a miniature iron lung. A handwritten note taped to the outer door of the bar's airlock says there's a dance contest that night. Inside the bar, a bunch of other space truckers are playing cards, smoking or drinking and the narrator gives a quick grin when he sees that the pilot has walked in the door. The mix of grime and cheap furniture here makes me wonder if The American Astronaut was an influence on Firefly; I would anticipate a "Management not responsible for ball failure" sign near the Crossroads' pool table, if they had one. A couple of sullen and nearly one-sided conversations later, Samuel Curtis locates Eddy the bartender and prepares to deliver the cat to Eddie, who is bartering a clone tank that contains "a real live girl", though neither Curtis nor Eddy can think of what you would do with one if you had it.

Curtis decides to stay for the dance contest and makes a detour to the Crossroads' bathroom. A mysterious figure at the bar tells two people near him "That's him," and they pursue the lead into the bathroom, where they...plug in a record player and perform a song and dance routine that he cannot see while he's in the sole working stall. Another layer of irony gets stacked on top of the non-visible dance number; of the two thugs who perform in the scene, the one who does the least dancing is the movie's choreographer. Their mission completed, the two dancers take a Polaroid photo of Curtis on the toilet, pack up their record player and leave. They also turn the light out in the bathroom, just to be jerks.

Back at the bar, Curtis fails to figure out who it was that pranked him, but the man who sent the two dancing thugs after him drops off the photo of Curtis on the toilet. It turns out to be a weird greeting ritual from his friend, Lawrence Blueberry (who does not like to be called Larry). They catch up a little bit on each other's lives, with Blueberry pleasantly surprised that Curtis is still alive, having heard that he was killed by someone named Professor Hess. Meanwhile, the band tunes up to the extent that they are capable of doing so, and the narrator explains to the camera that the Blueberry Pirate is the man who's supposed to pick up a cat named Oscar in return for a shipment of stolen fruit; Blueberry is pricelessly described as "an interplanetary fruit thief and old dance partner of Samuel Curtis" by the narrator. There's a dash of metatextual commentary in this sequence as the narrator explains what's going on during Curtis' and Blueberry's conversation; the audience cannot hear what they're saying to each other but the body language and the narrator's description let the viewer what's going on even without the specifics. Because we've all seen a movie or a TV show where two old friends hatch a plan at a bar after they haven't seen each other for a while. The specific dialogue isn't needed and would probably be boring. Instead, we get the gist of it and the narrative moves along quickly.

The specific plan is this:  Samuel Curtis will partner up with the Blueberry Pirate for the dance contest; after that he'll take the clone tank with a real live girl in it to Jupiter, and swap it for the biggest celebrity on that planet's all-male mining colonies, The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast. The Boy will be taken to Venus, planet of beautiful women, where he will live as the new King of Venus. The body of Johnny R, the old King of Venus, will be surrendered to Samuel Curtis in exchange for the Boy, and be taken back to Earth. Johnny R's family will then pay Samuel Curtis a gigantic pile of money for the return of their relative's remains.

The narrator interjects here to inform his listeners that Venus is a world where women can reproduce without the need for men, but after three generations with no new genetic material they become too snippy to stand each other. The King of Venus is used as a stud to make sure this doesn't happen. I'm pretty sure that Cory McAbee likes Douglas Adams (he wrote a science-fiction comedy, and Adams is one of the luminaries in the field) but this particular plot always cracks me up--usually clone degeneration leads to something much worse than everyone just being really huffy towards each other all the time. Naturally, the women of Venus won't let the body of the old King go without securing a new one to replace him. Which is where Samuel Curtis comes in, or rather, where the end of his chain of adventures will come in. The Blueberry Pirate hints that it would be a good idea not to mention that the real live girl was cloned from one of Eddy the bartender's cells.

There follows an interlude where an old geezer at the bar (played by Tom Aldredge, who has a string of IMDB credits going back to 1961, and who played Nucky Thompson's abusive father on Boardwalk Empire) tells a sadistically long shaggy-dog story about the concept of a Hertz Doughnut. The joke is utterly filthy and semi-incomprehensible; the comedian trails off at the end by mentioning that he never honestly understand the joke he just told, but he's also never been to Earth. The clientele in the Ceres Crossroads love it, but maybe you have to be an interplanetary blue-collar roughneck to truly understand it.

The dance contest follows, with the band performing "Love Smiles", the same song that you get a snippet of whenever someone opens the viewing port on the real live girl's clone tank. The choreography for the actor playing Eddy was live suggestions shouted at him by the director, including "Show us your karate!" and "The birds are attacking you!"; Samuel Curtis and the Blueberry Pirate get a standing ovation and win the contest by popular acclaim while the narrator glares from the shadows. They win a pair of handsome trophies for their efforts. (I have to add here that I really feel for the one guy who gets two steps into his routine and is booed off the stage.)

After an extremely odd one-sided conversation in the bathroom, the narrator asks the Blueberry Pirate to sing "Happy Birthday" to him; this terrifies the Pirate, who makes a leap at the man but is disintegrated by his ray gun (extremely cool low-budget effects work here, by the way--it's essentially a camera flash, a shadow on the wall for a frame or two and a handful of sand or kitty litter thrown on the bathroom floor but it works perfectly in the milieu of the film; also, check out the gun after it's fired. It's oozing slime, because it's a ray gun and the director figured that slime is the opposite of smoke and would seem more science-fiction appropriate). The narrator swipes the dance trophy and heads back to the bar, saying he's got work to do. An instrumental interlude follows, with the camera gliding past the bookcases and control panels in Curtis' ship as well as the inside of the Ceres Crossroads, with piles of ash on the tables, floor and chairs giving a silent testimony to the massacre that must have happened there. The narrator takes the dance trophy, the cat that just got dropped off at the bar and the Polaroid of Curtis on the toilet and heads off.

Curtis is on his way to Jupiter to pick up the Boy, and there's enough surprises and twists coming in the movie that I really don't want to summarize the rest of the narrative. The film's obscure enough that I figure it hasn't already been spoiled for you and the pleasures of the movie lie more in the details during the destination than they do in the plot. You've seen this plot before--"perform all the tasks that you need to do and you'll get what you want in the end" is the plot of The Wizard of Oz, among hundreds of other narratives.

What makes The American Astronaut special is the way the story is told, with details obscured from the audience but the story still making perfect sense. The characters all have a history with each other; I happen to think that The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast is Samuel Curtis' biological son and that he regrets shipping him off to Jupiter and gallivanting around the solar system as a lone wolf. Part of the reason I think this is the case is the way the Boy and Samuel act in his ship after he's picked up from Jupiter, and part of the reason are the lyrics in "Hey Boy", the bathroom song-and-dance number where the two thugs tell Curtis they heard about his past from a friend and how he's full of regret for an unforgivable thing he did in the past. For all that the audience looks at him in rapt attention on Jupiter, the Boy never looks happy (even though he's the cleanest-looking person on the planet and gets to wear an outfit that wouldn't look out of place at either Studio 54 or the 1980 Flash Gordon (Curtis:  "How long have they been making you dress like that?" The Boy:  The word is not 'make'. It's 'let',". As further support to my theory, Curtis and the ruler of Jupiter's conversation while they discuss the Boy's fate play out like adults talking over the head of a child in the room, ignoring him completely. But during this scene you see the Boy's face, not Curtis' or the head miner's.

There's also a scene where the Boy and a mute passenger named Bodysuit perform a song called "Rio Yeti", which is incredibly silly and features lots of yelling. It's from a songbook that Curtis still has on his shelves (and apparently an old one that he's never gotten rid of even though space is at a premium on the ship). It's pretty obviously one of the Boy's favorite things from the past and when he performs it with Bodysuit, he takes one particular part but when he and Curtis sing (shout) it later he takes the other one. It's a song for a masculine father and son to sing (yell), and when Curtis and the Boy restore their relationship they do it in the same roles that the Boy and Bodysuit took earlier.

But that unforgivable thing could well be something else--whatever Curtis did to get Professor Hess (the narrator) on his tail is apparently hilarious and humiliating. But the scene where Curtis tells the Boy why Hess is after him plays out in a series of still photos of the astronaut telling the story; Curtis and the Boy know what happened (as does Hess) but it's deliberately kept from the audience. Judging from how Curtis acts towards the Professor and the Boy, he doesn't regret what he did to the Professor (even when it looks like he's going to end up a clump of sand on the ground) but he does try to make amends with the Boy to the best of his ability (certainly being treated as a demigod on a planet of rich women who want to have sex with you all the time is a more tempting fate than doing song and dance routines for miners that only want to hear you describe what the breast you saw once looked like).

And for its obviously low budget, Cory McAbee tried to keep as much science in the fiction as he could. Yes, it doesn't make any kind of sense to be mining on Jupiter because it's a planet made of gas and liquid until you get to its metallic-hydrogen core, but if you did have a building on it somewhere the outside would be a haze of shifting liquid and gas, and that's what it looks like outside the Jupiter building. The lava-lamp style lighting effects that play over the miners at the Boy's performance are what it would look like if a gas giant's atmosphere was outside a transparent window and light went through it into the room. There's a true logistic brilliance on a budget in this movie, and I was delighted when I figured out why the Jupiter scenes looked like they did (and, by contrast, none of the scenes on Ceres or Venus or in any of the spaceships have the same lighting effects). The super-high-contrast black and white cinematography needs to be singled out as well; the look of this film is similar to the used future you see in the earlier Star Wars movies, or the Alien franchise. But the lack of budget for big sets and futuristic costumes is turned from a handicap to a strength by McAbee's vision. The flaking paint on the walls and stained clothes look like they belong in a cinematic universe light-years away from the antiseptic white space station in 2001. The music fits this setting as perfectly as the bluegrass matches O Brother, Where Art Thou?; my friend Sean called the soundtrack "They Might Be Giants with hangovers" and I am crediting him as I steal his priceless description. Every aspect of the film was put together with an eye towards its effects to build a universe from screenplay to casting to soundtrack to props. The Boy, for that matter, is lit differently than anyone else in the film, even when he's in the same scene with them. He shows up brighter because he's more innocent, compared to the roughnecks and psychopaths that populate the rest of the story.

Similarly, there's a lot going on with the sexual politics of this movie. If I were to try and sum them up, it would be like this:  The attempt to be masculine by a prepubescent boy who misunderstood a dirty joke his older brother told him. Other than the women on Venus and the real live girl in the clone tank, every single character in the film is a man (other than Bodysuit and the Boy, who are boys). But none of the men really know anything about sex or love; they're both total mysteries to them (explicitly mentioned by the head miner on Jupiter--none of the miners, including him, have ever had sex). The only three children in the film are the girl in the clone tank (who is still gestating), the Boy, and Bodysuit--who was born from two men who managed to conceive a child while floating in a barn in space launched by silver miners who wanted to learn about "the chart", whatever that is.

Even when things get absurd (see my earlier comments re:  a floating barn populated by silver miners who had a child) there's always a grounded and human look at the characters. Samuel, the Boy, the Professor, and Bodysuit form two pairs of fathers and sons; one of them is trying to make up for their past failures and the other sees themselves as stuck with a horrible burden that his personal ethics won't allow him to disintegrate. When you get past all the genre trappings and odd details, you have a story about a man who has a choice. He can do the right thing by his son, or he can abandon him again (albeit in much better circumstances than the last place he dropped his son off). It might look like a low-budget science fiction film but it's the human story that matters, no matter how obliquely it is told.

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