Sunday, June 7, 2009

The American Astronaut

This is one of the strangest indie movies ever made - and one of my favorites. I was sent a copy to watch before calling and speaking to the filmmaker. It was one of my favorite pieces. He was astonished at how warmly Jackson reacted to his very bizarre movie.

“I wanted to create a movie that people would like more and more every time they watched it,” says Cory McAbee, about The American Astronaut, the full-length movie he wrote and directed.
Six years from script to screen, released and distributed by McAbee and the film’s producers, Bobby Lurie and Joshua Taylor, The American Astronaut is a combination low budget science fiction movie, punk musical, snarky comedy, and a literate commentary on mankind’s base desires. Filmed on lush 35 mm black-and-white film, it looks like a blend of old “Flash Gordon” serials, Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and an indie graphic novel. In The American Astronaut, the look and feel of the film itself is more important than the look of the effects, an almost incomprehensible notion for a film that is, basically, science fiction.

"When I was writing and storyboarding it, I knew I may never have much money to make it,” says McAbee. “So I came up with special effects that could be done in my room, all done in-camera. I felt that using black-and-white would not mask how simple the effects are, but would actually enhance them.”

With the lack of gee-whiz-ain’t-that-cool effects, viewers are allowed to enjoy the film’s visual style, which resembles a series of pen-and-ink drawings. This is no accident. McAbee’s cinematographer, W. Mott Hupfel III – who was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for it – created numerous high-contrast camera shots to mirror McAbee’s original storyboards as much as possible. The result is striking.

“I love black and white,” says McAbee. “I think it’s beautiful.” A self-taught pen-and-ink artist and painter, he drew extremely detailed storyboards to work from. McAbee treats both the storyboard and the script as complete works of art, believing that both form the foundation of the film, but also complement it.

The innate artistic nature of the film, the look, the music, and the quirky characters that populate his version of the solar system have caused The American Astronaut to occasionally be dismissed as a cult movie.

“That’s a small genre,” he says. “My main intention was that people who like it, can see it. I knew it wouldn’t be a mainstream, blockbuster Hollywood film. It’s one reason we self-distributed it. This way we can keep it out there long enough for people to find it.”
But like a cult movie, it has developed a fervent group of followers.

"The audience ranges,” he says. “Not one particular group likes it more than others. Colleges still play it. Retired people come to me and tell me how much they liked it. It still plays in San Francisco and it still sells out theaters. In Boulder, Colorado, theaters there still play the movie and have dance contests before the show.”

"As might be guessed, a dance contest is one of the key scenes in the film. The contest simply happens to be an all-male event, held in a seedy bar on the Texas-sized asteroid, Ceres, with a live punk band performing.

Which brings us to the music. McAbee is the lead singer and co-founder of The Billy Nayer Show (along with producer Lurie), a New York-based band that plays an intelligent, catchy style of music perhaps best described as cabaret punk. The Billy Nayer Show provides the soundtrack to The American Astronaut, with McAbee’s vocals on about half the songs, and actors providing the rest. McAbee says of the music:

“It fits organically into the film. The music is a piece of the movie within itself. One thing about being able to write the movie and the music both is that the two can work together. This is not a group of songs strung together; it is music for the movie.”

In case you were counting, McAbee is the writer, director, and storyboard artist. He created artwork for the set. He performs on the soundtrack, co-composed the music, and wrote the songs. He also acts.

In the film, he plays the protagonist, Sam Curtis, an interplanetary trader who finds himself being stalked by an old friend. Curtis trades a cat to the bartender of the Ceres Bar for a “real, live girl,” which is actually cloned cells to be grown into a woman. After the trade – and the dance contest – Curtis takes the “real, live girl” and heads for Jupiter, where he plans on trading her for…

It doesn’t matter. The plot of The American Astronaut becomes secondary to the images on the screen, the music, and the characters. People like The Blueberry Pirate, a space-traveling fruit thief and dance contestant; The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whose existence alone turns the horny all-male miners of Jupiter into more efficient workers; and Bodysuit, the offspring of two lonely cowboys, fill the screen. McAbee says the characters are all inspired by people he knew; all, that is, but one.

The narrator – and oddly enough, the villain of the piece – Professor Hess, was a creation of McAbee’s imagination.

“He’s completely fictitious. He was based on ideas, not people. At the very beginning, when he narrates, he brings you into the world and you become his confidant. But then quickly you realize that the first friend you made at camp is the biggest loser there. That’s Professor Hess.”
Strangely, the movie is also somewhat autobiographical.

“It was inspired by a period when I wasn’t living anywhere,” he says. “I was working bars, doing security for a few years. I had it with spending the bulk of my waking hours paying rent and still always being broke. I decided not to live anywhere. I started staying in friends’ carports and places like that.”

When the movie was finally completed, The American Astronaut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a dramatic Grand Jury Prize. The screenplay was also accepted at Sundance’s screenwriters’ workshop.

“They treat you well,” McAbee says. “They bring you in and famous screenwriters read your screenplay. It was the first time I had professionals tell me what they thought about it. Stewart Stern [Rebel Without a Cause] was one of my advisors. He loved the Professor and he loved the screenplay.” It helped him see the film a little differently.

“Films have formulas. The highs and lows are calculated. I’m a musician, so I was trying to make this feel more like an album. Some albums are just collections of songs, but some have an identity. I wanted the idea of this album to be the dynamics of an evening. You start off by going to a club, there’s an M.C. who’s not very good, you’re uncomfortable, he does his bit, the band starts…”

As a result, the individual scenes tend to have a feel and a rhythm of their own. The dance contest, the henchmen in the bathroom, and the Professor’s dance in the sand on Jupiter will remain in your mind long after the movie is finished.

The American Astronaut will certainly not be to everybody’s taste, but for those who enjoy unusual, experimental, or avant-garde films, or those who simply like their movies a bit off center, it will likely be a rewarding experience.

The American Astronaut plays at the Crossroads Film Festival, at 7 p.m., Saturday, with the short films, Run! and Tom Hits His Head. Cory McAbee will take part in a Q&A session after the movie. He will perform solo later that night at Hal and Mal’s with antler and Questions in Dialect.

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