Twenty years on, Cory McAbee’s singular cult film is nearly as impossible to find as it is to look away from.
What’s a cult film without a cult?
The answer is easy: forgotten, mostly. That’s what keeps more than just Rocky Horror Picture Show so prevalent in the culture. It’s what kept The Room alive and eventually got James Franco that Golden Globe. They force a reevaluation of media we were all too happy to brush off (Josie and the Pussycats and Jennifer’s Body immediately come to mind here). These rabid fan bases keep the hearts beating in films that were too ahead of their time or misunderstood or, yes, terrible, to succeed with the general population.
But there are those that still stand out for their pure, unadulterated oddness. Compelling movies that need more people discovering them and giving them life. So when I realized Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut was turning 20 this year and I still rarely encountered anyone who’d heard of it, let alone seen it, I knew I needed to celebrate.
Because this 2001 sci-fi Western rockabilly musical is utterly singular.
Written, directed, and scored by McAbee himself, it follows Samuel Curtis, a drifter simply on his way from one place to the next, delivering whatever’s asked of him, in order to make a buck. So when he runs into an old friend, The Blueberry Pirate (yes, really), who has a big score for him, he can’t help but take the bait. All he has to do is make a series of trades, bouncing from planet to planet, until he can bring the remains of the recently deceased king of Venus home to his family where a handsome reward awaits. Unfortunately, Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto) stays hot on his tail, killing anyone and everyone that crosses his path.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like some action-laden adventure, but it’s actually something much slower and stranger. Sequences often undercut any dramatic intentions in favor of surreal humor and shambling, abstract diatribes. Because the world of The American Astronaut itself is both rich and nonsensical. Professor Hess’s cryptic narration is constantly introducing you to a world of outlaws, hillbillies, and lunatics who populate a dusty, dirty land of lawlessness. A place where lonely men work, dance, and die. A place that’s not only filled with characters like the Blueberry Pirate but a wild hellion named “Bodysuit” and an orphan known only as “The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast.”
Adding to the surreal nature of the experience is the ’90s-soaked, grunge-y soundtrack from McAbee’s former band “The Billy Nayer Show,” which conjures riffs reminiscent of Pavement and Built to Spill, along with absurdist folk songs from a past that never existed.
This 2001 sci-fi western rockabilly musical is utterly singular.
The American Astronaut is a bizarre and beautiful marvel of independent filmmaking. Because even though you see the obvious limitations of McAbee’s shoestring budget, it never hinders him. It just gives strict parameters to work within. Shot in black and white, it makes incredible use of sparse lighting equipment. It creates these stark, high-contrast images that punctuate a world of darkness, or add glints of shine across the few intricate homemade sets (especially Curtis’s spaceship, which resembles the locomotive of an old steam train).
To set a story in space without the benefit of digital special effects and no money for large-scale practical ones is a feat in and of itself. But The American Astronaut uses a combination of stop-motion animation, miniatures, and photography to make our ride through the solar system feel like a stylistic choice instead of something that falls short. The end result of McAbee’s deliberateness is a work with a stronger sense of self and a sharper visual style than many films with 100 times the budget.
That’s really the thing that sticks with me. Everything about The American Astronaut feels like a capital-C Choice, but as wild and off-kilter as they may seem, there’s a deeper thematic resonance behind so many of them. Nothing exemplifies this better than when Curtis has to explain to The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast why Professor Hess is hunting him down. “He’s a birthday boy. He kills without reason,” but that’s only half the answer. Because if Hess has a reason to kill someone, then he can’t because then they’d be dead “and the problem would live on forever, unresolved.”
So all this hunting and chasing? It’s because Hess wants to forgive Curtis, but “When he does that, he’s gonna’ kill me.” The boy tells him that that doesn’t make sense, but with a thousand-yard stare Curtis replies, “Yes it does.” And Curtis is right.
Because McAbee is creating a simple extended metaphor both about the fear of aging and the perils (and joys) of fatherhood. The villainous “birthday boy” is not just our grim reaper, taking life indiscriminately, but the only family Curtis seems to have. So as he journeys through the stars, he’s largely purposeless, only hoping to avoid death.
Because the whole of the world Curtis inhabits is full to the brim with men who don’t really know how to talk about how they feel or what they want, he runs forward in eternal anguish over the breakdown of what was clearly once the most important relationship in his life. And yet, he still has to find reasons to live — reasons he finds with the boy, who needs him the way a son needs a father.
In short? It’s rife with classic themes of the dying West, just wrapped in the oddest of retrofuturist packages. A work that is one part George Méliès, one part Lynchian fever dream, and one part John Waters sexual bluntness.
McAbee is creating a simple extended metaphor both about the fear of aging and the perils (and joys) of fatherhood.
If all of this sounds like something you’d love, you will. Unfortunately, there are shockingly few ways left to discover it. Not highlighted on any streaming service (though it’s at least possible to rent through Amazon Prime), its DVD has long been out of print and there are no plans for a Blu-ray release.
Its website seems to be mostly defunct, with the link to set up a screening of it going nowhere. You can find it if you go looking for it deliberately, but the many of the places you were meant to stumble upon it don’t exist anymore.
So consider this your initiation. This essay is your nudge from a friend to go find this thing. I’m your friendly neighborhood video clerk playing it on a loop on the closed-circuit TV hoping you’ll ask, “What the hell is this?” Seek it out, even if after all this, you still feel like you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.
After all, cult films need cults.