It is interesting to note that both of these examples came out of a more mainstream media ideal. Today, most examples of demonstrative excellence derive from the independent realm, where artists are allowed the freedom to probe and polish their own personal visions without some creativity-strangling suit staring over their shoulder. Yet even then, in order to get to the true core of originality, you have to dig deeper, way down into the underground arena, where virtual unknowns are pouring over their private pictograms for an audience mostly made up of friends and family. These are the rarest radicals of all, inventive instances when the lack of access to professional production only leads to the magnification of imagination. Illustrations are very difficult to come by: In music, there are eccentric entities like Fred Lane and the Shaggs; in film we have John Michael McCarthy's Superstarlet A.D. or Giuseppe Andrews' Trailer Town.
It's time to add Cory McAbee to the list of unsung luminaries. A member of the rock band The Billy Nayer Show and quite a skilled painter, McAbee has long dabbled in film. He made several shorts before fueling his most fervent dream with as many of his far out fantasies as he could. The result is one of the most novel, outrageous and magnificent movies ever made. Though many will argue with its inclusion in the canon of timeless classics, The American Astronaut announces a filmmaker with a vision as valid as David Lynch, a skewed view of reality ala the Coen Brothers, and a Terry Gilliam-esque way of making the futuristic and the fanciful seem soaked in grim and grit. Fans of cinema at its most pure and powerful will absolutely adore this film.
But there is a catch. Sam is being chased by the evil genius Professor Heiss, a long time nemesis of the interplanetary pilot. Heiss will not stop until he catches Sam and gets what he wants – forgiveness. See, Prof. Heiss cannot kill someone if he has a reason to do it. And he really HATES the astronaut. But if Sam is merciful, the Professor will then be without any anger, and therefore, he will have no reason to harm our hero. Thus, he can kill him in heartless cold blood, just the way he wants. Anyway, after leaving his pirate pal at a bar on an asteroid and making his pickup on Jupiter, Sam runs into a few problems. A barn in the middle of the universe holds a group of deformed miners, who want their smelly, retarded son returned to their home planet - Earth. And Heiss is right behind him, in hot pursuit. It's a race to see who will get to Venus first, and who will claim the favor of the high-strung honeys there. Will it be Heiss, or The American Astronaut?
The American Astronaut is Eraserhead as envisioned by peyote smoking extraterrestrials. It's the naughty little secret that NASA keeps hidden from the perceptive public, like Area 51, the Apollo Moon missions, and the secret of Tang's success. It's a celebration of imagination over imagery, a totally unique take on just about every filmmaking genre you can envision. Simultaneously style checking sci-fi, westerns, crime dramas, noirish mysteries, costume period pieces, political propaganda, the horror film and the musical – YES, the MUSICAL! - it is, perhaps, the single greatest vision slathered on celluloid by a brave individual since a certain Mr. Lynch expelled his pre-natal nightmares onto AFI purchased stock. This amazing bit of eccentricity as art bewilders as it delights, defying description as it references almost ever aspect of campy pop culture over the last 50 years. If you're locked in a Hollywood blockbuster mode, and can't appreciate something inventive and non-derivative, you will probably balk at this purposefully playful interstellar satire. But anyone with an open mind to the possibility of film will see it for what it is – a magnum opus of near epic proportions.
This is more than just some high concept long form music video variable. Sure, one could look at writer/director/star Cody McAbee with a jaded, jaundiced eye for wanting to fuse some incredibly vital visuals to his usual aural attributes. As a member of the notorious The Billy Nayer Show, McAbee makes music that is both experimental and expressive, harkening back to the blues stomp basis of rock and roll while injecting a stream of consciousness schizophrenia into his songs. The result is like listening to boogie-woogie for the brain damaged, as ideas and idiosyncrasies crash and coalesce into a sonic sludge of deranged delights. Like carving open an old juke joint player's skull and scraping out the more manic bits inside, McAbee fashions tunes that tantalize and trick the listener. Just when you think you know where they are going, they switch up and turn on you, usually in audibly ambitious ways – a lot like the film in which these haunting hits reside. Indeed, The American Astronaut is an excursion into the dadaist and the demented. It prepares you up for one kind of experience, only to reclaim and remaster the message into a different dramatic or comedic configuration.
What The American Astronaut does so well is what so many other shitty speculative fictions fail at miserably – it consistently stays true to the world it creates. There are elements of both the artificial and the fanciful here, as well as bows to hackneyed iconography and strangely surreal symbols. McAbee and his cast want to achieve nothing short of a viable alternate reality, a richly dense ideal where anything and everything seems perfectly plausible. And they achieve this aim and then some. The American Astronaut is so simple and yet so complex, so fully fleshed out and easy to empathize with that our consciousness seems to slip a few fractions and we are instantly suspended into cinemania - awash in a trance of entertainment that you never want to wake from. Jaws will be dropping so often and for so long that McAbee should offer TMJ insurance with this narrative, and the spectrum of sights is so revolutionary that you can actually hear them rewriting the moviemaking rulebook as they cascade across the screen.
As a director, McAbee does indeed have a wonderful eye. His shot selection is always spot-on and his compositions and framing accentuate and amplify his ideas. There is barely a cinematic misstep along The American Astronaut's narrative path and it is the cold, considered camerawork by McAbee that solidifies the success. Equally amazing are the performances given by the mostly unknown cast. Made up of friends and band mates, New York stage actors and amiable amateurs, each performer captures the tone and temperament of the film exquisitely. And McAbee makes sure they get more than their fair share of screen time. Highlights include Rocco Sisto who turns Professor Hess into the most marvelously misguided villain in the history of dapper dangers, and Joshua Taylor as the smoothest sounding, greatest dancing pirate in the entire galaxy. Greg Russell Cook makes a very iconic Boy Who Saw a Woman's Breast (especially decked out in his Olympian god Mercury by way of Buck Rodgers outfit) and Annie Golden is gloriously goofy as Cloris, the crackpot Queen of Venus. Everyone, in the main roles, including McAbee as Sam, is resplendent, completely in sync with the mantra of this movie.
Aside from the main characters, McAbee also populates his picture with ancillary individuals that immediately threaten to steal the scenes they're in. A pair of burly bathroom singers make a trip to the toilet a song and dance for the angry astronaut, and the bar band at the Ceres blows the roof off the roid – asteroid that is – when they motor their way through a especially fiery number. Not all the sequence thieves are human, actually. A strange mutant alien gold miner thing located in a barn in the middle of the universe is viewed in such subtle, suggestive ways that this organism leaves a major impression without every being completely visible. And Sam's rocket ship is like an old fashioned steam engine, retrofitted into a cigar shape design and decked out like Henry Spencer's apartment. Add in a menacing alarm clock that angrily intones, "What did your father teach you?" over and over again, and an unbelievably beautiful set of paintings substituting for action sequences (instead of CGI or physical effects, McAbee applied his skills with a brush for all the outer space flight 'footage') and you're standing in the shadow of giants.
McAbee's universe is indeed obtuse. It is peripatetic in its plotting and frightening in its novelty. Films this fresh just don't arrive like balling infants from a creative cabbage patch: they are nurtured and loved, fretted over by artisans convinced that, if they just got the chance, the world would cotton to their incorruptible brilliance. In McAbee's case, we need no more proof than this fiendishly fine film. The American Astronaut is unlike anything you've seen in the recent media. It is an ideal crafted solely out of an individual perception and filtered through an equally esoteric aesthetic. It is funny and sad, frightening and joyful. It buries itself in your brain and never capitulates, redefining your sensibilities as it simultaneously realigns your pleasure centers. As much a celebration of specific genres as it is an attempt to create one all its own, this is one remarkable movie. Don't let the complete lack of derivativeness or absence of awfulness dissuade you from taking a trip with this psychedelic space jockey. You'll be more than glad that you did.
For the Behind the Scene segment of the disc, McAbee scuttles the old idea of a commentary and he turns his alternate narrative track discussion into a combination stand-up routine and performance art showcase. Appearing before a live audience in a Bronx bar, and talking to the crowd as the movie plays behind him, the auteur fields questions, admires his own work, and explains many of the secrets used to realize his vision. There is an interactive element to the presentation – McAbee fields audience questions about the music and the actors - and even some facets of the director's personal life are discussed. We see McAbee's appearance, occasionally interrupted by moments from the movie (we usually switch to the film whenever the musical sequences start) and the entire enterprise is fascinating. Coming across as part carnival barker and part cocky craftsman, McAbee makes this one of the better DVD discussions on the market.