Between Eraserhead and The Grapes of Wrath : The American Astronaut
Between Eraserhead and The Grapes of Wrath dances
The American Astronaut
by Henry Edward Hardy
The American Astronaut (2001) is surely the best, worst, and only, black-and-white comedy-western-sci-fi rockabilly punk surrealistic musical. Think of it as one part Luis Bruñel’s Un chien andalou, one part David Lynch’s Eraserhead, one part John Carpenter’s Dark Star, three parts punk-shockabilly music video, one part Devo show, one part Busby Berkeley extravaganza, one part John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath plus liberal doses of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Now add a cat, a cloned woman in a box, the Blueberry Pirate, the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast and a mad Professor who kills for no reason and you have the basic ingredients for this unique film.
The American Astronaut is the work of Cory McAbee and his band “The Billy Nayer Show.” The music is polymorphous, ranging from chants to rockabilly to hardcore post-punk. Rocco Sisto goes far over the top as Professor Hess, a Doctor Strangelove-like character as William Burroughs or Charles Bukowski might write him. The Professor pursues bushy side-burned protagonist Samuel Curtis (McAbee) and his companions throughout the dilapidated bar, mining colony and space barn of this rather minimal solar system.
The special effects and props in The American Astronaut are intentionally on the level of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster. This is a boy’s universe; women are abstracted to the succinct tale of a woman’s breast as told by the Boy: “It was soft and round.” The film has a disconcerting but somewhat charming nastiness to it. Veteran character actor Tom Aldredge’s long, spellbinding recitation of the old saw about the “Hertz Donut” is weirder and creepier in its funny-not-funniness than anything this side of The Aristocrats.
The 2005 video release special features section includes storyboards, promotional art, and a talk-through by McAbee during a live showing of the film in a New York bar. Also included is the peculiar chant, “Don’t you fear the Yeti’s of Rio? No, no, no, no, no, no!”
The American Astronaut is at least half-witty, and the production numbers are spectacular in a grimy way. The high contrast black-and-white cinematography is outstanding, and the music is energetic and entertaining. This very strange film is worth a look for those with a sense of humor and an open mind.
The American Astronaut is now available on DVD. For more information, visit http://www.americanastronaut.com.
A version of this review was previously published in Current Magazine and at Electric Current.
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
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