QUESTIONER: What are the most common comparisons to other films that you hear?
CORY MCABEE: There’ve been a few. Because it’s in black and white people sometimes say Eraserhead, but other than the fact that it’s in black and white I don’t really see much… [laughter]. I get a lot of “cross-betweens, ” like “a cross between Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Grapes of Wrath.” [laughter]. That’s a very large area to cross between…
–Cory McAbee at an American Astronaut Q&A session
DIRECTED BY: Cory McAbee
FEATURING: Cory McAbee, Rocco Sisto, Gregory Russell Cook, Annie Golden, Tom Aldredge
PLOT: Astronaut Samuel Curtis arrives on the asteroid Ceres, where he meets his old friend the Blueberry Pirate, enters a dance contest, and trades a cat for a Real Live Girl (who consists of cloned cells in a box). His commission requires him to go to Jupiter where he will swap the Real Live Girl for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, whom he will then take to the all-female planet Venus to exchange for the remains of an expired stud. Along his journey he is pursued by maniacal “birthday boy” (and film narrator) Professor Hess, a man who can only kill if he has no reason to do so.
- Writer/director Cory McAbee is the songwriter and lead singer of the band The Billy Nayer Show; the then-current lineup of the band (minus McAbee) appears in the movie in the Ceres dance contest sequence.
- McAbee was working on a script entitled Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest when he got the idea for American Astronaut and decided it was the more interesting project. He completed the script for Werewolf Hunters in 2002, but negotiations with financiers fell through. Pre-production resumed in 2011, but the actor cast as the lead died, and the project is again on hold.
- The American Astronaut got its limited theatrical release September 21, 2001, only a little more than a week after the 9/11 tragedy.
- After our first viewing we declined to place The American Astronaut on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies immediately (read our shortsighted initial review), but the public decided this omission was one of our biggest oversights, as the movie won our third readers choice poll.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast dressed as the messenger god Mercury in an art-deco helmet and thick black eyeliner, raising the roughnecks of Jupiter’s morale by performing a song and dance number in a spotlight on a stage in a cavernous warehouse.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The fact that it’s an absurdist musical comedy space western, for one thing. The American Astronaut is an incredibly personal affair—Cory McAbee wrote, directed, starred, composed the songs, helped paint the backdrops, and probably sold the popcorn on opening night. McAbee brings a particular and peculiar set of personal preoccupations to the project: space operas, psychobilly, Monty Python, German Expressionism, cowboy movies, Lewis Carroll, film noir, Busby Berkeley, the wide-eyed innocence of childhood, Ed Wood, and Dadaism, among others. It’s a galaxy of influences with competing gravities, and whether they appear as a meaningful constellation or just a meaningless mass of lights may depend on where the viewer is standing. The movie probably makes the most sense when seen from Mars.
Original trailer for The American Astronaut
COMMENTS: Since it’s such a spaced-out movie, it’s appropriate that The American Astronaut‘s most memorable scene is a rambling monologue where an aging emcee (played by Broadway veteran Tom Aldredge) struggles awkwardly to deliver a long joke, with multiple mis-emphasized punch lines. He’s the warmup act for the dance contest, the improbable social event of the season among the all-male clientele of pirates, smugglers and thugs for hire who frequent the Ceres Crossroads, an asteroid-based saloon. After a couple of warmup jokes that meet with stony silence from the audience, the comic launches into the tale of one Mr. Stevenson, who was fond of asking people he met through his long and eventful life if they would like a “hertz doughnut.” The bar full of rogues and ruffians laugh at all the wrong places, giggling through the set-ups and remaining quiet during the actual punch lines, as the shaggy-dog gag grinds on and on, ending with the comedian confessing “I’ve never understood this joke” amidst peals of uncontrollable laughter.