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“The American Astronaut”

An Off the Beaten Pathe Gem

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by Ernest Kearney  —  I do have a soft spot for weird sci-fi flicks – The History of Future Folk (2013), John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Morons from Outer Space (1985), Spaced Invaders (1990), and Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988).

So Cory McAbee’s American Astronaut (2001) was tailor made for me.

Now, how best to describe it?

Imagine a Spaghetti Western punk rockabilly musical, add a few absurdist encounters comparable to those of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, mix in a heavy helping of Ed Wood, add a pinch of the cinematic style of the 1972 Russia Sci-Fi Solaris, a smidge of German Expressionism, find a medium who can channel the spirit of Busby Berkeley for the choreography and do the whole thing on a budget that couldn’t feed a family of two very light eaters at Jack In The Box, even if one of them was on a fast and there you have it.

The story begins when our hero, the American astronaut, Sam (Cory McAbee) lands his space craft on the asteroid Ceres, tucked somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks in our universe.

In short order, he delivers a cat to his old friend the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), enters a saloon’s dance contest against a motley all male group of roughnecks, and is followed into that establishment’s bathroom by two desperate looking henchmen who set up a phonograph and serenade him while he sits in a stall with “Hey boy, hey boy, I got a message for you…”

And from there things get a little strange.

American Astronaut

(l-r) Bill Buell, Tom Aldredge and Cory McAbee – “The American Astronaut”

McAbee, the film’s star, director and screenwriter is also front man for the band The Billy Nayer Show which fills the musical needs of this quirky little project.

First conceived back in the late ‘80s, McAbee worked on the story and the tunes that lead to a workshop in the 1998 Sundance Writer’s Lab.

After that the scavenger hunt for locations, props and actors began.

McAbee stood no chance of achieving that high glossy sheen of studio produced sci-fis, so instead he embraced the poverty of his production with a straightforward honesty.  Jupiter is a ballroom in Queens and the space vessels appear to have been filmed in warehouses.

Some familiar faces pop up.  James Ransone who was featured in both The Wire and Generation Kill turns up as a character named Body Suit, also present is Annie Golden who viewers of Orange is the New Black will recognize as the mute Norma.

That the film succeeds at all, considering its low budget splendor and absurdly disjointed plot, can be credited to a disarmingly clever and bizarre script and the wonderfully deadpan performance of McAbee who hyper-drives about the cosmos like an intergalactic Buster Keaton.

American Astronaut DVD cover artIt is probably best not to go looking for logic or motivation in any aspect of this film unless you have a connection to some vintage Windowpane LSD.

Don’t try to understand why Greg Russell Cook in the role of “The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast” is decked out like the Greek God Mercury cruising Santa Monica Blvd on a Friday night.  Doing so may wind you up with your frontal lobe in traction.

In many ways this film can be taken as a classic comedy, except all the punch lines have been left out.  A reality that is captured in the monologue offered up by the emcee (Tom Aldredge) at the saloon on Ceres, which verges on a Dadaist masterpiece.

The result of all of this is a film that has no payoff, but a really great set up.

So when you’re listening to Sam droning the movie’s big love song, “The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass” just settle back and let the exquisite oddness of it wash over you.

Approach this film as a Zen Koan and you’ll be just fine.

Well, a Zen Koan with music.

♦     ♦     ♦

Viewing Options

The film is streaming on SnagFilms.

Rent or buy American Astronaut on Amazon.

The DVD is also available for Purchase.


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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