Western Film WTF: The American Astronaut (2001)
A gorgeous black and white musical film that takes the idea of space as the final frontier very seriously.
by Max Sparber
2001's "The American Astronaut" takes the idea of space as the finally frontier a bit more literally than most. The men there are weather-beaten roughnecks who dress like hobos and cowboys and fly from destination to destination in spaceships that are more like ramshackle shacks. Their outposts are womenless dive bars where men enter dance contests together and perform primitive, improvised dances inspired by square dancing and Elvis's karate moves. And any of them might, at any moment, launch into raucous, electrified songs borrowing from blues and early rock and roll.
Writer/director/star/songwriter Cory McAbee once described the film as "Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers," but with it's miles-deep black and white photography, grim-faced men, and general roughneckedness, it doesn't have the innocence of either of those sources.
The film is, however, quite barmy. The plot, such as it is, involves a trader, played by McAbee with slicked black hair and a sort of rough bonhomie, making a series of trades from one planet to another. He takes a developing clone of a woman, which resembles a box with an old radio in it, to a mining planet. There he trades it for a young boy dressed like the god Hermes (they don't make him dress like that, he explains; they let him dress like that.) He is known as the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast, and his only function at the mining camp is to contemptuously describe it to the miners.
The Boy is needed on another planet, however, where he will be put to stud for a large group of Southern Belles who otherwise live in a world without men. Once that trade is made, McAbee can recover the body of the previous stud, who died from old age, and return it to his family on earth for a reward.
This is complicated by two things: First, McAbee is being pursued by a psychopath named Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), who has the giggly mannerism of a very spoiled child ("you're so SQUARE," he'll cry out, shoving someone playfully but much too hard.) Hess has an unhappy habit of killing everyone McAbee knows.
McAbee also picks up a hitchiker on a giant barn in space owned by formed Nevada silver miners who came in contact with something alien, which has left them mutated; they grew their own boy, who they keep in a fetish-like body suit — and have named Bodysuit — who is both completely feral and profoundly malodorous.
Most of this is accompanied by McAbee's own songs, performed with his band the Billy Nayer Show. Two grim-looking older toughs menace McAbee in a bathroom by singing along to a record player before spontaneously launching into a dazzling dance that involves nearly kicking down McAbee's stall. McAbee serenades the Southern Belles by comparing their extraordinary good manners to a glass vagina.
It's all directed with astonishing confidence by McAbee. It's a terrific-looking film full of marvelously eccentric performances, none of which feel uncertain or amateurish. The whole of it pushes along with tremendous energy, often with McAbee acting as a delighted spectator, seeming to enjoy his cosmic space yarn as much as he expects his audience to.
His expectations are not misplaced. It's an absurdly entertaining film, reminiscent of the earliest, oddest films of Guy Maddin, who likewise set his stories in fantastic, primitive frontiers and indulged his darkly whimsical sensibilities.
I know some people might not like this sort of film. But I also know that I don't care to know those sorts of people.