The American Astronaut (2001) is a black and white independent film made by Cory McAbee and his band, the Billy Nayer Show. Written, directed and starring McAbee1, it is a highly-imaginative zany science-fiction musical2. It won many independent film awards on release. Audiences today are used to science fiction with high production values and a broad, epic sweep, but this independent film shows that it is possible to make an epic science fiction film in the 21st Century with effects limited to paintings and a bucket of sand.
After delivering a cat named Monkeypuss to Ceres, Samuel Curtis goes on an epic voyage across the Solar System (pausing only to take part in a dance contest, naturally). First he delivers a case containing an embryonic clone of a Real Live Girl to Jupiter, where it will be exchanged for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast. He plans to take the boy from Jupiter to the Queen of Venus to exchange for the remains of former King of Venus, Johnny R. Johnny R's family on Earth wish to have his body back and have promised to pay a handsome reward for his return. However unbeknown to Curtis he is being pursued by vicious killer Professor Hess, who is determined to forgive him.
Will Curtis survive being danced at? Who will see incriminating photographs of him? What will Hess get for his birthday?
The Solar System of The American Astronaut
Though a black and white low-budget film without computer effects, the Solar System appears breath-taking. Through the use of paintings space is stylistically shown; vast distances, shadows and silhouettes all supply a sublime still sense of segregation and isolation.
Venus is described as the planet of beautiful women. Though they can reproduce without the use of men, this would result in genetic impurities and so they keep one single well-bred Earthman on the planet as a stud. The last stud, known as Johnny R, had recently died. Venus is seen as a garden planet, blessed with both sunshine and girls, who do so love to dance. Tragically dogs cannot live on Venus as they are killed by the air pressure.
Ceres, due to its large size, convenient location and availability, was found to be the perfect spot for a drinking establishment, or bar if you will.
The largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, Ceres is the location of a bar called the Ceres Crossroads, owned by Eddie. Despite being an out-of-the-way saloon and/or wretched hive of scum and villainy, frequented by roughnecks and thugs, it hosted a dance contest and receives deliveries of fresh fruit. Visitors to Ceres are warned that it has a real toilet.
Jupiter's a very wealthy mining planet, where infant males are taken and sold to a man named Lee Valinsky. They're raised as workers and grow up to be strong men with no knowledge of women.
The total opposite of Venus, the populated part of Jupiter is a dark, underground mining colony. Jupiter's only celebrity is The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast, the only person on the planet to remember seeing a woman. The miners do have a healthy diet, growing big and strong through often partaking in fresh fruit delivered by the Blueberry Pirate.
Since 1902 a wooden barn has been located somewhere between Jupiter and Venus, home to a group of atrophied miners.
Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee)
My father taught me to kill the sunflower.
The American Astronaut of the title, Curtis is a rough interplanetary trader and dance champion.
Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto)
I stayed on Venus to help raise Bodysuit in the hopes that he would grow up to be a fine young man, and I could kill him.
A mad professor, Hess chases Curtis all across the solar system, killing anyone Curtis comes into contact with. What Curtis did to annoy Hess is never revealed, but it was unforgivable. As Hess can only kill without reason, as long as he has a motive to kill Curtis he is unable to do so, but if he can forgive him, he will then be able to. During the film, Hess is celebrating his birthday.
The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast (Gregory Russell Cook)
It was round and soft.
A 16-year-old boy who gives motivational speeches to the slave miners on Jupiter about his memory of women, describing what it looked like. Although Curtis was the one who took him to Jupiter, he remains fond of the trader. He takes advantage of his status by dressing extravagantly, reminding viewers of the sort of costumes seen in 1930s film serials. Other hobbies include singing and dancing, although sadly he is never allowed to go to dance contests.
Cloris (Annie Golden)
If only you were twenty years younger we'd all have our way with you.
The Queen of Venus. She does so look forward to visits from Samuel Curtis as then she gets to dig his ship out of Venus' mud.
The Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor)
Renowned interplanetary fruit thief and merchant and Curtis' former dance partner - just don't call him 'Larry'. Other hobbies include taking and collecting unusual polaroid photographs.
Bodysuit (James Ransone)
As dumb as a stick.
The son of two old miners called Jake and Edna, he grew up in a barn somewhere between Jupiter and Venus. To prevent his muscles from atrophying in this zero-gravity environment, a condition that afflicted his parents and that they called 'space punies', he was raised in a special hydraulic bodysuit. This would allow him to return to Earth, but it is implied he has never left his suit, not even to use the toilet, consequently leaving it very dirty and smelly.
Sadly Bodysuit appears incapable of talking, has a limited intellectual capacity and seems only to react on an instinctual level. This may be as a result of the strange mineral that affected his parents' mental abilities and allowed them to send the barn into space in the first place.
Old Man (Tom Aldredge)
Hey, is it just me or do my balls itch?
An eccentric inhabitant of the Ceres Crossroads who nevertheless entertains the crowd with his juvenile jokes, even though he says he doesn't understand them himself as he has never been to Earth.
Eddie (Bill Buell)
I'm still buzzin'.
Ceres Crossroads' Landlord, he enjoys dressing up as a cowboy and joining in with the dance competition. In his spare time he clones some of his cells in order to create the Real Live Girl.
Lee Vilensky (Peter McRobbie)
And I will partake in fresh fruit and sexual intercourse, an act in which we are all a stranger, but which, upon my return, I will describe to you in great detail.
The owner of Jupiter, he purchases young boys to work as slaves in the planet's mines. He intends to marry the Real Live Girl once she has grown up.
How to Dance Like Eddie
Although he does not win Ceres Crossroads' dance contest, Eddie does come a very credible second place with a highly memorable dance. Based on the complex choreography created by Cory McAbee and performed by Eddie actor Bill Buell, here is how you too can dance just like everyone's favourite buzzin' barkeep:
- Pretend you are riding a horse around the room.
- Dismount from your horse.
- You are surrounded by enemies, defeat them with your karate skills.
- They're running away, grab your gun and shoot them.
- You are being attacked by birds - keep them away from your head, Keep them away from your head!
- Bow confidently to your well-earned applause.
Just remember: do not allow yourself to be distracted by others, even if they are rudely walking in front of you.
Launching The American Astronaut
The film was made by Cory McAbee with his band, the Billy Nayer Show. This was the band's first feature-length film although they had previously made shorts, including The Man on the Moon which was about a divorced man moving to the moon with his cat. It took McAbee a year to write the screenplay, two years to storyboard and only 37 days to film in New York. McAbee was keen to use shadows as much as possible in the film and his pen-and-ink storyboards easily translated into a black and white film. The script and screenplay were taken to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab; although the script didn't change, this process influenced how the film was directed.
Much of the film was based on McAbee's personal experiences. When he wrote the story he was living out of a suitcase, travelling from place-to-place as a freelance bouncer, musician and doing odd jobs. Like the astronaut of the title he seldom saw the light of day, living a life of shadows and silhouettes. The cramped interior living space of the spaceship was based on a one-room flat above a bar that he lived in in San Francisco, only larger, and also the mobile home his grandfather lived in. As McAbee's father and grandfather had been auto-mechanics, with lots of worn vehicles around, he wanted to portray his spaceship as being the sort of old vehicle that can be fixed by hitting it with a hammer.
Among the most distinctive images of the film are the space effects, which are all done using paintings. These were painted by McAbee, Production Designer Goeff Tuttle and Maria Schoenherr. This approach was used as they knew how to do paintings convincingly and knew they would look more realistic than their attempts to make models3. One particularly successful sequence involves a painting of the spaceship done on glass, which is slid in front of a background painting of stars, giving the impression of it travelling through space. The strange hopping spacewalk on Ceres was based on Apollo moon mission footage in which an astronaut struggled to walk normally and resorted to hopping instead.
Much of the film was shot in Maspeth Dance Hall, Queens, with the sets designed by Geoff Tuttle. Individual sets were built first and when filming with them was finished they were dismantled, allowing the whole hall to be used as Jupiter's auditorium. Swirling oil lamp lighting effects were used to suggest the atmosphere of Jupiter. Ceres Crossroads was filmed in the bar basement of an Elks Lodge.
Keeping costs down was paramount and even extended to the costumes. The Southern Belle style dresses worn by the women of Venus were actually made from shower curtains with fake flowers glued on. The effect of Hess' disintegrator ray was effectively portrayed by sand, used to keep the costs low. The only special effect not created by the Billy Nayer Show was the trail in the sky shown when Curtis' spaceship travels through Venus' atmosphere.
Hey boy hey boy, I heard it from a friend about you.
- Opening lyrics from the first song.
The American Astronaut is a unique, inventive creation, a truly bonkers work of art. It is possible to nitpick and say that the characters tell each other what the plot is going to be three times and the film does not deviate far from that. Though the film signposts exactly where it is going, when the journey is this enjoyable, what does that matter?
As a musical, the film works very well and in some aspects feels like a feature-length music video. The songs always fit the tone of the scene they are in, even though the songs' lyrics were deliberately chosen not to refer to the film's events. Another unique feature is the portrayal of the divided sexes. McAbee describes his intention of creating the feel of a 'Junior High School Dance' sexual divide taken to its extreme. Instead of boys and girls on opposite sides of a hall looking at each other, with the boy with the most knowledge of girls envied by his classmates, men and women exist on opposite sides of the Solar System and the only man to have a memory of a woman is revered as a figurehead, named The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast.
Of the characters, the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast effectively appears as an almost larger-than-life character, being the focus of more lighting than the other characters around him and wearing his unique costume.
Curiously, despite the technological know-how presumably needed for a frontier community to survive in space, only organic items are traded in the film. Traded items include:
- A promise to dance
- Fresh fruit
- A cat initially called Monkeypuss before being renamed Oscar
- An embryonic or foetal clone of a Real Live Girl
- The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast
- The Boy's memories of this encounter.
- The body of Johnny R, king of Venus (deceased)
This unfortunately raises the issue of slavery. There can be no denying that Lee Vilensky uses slave labour, and we know that Curtis took the Boy to Jupiter when he was 11. Curtis therefore has knowingly transported children destined to become slaves. He also persuades Vilensky to release the Boy in exchange for the clone of the Real Live Girl, encouraging him to raise the girl as his daughter/wife to marry when she becomes of age, a relationship which does not bear further thinking about. Similarly when he knows that if the Boy leaves the safety of the spaceship he may well be killed by Professor Hess, Curtis does not hesitate to endanger Bodysuit's life instead.
All this could alienates audiences from the character of Curtis, yet the film remains a triumphant combination of mood and music. The film's focus is not on the likeability of the film's characters but instead the unbridled and enthusiastic expression of artistic creation evident throughout the film.