After a long teaching day I went to a Leeds Film Festival preview screening of The American Astronaut last night. The film, directed and starring Cory McAbee, is incredibly strange collision of prototypical Western genres including Sci-fi, Western, Film Noir, Comedy and Musical but rather than trying to amalgamate these elements seamlessly it revels in their incongruities. McAbee stars as space cowboy Sam Curtis travelling through a parallel universe that resembles our own but it not quite the same. The surreal narrative and tone of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch. The opening scenes show Curtis delivery a cat to an old Western style saloon station on a remote asteroid. Meeting his old dance partner, an interstellar fruit trader named the Blueberry Pirate, Curtis receives a machine that can grow a ‘real live girl’ as payment. This instigates journey first to Jupiter to trade the machine for ‘the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast’ and then to Venus to deliver the boy to a planet populated exclusively by women. All the while the protagonist is being chased by the sinister Professor Hess.
This, unfortunately, is a totally inadequate synopsis but in many ways the plot is incidental to complexities of meaning that permeate the film. Visually the film is superb. Shot in kind of glossy, metallic black and white it perfectly captures a kind of retro-milieu which fuses the Western frontier with the final frontier. The film never falls into nostalgic sentimentality however. There is a creative imaginary here exemplified by several elements of visual virtuosity. Sam’s spaceship is an old steam engine (which comically docks with an interstellar barn at one point) produced using decidedly lo-fi special effects but which marry perfectly with the surreal aesthetic. Other standout elements are Professor Hess’ ray-gun which turns his victims into sand (a nod to the sand men of Logan’s Run perhaps) and a kind of photo-montage sequence in the middle of the film encapsulates the friendship that develops between Sam and the boy.
Indeed, for me the most interesting aspect of the film was the representation of gender. I was interested in seeing the film because of its relationship to my PhD. I have not seen as esoteric a representation of familiar iconographies of masculinity in any other film. It takes the recognisable tropes and behaviours that we might recognise from cinema concerning he cowboy/astronaut but subtly skews the viewers expectations while not undermining their familiarity. The universe of The American Astronaut is definitely a male domain but the lack of the female presence ‘queers’ the homosocial relationships within the film. But this is represented in a very quirky, off-beat way. In stead of fighting, the men sing and dance. Indeed the friendship between the Curtis and the Blueberry pirate is affirmed by their winning of a dance contest which seems to replace the standard Western gun fight. There is an empathy and emotionality in the male bonding that undercuts the usual masculine bravado and competitiveness found in American genre films. But despite the comedic singing and dancing numbers masculinity is never overtly camp or explicitly homosexual. It is as though a universe without women would produce a different context for masculine interpersonal relationships.
The enigmatic Professor Hess is obsessed with the main character (they could be father and son but that is never resolved) and his underlying feature is that he kills without reason. Yet his motivation stems avails itself through a kind of overly emotional jealously – he doesn’t like Curtis dancing with someone else and is particularly irate that the protagonist won’t sing happy birthday to him! Very surreal traits for a film villain. When all these male characters finally reach the female inhabited Venus, the performance of femininity is equally satirical and ironic. Dressed in what looks like renaissance ball gowns the women flutter fans in front of the eyes in a kind of coquettish display. It is as thought lack of men serves to hyper-feminise them. The narrative and intentionality of The American Astronaut is impossible to categorise in any simple way. Its pleasure for me was accepting it strangeness and going with it. Once I did that as a viewer I felt the film questioned my assumptions about representation, identity, gender and construction of reality that we mostly take for granted. I know I haven’t really done the film justice here but it is well worth seeing particularly if you are tired of Hollywood’s one-dimensionality and formulaic characterisations.
For more on the film visit this link.