The American Astronaut sets a bar for surrealist, cult-courting, musical B-Westerns

The American Astronaut sets a bar for surrealist, cult-courting, musical B-Westerns

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The genre-blending sequel Riddick inspires five days of space Westerns.

The American Astronaut (2001)

John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants have never made a feature film, but if they did, it might look something like Cory McAbee’s self-consciously wacky The American Astronaut. Shot for a pittance in black and white and employing deliberately primitive special effects (mostly paintings), the film tells the story of… well, there’s no point in pretending that the story actually matters. McAbee creates a bizarre universe that combines elements of B-Westerns, surrealistic sci-fi, and Dada, with characters who sport names like Blueberry Pirate and The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast. Our hero, played by the auteur, travels from one goofy planet to another in an attempt to strike it rich by trading the aforementioned Boy Who Etc. for the corpse of a man who’d spent his life as the human equivalent of a stud horse on Venus, which is populated exclusively by women. He’s also being pursued by—ah, skip it.

Like most movies that aggressively strive for cult status, The American Astronaut can often be tiresome in its relentless quest for novelty. What saves it is that it’s also a musical. McAbee headed the Billy Nayer Show—that’s a band name—for more than a decade before making the movie, which was preceded by several shorts in a similar vein; he’s not a natural filmmaker, but he does know how to write a catchy tune. In the movie’s most riotous sequence, McAbee is minding his own business in the stall of a saloon’s men’s room when two craggy gents walk in, set up a portable phonograph on the sink, and proceed to deliver a message by way of a song called “Hey Boy,” complete with energetic square dancing (for a guy who can’t even see them, because he’s in a closed stall). Not every number is that funny, but collectively they do make The American Astronaut a memorable experience above and beyond sheer nuttiness—sort of a cross between Deadwood and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., but not quite as amazing as that sounds.

Availability: The American Astronaut is available on DVD, for rental or purchase from the major digital services, and to stream on Netflix and Hulu.