American vs Italian Weirdness

There’s nothing wrong with watching good movies. But every now and then, you just need something weird, am I right?

It’s great, though, when that something also turns out to be good.

AafinalposterLet’s start with The American Astronaut, since I’ve been pestered about that one. I used my standard method of hapless examination of Cory McAbee‘s oeuvre, ie., backwards, by watching Stingray Sam first. Episodic, experimental, and entertaining – you should get on that. His first feature-length film, though, is what we’re here to talk about, and those three adjectives still apply, and a lot more.

The Astronaut of the title is Sam Curtis (McAbee), an independent trader whose latest job is delivering a cat to a saloon for asteroid miners on Ceres. In return he is given a “Real Live Girl”, which looks like a beat-up suitcase with a small door in the end. If you open the door, a flickering light is seen, and jazzy music plays. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks. Then he asks to use the restroom, but is cautioned: “Be careful. It’s a real toilet.”

Now, be prepared to leave even that minimal amount of normalcy behind.

Sam is going to meet with his old friend, the fruit-smuggling Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) and hatch a scheme whereby he will trade the Real Live Girl to the head of the Jupiter Mining Colony for the morale-boosting Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Greg Russell Cook) – whom Sam had delivered years earlier. He will then take the Boy to the women of Venus, whose sole male finally died after years of service. In exchange for the Boy, he will get the corpse, whose family on Earth is offering a large reward for his return.

But first, a dance contest.

spacemen_fullThe major problem? Sam is being pursued by his nemesis Professor Hess, a birthday-obsessed serial killer who will disintegrate anyone Sam comes in contact with – he only kills people he has no problem with, and is pursuing Sam so he can forgive him and therefore kill him. While hiding from Hess, Sam and the Boy take cover in a barn built in space by silver miners, and pick up another passenger, a guy raised in space in a hydraulic suit so his body wouldn’t atrophy like the miners’. Then on to Venus and its population of women dressed in antebellum dresses, where a plan begins to form in our hero’s head.

So. The American Astronaut is a lo-fi science fiction space western that feels like it was made by David Lynch, and he also decided to make it a musical. A rock musical. That ought to tell you right there if you want to watch it. And even if you don’t, you should. It may seem an odd and haphazard movie, but the design and execution tell a different story. The fact that the most affecting song is given to Hess after a massacre tells of a much deeper story being told.

AmericanAstronautLet me come back to the production design in a bit. I’ll just close out this section by saying that I always find Cory McAbee so handsome and so winning onscreen, that I’m always surprised that we haven’t seen more of him in more mainstream flicks; then again, I’m glad he is where he is, doing what he is. He’s a national treasure, he is, unique and intriguing.

Because the other end to this weirdness is Fellini Satyricon. Now this is a notoriously loose adaptation of Petronius’ novel of the same name, of which only fragments survive anyway. What we have today is pieces of books 15, 16, and 17, so this is like trying to make a movie out of issues 276, 277 and 278 of The  Fantastic Four when you only have a few panels and an ad for G-I-ANT MONSTERS! out of each.

SATYRICONPOSTERSo what we have is a series of episodes in the life of young scholar Encolpius (Martin Potter) who is vying with his friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) for the love of a young boy, Giton (Max Born).  (IMDb Trivia states that Fellini chose foreigners for these roles because “there are no Italian homosexuals”, which must have come as a shock to Pier Paolo Pasolini and his posse). This will involve a trip to the theater (Ascyltus sold the boy to a prominent actor), a walk through a brothel once the boy is reclaimed, and then Giton decides to leave with Ascyltus anyway, the tramp, prompting a falling-out between the two old friends and an earthquake.

Encolpius will tag along to a lavish banquet (the movie’s longest scene, not coincidentally the largest surviving fragment), then get scooped up by the slave trader Lichas (Alain Cuny), who will be so smitten by Encolpius that he marries him, but then the Emperor is assassinated and things change and Encolpius fights the Minotaur and holy crap.

Satyricon banquetThis really might be the ultimate Fellini movie, as you spend over two hours thinking, “Yep, that’s Fellini.” Lush, often overwhelming imagery, combined with the most remarkable faces you will ever find committed to film. This is a non-stop examination of decadence and debauchery in the era of Nero and it is never less than hypnotic and mesmerizing. You can, in fact, trace the roots of Pasolini’s masterpieces in the Trilogy of Life directly here (witness the dramatization of a Greek fable as the banquet dies down).

009-fellini-satyricon-theredlistNot a little of this engagement of the viewer is due to the fact that it is so strange. Though we try to frame ancient cultures in our own experience, that approach does not take into consideration that two thousand years ago, these people were shaped by entirely different societal norms and technologies than us; the distant past would probably seem unspeakably weird to us, and Fellini plays this concept for all it’s worth. He even went to pains to make the dubbing a little off, to keep us even more off-kilter (I was reading subtitles, so that never registered on me).

The American AstronautNow contrast this to the production design of American Astronaut (I told you we’d get back here), where the future may actually be too familiar. This is not only necessary for making low-budget science-fiction space western rock musicals, it also makes sense: taking bits of home out with you into space. Of course the saloon on a mining asteroid would look like a cheap dive bar in a strip center. Of course Sam’s spaceship looks like an efficiency apartment, with a single bed, a bookshelf, wallpaper, and crap that needs to be quickly battened down for landings. Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have called during my viewing to inform me that there weren’t really barns in space, but let’s also realize that space travel is going to be a lengthy process, that it would be nice to have someone to talk to during it, and you would more than likely make up songs to sing while you wait to finally get there.

These movies are at two opposite ends of the weirdness dial, different in approach and each offering up their own menus of delights and amazements.When you get right down to it, movies like this are why I started watching movies in general: they are directories of the possible, made possible by genius, talent and a little bit of madness.

Buy The American Astronaut on Amazon (OOP- brace your wallet!)

Buy Fellini Satyricon on Amazon

3 Comments

  1. Need to see TAA, so thanks for the reminder. Satyricon. Yeah… it’s just so… Fellini… and I can’t say more about it than you did about how insanely brilliant and eye-popping it is. Saw it first at a revival in NYC back in the 80’s and had weird dreams for weeks. That dubbing bugged me initially until I was told it was intentional by a friend who’d seen the film “too many times” just for all those faces.

    That makes me wish I could have seen an audition for this or other Fellini films. Walk in, introduce yourself, make a few simple to broad expressions and if the man liked your mug, you’re in, even as a background bit-part walk-on. Eh, it was probably a lot more complex than that. But I think the concept was similar.

    • I’d be willing to bet it was almost exactly like that, if it wasn’t just Frederico seeing somebody while he was grocery shopping and exclaiming, “You! You’re in my next picture! Anybody like you at home?”

      • Yeah, and if he were still alive to try that now, Fellini would no doubt get maced by the person he approached, then tased by the cops that arrive a few minutes later. “Welcome to America!”


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