If meta-folk-rock idiosyncrat/renaissance artificer Cory McAbee has anything to say about it, irony is not dead—it’s merely lost in the stars. McAbee’s The American Astronaut is, at any rate, a lovely little wedge of garage-band silliness, a movie Guy Maddin might’ve doodled out during a lunch break, if Maddin were a narcissistic showman and weren’t so interested in archival tarnish. The frontman and brains powering the cultishly revered quartet the Billy Nayer Show, McAbee is an unlikely underground superstar: lanky, shy, leathery, and diffident, he suggests a hungover Scott Wilson, wiped out from last night’s show but ready to play-act Cool Action Hero.
For what it’s worth, McAbee’s been making self-consciously oddball short films since the ’80s, and their handmade props have been displayed in West Coast galleries. Not really avant-garde any more than it is mainstream, Astronaut is as nonchalantly make-believe and irreverently flexible as a tree-house game of Buck Rogers. Casually traversing the solar system and composed mostly of shadow and basslines, McAbee’s movie could’ve been shot almost entirely on the Bowery. An asteroid is represented solely by the interior of a low-ride gin mill, Jupiter is an old Maspeth ballroom, and Venus is an open field populated by waltzing Victorian nymphos. In McAbee’s cardboard celestitude, women are mining-outpost rare, and his laconic space cowboy’s mission is baldly absurd. Trading a cat for a mysterious black box said to contain a “Real Live Girl”—or at least the clonable beginnings of one—astronaut Samuel Curtis decides to swap it on Jupiter for the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast (Gregory Russell Cook), a petulant, centurion-outfitted teen who could then be delivered to the procreatively desperate maidens of Venus. Along the way—Curtis’s ship is a tin model glimpsed in stills, and its interior is a moldily wallpapered flophouse bedroom—the men are menaced by Professor Hess (the scene-gnashing Rocco Sisto), whose obsession with Curtis compels him to turn everyone the astronaut meets into neat mounds of space dust.
Astonishingly, The American Astronaut was midwifed through the Sundance writers’ lab; it feels as if it sprang unedited from McAbee’s honky-tonk daydreams, down to the song-and-dance numbers that sound like coproductions of Kurt Weill and Neil Young. Captured in pearly black and white, McAbee’s primary tone is irresponsible non sequitur: A prolonged stand-up comedy routine has its seedy audience laughing at the setups instead of the punch lines; a men’s room harassment by two thugs takes the form of an abusive hoedown. Rarely funny and straining to reach feature length, The American Astronaut achieves sweetness via its straight-faced take on utter gobbledygook. It’s the kind of arch, serenely ridiculous thrift-store indie that postpunk downtowners used to make before the Park City splash of the late ’80s, when whimsy became product.
Credit-card indies come in all shapes and grades; Jon Dichter’s clumsy, schematic The Operator attempts a middle ground between Fatal Attraction-style persecution thriller and Bible-thumping sanctimony, but can’t surmount its own ineptitude. Dichter’s film tracks the fall and contrived redemption of a slimy fuck-up Dallas lawyer (Michael Laurence) at the hands of an omniscient and karma-exacting telephone operator (Jacqueline Kim, largely offscreen). Brightened only by a typically bouncy bit by Stephen Tobolowsky as a philosophical bookie and the stunning moment when the Job-like hero’s car door gets shorn off in a hit-and-run, The Operator would be insufferably preachy if it weren’t such a rookie’s-first-day botch.
Even more platitudinous, the rant-theater document Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop transfers Danny Hoch’s jabbering character monologues to film, provides them with sketchy dramatic context, and exposes them as egomaniacal homilies about race and tolerance. Bogosian he’s not; Hoch’s rapping wigger personas are gratingly unconvincing, and his retarded Yankee fan is patronizing pap. Hoch only grips the camera when he plays angry, bigoted white-trash—his Huntz Hall profile and sunken eyes become suddenly terrifying.