Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Day 74: The American Astronaut

About half of a great science fiction rock opera with great black and white photography and some really inventive, even elegant ways of overcoming (I assume) a small budget.  The American Astronaut begins and ends extremely well, but somewhere in the middle suffers from an extraordinary, infuriating lag in pacing.  The movie's tone borrows liberally from the work of both David Lynch and Ed Wood and adds a dash of the absurdity from Forbidden Zone for good measure.  It's not bad, not in the least, but never fully gels into an all-around engaging experience.

One of the problems I had with the film was the way it handled some of its musical numbers.  The ones that don't work are stuck into the narrative in ways that, even by the absurd conventions of the musical, feel forced, or (dare I say it) unmotivated.  In these cases, they're also the type of songs that do nothing to further the plot or the characters.  Instead they bring the movie to a dead halt as the viewer's forced to wait (as are the characters) until the song ends.

Having said this, I'd say about 60% of the songs work and well at that.  A number featuring a dance competition in a bar on the asteroid Ceres is so fucking fantastic, I watched it again immediately after the movie was over.  The villain of the film is given an appropriately creepy little song, dancing and rolling around in the ashes of people he's just vaporized with a laser gun, and a too-short impromptu vocal jam session on a long space voyage punctuates the end of the slow middle, bringing the film back into the right pace and tone that it started out with.

The aspect of The American Astronaut that impressed me the most, though, was the way it depicted the space travel in the film.  Rather than have spaceships zooming around unconvincingly, the film instead cuts to an illustrated still or a series of slightly animated illustrated stills that depict the intended action, while providing the appropriate sound effects and music for the moment.  It's beautiful, reminding me of the elegant (though much more expensive) simplicity of Kubrick's effects in 2001, and, more importantly, it works.  Somehow I bought this as a representation of space travel more so than the frenetic effects found in the Star Wars prequels.

The photography in the film deserves special note.  It's got the feel of the photography from a silent German Expressionist classic with a larger depth of field.  Consistently good throughout, even on the cramped and ultimately boring cockpit set (though I liked the fact that there was a bookcase in the spaceship) in which the film spends far too much time, at times it creates different, alien environments through its manipulation of light and shadow alone.  And it was a nice choice, indeed, to make the shots of men on an asteroid's surface resemble that of the pictures and film from the Apollo moon landings.  

The movie's gifts overwhelm the missteps that detract from the experience.  The movie begins with narration that resembles the Criswell narration from Plan 9 from Outer Space, but the movie's cleverer than an ironic spin on ultra-low budget camp.  The narrator, it turns out, is the movie's villain, and at times, the character narrates the film onscreen in a way that other people can hear.  A stand-up routine by an elderly man in the asteroid bar would be worth the price of admission if you could pay to see this at the theater.  And this middle section that I've been talking about?  The one that lags?  It's not really that long.

Film as a Subversive Art

I've just started reading a book I bought about a month ago entitled Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel or, as I like to refer to it, The Bible by Amos Vogel. I'm a little pissed off that no one has ever mentioned this book to me and I had to find it on a shelf at a bookstore all on my own, but then, I'm pretty excited that I just found it all on my own. This is one of those discoveries you make once every two years or so, where you're sure it's going to have changed your entire life the moment you finish it. That is, unless you're a hopeless curmudgeon, unable to change. It's basically a compendium of movies sectioned out by themes pertaining to modern artistic movements. The only problem is that finding these damned things is a challenge in itself.

But here's a quote from Ionesco that's in the book that makes me pump my fist like a masturbating quarterback after winning the big game:

"I have never been able to understand the difference that is made between the comic and the tragic. As the comic is the intuition of the absurd, it seems to me more conducive to despair than the tragic. The comic offers no way out. I say 'conducive to despair,' but in reality it is beyond despair or hope... Humor makes us conscious with a free lucidity of the tragic or desultory condition of man... Laughter alone does not respect any taboo; the comic alone is capable of giving us the strength to bear the tragedy of existence."