The American Astronaut: Steinbeck in Space with a touch of Captain Beefheart
Hard to describe why this movie is so perfect in every way. The first thing I want to say is it is the Cinematography. The grainy black and white recalls the feel of old flash Gordon serials, a feeling enhanced by the use of claustrophobic stage sets, and no camera movement. The director managed to capture a feel that make it seem it could have been shot on a republic studio in 1930.
The cheap production values don’t really make it seem any less a space opera, more like a space opera truly describing 1930’s America. Not the Hollywood America that Flash Gordon promised its viewers of exotic locals and amazing adventures. The real America of the 1930’s: A gritty, unclean time where masculinity was unselfconscious and its expression as much a fact as the need to work and bleed to live. Where sweat and labor were reality and the promise of comfort and security seemed worlds away. The protagonist Samuel Curtis, The American Astronaut, is Flash Gordon’s unsuccessful cousin left to live hand to mouth in the dustbowl of space.
The story, without spoilers, is about how Samuel Curtis has one small adventure in what seems to be a suggestion of many. In this one he deals with pirates, a birthday boy, and a homemade cloning device. In the end he frees “the boy who saw a woman’s breast” from his staged life on Mars. If none of this seems to make sense, add the musical elements both the emotional and the absurd. The cast sings songs earnestly and rather than take you out of the movie, they serve to expand the idea of spaces as alien. Yet somehow still operate like a classic musical (also from the 30’s) where they express what cannot be said. In the end the American Astronaut is strangely both an art piece and a work of nostalgic sci-fi. It is somehow both believably anachronistic but truer to the Americana that spawned it.