Sci-fi Westerns hit galactic trail in welcome break
On a film festival menu heavy with documentary-style, American independent films about troubled relationships and 21st century malaise, finding the ambitious, imaginative, stylized and fun films of Cory McAbee is sort of like discovering a red velvet cake among the sprouts and tofu at a health food store.
The two McAbee projects screening this weekend during the 12th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival are sci-fi musical Western comedies that owe more to Gene Autry, “Flash Gordon” and Monty Python than to John Cassavetes.
Shot on 35-millimeter film, “The American Astronaut,” which debuted
at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, is a black-and-white budget “epic” with McAbee as a roughneck space hustler who encounters such characters as the Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast (he’s a celebrity on the all-male mining planet of Jupiter) and the man-hungry Southern belles of Venus. Much of the action takes place at the Ceres Crossroads, a dive bar located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The new “Stingray Sam,” narrated by David Hyde-Pierce, is a six-part serial in which McAbee, as the title lounge singer, reunites with his old cellmate, the Quasar Kid, on a mission to rescue a kidnapped girl in a galaxy of pregnant men and planet-sized prisons. Each episode (sample title: “The Forbidden Chromosome”) contains a musical number, as well as a history and science lesson. The series was produced as a “multiplatform” release for screens of all sizes, so it can be watched as a feature on the big screen or as episodes on a cell phone.
“Stingray Sam” screens at 7:45 p.m. today. “The American Astronaut” screens at 10 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $8 each. McAbee will be on hand to introduce and discuss his films, which defy the conventional wisdom that moviemakers with no money should make movies that look like they cost no money.
“Maybe I came to filmmaking from a different angle,” said the California-born McAbee, 48, in a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn, trying to explain the distinctiveness of his projects. “Everything I’ve done is self-taught. In my family, going to college wasn’t a first priority, getting a trade was. So I pretty much taught myself all the things I do.
“My first film was an animated short, and I did that because I was a painter and a musician. ... And I went to an animation festival, there were a lot of them back then, this was before everything was available on the Internet, and I loved it. I figured I would like to make one of these things myself.”
“The American Astronaut” and “Stingray Sam” have a hands-on, tactile, retro quality lacking in most of the much more expensive digitally enhanced science-fiction films produced in Hollywood. The special effects, props and sets are modest but appealing. “I like to use what they call in-camera effects, having things that you’re actually filming with a camera,” he said.
McAbee said “The American Astronaut” was inspired by his experiences working security in nightclubs and bars, and by his then unsettled lifestyle, a nomadic existence of surfing couches and crashing in people’s garages that lasted about three years. “So when it was over, I kind of turned the experience into a space travel story, my version of a road movie.”
With concepts involving privatized prisons and genetic engineering alongside homages to Cold War sci-fi and Shirley Temple movies, “Stingray Sam,” McAbee said, “embraces American culture but at the same time is very critical of it. But it’s not propaganda, it’s for entertainment purposes, in the way that science-fiction TV series like ‘The Outer Limits’ could walk that line.”
McAbee — who hopes to next produce a movie titled “Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest” — said he lives “very humbly,” and is often on the road for screenings. His movies have built a relatively small but devoted following, due to festival screenings, word of mouth, and their accessibility on the Web sites, corymcabee.com and stingraysam.com. He said he’s wary of the loss of independence that would come with studio or corporate sponsorship.
“I actually think the situation we have going with ‘Stingray Sam’ is the healthiest situation we could have,” he said. “People have access to it, and because they have access to it, they spread it around.”
A six-part serial, ‘‘Stingray Sam’’ chronicles a bold mission to rescue a kidnapped girl in a galaxy of pregnant men.
Space comedy director Cory McAbee flies from ‘‘a different angle.’’