Sci-fi West­erns hit galac­tic trail in wel­come break

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Indie Memphis Film Festival - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

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.’’

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