Saturday, August 21, 2010

The American Astronaut, a critical essay

So I applied to the CSU Long Beach Department of Film and Electronic Arts for their Narrative Production option last year. When you apply you have to submit a portfolio with a creative writing sample, work sample, personal statement essay, letters of recommendation and a critical essay of a film of your choice. All of that on top of the GPA requirement makes for a monumental amount of work to organize and complete. I’m a very big procrastinator, but I managed to finish all of it coming into the last seconds. The question for the critical essay was as follows:

Critical Essay on a Film or Television Show: Although applicants are not expected to have a sophisticated knowledge of media criticism, they are expected to be able to make reasoned written arguments in support of a thesis. For this reason, applicants should choose to explicate a film or television show that they find to be particularly meaningful and interesting. Emphasis in this essay should be on the relationship between form and content in the film or television show being analyzed. A minimum of three print sources should be cited in the essay.

Rather than writing about a film with plentiful research and just regurgitate the information outright I tried to find a film with almost none. The American Astronaut is one of my absolute favorite films and has gone relatively unnoticed, so it had little research and analysis on it. The largest source for this was the live commentary on the dvd and a few articles with little or no relevance. I don’t like to explicate films I admire because I always think it ruins them. I did it once with The Way of the Gun and it totally killed it for me. Luckily this film was able to avoid this tragic effect as I still watch it today.

I’ve been debating on whether or not to post this online because I don’t want to sound stupid, wrong, or a pretentious asshole. But right now I don’t care and who knows, maybe someone will find this helpful. I ended up getting into the program but I think that it was just a good stroke of luck. However, below is the essay I submitted for you to peruse and critique for yourself. Enjoy!

The American Astronaut

What makes The American Astronaut such a fascinating film is that it can be wholly enjoyed on multiple levels. On the surface, it can be seen as very simplistic, childish, and random. However, it reveals surprising depth upon recognizing the theme. Michael Walker identifies theme as, “… the subjective storyline behind all the action, dialogue, and exposition, unfolding onscreen.” (Walker 23) The theme of father-child relationships develops behind all we see in The American Astronaut, demonstrating McAbee’s talent for visual storytelling. In The American Astronaut we will see the visuals develop the father-child relationships, and the characters reflect Professor Hess’ final summation at the end of the film that, “children seldom live up to their parents expectations” (Sisto) due to their childish actions.

Cory McAbee utilizes cinematography to develop the theme of the various father-child relationships. The first development takes place in the scene where Eddie trades his daughter, the girl clone, to Curtis in exchange for the freedom to continue following his dream of being a musician. The two adults are set off-screen while the girl is displayed in the center of the frame as Curtis and Eddie’s shadows project onto the wall. During the exchange in the bar Eddie is far more excited to perform at the dance contest than he feels remorse from abandoning his progeny. The second example is when Samuel Curtis arrives on Jupiter. Mr. Vilensky exchanges The Boy (who actually saw a woman’s breast) for wanton lust and greed. Instead of orphaning to fulfill a youthful dream, Vilensky orphans for increased wealth and a sex life. The compositions of the two scenes echo one another. Curtis, off screen to the right, will take a child, placed in the center of the screen between the two guardians. The guardian off-screen to the left is more concerned with their own personal gain rather than their child’s well being. Placing the child in the center of the frame turns the adolescent into an object rather than a person. The parent is set off-screen due to their lack of connection with the child. This leaves the child isolated within the frame. Samuel, placed on the right is the deciding factor of the child’s fate. This is because Americans read images from left to right. We leave the parent on the left, and end with the parent on the right.

Visually, the American Astronaut is a gritty, tough as nails science fiction, western. However, to showcase the final summation Hess imparts at the end of the film, McAbee’s characters wear thin visages over a pre-teen adolescent mentality. Their tough guy ruse is shattered by their actions in the first location Samuel Curtis visits – the Ceres Crossroads. We first see the characters undermine our traditional expectations in the bathroom scene. While Samuel Curtis is using the bathroom, two goons enter in after him. Following what we know of the traditional western genre, we assume these men are here to rough Curtis up and rob him. However, once in the bathroom they plug in a record player, terrorize him with a song and dance routine that crescendos with the thugs taking a Polaroid of him on the toilet, and leave him with his pants around his ankles in the dark. This scene sets the tone of the film and the characters we are introduced to in it. The characters seldom live up to their initial presentation, and in fact are polar opposites of what we expect from them. We see this to be especially true with the beguiling narrator Professor Hess. Initially Hess seems well spoken and appears to be the most mature character of the cast. However, he reveals himself to be the most childish, and the worst person to be our guide in The American Astronautuniverse. We see the depths of his childishness in his song and dance number on Jupiter. In this scene he begins on stage in the spotlight, then proceeds to prance alone in the ashes of the former populace singing a childish song.

The only characters that match their appearance with their actions are Samuel Curtis and the Boy. Curtis maintains a tough demeanor and navigates the universe like a pro. He is the archetypal western hero Bernard Dick describes in his text, Anatomy of Film: “The western hero is a loner, often fiercely independent. If he is to develop as a person, he must assume a sense of responsibility…” (Dick 124) Samuel Curtis fits this characterization perfectly; not only does he look the part, he acts it as well. He travels the universe alone, changing his personality when he assumes responsibility of the Boy. We see this to be true when he saves him from death at the hands of Professor Hess. Curtis saves the Boy and Bodysuit, then takes him to Earth to raise him. Rather than develop their relationship off screen, McAbee chooses to develop it on-screen to denote their connection. He does this with a montage of still photographs and music. The montage mixes the past and present, as well as the tone of their future relationship masterfully. The past in its presentation of still photographs representing a nostalgic time of memories, the present, as their relationship grows before us during their voyage to Venus, and finally the future, as the montage foreshadows their relationship at the end of the film.

At the end of the film we see the beginnings of a failed father-child relationship contrast with a successful one. If Curtis and the Boy are the successful pair, than Hess and Bodysuit are their antitheses. Where the Boy will learn and fully mature from his father figure, Bodysuit will learn nothing and join the ranks of immature citizens littering The American Astronaut universe. We find evidence of this stunted development from the work of Joseph Campbell, “…the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical nonthing is itself the fault that keeps… the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith of the world.” (Campbell 107)

Works Cited

1. Walker, Michael. Power Screenwriting: The 12 Stages of Development. Los Angeles,

CA: Lone Eagle Publishing Company, LLC, 2002. 23. Print

2. Sisto, Rocco, Perf. The American Astronaut. Dir. Cory McAbee.”

Perf. Sisto, Rocco. BNS Productions: 2001, Film.

3. Dick, Bernard. Anatomy of Film. 5th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.

Martin’s, 2005. 124. Print.

4. Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. 107. Print. (Campbell 107)

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