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Reel World 

San Francisco was the birthplace of American Astronaut, a quirky, ultra-low-budget space western

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
Space Cowboys Cory McAbee was quite familiar to habitués of the SOMA club scene in the early '90s. When he wasn't fronting the genre-twisting performance/rock band the Billy Nayer Show, he was heading security at the Paradise Lounge and the Trocadero. He lived out of friends' garages for a spell, but he also rented a small room in the Hotel Utah, where he wrote and storyboarded his debut feature, The American Astronaut. McAbee plays the title role in the ultra-quirky, black-and-white space western, which feels a whole lot more like a Gold Rush relic than a sci-fi spiel. "My spaceship looks just like my room in the Utah, except I didn't have my own bathroom," McAbee wryly recalls via phone from his Brooklyn abode. "Everything I conceived was based on actual places where I spent all of my time. Although it takes place in space, there's not one place that couldn't be found on Earth."

When that screenplay was accepted into the Sundance Screenwiters' Lab in 1998, McAbee was working at the Chez Paree in the Tenderloin. "Do you know it?" he asks. Well, um, no. "I think you do," he replies with a chuckle. "I was the only one at the Lab working at a strip joint." Inspired by the '80s musical fantasies of Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective), McAbee wrote a series of tunes -- performed by the Billy Nayer Show -- to punctuate the story. Although he shot it in New York, McAbee sees Astronaut as a SOMA film. "The physical act of being able to spend as much time on the script, with no money, is a huge part of the film that I couldn't have done anywhere else," McAbee notes. "Even if people won't recognize it, it encompasses my time in San Francisco." The American Astronaut opens Friday, Nov. 2, at the Lumiere -- without McAbee, who'll be in Paris at a film festival.

Damnation Hungarian director Bela Tarr, here last spring to screen his mesmerizing masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies at the S.F. International Film Festival, was one of the toughest interviews I've ever had. "I don't like to talk so much about my movies," he admitted. "It's my job to make some pictures, to make some atmosphere. If you see the movie, I think you got everything. It's not necessary to make some comment, which is always shit when the director tries to explain something." So, without further remarks, I recommend you experience "Tango, Hungarian Style: The Films of Bela Tarr" for yourself. It runs Nov. 3-30 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

The Unbelievable Truth "I never really liked stories or fables very much," local filmmaker Stephen Statler declares. "I've never liked things that had clear moral structure. I find the world a very ambiguous place and people to have uncertain virtue. I've known a lot of strange, unhappy people who've done bad things to themselves and others, but they weren't bad people." Like, say, Hubert (co-writer Mouncey Ferguson) and Peter (Ryan Hayes), Mission misfits who produce a no-budget public-access TV show in Statler's debut feature, The Breathing Show. Their initially humorous pursuit of fresh material for Public Abscess grows increasingly ominous, culminating in acid-dosed ATM envelopes (reminiscent of anthraxed mail).

Statler, an NYU film school dropout, has made a slew of comic shorts, so his decision to venture into edgy territory was brave and risky. "It's the dark side of the same issues that are expressed in the comedies: alienation, the struggle not to hate one's self, and the tragic search for happiness," he says. That's unwelcome talk in today's movie climate, where complacency rules on screen and in the seats. "In most films, and this includes independent films, doors are opened at the beginning and then closed at the end," Statler asserts. "I want to leave a film where doors are left open." The Breathing Show, which has its world premiere on Friday, Nov. 9, at Delancey Street, is just such a picture. For tix and info, go to

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Michael Fox


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