Cory McAbee’s “Stingray Sam.”

Originally published at Chazz Lyon’s Gone Cinema Poaching – and, look how that went. Still looking for a good home for the interview.

With their 2001 release, The American Astronaut, Bobby Lurie and Cory McAbee introduced the festival-going audience to a peculiar vision of space, an high-bounding, exaggerated vision of the same kind of dusty frontier-town seen in things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly or Peter Hyam’s Outland – taking the use of Western (the genre, y’see) iconography up past eleven on the dial, and then breaking it off, filtering in elements of the older, American Studio musicals of the late forties and fifties, along with the stark black-and-white angles and bleak lighting of Film Noir; what resulted was compared to early David Lynch and Salvadore Dali upon release, among others – and since then, it’s become a midnight movie mainstay  around the country. I’m still not quite sure it’s as rocksteady as their most recent work, however –

Stingray Sam is another look at this world – this one released in six-minute serialized segments in front of festival showings of films like District 9 – but, one with some implicit heft under all that heavy formalism this time around. McAbee, again doubling as both director and the actor behind the face of the main character, places his narrative within the framework of a universe suffocated by corporations – and, unlike so many other, ostensibly similar, science fiction films, he does so with a strikingly subtle sense of humor not too far from that found in the works of Douglas Adams – a dry, deadpan wit manifesting itself in an awkward, showy handshake that goes on too long or in the ludicrous contrast of a spurs-and-hat cowboy flying a ramshackle spaceship; each segment begins with an advertisement from Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco, which pervades the walls and the street corners of the film on every side. But, all is implicit – and, McAbee goes a great length to parallel his attempt at social critique with the more personal relationship between Stingray Sam, The Quasar Kid (portrayed by gleefully idiosyncratic newcomer “Crugie”) and the young girl they’ve been asked to rescue, which is something that carries well past the screen if only due to the young actress’ (who is, in fact, McAbee’s daughter, I believe) striking doe-eyes.

Given the duo’s roots in The Billy Nayer Show, this -like the duo’s previous film – is a strong, bounding musical – and, like its attitude toward both science fiction and the Western, this element seems to owe far more to the older, more formally rigorous strand of musicals like The Music Man or It’s Always Fair Weather that were popular in the fifties, giving the whole film an implicit sheen of fifties iconography, all over;  though here, it’s all been filtered through a pungent mix of rockabilly and Buck Rogers, hard blues and Surrealism, and even a little Ed Wood in its penchant for the self-consciously low-budget and bizarre, something that is especially obvious when Sam and Quasar reach the Prison Planet and meet its genetically enhanced ruler, who seems like something of a camp mix between John Waters and Dudley Manlove’s Eros. There’s no unifying sound, here – and, there isn’t supposed to be. The first segment begins with a seemingly frivolous showtunes –esque number in a dingy bar on Mars, one that’s book-ended on the stage by one of the most hilariously laconic pair of female dancers I’ve ever seen; and the second segment gives us the alternatingly slow and punchy rhythmic and rhyming country song, “Fredward.” The rest of the film follows suit – a soft old-timey guitar lullaby whose lyrics become increasingly nonsensical upon examination, and so on. There’s at least one number per segment, and it’s a conscious hodge-podge of musical styles bumping up against each other, constantly evolving.

The film finds itself given a droll narration by David Hyde Pierce, who offsets the film’s constant spurt of manic energy with his casual, almost coolly intellectual lack of interest – yet, there’s a bit of rueful sadness evident in his voice, especially near the beginning of the first segment, as he recounts the history of Mars’ fall from burgeoning interstellar center to a wasteland begotten by corporate sponsorship. He’s the biggest name on the roster it seems, having met the duo through festival showings of their previous work. If the film(s) sense of snark begins to grow too much at times, Pierce is always there to counter it, and to bring it back down. The duo has another something-or-other in the works, a Werewolf picture that promises to be more ‘serious in tone.’ I’m going to miss the secret handshakes.

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