I discovered The American Astronaut (2001) while channel-hopping late at night, and the broken space, skewed songs and weird world-building suited the dark. For months I’d floundered for descriptions, eventually settling on ‘It’s Blade Runner meets Rocky Horror via Clerks‘. But in the strictest sense I hadn’t actually been channel-hopping. I started coming across 10-minute fragments of the film on that online grindhouse YouTube, alongside the usual slew of dogs on skateboards and music videos: the universal guilty pleasures of the internet.
American Astronaut‘s writer-director Cory McAbee seems to appreciate that. Approached by the Sundance Institute to create a film that could be viewed on mobile phones as easily as in cinemas, McAbee put together a six-part singing and dancing space-Western: Stingray Sam (2008). According to the theme song (oh yes, it has a theme song), Stingray Sam is not a hero: he (played by McAbee) is, in fact, a lounge singer on Mars, which now resembles a washed-up Vegas-in-space. One night, old friend The Quasar Kid (Crugie) arrives at his saloon, looking for Sam’s help to rescue a little girl. And so their adventures begin!
(The exclamation mark is important. Stingray Sam is narrated like a classic serial, each chapter closing with a stirring request to ‘Tune in to the next episode!’, an instant call-back to the matinée era. David Hyde Pierce provides that voice, authoritative while entirely gentle, helping to colour the universe around our monochrome heroes.)
(Parentheses are important too: so much of Stingray Sam‘s texture comes from the comic diversions and interludes that pepper each episode. When you reach the end of each 15-minute chapter you realise you’ve watched very little plot; instead you’ve seen a stream of ideas pour from the screen, each suggesting the possibility of another tangential story that would be just as entertaining, just as strange. It’s YouTube again, or wikipedia, where education and misinformation bleed together on the whims of the hyperlink.)
Despite the fragmented narrative, the heart of the film is a flushed whole, a story about fatherhood amid chaos that’s truly warming. In episode five, as the girl (played by the charming Willa Vy McAbee) drifts off to sleep, Sam and The Kid sing her ‘a lullaby song’ that skitters along the same path of patchwork verses and awkward rhymes that, I hope, everyone will recognise. It isn’t a stretch to see the McAbee family assuming such roles, with Cory building his crazy world of B-movies and dance routines while struggling to find the space to be the father he wants to be.
I watched chapters on a mobile, a laptop and a television, and it would be disingenuous to suggest there isn’t a difference: the depth of field really suits a large screen while the soundtrack never sounds better than when it bounces around headphones. But the infectious narrative and cast of misfits suit every platform, and for the first time in a long time I find myself idly clicking through videos and blogs, knowing I could be in danger of stumbling over art somewhere in the jumble.
Watch episode 1: