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Bob Doto [Celluloid 03.04.09] movie review scifi musical comedy western

Year: 2009
Release date: Unknown
Directors: Cory McAbee
Writers: Cory McAbee
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Bob Doto
Rating: 9 out of 10

Don't forget screening in NYC on March 5th open to the public!

Been to Mars lately? No? You should go sometime. It’s not like it used to be, but still has its charms. Yes, there’s the odd barroom brawl, and maybe an abandoned building or two, but what planet doesn’t have such sore spots? And, frankly, who are you to judge? If you do hang up your cultural biases and go, however, be sure to look up Stingray Sam, a local lounge singer created by master of cosmic gun slinging, Cory McAbee.

Who is Stingray Sam you ask? Stingray Sam is a stand up guy. Actually, he’s THE stand up guy. A lover of justice with a loyalty to his profession as entertainer, Stingray Sam (played by McAbee [musician/ writer/ actor/ provocateur]) is the man you want on your side. If you’re lucky he might even write a song about ya.

But, Stingray Sam is not just a person. Lest I forget, Stingray Sam is also a film. And, as a film, STINGRAY SAM bares a close resemblance to the man. It’s cool. It’s committed to its style. It’s self-aware without being self-assured. It’s a film you want to bring your new love interest too, because it’ll show him or her that you feel comfortable having your postmodernism smothered in hilariousness. It’ll prove to this new love in your life that not only can the avant-garde disturb filmic conventions, but also be kind-hearted and sweet, subversive yet caring and generous. This is not, however, some Ice Storm or Squid and the Whale coming-of-age whinery (though I did enjoy those movies, just not the seemingly infinite rip-offs), this is the wild galactic frickin’ West. Bring your gun. Bring your dancin’ boots.

From the website:

"A dangerous mission reunites Stingray Sam with his long lost accomplice, The Quasar Kid. Follow these two space-convicts as they earn their freedom in exchange for the rescue of a young girl who is being held captive by the genetically designed figurehead of a very wealthy planet."

Sound familiar? McAbee’s first feature was the acclaimed AMERICAN ASTRONAUT. A more comparative person might spend a lot of time relating the two films. That person would have a good deal to go on, but that’s not my interest. However, as the films have similar themes to be sure, for those who’d like a little “What are the characteristics of a McAbee work?” here’s a taste:

Both films have space cowpokes finding and bringing a person from one planet to another for a reward. Both films have not-ironic John Spencer Blues Explosion-esque film scores by McAbee’s bands The Billy Nayer Show (in American Astronaut) and American Astronaut (in Stingray Sam). Both films are in black and white. Both films walk a very fine line between reality and fiction, but more in the way that hat dream you had last night about that guy who’s not really the same guy from your work but in the dream he was the same guy even though he was a woman, did.

From the very first frame of the film we are given a glimpse of Cory McAbee’s ability to construct entirely self-contained if surreal environments. The “film” opens with a message from its sponsor, Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco, which firmly positions the audience as not only viewer, but also as potential consumer. You see, STINGRAY SAM is less a film and more a television show. Television being one of the more overt sell-to-audience mediums, McAbee doesn’t waste a second tapping into that quality. For, what the audience is treated to is a historically in- and out-of-place miniseries divided into six episodes, each complete with an introduction, a musical number, an evolving to-be-continued plot, and a credits role.

Did I mention dance routines? Yeah. There are a generous helping of choreographed numbers ranging from the very measured (as Lounge Singer) to the very unrestrained (as pregnant man research conference attendee). That’s right Pregnant men. Did I forget to mention that? Yes. The plot of STINGRAY SAM also revolves around a complex story of pregnant men populating the planet with more men who will someday become pregnant. Of course this is all explained in one of the musical numbers listing the names of the male progeny.

Oh! And then there’s the brilliant and delicious collage work of John Borruso. Not unlike the work of Terry Gilliam (Monte Python), (but quite different) Borruso’s art adds en entirely other dimension to the film. Color. Borruso’s collages are acts of détournement, smoothly upending images of the past and creating an entirely new future from their semiotic inversion. Picture of a missile here. A still life of a couch there. Voila! Mars.

One of the beauties of the postmodern is that it teaches us to embrace the blurriness of arbitrary lines. While in the past an artist might have been required to make clear distinctions between life and art, today, not only can some of us handle a fair amount of what Keats’ dubbed “negative capability,” but often such distinctions feel artificial. STINGRAY SAM takes this new-found ability and drags it to its logical conclusion. Is Cory McAbee Stingray Sam? Does he just play him in a film? What about his band names. They sometimes seem to be the names of his movies. Are the bands the movies? His band mates feature in the films. Are they real? Are they present or in the past?

Either way you slice it, STINGRAY SAM is timeless. That’s a word I really don’t want to use, but it is, and in two distinct ways. The first, subjective timelessness, is the one where I feel all sentimental and use words like “timeless” because that’s what you’re supposed to call pieces of art that touch you. Timeless. Everlasting. Eternal. But, that sounds like an ad for an insanely priced engagement ring set with the most beautiful blood diamond.

The second, more angularly temporal timelessness, is the one where I say, yes, this film will last forever. It’s more timeless in the way future generations of progressively art-minded punk kids will hip their friends to films that preceded their arrival on the planet. It’s timeless in the way bands like The Ex or Can are timeless. Don’t know them? Go find them. Timeless like mixtapes layered in the shamanism of rock-and-roll are timeless.

Timeless like the memory of running into Cory McAbee on the street. Shake his hand. See his films and impress yourself. At that point you’ll be on the cusp of what should presently be going on in the art world.

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