THE ASTROLOGER [Woeful Worship]: Spectacular! Thrilling! Different! What The Fuck?!
Greetings from the internet, fellow geeks and geekettes. Now that SDCC has come and gone, and we here at GodHatesGeeks have rocked it with as much coverage as you could shake a stick at, we’re gonna get fuckin’ weird. This past weekend, at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema, I had the dubious pleasure of witnessing one of the strangest, rarest cult film that you might never be able to see, 1975’s The Astrologer (No! The OTHER 1975 film called The Astrologer!) Introduced by a wildly intoxicated Mike Vanderbilt (of the Daily Grindhouse fame) and accompanied by some glow-in-the-dark buttons, Craig Denny‘s sole film was…it was something. I’d read about it some months earlier, after it played Fantastic Fest, and was selected by our own Nicholas Winding Refn to be preserved and remastered as part of AGFA, and from my first notice of it, I had been fascinated. This was my great white buffalo, the one movie I absolutely HAD to track down and watch, no matter how long it took.
I don’t know, even today, if it was worth it. I don’t know what to make of it.
Ostensibly a fictionalized, myth-laden, ego-driven vanity project, writer/director/producer Denny stars as Craig Marcus Alexander, a man who — we are told early, via voiceover — was born to lie, cheat, and steal. Working as a phony circus fortuneteller, Alexander meets Darrien (Darrien Earle), the woman who will eventually become his wife (played by Denny’s real-life cousin. Why yes, of course we see her topless more than once. Why would you even ask such as stupid question?). After discovering, quite by accident, that he actually DOES have the powers of clairvoyance, he hooks up with a middle-aged couple who engage him to travel to “darkest Africa”, and be part of a diamond smuggling cabal. Oh, and they invite him into this adventure while having a picnic in the middle of a graveyard. Oh! And before they even detail their diamond smuggling plot, the film has jump-cut thousands of miles and several months (if not years) into the future; we suddenly find Craig a political prisoner, assigned to a chain gang, and proudly showing off his beer guy and steamed-asparagus arms. None of this is undertaken with a single ounce of irony.
From there, Craig escapes, barters a woman for a getaway boat (and the woman takes the fact that she’s about to get raped rather well, truth be told), and invests his ill-gotten fortune to start a multimedia empire (we are told his film grosses $145 million worldwide. A movie about astrology). All the while, Craig barely emotes, playing this fictionalized version of himself with a smug detachment, and the barest of gravity or screen presence. He is in nearly every single shot of every single scene, so get used to his puffy-Matt-Damon face. Several sequences end with such abruptness it was hard tell whether the edits were intentional, or if there was a reel or two missing (seriously: the jump cut from the graveyard picnic to the chain gang almost gave me whiplash).
To go through detailing the rest of this film is to undertake an exercise in the banal. This is a rags-to-riches, Citizen Kane type of story, the rise and fall of a rock star astrologer, who uses his skills to consult with military leaders, produce a multimedia empire, and direct several films about astrology (in an extended sequence, we see Craig watching a movie he created, also called The Astrologer. This is a movie where the director plays a director watching a movie that is, ostensibly, the movie you, the audience member, are watching. Charlie Kaufman can suck it.)
However, when one watches this movie, it is clear that Craig had plenty of money with which to work (reportedly, the film cost $4 million, of which Craig paid it all out of pocket. To this day, no one is sure from where he got his money.) The movie opens with an extensive helicopter shot of a beach-side carnival; and midway through, during a sequence where we watch Craig, on a fishing boat, just travel for fucking MONTHS (we know it’s months, because we see the superimposed pages of a calendar fall), we get a 360 degree helicopter shot of said fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. Cinematographer Alan Gornick, known primarily for second unit underwater photography in a plethora of genre films, shot the hell out of this thing, doing the best he can with what he was given (rumor has it, he wasn’t given a script: apparently Denny used horoscopes to determine what the day’s shooting entailed…and he did this for the entire movie). And all of this doesn’t take into account the fact the crew utilized real locations (Tahiti. Kenya. South Beach, California. Yep.) Where the hell did the cash come from? Probably wherever Tommy Wiseau‘s came from.
Unlike the films of Neil Breen, or movies such as The Room, or even Dangerous Men, The Astrologer is a movie that starts off normal enough before descending into madness, whereas those have an air of incompetence from frame one. Nowhere in the opening scenes of Craig ripping off tourists would we suspect the aforementioned boating sequence set to the ENTIRETY of Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon”. Nowhere are we warned of the Africa-set Allan Quartermain-knockoff smuggling adventure, which ends with a female compatriot drowning in quicksand while a slightly annoyed Craig walks away from her, not moments after having bartered her for a boat. Nowhere would you expect Craig to casually mention his “cosmic mirror”, which is basically a window, within his house, that opens to a live feed of galaxies and stars, as if it were the most normal thing. You would not expect every single instance of violence to be cut off mid-act, to be thrown immediately into the next scene. Nothing can prepare you for a two minute sequence of Craig staring directly into camera, talking about “angular Neptune” and other astrological nonsense. I for one didn’t expect scenes of violence to be punctuated with animated, cartoon blood. Nowhere do you suspect Craig’s real-life astrologer mentor Arthyr Chadburne, playing Craig’s business manager, casually bragging how he has a 7th-grade education, and later, in all serious dramatics, scream at Craig, “You’re not an astrologer…you’re an ASSHOLE!”
This is a movie that, in all honesty, I’ll probably never be able to watch again. It won’t be through lack of trying, but through the star/director’s own shortsightedness. Ignoring the title card (which bears a Republic Pictures logo…though no one is sure whether the defunct studio still owns the rights), the film makes extensive use of Moody Blues, and Procul Harum, but doesn’t bother to secure the rights to the songs in question. Why not just take the songs out, you ask? Well…the scenes in which these songs feature are cut to the exact tempo of said songs. An extended dinner sequence set to the ENTIRETY Procul Harum’s “Grand Hotel” plays out the song’s lyrics, with shots cut to the exact drumbeat and tempo progression. When you then realize the entire scene is shot in slow motion, and there is no dialogue or ambient sound, only the prog rock soundtrack…well, one can’t just take the song out, can one? Perhaps a renegotiating of the rights would sort things out…but Craig Denny has been dead for 30 years. Or HAS he?
I don’t know how else to describe this bit of celluloid madness. Of every so-bad-it’s-good cult movie out there, this is perhaps the rarest, hardest-to-find. The only way to experience this film (in the most literal sense) is tracking it down in a midnight showing. If you do, make sure you’re properly prepared with your substance of choice (or a nice, stiff bourbon), and just roll with it.
If there’s any chance of catching this anywhere, do it. You might not LIKE this movie (I certainly still don’t know if I do), but it is unlike anything you’ll ever see. Here I am, days later, and still trying to figure out what it all means. (If you DO manage to see it, let me know which scene broke YOU, and made you want to scream, “DO SOMETHING!” at the screen in futility, as I almost did).
11/5 cosmic mirrors
The Astrologer is playing nowhere and can’t be purchased anywhere.