SIFF 2015: The Astrologer (1975)


This weekend I attended my first ever midnight move at SIFF, a rare screening of The Astrologer (1975), and I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Feeling exhausted after taking in the entire Apu trilogy in one sitting earlier in the day, I wondered if I might be seeing things when a man in a Lincoln mask took to the stage and began rapping about the very strange film we were about the see. But no, this was real, and the perfect introduction to a cinematic experience that is almost impossible to describe effectively.

In essence, Denney is Craig Alexander, a fake psychic who becomes a famous astrologer, but loses everything because of his arrogance. There's so much more to this film though, which is clearly the vision of one man. No two people could have agreed the results make any sense.

The reason it is so difficult to even cough up even an illuminating plot description for The Astrologer is that there isn't one to do it justice, unless you describe every little thing that happens. Carnies, sudden travels to random international locations, diamond smuggling, an extended sailboat montage to a Moody Blues song, long descriptions of astrological charts, long discussions about business and the pros and cons of diversification, a long fisheye shot of a men's restroom which ends by lingering on a urinal, slow motion, song-length marital clashes, detailed serving of soup, death by quicksand, and boobs--it's as if director/producer/star Craig Denney decided that diversification should apply to filmmaking as well, and not so much restraint.

It's also clear that Denney fancies himself a sex symbol. He constantly wears a self-satisfied smirk, confident in his macho cool and swagger. In several scenes he is shirtless, showing off a soft, pillowy mid-section. When he dresses, he is often garbed in the sort of striped t-shirt you might see on the neighbor kid in a 1950s sitcom. And yet, there's something touching about this man's complete confidence in himself.

Actors spit out dialogue with a weird, childish tone. It sounds a bit like it was written by a kid who doesn't quite understand the things he's seen in grown-up movies. Many scenes start and stop abruptly, shifting focus like a restless toddler. These fast-paced sequences are alternated with long musical montages where almost nothing happens and much of it in slow motion. In one such scene set in a bar, random couples who are never introduced as characters have long conversations, a pimp holds court in a booth and sells drugs and his girls' services and then there's that urinal shot. It's as if Denney switched setting the atmosphere with actually moving the plot forward, because his own silent slow-mo conversation plays only a small role in the scene.

Like I said, it's almost impossible to describe this film. Any attempt to do it justice in print will make you sound crazy. You just need to experience it.

After a limited drive-in release in the seventies, The Astrologer was only available to the consumer market via a VHS release in Australia and broadcast once on CBS in 1980. That all changed when Drafthouse Films funded a 2K restoration and started exhibiting the film in 2013. Now this unique bit of cinematic insanity has been making the rounds at film festivals. I hope it makes it to DVD some day, because I'm already dying to see it again.

The SIFF 2015 schedule is here.

My SIFF 2015 suggestions for classic film fans are here.

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