17 March 2013

A PERSONAL CANON DOUBLE FEATURE: DINO IN SPACE

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, that producer Dino De Laurentiis and director Roger Vadim should have collaborated on a film. Their careers were too complementary for there to have been any possibility of them both bopping around Europe at the same time without colliding. Indeed, the fact that 1968's Barbarella was the only thing they made together is a bit of a surprise in its own right. Luckily, they got it right the first time, and Barbarella is exactly and in every detail the film that the De Laurentiis/Vadim partnership ought to have produced in the very best-case scenario.

But I am getting ahead of myself - perhaps I should have first introduces messieurs De Laurentiis and Vadim first, so the readers among you less versed in 1960s Eurotrash would know what I'm talking about? Dino De Laurentiis was a prolific producer whose career ranged from austere art films to the cruddiest exploitation, and he never saw an opportunity to cash in on a trend that he wouldn't grab with both hands (the most famous example being his pair of rip-offs of the massive hit Jaws, 1976's King Kong remake and 1977's Orca; it says most of what there is to say about the man's personality that he viewed a King Kong remake to be an obvious, credible attempt to hitch his star to the Jaws bandwagon). Roger Vadim was the director of several movies, beginning with his groundbreaking 1956 debut ...And God Created Woman, that split the difference between the European art films then in vogue and just plain smut. Tasteful, refined, artistic smut, you understand. Artistic smut with an uncomfortable tendency to star the succession of sexpots he was married to at the time: Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg, and Barbarella herself, Jane Fonda.

De Laurentiis's eye for a bankable trend and Vadim's status as a brand name rather than a filmmaker fit together neatly as bread and butter, and in no time they'd joined forces to turn Jean-Claude Forest's comic book character (who was said to be modeled on Bardot) into the central character of a big sci-fi epic, at a time when science fiction was at one of its all-time popular lows (though 1968 also saw the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and boy, how's that for the most nonsensical triple-feature of all time). We shall not call the screen Barbarella a "heroine", exactly, for it's not really the case that she does much in the way of active heroing, though from the way the film is put together, you'd expect that's meant to be the case.

Barbarella, in fact, goes rather out of its way to marginalise its title character's agency, intelligence, and ability, despite the President of Earth (Claude Dauphin) promising that she's one of his finest agents. Agents of what, exactly the movie doesn't say: having made it very clear that In The Future, there's no war or violence anywhere except in this one nightmarish backwater planet where the whole movie happens to take place, it's surely not right to call her any kind of peacekeeper. But looking for narrative coherence in Barbarella, as we'll see, is a waste of time. It is the very model of an Italo-Franco co-production, in that regard.

In 1968, second-wave feminism was still in its cradle, and though it's tempting to suggest that Barbarella, and Barbarella herself, is a reactionary satire of what happens when you put women in a position of power (answer: they have so much sex, and can't accomplish anything without a whole fistful of deus ex machinas), that's giving the movie far more credit than it even starts to deserve. Frankly, that level of intellectual sophistication is far beyond the screenplay by Vadim and Terry Southern, of all people. In keeping with Vadim's modus operandi, the film is just an excuse to include as much tittering naughtiness as you could get away with under the new freedoms available to filmmakers in the late '60s, without actually tipping over into "adult" territory. Barbarella has a great deal more self-conscious kitschiness - I refrain from using the actual word "campy", if only because nothing about the film is even marginally transgressive, which I take to be a requirement of camp - than at least ...And God Created Woman (the only other Vadim film I have seen), but that's as progressive as it gets. The flimsy plot and shockingly weak characterisation of Barbarella are clearly not premeditated, but simply because the movie is concerned with other things: sexy humor and razzle-dazzle. This is an immensely shallow motion picture.

All of which is dreadfully nasty to say about a movie that I have anointed as part of my personal canon, and here's the thing about that: as unabashedly dumb as it is, Barbarella is a hell of a lot of fun, and not even ironic fun: though it's probably fair to file it under "so bad, it's good", rather than as actually good, that badness is not something the filmmakers were unaware of, or concerned about. The real hell of it is that '60s kitsch, European-style, can be deliriously entertaining - earlier the same year, De Laurentiis produced Diabolik, a glorious masterpiece of the form directed by Mario Bava - and Barbarella is every bit as excessive as the Excessive Machine (a pipe organ that causes deadly orgasms, essentially) that plays a huge part in its final act, and to just as pleasurable effect.

For starters, Fonda was an unbelievably hot woman in '68, and I am not made of ice and stone; when the movie opens with her famous "zero-gravity" striptease, I am not sorry to watch it, least of all in the Blu-Ray that is, by some reckonings, the fully uncut version of a movie with many different edits. But the difference between a Bardot and a Fonda, is that Fonda has a good sense of humor about using her body (though assuredly not in any kind of proto-feminist way; in truth, I can't believe that the politically-engaged firebrand Fonda of the '70s, even in embryonic form, could tolerate being part of this movie), and the story's one and only point of actual thematic commitment gives her plenty of excuses to show off that humor. See, in the far-flung future where this takes place, nobody has any hang-ups about sex any more; Barbarella's real storyline, which is not at all about a space agent finding the missing scientist Durand-Durand (and yes, this is exactly where Duran Duran got their name), is about how a woman for whom the efficient, open sex of her culture is about as interesting and exotic as remembering to buy a new pair of socks, is instructed in the vigorous joys of down-and-dirty fucking by a host of male and female residents of the planet Tau Ceti, and its main city of Sogo, where only evil and sin live. That is to say, it's about an open but fairly sexless hot woman finding out that she really, really likes to screw, and Fonda's bright-eyed, unfussy way of playing this part is genuinely fun, appealing acting. Whatever honest-to-God humor happens in Barbarella, it owes largely to Fonda, the only thing that anchors a largely plotless film that shuttles around what feel like dozens of locations populated by several colorful figures (played by a host of vaguely familiar faces from vaguely disreputable European filmmaking of the day: John Phillip Law, David Hemmings, Miles O'Shea, Anita Pallenberg, Ugo Tognazzi, and legendary mime Marcel Marceau, oddly). With Fonda, Barbarella hangs together only as an attitude and a sense of sweetly innocent dirtiness; without her, I'd be hard-pressed to say it would even exist.

That being said, as much as I like what Fonda is up to, I am head-over-heels in love with Mario Garbuglia's production design. Also without irony, though Lord knows I should have. Barbarella is a weird missive from the deep dark depths of the '60s era, with a villain that amounts to a villainous, evil-eating lava lamp, and the inside of a spaceship in which literally every single surface is covered in brown shag. The design of Sogo is a singularly odd mixture of industrial interiors, ridiculous props and set pieces and garish, smutty costumes (Paco Rabanne had the honors of making Fonda look even sexier clothed than she did mostly naked), colliding stark grey with every color of the pop-infused rainbow, in a slurry of the ugly and the candy-colored insane that looks at once like nothing else you've ever seen, and like all the design of 1966-'69 boiled into one ecstatic whole. It is so much a part of its time, visually and morally, that it could not be a more profound work of sociology if it were a more self-conscious attempt to depict This Modern World - and because it's not depicting the actual world of '68, with all the seriousness that can often entail, it has the added benefit of being shallow fun. It's a damnable wreck of a story - not confusing, just aimless and frequently dull - and wildly offensive to any basic sense of decency, but golly, is it ever vibrant, living cinema, alive as a series of disconnected moments made by people whose talent and ambition was exactly suited to that task.

* * * * *

...dundundundundundundundundun...
"FLASH!" *lightning strike*
"AH-AH!"
"SAAAAAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!"
*Daaaa, daa da daa da!*
dundundundundundundundundun...

Of course Dino De Laurentiis made a Star Wars knock-off. If there's a shock there, it's that he made just one, 1980's Flash Gordon, a big-budget version of the comic strip and movie serial from the 1930s that at one point, De Laurentiis had in mind for Federico Fellini, whose career, even at the end of the '70s and beginning of the '80s, hadn't declined enough where he was willing to direct the thing. Incidentally, it's said that owing to De Laurentiis's ownership of the Flash Gordon rights, George Lucas was obliged to redirect his creative energies into making a swashbuckling space adventure in the Flash Gordon mode, and so we find the snake hungrily devouring its own tail.

For his Flash Gordon, De Laurentiis did not acquire a Fellini, nor even a Lucas; the film was eventually directed by Mike Hodges, whose name remains well-known nowadays for exactly one reason: 1971's Get Carter, an outstanding crime drama that would not qualify as any sort of training for anything resembling an effects-driven action film. Hodges has been relatively candid in the years since about what a mess the shoot was, and to be perfectly frank, it shows onscreen: the movie is heavy with scenes that don't quite fit in with each other, with lines of dialogue that refer back to nothing we've seen, with plot points that appear and disappear at will, and one VFX shot opens with several frames in which one half of a massive space battle hasn't been composited in. And that's ignoring the broader conceptual problems with the film, the faintly wretched acting of the leads, and the refusal of the movie to adopt a workable tone, things that would have been issues even without a hectic production.

Indeed, where I can, will, and have defended many of De Laurentiis's adventures in tackiness as being secretly really good, I will not make that claim of Flash Gordon. It's pretty much awful and out-of-control in all ways, and the only thing holding it together is that it's astonishingly fun. There are bad movies where things are going wrong and you can see the filmmakers folding in on themselves; sometimes this can even result in a "so bad that it's good" movie; Skidoo, in which Otto Preminger explodes on the launchpad, leaps to mind. But Flash Gordon is more special than that. It is a film where things started going wrong, and the filmmakers answered by just going right on and being silly; not everybody in the cast quite managed to get there (one by being too miserably committed to for-real acting, a couple by being insufficiently talented), but for the most part, Flash Gordon feels very much like a sort of helpless but intensely enthusiastic high school drama production, in which everybody is sort of at a loss but so desperately happy to be there that they can't help themselves. "Can you believe we're getting paid to do this?" say the gigantic grins worn by BRIAN BLESSED! and a particularly hammy Topol in all of their scenes; Timothy Dalton's scheming prince doesn't grin much, but he's obviously relishing it, too (then again, Dalton always seems overjoyed to be playing every part he has that isn't James Bond).

It is, then, up to the individual whether this overwhelming sense of unabashed fun makes up for all the things that the film frankly gets wrong. The plot is simplicity itself: New York Jets star Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), helpfully wearing a T-shirt with his name appliqued on, and his new ladyfriend Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), crash a plane right in the lab of mad (but correct) scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), who kidnaps them on his rocket ship to try and stop the alien force throwing the moon out of orbit. That turns out to be the very cruel Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), ruler of some physically improbably cluster of planets in a psychedelic gas cloud, who kills civilisations for sport; Flash, accruing the inconsistent help of Ming's daughter Aura (Ornella Muti), and the petty princelings Barin (Dalton) of the forest world Arboria, and Vultan (BRIAN BLESSED!) of the Hawkmen, in a narrative structure that is clearly modeled on the episodic structure of the old serial, but nobody involved in making the film has the skill to carry off that kind of conceptual trick, so instead of feeling like either a send-up of the serial or an homage to the same, it's just a disjointed, episodic plot that doesn't hang together.

Certainly, people not having the skill to carry off their intentions is a pervasive problem with Flash Gordon, and the script especially is a disaster: the central relationship between Flash and Dale is so foggily expressed that it's never at all clear what's going on, for one thing; the degree to which either Barin or Vultan is a villain or hero in any scene is dictated largely by what will cause the plot to keep going. This could be defended as parody, but it's awfully muddy if that's the case; and while the film is extraordinarily kitschy, I never get the feeling that it's intentionally so, which would tend to invalidate any claim the film can make to self-awareness.

Thing is, if you're on the movie's wavelength at all, none of this matters. Not even Jones's braying performance of Flash, far too unpleasant to count as any sort of joke, matters. Not when the thing is so unfathomably brightly colored, with the sets and costumes both designed by Danilo Donati, and if his sense of the sublimely garish was good enough for Fellini Satyricon, it's damn well good enough for a De Laurentiis sci-fi picture. And boy, is Flash Gordon fun to look at, with its grandly over-designed locations that feel unmistakably like soundstages, but are so busy and lively that they are the fun, lavish MGM film of the '30s kind of soundstage, where the artifice is part of the appeal - you are meant to notice, and respect the craftsmanship, not lose yourself in the world.

Besides looking swell, the film moves like crazy: for having almost no discernible plot (Flash goes here, he goes there, he fights people with laser guns that try a bit too hard not to look like the ones in Star Wars, and the thing ends without it ever being clear what the motivations of three-quarters of the cast were), a whole lot of stuff happens, and it changes up frequently. At the very least, one would have a hard time growing complacent with the movie.

It's all just so giddy and childish. It's dumb as hell, dumb enough to make Star Wars look like the most nuanced and complicated of social dramas, and to be honest, I do not know half the time whether I'm laughing with the film or at it: whether BRIAN BLESSED'S! ebullience is terrible or wonderful, whether the wholly miserable way von Sydow delivers his lines (surely all those years with Ingmar Bergman were, at least, irrelevant training for saying something like "Halt, lizard man! Escape is impossible!" in voiceover, as a giant metal sphere) is tragic or hilarious, whether the general incompetence of the storytelling is a disaster or if it's a fun homage to the "what the hell do we care?" attitude of '30s matinee pulp. It probably doesn't even matter: this being a De Laurentiis production, we can be certain that the chief goal was for broad, fizzy spectacle, and oh! how it fizzes!

7 comments:

james1511 said...

Just as a parenthetical detail, I was listening to Queen's Greatest Hits (first volume) last night for the first time in years, and I noticed a line in "Bicycle Race" I'd never picked up on before: "Jaws was never my scene and I don't like Star Wars". Their participation in Flash Gordon is thus made even more amusing now...

adampb said...

Actually, ol' Max has referred to Ming the Merciless as one of his favorite roles.

David Greenwood said...

I recall reading that Sam J. Jones hated the shoot so much that he didn't bother to show up to dub his lines in post, and another actor redubbed his entire part.

Also, "Bring me... the bore worms!"

Tim said...

James- I never did quite understand what he was getting at with that lyric. "I'm too cool for you mainstream sheeple" is plainly not an argument that Queen, of all arena rock bands, has any business advancing.

Adam- That honestly surprises me. I'm glad for him, but I'd have loved a bit more purpleness in the villainy, rather than just a sense of moral deadness.

David- I've heard something similar, but involving a pay dispute between De Laurentiis. Fun times all around, either way.

David Greenwood said...

Ok, Queen is my favorite band ever so I gotta get in on this one. The whole point of Bicycle Race is Freddie listing all the stuff he doesn't care about because all he wants to do is BIIIICYCLE. I doubt Queen thought they were "too cool" for anything.

Tim said...

I want to make it 100% clear, just so this never, ever comes back to bite me: I absolutely did not mean to imply that I don't love Queen. And I agree that Freddie Mercury was never claiming to be too cool for anything - that's why the lyric has always baffled me.

David Greenwood said...

It's cool Tim, it's cool. The 'Jazz' album was Queen's 'anything for a WTF' album, so it's chock full of loose ends, weirdness and the most outrageously gay lyrics Freddie ever wrote. 'Bicycle Race' is probably the craziest left turn there, so I think it really is just a bunch of nonsense. Awesome, awesome nonsense.

Unless you choose to read it as a buried gay rights metaphor, which can be fun.