Saturday, November 19, 2016
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Golden Lion" (September 25, 1976)
The third Filmation Tarzan episode is titled “Tarzan and the Golden Lion.”
You may recognize that name if you are a fan of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books. Tarzan, in that story, befriends a golden cub, and raises it to adulthood. The lion then becomes something like a family pet, always loyal to Tarzan and his son and wife. The character of the “golden lion” recurs throughout the book series, following his first appearance in the ninth book. In the stories, he is known as Jad-bal-ja.
The Filmation episode that shares the book’s name is basically a two-part show.
The first part of the episode features N’Kima and Tarzan encountering the cub, and raising it to adulthood as a trusted friend. We see Tarzan teaching the lion in a kind of training montage. Apparently, years pass as it grows to maturity.
The second portion of the episode involves a group of gorilla-men who have taken N’Kima’s monkey friends as slaves. Tarzan follows them to their kingdom to free them, and finds that these ape men are also enslaving a race of meek humanoids. These (speaking...) apes are known as the Bolmangani.
Tarzan teaches the primitives to fight, and that they are “slaves” to their fears. When Tarzan is captured, one of the humanoid children leads a campaign against the ape-men, and the golden lion also arrives with reinforcements from the jungle.
I have to confess, I really loved this episode, especially the portion about the golden cub, Jad-bal-ja, at the beginning. The mother lion has died, and Tarzan notes that “Death is no stranger to the jungle.” He then shows mercy and compassion for the lion, and there are lovely shots of him playing with the cub, training, it and, more importantly, living with the lion, and treating him as a friend.
The second part of the episode is as dogmatically moralistic as any Filmation show you can think of, with Tarzan lecturing the primitives about standing up for themselves.
It’s a good message (“sometimes we must face our fears to do what is necessary,”) and the end is exciting, with the golden cub showing up with a stampede to stop the ape men.
The Shazam (1974-1977) episode “On Winning” begins with Mentor’s camper breaking down, after Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy Batson (Michael Gray) witness a dirt bike race.
Soon, the Elders call, and tell Billy about “the natural balance of love.” They also report that “a parent’s love knows no rivalry.” There is also a warning, however in the message: “There are some for whom winning is all.”
These cryptic words come into sharp clarity as Billy and Mentor meet up with a family on a fishing trip. The older brother, Craig (John Lupton) and the younger one, Corkey (Eric Sheq) are fiercely competitive. Corkey fears that his father, Dan (Stephen Hudis) thinks he is a loser, and loves his brother more. He will do anything to be seen as a winner, even if it involves deceit.
When Dan is trapped on a mountainside and needs rescue, however, Corkey realizes how much his father loves him. Captain Marvel arrives just in time to save Dan, and negotiate a happy ending.
Another Shazam episode, another family to be healed.
After stepping-out on the formula a little bit with a look at human evil (“The Past is Not Forever”/ “The Gang’s All Here”) the series is right back to its typical fare.
In this case, that fare is a mild story about a boy who learns that he is loved, even if his older brother can do more than he can, and therefore is the focus of parental praise.
Why this story needs to be told with a superhero is a good question. There must be a fire somewhere, with victims needing saving, right?
But Shazam and its counterpart, Secrets of Isis, are all about children reckoning with life lessons. They are protected from harm while learning those difficult lessons by comforting and powerful adult figures, either Captain Marvel, or Isis. These figures of authority are not judgmental, and they never allow things to get too far out-of-hand. They are a super safety note.
What I’m talking about here is children finding the freedom to explore what it means to grow up, but with those authority/parental figures exerting a kind of protective boundary for them, so they don’t get hurt.
I suppose that isn’t a terrible idea for a superhero show, but in these series we learn very little about the actual heroes. Where did the device come from, that contacts the Elders, for instance? Who is Captain Marvel, and does he possess an identity/life beyond Billy’s calls for intervention?
These are some fascinating topics to explore, but Shazam instead remains locked in to its rigid, childish (but didactic formula). It seems very naïve by today’s standards, for sure.
Next week: “Debbie,” and the arrival of a new Captain Marvel (John Davey)...at least temporarily.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Originally titled High Rise, this made-for-TV movie from director John Carpenter stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a headstrong, single, career woman who moves into Los Angeles' impressive Arkham Towers.
Arkham is a state-of-the-art (for 1978) apartment building replete with computer-controlled air-conditioning, high-tech elevators, "eighty miles of wiring and cables" and boasting a restaurant in the foyer, a gift shop, even a wedding chapel in the lobby.
Despite such "modern" conveniences, TV-director Leigh finds herself targeted and pursued by a dedicated and obsessive technological stalker, one who operates from a safe distance with the very latest tools of the trade: electronic surveillance devices, telescopes, tape recorders, walkie-talkies and the like.
In a way, it's the "flip side" of Halloween. Because here, the killer doesn't need a knife to do damage. The telephone will do just fine.
The film's central notion, well-captured by the young Carpenter (who also wrote the teleplay), is that - as Hutton's Philosophy professor boyfriend (David Birney) opines -- "we insulate our lives" and "guard our spaces," but technology can bring terror home; to our very hearths.
The invisible stalker, Birney suggests, is "trying to hurt" Leigh "without touching" her.
Or, as Leigh's lesbian friend, Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) aptly describes the situation: "rape is when a man consciously keeps a woman in fear."
This is a premise that carries a new meaning, certainly, in the 21st century, with the advent of social media and ubiquitous iPhones. We have seen, just in the last few years, how these tools are harnessed to diminish and bully women. See Gamergate for just one example.
As a filmmaker, Carpenter is a neo-classicist, an old-fashioned visually-skilled auteur who here -- instead of evoking Howard Hawks (as in Assault on Precinct ) -- suggests the canon of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. For example, th film opens with a Saul-Bass style opening credits scene that could have been ripped right from Psycho (1960). The credits are accompanied by Harry Sukman's Herrmann-esque score, which squawks like Psycho too.
Also, the film involves the pursuit of a woman by an unseen killer, and there are plenty of Hitchcockian red herrings among the characters to keep things lively, including a "slick man" who accosts Leigh at night, an obnoxious co-worker named Steve who doesn't take "no" for an answer, and the odd horticulturist who lives across from Leigh, in the parallel building called Blake Towers.
Each one of these men could be the long-distance stalker, and Carpenter wrangles maximum (for TV...) suspense out of the killer’s identity. In one telling shot that evokes the best tenets of film grammar, the killer tells Leigh he can see her through her open window, and she retreats whimpering to the sheltered bathroom, to a tight, confined space between toilet and bathtub, Carpenter's camera adopts an overhead angle. It's as though we're gazing down at Leigh in a fishbowl, which is precisely what the comfortable apartment has become for this woman. Her privacy has been stolen from her.
Carpenter's telefilm also cogently suggests the anonymous, disconnected and isolating manner of modern metropolitan life.
An early shot at street-level reveals a group of cars traveling in one direction endlessly, not unlike lemmings.
Who's in them? Where are they going? Could one of the drivers be the stalker?
These are the questions the uncomfortable composition suggests.
The film also pauses during scene transitions to include views of gleaming skyscrapers, ones with mirrored windows.
In other words, you can't see in; can't see what's behind the panes. All we see is ourselves, looking in; reflected. The identity of others (like the stalker...) are protected. This also seems like an uncanny premonition about our modern culture. Social media is about seeing ourselves in a positive light; about narcissism.
Two things tend to date Someone's Watching Me!
The first is the film's technology. The surveillance devices, tape recorders and telephones all appear antique today, in the world of micro-technology, apps, wi-fi and the like. It's up to the minute for the late 1970s. But watching the film, you can't help but realize how far we've come.
And yet -- simultaneously -- that's a reckoning that supports the film's thesis too. Via the Internet (and faxes before it), and cell phones and beepers and the like, technology has infiltrated our homes in ways deeper than Carpenter -- or anyone -- would have imagined in the disco decade. Today, it's even easier for a stalker to "get in" while simultaneously remaining "far away." This is actually the premise of a brilliant Black Mirror episode, “Shut up and Dance,” in 2016.
The second aspect of Someone's Watching Me that's aged, but which – personally-speaking -- I enjoyed, is the idea of having a character, in this case Hutton's Leigh, voice her fears as a running, external monologue. This device recurs in Halloween: we are often privy there to Laurie Strode's (Curtis's) thoughts. She has a running dialogue, calling herself “kiddo,” and the like.
Today, we might decry this running verbal soliloquy as stilted or dated, but again, it's right from the Marion Crane/Psycho playbook. It's a nice window into Leigh's thoughts in Someone’s Watching Me, but today we'd consider the device "hokey."
It's interesting to consider Leigh Michaels, as played by Lauren Hutton, because she represents the late-1970s ideal of the liberated American woman.
She's depicted as "kooky" but extremely smart; professional but with an off-kilter sense of humor. She reserves the right to say "no" but is also sexually aggressive when it suits her. Because she is a single, career woman in a "man's business," Leigh is also disbelieved by the authorities when she reports the nature of her stalking (which includes phone calls, and unauthorized visits to her apartment while she's at work.).
This allows for a "don't cry wolf" kind of subtext to the telefilm, but the point is exactly what Leigh says: "Whenever I get around to telling the truth, no one believes me."
Someone's Watching Me! suggests that this happens because Leigh has stepped out of the "traditional" role of women in society. She can't be believed or trusted because she's sexually aggressive and unmarried, a heterosexual woman "making it on her own." Society has already dismissed her before the killer first sets his telescopic sights and sites on her.
Leigh's only friend, noticeably, is a gay woman, another female "outsider." Sophie believes Leigh where the men -- the police -- don't.
The notion of voyeurism, the terrain of fellow Hitchcock heir Brian De Palma (see 1984's Body Double...), is also vetted carefully in Someone's Watching Me!, making it a sort of latter-day Rear Window (1954).
There are plenty of telling shots here adopting the perspective of the telescope lens as it peers in at other apartments, at women going about their business...unaware that they are being visually stalked. Carpenter alternates between this "remote" view of invaded personal lives with a series of stunning, desperate, faster-than-usual P.O.V. subjective shots symbolizing Leigh's "eyes." These occur as she finds her personal space (her apartment) violated by an unwanted visitor.
Had Someone's Watching Me! been made for the cinema, it would likely have been scarier than it is; but it's still one of the very best TV-movies of the era, in part because Carpenter's screenplay is filled with ideas about "modern" life in the disco decade; the change in women's roles in our society; the easy availability of technology, the isolating nature of city life, and the like.
These ideas make the perfect background for a solid thriller in the Hitchcockian vein, even if -- occasionally -- you'll marvel at how much things have changed since the era of Jimmy Carter and the ERA.
Technology continues to invade our homes, unabated, and the question becomes: is it still victimizing us today? I’d have to say that it is, and to a much more significant degree.
Note: The avid Carpenter fan will find plenty of the director's trademark touches here, but also some direct references to his next project, 1980's The Fog. For example,The building across from Arkham is called Blake Towers. Blake, as you will recall, is the name of the Leper Leader in The Fog. Also, the first victim of the stalker in Someone's Watching Me! is named Elizabeth Solley. That's also the name of Jamie Lee Curtis's character in The Fog.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016) is an exceedingly well-made, modern-day spin on Wes Craven’s 1991 horror film, The People under the Stairs, at least in some crucial ways.
In both films, for instance, the protagonists are home invaders -- criminals -- who choose to rob a home during an economically unstable time.
The People under the Stairs is set in the Bush Era recession of the early 1990s, the immediate fall-out from Reaganomics. Don’t Breathe is set in modern day Detroit, following a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.
As one might expect -- especially given our contemporary culture’s demand for ever-more realism and grit in its entertainment -- Don’t Breathe eschews some of the more elaborate, fantastic flourishes found in The People under the Stairs. The Craven film purposefully threads-in elements of fairy tale storytelling. Don’t Breathe is a dose of grim, inescapable reality.
Despite the differing styles, both films invert the “home invasion” sub-genre in the same manner. They each concern a scenario in which the danger is not directed at a homeowner from a robber, as one expects. Instead, the danger is to the robbers from homeowners.
A vicious dog plays an important role in both films too, and each production also features scenes of protagonists making their way through the under-structure/interior of the house; behind the walls, so-to-speak. In both films, this progression through the dark house mirrors a progression from surface reality, to underlying reality. We move past surfaces to understand, more plainly, the truth of things.
The comparison here to The People under the Stairs is not meant as an insult or put-down, just a reflection of horror film history. I want to make that distinction plain because Don’t Breathe is one of the best horror films of 2016, despite the familiarity of some key concepts or elements. Fede Alvarez also directed the commendable Evil Dead remake of 2013, and between these two films he has demonstrated both how to execute effective jump scares and -- more significantly -- how to tap into a sense of existential or cerebral horror.
Don't Breathe is a tense, surprising, and wholly terrifying viewing experience that serves the noblest purpose that horror art can undertake.
It tells us something significant about the times we live in.
“Some things you can’t change, no matter how unfair they are.”
Desperate to leave Detroit for California, and to find a good home for her young daughter, single mother Rocky (Jane Levy) joins with fellow home invaders -- Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) -- to rob a house in a near-abandoned neighborhood.
A blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) lives in an old house there, and apparently has $300,000 dollars stashed in a safe somewhere. Although the house is guarded by a fierce dog, the promise of the seed money to start a new life is too much for Rocky to ignore.
One night, the trio breaks into the Blind Man’s house, but almost immediately things begin to go wrong. The Blind Man is no easy target, and is both physically strong, and cunning. He manages to disarm and kill Money, leaving Alex and Rocky with few alternatives to defeat him, or escape.
They seek shelter in the house’s basement, only to find that the Blind Man is even more nefarious and sinister than they imagined. He is hiding a terrible secret downstairs, one involving the accident that took his young daughter’s life.
“You have to be held accountable.”
In my introduction, above, I noted some surface similarities between Don’t Breathe and The People under the Stairs. There are more of them to consider, as well.
For one thing, both films seem to share a philosophy in terms of naming characters. Somehow, names embody aspects of the character journey, or their very nature.
The protagonist of the Craven film is “Fool,” which describes his apparent role in the break-in, at least according to Tarot Cards. Fool is hunted in the film by the home-owners, who are identified simply as “Man” and “Woman.” One of the children under the stairs is named “Roach,” an indicator of his place in the power-structure of the insane home.
Similarly, Don’t Breathe’s protagonist is “Rocky,” a descriptor which suggests her path towards financial freedom in the film, for sure.
Rocky goes up against “The Blind Man,” which is another generic sounding name (like "Man" or "Woman.") This violent, perverted home-owner hides secrets in his abode. He is blind both literally and in terms of his soul. He can't see that he has become a monster.
And finally, the worst and most immoral of the three robbers is known as “Money,” a name which is a perfect crystallization of all he is, all he holds dear. He’s all about the money, no matter what. Money, the character, has no sense of morality above taking care of himself. He doesn't see right and wrong. He only sees what he can take, what he can get.
It’s fascinating too, how the films chart similar epochs in recent American history, both gazing at the country in eras of economic recession and blight.
Don’t Breathe gains significant power from the choice to set the film in Detroit. We see chain-link fences, for example, and once-suburban streets that now resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Blind Man’s street is described as being in the part of the town that looks “like a dump.” The homes there are in disrepair. Windows are board up. There's no money to tend to these houses as they rot and decay.
The setting works for the film in two important ways.
First, as one of the robbers notes, it is isolating. Money, Alex and Rockey see it as a sign that they won’t be caught, or seen, robbing the house. In truth, they are missing an important point. There’s no help nearby for them to turn to when they are endangered. Now, a street in Detroit is not a sleep-away camp in the woods, or an outpost on another planet, but -- as we see here -- it’s a place that is far removed from community and safety.
Similarly, the location helps us understand fully the desperation of the characters. The world seems to have forgotten about this city. Rocky’s mother crudely suggests, for example, that her daughter must be hustling blow jobs on the street, since she’s making money.
In other words, there aren’t many legal, socially-upstanding ways, apparently, to survive here, post-Recession. Ironically, I’ve read reviews of the film on the Internet wherein people wrote: “how can we sympathize with people who decide to rob houses?”
Well, seeing where these young adults live, and experiencing the desperation Rocky feels to free her daughter from this environment, a more appropriate question might be how can we not sympathize with these people?
Desperate times require people to take desperate acts; acts they would not even consider under normal circumstances.
Commendably, Don’t Breathe doesn’t entirely let the characters off the hook for their respective choices, either. Sam Raimi produced this film, and so it shares a concept with many of his own efforts in the genre.
What is that idea?
Those who transgress, must pay for that trangression.
As one character notes, we all “must be held accountable.”
However, different people have very different notions of what being accountable actually means.
Rocky and Alex discover a horrible secret in the Blind Man’s basement. In the absence of societal law and order, he has imposed his own sense of “law” over a young woman, Cindy Roberts (Franceska Torocsik), whom he feels transgressed against him, and got off, scot-free. When Rocky is captured, the Blind Man attempts to punish her with this same judgment, and his "sentence" makes for one of the most horrifying moments in the film.
I find the moment so horrible not only because of the dreadful promise of sexual violence, but because his judgment is all about powerlessness, which seems to be a key tenet/theme of the film, and a commentary, indeed on where America is right now as a nation.
The Blind Man straps Rocky to a harness, lifts her in the air, cuts open her pants, and attempts to inseminate/impregnate her using a turkey baster. As we watch the horrific scene unfold, we realize that she is suspended, bound, and entirely without options. She can’t fight back. There is no power with which to do so.
The whole movie is about Rocky attempting, in some way, to exercise power in her life. To change her life so she is never trapped in this situation of powerlessness again. Or so her daughter never feels the same powerlessness she has experienced. And now here she is, because of her choice (to rob someone) trapped all over again.
We may not approve of Rocky’s choice to rob a house to gain power, but we can understand it. The Blind Man wants to hold her accountable for her decision, but she must wonder why the system has never been held accountable, or why the rich have never been held accountable.
Don’t Breathe even makes note, regarding Cindy, that “rich girls don’t go to jail,” a comment on "affluenza", and the fact that in addition to elections, the judicial system feels rigged, at least for some people. Justice is unequal.
In short, Don’t Breathe offers some timely commentary about the state of our great nation in 2016. It is never preachy, but in addition to being incredibly tense and suspenseful, the film is unerringly smart.
The action is riveting, and the Blind Man is a terrifying figure, the “last man standing” in a community destroyed by economic failures. He too does what he must to get justice, but the absence of a community to monitor him and his excesses has made him a draconian sort of monster.
I started this review with a comparison between Don’t Breathe and The People under the Stairs. The latter film, directed so brilliantly by Craven, is about how a house or person can look normal on the outside, but be dominated by dysfunction inside.
Don’t Breathe’s creative formula is slightly different. It tells us that when society gives up on a place, the people stuck there -- in a city or town -- have to live by a new set of rules if they hope to survive.
From our relative comfort -- outside the imperiled community and far away -- we can judge their actions as immoral or wrong But those who live there, day in and day out, can’t spare the breath to be philosophical about such things. They don’t breathe. They must act.
Rocky and the Blind Man are alike in some important sense because they both have chosen to respond to the powerlessness the world has handed them. They are both survivors in a trying time.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
On the way to the Babel diplomatic conference, the Enterprise makes a stop at Vulcan to pick up Ambassador Sarek (Mark Lenard), and his wife, Amanda (Miss Jane Wyatt), Spock’s parents.
Other alien ambassadors are also traveling aboard the Enterprise, including Shras (Reggie Nalder), an Andorian), and Gav (John Wheeler), a Tellarite. The issue at stake for the Federation is the admission of a non-aligned planet, Coridon.
Unaligned, the planet is under siege for its rich supply of Dilithium crystals. Orion pirates have been among those parties raiding the planet.
When Gav is murdered, apparently by use of a Vulcan technique, Tal-Shaya, Sarek is the prime suspect in the crime. But, as Sarek reveals: he is suffering from a grave cardiac condition, and was incapacitated at the time of the Tellarite’s death.
Soon, there is another assassination attempt. Kirk is attacked and stabbed by an Andorian, Thelev (William O’Connell). Accordingly, Spock takes command of the Enterprise in the crisis, but his presence on the bridge means that he cannot be present in sickbay to give a blood transfusion to his dying father.
D.C. Fontana’s “Journey to Babel” is another superb, absolutely top-drawer episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). It is probably one of the top ten episodes of the series, in whole, and one of the best of the second season (along with "Amok Time," "The Doomsday Machine" and "Metamorphosis".)
This episode not only establishes much about Spock’s youth and history, it introduces the characters of Sarek and Amanda, who have appeared in the franchise many times since. Sarek returned in the feature films Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), as a young-man at Spock’s birth in The Final Frontier (1989), and in The Undiscovered Country (1991). He also appeared in two episodes of The Next Generation, “Sarek,” and “Unification.” The latter depicted his death.
Jane Wyatt returned for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and both characters were also re-booted in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (2009), played by Ben Cross and Winona Ryder.
Recently, there was word that Amanda may play a role in the new Star Trek: Discovery (2017).
On a wider scale, “Journey to Babel” introduces to key alien races to the series: the Andorians and Tellarites.
In terms of narrative, Fontana’s story also serves as a kind of prototype for future tales. The idea of a starship shuttling ambassadors to a conference, with murder and intrigue aboard, recurs in the Star Trek franchise in stories such as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) “Lonely Among Us” (with the Antican and Selay), and in Enterprise’s (2001-2005) “Babel One,” a key call-back to this installment.
Also, this episode cements some key concepts about Vulcans. One isthat they use the touching of the hands in ways that human don’t; namely to signify intimacy and connection. Sarek and Amanda, in particular, embody this ideal. We see it again in “The Enterprise Incident” (between Spock and the Romulan Commander), and during The Search for Spock’s Pon Farr sequence.
Additionally, many of Spock’s background details, name-checked here, are given further detail and coloring in D.C. Fontana’s “Yesteryear,” an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973). In particular, we learn that he had a pet sehlat.
Some fans have also identified “Journey to Babel” -- particularly the reception scene, with its colorful and diverse aliens and unique alien food and beverages -- as a possible influence for Star Wars’ (1977) much-beloved cantina sequence.
But the primary value of “Journey to Babel” arises not from the fact that it is so influential, but rather
the interpersonal fire-works.
In particular, the story diagrams a topic that was much-talked about in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the generation gap. This particular generation gap might be defined as a gulf between parents and children over everything from music, sexual mores and politics to religious belief and hair-styles.
Spock and Sarek embody that gap perfectly here.
Sarek does not approve of Spock’s choice to enlist in Starfleet and serve among humans. Spock, meanwhile, has rejected his family’s tradition of attending the Vulcan Science Academy. Poor Amanda stands trapped in the middle, attempting to mediate peace and understanding between two very stubborn men. She is not in an enviable position.
The emotional highlight of the episode, at least as far as I’m concerned, involves the scene between Amanda and Spock. She begs him to exercise his “human” half, and go to his sick father, who will die without his assistance. Spock -- still seeking Sarek’s approval in some way -- instead goes into ultra-Vulcan mode, besieging Amanda with all the logical reasons why he cannot do so.
Amanda then tells a story about Spock as a child. She discusses how he was victimized by the Vulcan children, and how he had to bear the bullying with Vulcan stoicism. The moment is enormously affecting, both in terms of learning about Spock’s childhood (and isolation), and in establishing Amanda’s character too. Living on Vulcan has been difficult for her too.
The scene ends with Spock refusing to budge from his stance, and Amanda having an emotional outburst; slapping him across the face.
It is such a powerful moment that the audience feels it has been slapped as well.
The scene -- and the episode -- work so effectively because of the universality of such family experiences.
In the life cycle of a family, parents move from establishment and developing of a family unit, to launching their children into independence. This launching of the children into the world is so difficult, so fraught with emotion, because children may, in adolescence and young adulthood, reject the teaching of the parents. They must “find” themselves, and that finding that identity sometimes involves choosing a new path. Parents see that choice as negative, because they are still invested in the children, and, for the first time in a decade, don’t have control over important choices. But importantly, they often seem to have forgotten what it was like to be young; to be taking those first uncertain steps to adulthood.
In the best tradition of Star Trek, “Journey to Babel” is all about how families grow and evolve -- and sometimes become estranged -- because parents and grown children refuse to give up their polarized views, and come together. They refuse to accept one another as individuals, and as ones with great differences. I love that the Vulcans are utilized here to demonstrate this generation gap. They believe in IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), and yet still have trouble accepting the choices made by their children or parents.
If “Journey to Babel” boasts any weakness, it involves Spock’s refusal to turn over command to Scotty or Sulu, to help his father. Previous episodes have proven that both officers are capable of taking command in difficult situations. Sulu took the Enterprise to war, essentially, in “Errand of Mercy,” and Scotty was in command during the Eminiar VII events (“A Taste of Armageddon).
Certainly, one can make the valid argument that Spock refuses to turn over command to these experienced officers because he has re-trenched into ultra-Vulcan, super-stubborn mode. To please Sarek, he must let Sarek die.
If you see it that way, I guess it holds up.
And, a lot of good character material emerges from Spock’s decision to retrench. Kirk must pretend to be healthy, though he is in agony, to trick the Vulcan into helping his father. Kirk’s physical weakness contributes to the high-level of suspense in the episode’s third act. And McCoy, surrounded on all sides by Vulcan stubbornness, becomes more cantankerous than ever.
Next week: “Friday’s Child,” another story which demonstrates that Scotty is an effective commanding officer in combat situations, by the way.
Roger Vadim’s 1968 cult-classic Barbarella boasts a mixed reputation with critics and audiences, and understandably so.
In short, the erotic space fantasy starring Jane Fonda (and based on the 1962 “adult” comic by Jean Claude Forest) is in equal proportions impressive and tiresome.
Barbarella impresses on the basis of its stunning costumes, incredible sound-stage production design, and on the back of Jane Fonda’s in-the-know, delectable performance as the titular character. She is the film's greatest special effect.
The film proves tiresome, however, on the basis of its story-telling approach which is, alas, pure camp.
As I’ve written here before, camp is an aesthetic style constructed on a sense of knowing theatricality. The camp approach is one of exaggerated artifice. It is the antithesis of “real,” or “genuine,” as Susan Sontag once noted.
While it’s true that camp productions prove “susceptible to double interpretations” (see: Adam West’s Batman [1966-1968]), it is also accurate to note that camp, through its flamboyance, distances the audience from a production’s narrative and characters.
My personal and critical equation on this subject is that camp -- while occasionally or briefly amusing under some circumstances -- severely reduces our ability to care about a work of art.
If everything is played as a joke we start to see important dramatic elements (plot, character, theme) as jokes too. Accordingly, we dis-invest from something we perceive to be camp. If the artist can't take the material seriously, how can we?
There’s much magic in Barbarella, to be certain, from Jane Fonda’s zero-g, spacesuit strip-tease, to the interior set design for her shag carpet spaceship: the Alpha 7. But every time we feel as though we could invest in the character, and her world -- one in which sex is no longer saddled with centuries of Puritan guilt -- we regret it, because of the distancing camp style.
Though undeniably a cultural touchstone, Barbarella nonetheless feels deeply inconsistent. Some moments feature astonishing, erotic, and even disturbing visuals, and other moments are so silly in conception and execution that audiences feel silly going along for the ride.
“The universe has been pacified for centuries.”
In the 41st century, the President of the Solar System contacts his best agent, Barbarella (Jane Fonda) to travel to the distant Tau Ceti solar system.
There, Durand Durand (Miles ‘Shea), the inventor of the deadly weapon known as the “particle ray,” has vanished.
Barbarella’s vessel, the Alpha 7, experiences magnetic disturbances on approach to the sixteenth planet in the system, and crashes on the surface.
There, Barbarella experiences strange and erotic adventures. She learns the primitive art of love making from the Catchman (Ugo Tognazzi), falls in love with a blind angel called Pygar (John Phillip Law) -- the last of the ornithanthropes -- and challenges the “Great Tyrant,” the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg).
Barara also faces danger from mobile, fanged toy dolls, carnivorous parakeets, and Durand Durand’s most fearsome and diabolical invention, an “Excessive Machine,” (essentially an orgasmatron).
“Are you typical of Earth women?”
Today, we live in the era of CGI or digital sci-fi movies. Alien landscapes and world-building are built, often, via the conjunction of green-screens and computers.
This approach permits for spectacular scope, certainly, but not necessarily a sense of reality. Often, these alien worlds look cartoon-like. Going back to 1968, and the making of Barbarella, this method of “seeing” science fiction vistas didn’t exist. Everything to appear in a film had to be designed, constructed, painted, etc.
Barbarella is a “sound-stage” movie. By this I mean that the labyrinth of Sogo, the Chamber of Dreams, the ice plains of Tau Ceti 16, and other wonders are all real; tactile.
It’s true that matte paintings are utilized occasionally in some sequences, and that some scenes meant to suggest scope fail because of inadequate miniatures, but many of the visuals remain unforgettable.
In fact, they still look stunning.
Above, I mentioned Barbarella’s spaceship interior, and it’s a good place to begin a discussion of the film’s design.
The Alpha 7 interior is decorated with wall-to-wall carpet…or fur, like a 1970s van…but also features statuary and other works of art (a large painting, for example). The ship appears designed for comfort, by a hedonistic 41st century society, rather than for mere utilitarian functionality. The cockpit is a recessed cubby in the floor -- like a tub -- surrounded by piano-like control keys. And beyond the cubby is a wall-sized view screen. It’s colorful, it’s weird, and it is a splendid first peek at the film’s future world. It suggest a way of looking at the world (and humanity) in a complete different way.
The ice plains and ice ship are impressive too, especially given that they are constructed on a stage.
And certainly -- though undeniably weird -- the evil, silver-fanged dolls leave quite an impression. It’s not clear what they are, or why they exist, yet they are pretty unforgettable in terms of their imagery and horror.
Since the film is about the innocence of sex and lust, shorn of societal and historical taboo, it’s entirely possible that the murderous baby dolls represent the (unpleasant) specter of sexual responsibility. They represent children, the natural result of sex, and a menace that eats everything with their sharp teeth, including parental time and freedom.
But that’s just one possible interpretation.
There are moments here that, certainly, forecast the Star Wars approach. We engage in Barbarella with a lived-in kind of universe, where no explanations are given. We meet fantastic aliens (like Pygar), broach a deadly weapon (the Particle Ray, rather than the Death Star), and even get a mid-air battle between the Queen’s fighters and Pygar and Barbarella.
This dogfight sequence, though a decade behind Star Wars in terms of special effects execution, certainly helps the stage for the “space fantasy” approach of that Lucas film.
A key question regarding Barbarella involves sexism. Is the film sexist for depicting a kind of space nymph engaging in intercourse with every male alien she encounters?
I suppose it depends on how you think about it.
This story is set in a universe in which a common salute/greeting is “Love.” It occurs in a universe that has been “pacified for centuries,” and in which there is no longer a state of “primitive neurotic irresponsibility" among humans.
Barbarella lives not in a world that has responded to and rebelled against long-standing Puritan sexual mores, but a world in which those beliefs have been overcome…and then forgotten.
She is, therefore, innocent, and that’s the way that Jane Fonda portrays the character. When asked if she is typical of Earth women, she responds that she is “about average.” Barbarella is not supposed to be a sex goddess, or "liberated" in a 1960s sense. She is a future human, divorced for all her life from the shame and guilt that human cultures imposed on sex.
Barbarella is innocent. She has no guile or guilt about her body, her person-hood, her attractions, or anything else. If that’s indeed the case then the costumes she so memorably wears are not exploitative. They are just...futuristic.
And apparently in the future, there is little modesty.
Finally, Barbarella defeats her enemies under her own power and with her own gifts. They try to kill her with sexual pleasure, and she discovers that her power in that realm overcomes theirs. They try to kill her with her sexuality, in other words, only to find that her “power” is indomitable.
Or, if you look at it the opposite way, the film is sexist in a profound way. Barbarella is an object for male sexual gratification, and not a hero in her own right. She's but a a dumb blond (forgive the stereotype...), bumbling from one "adventure" to the next, unaware of how she is used.
It is easier, I feel, to make this particular argument because of the film’s camp approach. Fonda’s innocent portrayal of Barbarella can be misinterpreted as something else, and the character can be perceived as gullible, and even dull-witted.
This is just one case in which a tongue-in-cheek approach hurts the film and its characters.
Much of the film’s humor is annoying, frankly, because of the insistence on keeping things camp. There’s the scene here in which Dildanno gives Barbarella the ridiculously-long password to possess an invisible secret key and she effortlessly repeats it.
And then there's the line that “Only an invisible key can open an invisible wall."
Such material makes it plain: the whole thing is a joke to the filmmakers.
It’s tough to remember today, but there was a time when filmmakers, critic and audiences didn’t take sci-fi seriously. The genre was the purview of the adolescent mind, filled with gimmicks like invisible keys, positronic rays, and dream chambers. Barbarella doesn’t take any of these concepts seriously, and again, that undercuts the film’s hero and her journey.
Barbarella goes on a hero’s quest in this film, not entirely unlike the one undertaken by Flash Gordon. She unites an alien planet against a tyrant, and a mad-scientist. The fact that she is the film’s protagonist grants Barbarella some level of agency, but that agency is undercut because the universe around her -- though beautifully conceived in 1960s terms -- doesn’t have any grounding in reality or science. It's all just phantasmagoria.
“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming,” Barbarella advises in the film. The sad truth about this Roger Vadim film is that the dramatic situations begin with promise, because of the filmmakers' imagination. But by the end of Barbarella, you'll be screaming in frustration at the way the director and writers handle virtually every aspect of their space fantasy universe.
Barbarella doesn’t get her due from the filmmakers.