Monday, January 30, 2017
Reeling Backward: "Barbarella" (1968)
So it turns out the most lasting cultural impact of "Barbarella" is boobs.
The movie came out in late 1968 at almost the exact same time the new MPAA rating system went into effect, becoming one of the first mainstream films to feature a copious amount of nudity and sex. The opening credit sequence where star Jane Fonda strips down from her space suit to her birthday suit, her lithe body somewhat obscured by some cheekishly flickering titles, remains an iconic moment in cinema.
Admittedly, the sexual encounters are largely implied or spoofed. But there's nakedness aplenty apart from Fonda's occasional dropping frock, and at one point her character is placed inside a machine that's supposed to kill her with sexual pleasure, only the power of Barbarella's orgasms overwhelm the gizmo.
Not too bad for a PG rating. (F'reals.)
A little boob and butt may not seem like such a big deal a half-century hence. But the fact that American movies were again willing -- after a fleeting acceptance of nudity in silent films -- to show the human body in its entirety finally put cinema on an equal footing with other visual arts like sculpture, photography and painting.
Since then Hollywood has gone back and forth on how much flesh it is willing to show, including our current atmosphere where it seems like it's more common to see a penis than a vagina. (Don't squawk, fellas: we held an overwhelming advantage in that regard for well past a century.)
"Barbarella" helped usher in a new era of moviemaking that wasn't strictly aimed at families with kiddies, and we're all better for it.
The fact remains, however, that even the most generous contemporary reading of the film and its legacy comes to the conclusion that "Barbarella" is am embarrassingly awful POS.
It has achieved "cult" status almost from the moment it came out, because the movie is so ridiculously silly that it's hard to take the humor at face value. We never quite feel like the film is in on its own joke. Camp can go quickly from self-ridicule to pathetic pandering. Maybe people laughed with "Barbarella" in 1968, but in 2017 we can't help but laugh at it.
Producer/master of schlock Dino De Laurentiis put the project together based on the French comic book about a space traveler/sex adventuress. Screenwriter Terry Southern punched out a cheeky script, only to see director Roger Vadim and six Italians receive billing alongside him.
According to legend Southern didn't know about the story changes until he saw the other men's credits onscreen. And there were at least a half-dozen more writers who contributed without credit, dashing off revisions even as the cameras rolled. Fonda herself has claimed that they shut down production several times, ostensibly due to her own illness, but really so the next scenes could be written.
After her nude appearance in the opening, Barbarella gets naked again after her spaceship crashes on a planet near the city of Sogo, and she hooks up with a hirsute "Catchman" (Ugo Tognazzi). She offers him any reward for saving her life and he requests sex the old-fashioned way, not the 41st century method of taking a pill and having a vibrating commune through the touching of hands. Barbarella finds the experience... invigorating.
From there, Barbarella's displays come mostly through costume changes, including outfits where one or two breasts are seen through transparent cups, or partial destruction of her clothes. Background characters take up the slack, however, with a multitude of bare-chested/bottomed residents of Sogo or the surrounding labyrinth of exiles. It's enough to make a voyeur's fingers work overtime over the pause/rewind buttons.
It's difficult for me to conceive that in the 1960s Jane Fonda was largely regarded as an inconsequential sex kitten. We're so used to modern conceptions of her as a serious actress, Hanoi Jane, exercise matriarch and now aged icon. But Henry's little girl was still evolving back then.
Vadim was married to Fonda at the time, and he reportedly pursued several other screen vixens, including Bridget Bardot and Sophia Loren, before settling on the missus. She attacks the part with a mix of confident verve and shrinking neuroticism. Her Barbarella is erotic but reactive, a feminist icon who lets the men (and one potential female mate) make all the first moves.
Barbarella has been sent to Sogo by the Earth president to find the wayward scientist Durand Durand, who has developed the first weapon in centuries. (This did give the idea for a name to the '80s pop band, ironically by dropping a pair of double D's.) She eventually finds him, played by Milo O'Shea, having taken on the role of the concierge to the city's Great Tyrant, the Black Queen (Anita Pallenberg, her voice dubbed by Joan Greenwood).
Durand has been ravaged by age while experimenting with the Mathmos, an ocean of volatile liquid energy underneath Sogo that is fed by negative emotions and thoughts. His goal is to overthrow the queen and then take over Earth, except that she is always protected by the robot-like sentinels, the Black Guard.
We actually see the queen a little earlier, dressed up with an eye patch and an outfit with a transparent crotch, doing the emperor's old act of pretending to be a commoner -- in her case, to cavort with the idle and willing. She comes onto Barbarella, calling her "Pretty Pretty," but things don't culminate that way.
David Hemmings turns up as Dildano, the leader of a bumpkin rebel movement that seems to consist entirely of his unkempt bachelor pad of a headquarters, also located underneath Sogo. (Why not awash in Mathmos goo, we know not.) He makes a deal with Barbarella to get her into the queen's Chamber of Dreams, and they share a hair-raising sexcapade using the contemporary Earth method.
Master of mime Marcel Marceau has a small part as Professor Ping, one of the outcasts in the labyrinth.
The other notable character is Pygar, an angel (or "ornithanthrope," as he calls himself) who has been blinded and left unable to fly. He's fixed up after a romp with Barbarella, and becomes her ally and main mode of transport after that.
Tall, tan, muscular and blond, I thought at first that Pygar must be played by a young Terence Stamp after some peroxide and time at the beach. But it's actually John Phillip Law, who had a brief heyday as a sex symbol in the late 1960s and early '70s. This was a throwback to a time when Hollywood freely accepted fair-haired fellows as virile examples of masculinity, unlike today.
The look of "Barbarella" was considered quite astonishing for its time, what with the lasers and robots and spaceships. And this was not a low-budget film (somewhere between $4 million and $9 million, depending on who you ask.) But when you consider that this movie came out the same year as "2001: A Space Odyssey," it looks like positively primordial science fiction.
Part of this was intentional, as "Barbarella" is meant as fun, not cerebral rumination. The floating or flying scenes are quite obviously accomplished with wires or tilted cameras, giving the movie a funhouse aspect. The whole thing feels grubby and cheap, but not without titillation.
Today it operates mostly as an exercise in voyeurism. The inheritors of "Barbarella" came not in the sci-fi realm but in soft-core movies like the Emmanuel series, with our heroine a somewhat naive lass wandering through an alien landscape of bacchanalia and carnal revelry, in which she is invited to partake.
Part sex tourism, part futurist plaything and whole lot inept craftsmanship, "Barbarella" is one of those films that became important without ever actually being any good.