Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat Class: THE CAT CREATURE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE




Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show--her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and languorous ease in her own alluring body, climbed up and dismounting the boxes and thrones in her treasure room cat lair--even as a seven or eight year old I could feel my still-slumbering hormones stir within me like a sleepy behemoth. And so because of her I loved cats as a result, for they held her magic. Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams; Cat Woman to boys what My Pretty Pony, or Shaun Cassidy or National Velvet was to girls. Shirtless wolfen, slinky cat girls - these are a pop culture-raised nations' adolescent animal-human surrogates. America sits on our bed, fidgets in its after-work tie, and says "this has been a good talk," then runs from the room confident its role has been passably completed. The TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel.  We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there - and as a result it's a real relief.


Bast
Alas, Cat Woman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali from Acidemic Mediated). Other ladies took the role. None the same; what cat can compare, but genres change, boys become men, men become wolves, graven images are smashed by heretics' hacking hammers, the beat goes on, and cats come back. As Boris says in THE BLACK CAT (1934), "Cats do not die." So can we deny that the crazy old lady with the ton of cats is within us all?

Lately two film ambled forth and struck my gong in this department. Timeless, strange, evocative, ephemeral, mysterious, kind of goofy, and short. What can we do but cherish them, and never try to put them in little cardboard boxes? You heard me, Ollie, in CAT PEOPLE (1942). Pet Stores are a crime.

Free da kitties.

THE CAT CREATURE
(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington
***

The story of a strange necklace stolen off of a mummy and the curse that follows it (everyone who handles the piece gets mauled to death by Bast, a mummy cat god), THE CAT CREATURE is solid as far as 70s TV horror movies go--and there were a lot of them. If you were a kid, now you may find you love them, despite their weird shallow depth slow-amble cop show vibe, their general avoidance of anything like sex or gore, low budget and clear reliance on commercial breaks for pacing which makes their video and digital versions seem strangely incomplete, as if 'the good parts' are missing. But for those of us of the right age or adventurous in spirit they provide a kind of comfort food opiate quality. And when done right, as by Curtis Harrington, they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood, a way to keep fading B-list characters visible, and evoke the bygone classics while following cop show beats and to provide just enough scares and suspense to keep you from changing the channel at the next commercial but not enough to give you a panic attack, rob you of your very-70s faith in humanity, or even bum you out. They trade on ambiguity, which is something that Curtis Harrington, whose NIGHT TIDE revealed him early on as the go-to master of B-list horror poetics for the post-war generation, ably fuses into the dream like proceedings. Harrington is a true fan of the genre, not just his worthy of lionizing for rescuing OLD DARK HOUSE from the edge of the abyss but here, salvaging the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard and getting her to really flash her evil smile as she dishes out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?). He also brings in Keye Luke (hurrah!), John Carradine (of course); lesser-known but strangely familiar B-character actors like Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST). As if the pedigree wasn't tony enough, CAT PEOPLE's Kent Smith kicks it off as an appraiser archiving the collection of a recently murdered Egyptologist. Smith is soon murdered himself; the investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) follows the trail of a missing cat amulet and the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," run with Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery by Sondergaard


Harrington deftly uses that mellow 70s TV rhythm to parcel out the ambiguous details in the intimate relationship that develops between archaeologist named Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) who Marco enlists to help him ID the medallion, and shy cute newcomer 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), the new hire at Gayle Sondergaard's occult bookstore (jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than most - not a drop of New Age healing). Roger and Marco make the scene at the downtown pawn shops and flops in search of the amulet and/or perp Luke. I know this is hard to believe, lieutenant, but the murders seem to have been done by a cat. And then Roger brings up the subject of Bast-- the cat goddess worshipped by human sacrifice making ancient Egyptians--who was then locked away for all eternity because of her blood-drinking and evil.

Suspiria-prfiguring exterior shot set to eerie percussion and yowling
I confess I liked the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other's, and manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV generations. I also found myself drawn to Baxter's shy new store worker --there is a profound sadness to this character that makes her almost like Amy in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE grown up and out on her own for the first time, history all set to repeat itself.


One of Harrington's great skills is in using the commercial break to muddle the "did they or didn't they" fade-out into an actual supernatural asset. The issue of sex with a cat creature (or mermaid) or having to hold still while being afraid of a small house cat actually kills you, pales in importance next to the emotional involvement, so that one coffee by the shore can evolve into a devotion beyond death through a hazy reincarnation style memory - that feeling of "I feel like we go way way way back" spread along the axis of THE MUMMY and SHE and the endless slog of epochs, all without any clear sense of 'how far' things  have gotten, base-wise. We don't know how far around the bases he got since hooking up with her, and neither-one suspects--does he. Their romance sheathed as it is almost in paternal warmth vs. sexual heat is very 70s--in well-laid LA especially--since once it's had with some regularity, sex becomes just a facet of a relationship, that plus censorship of prime time, it's just a thing that may have happened --as it should be. In this way, these stay fairy tale abstract and perfect for children, who desperately want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend but who neither know about nor want to know nor should have to know about sex yet. That's the 70s prime time TV movie in a nutshell. Now I sound old, but even the dirtiest of the oldest men are soon washed clean by time's scavenging sponge.

Dig some of Harrington's 'uncanny' extras - the lesbians at the Sorcerer's shop,
waiter at the hippie-ish restaruant, "Maybelle" at the hotel, etc.

What's so haunting is that eventually she turns into a monster being devoured by stray cats, sort of - a scene that was clearly difficult to pull off (a hard day those cats put in - god only knows how their wrangler got them to all attack that poor stunt man) and looks like one of those guys in INVADERS FROM MARS if he fell in the mud and was wearing a big clay cat head (the bandages are all very loose). It's odd as its twice the size of little Meredith and adds a whole extra level of frisson. Roger has been hooking up with this monster? Either way, it's still sad - we feel for this poor creature, trapped in darkness for thousands of lonely years- I would have liked this better if Roger was at least tempted by her offer of immortality, but the cops are closing in by then anyway, and so there's more than a hint of the kiss-off in both VERTIGO and MALTESE FALCON.


Robert Bloch wrote the script; there's a solid Leonard Rosenman score (some meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs). I even dig the creepy credits with the jagged horror font and the chanting. And at a brisk 75 minutes of so it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, from the horror movie font to the hand-painted Egyptian 'artifacts' Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder).

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
(1944) Dir. Robert Wise
***1/2

Just as CAT CREATURE's low-key success hinges on hazy classic B-movie nostalgia, CURSE's success hinges on the Lewton cinematic language, that low-key visual poetry and gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange night landscapes, the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or (here) snow tires, the way a strange eerie hush falls over things. What do we remember about I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? The whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind. What in LEOPARD MAN? The blood under the door. CAT PEOPLE, the shadows in the pool room, and so on. Each is, in its way, a transient event, ephemeral; the supernatural is always ready to dissolve in the salty brine of rational overhead lighting. Often the story itself is rather inconsequential compared to the marvelous little 'touches' of cinematic observation.

Famously, Lewton was given his lurid titles and had to make films to match and luckily for us he made sure to honor them even while doing his own thing. For CURSE he bucks the RKO brass-mandate of the title to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that moves through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style mytho-poeticism- it's a film with may more women than men, but no shrill gadflies as in THE WOMEN but low-key confident professionals like Nancy Davis in the Lewton-esque SHADOW ON THE WALL. Though it's often avoided in principle by classic horror fans (there's no actual cat people, too many kids), there's much more to this than the casual viewer of the first 10 minutes will suspect. The story is unique among sequels in that is very faithful to its predecessor as far as cast and continuation, rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (but Irina's virginity in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so they had to improvise).
Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Kent Smith as Ollie- the amiable square ship builder, whose pawing drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon) to murder--has remarried Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina chased into the pool in the first film. We fans of the first film certainly didn't begrudge Ollie  and Alice this belated happiness. Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) is there as the housekeeper/cook and they only have one child. Clearly they're affluent in this upscale Sleepy Hollow bucolic idyll --their normal happy life includes bridge games with the neighbors and drinks and songs with the carolers and the compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution. But Amy, their psychic and inward daughter Amy (Ann Carter), doesn't quite fit Ollie's uber-generic idea of what kids should be. Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness')-- in other words, Ollie has become Irina's shadow rather than vice versa. In a way he becomes the villain of the piece - he spanks Amy for sayings she has an imaginary friend, which is kind of horrible, punishing her for imagination, since he considers it Irina's imagination that she was a cat. We cheer her running off into the night, utterly abandoned as even her imaginary friend decides to leave her (since she broke the cardinal rule and mentioned her existence to dogmatic Ollie).


We kids could relate, maybe we didn't have a dad who punished us for imagining things, but it felt like that; we related to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closet queer (the lesbian 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant - though as kids in the 80s that kind of stuff escaped us), her dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware. She knew that the only thing keeping her human was the safety of the camera, our gaze, director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo. When darkness comes and the camera is elsewhere or off-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little sound --without our parents to name and diffuse them, they took on monstrous life. Imagination is--in the land of children and Lewton--not merely some Spielbergian whimsy, but also a place of unfathomable danger and dread. Irina's fear of sex was like our fear of the dark, each tapping a vein of mythic alchemical change of the body; since we don't understand it, sex becomes an important part of a marriage due to its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies).

The Women (reflecting the wartime shortage of men by having a strong mostly female cast
where everyone, even Amy, is more or less a mature adult (not a gossipy snipe ala THE WOMEN).
As in SHADOW ON THE WALL, the world of children is one where women carry absolute authority.
Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects Ollie's intolerant
behavior; Ollie sends Amy upstairs; Ms. Callahan sends Ollie, but far more maturely.
Either way Amy, the evidence of Ollie finally getting laid, is dreamy and otherworldly- ignoring her friends to chase butterflies (the sort of thing that clearly inspired PAN'S LABYRINTH); mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees and calling Irina (Simone Simon) into being. By day we're treated to an array of exterior shots as Amy goes chasing butterflies and walking past the gloomy old 'haunted house.' Amy's not afraid, an old lady in the window throws her a magic ring wrapped in a kerchief and soon Amy finds herself swept into the drama inside the crumbling Gothic mansion --a kind of GREAT EXPECTATIONS setting with her being swept into a maternal drama between super-creepy Elizabeth Russell (the 'sister' in the first film), whose elderly mom, who an old stage actress (Julia Dean) refuses to recognize as her own. The maternal triangle, the elder lady lavishing affection on young Amy while her older ignored flesh and blood watches in envy, is almost exactly like MARNIE and one is compelled to realize the rarity of it since these are the only two instances (though it shows up on a more sexual note in, say, Von Sternberg's Dietrich films). On the other hand, why is this weird daughter hanging around, taking care of her mom and not, seemingly, having any
sort of a life of her own?



It doesn't matter as it's all seen through the eyes of a child, who's sensitive. Ann Carter is a very unique actress, with something of Veronica Lake's blonde otherworldliness (she even plays Lake's daughter in the last scene of I MARRIED A WITCH). Hers is a heightened cinematic reality, its edges trimmed for B-movie simplification (sketches rather than murals) any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself - but that doesn't mean it's real any more than its not.  One of the scarier parts of the film is just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, but it's the way it's filmed, Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares into the camera while delivering the oration (and in we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats), the nervous fretting of Lancelot who's come to fetch her home, all create a uniquely weird and original mood that won't be duplicated again until the big climax.


Though there's no immanent threat, and it's the afternoon, and Edward (Sir Lancelot) is right there, the mood--one imaginative woman to another--lingers in the mind. Sir Lancelot's discomfort can't compete with that kind of wild imaginative prowess, so fear it (for Lewton fans it's an ironic counterpoint since the last time we saw Lancelot in a Lewton film he was slowly advancing towards Frances Dee in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (below, 2nd down), singing a creepy ballad about the 'trouble' at the plantation, staring into the camera in the same way. Now, a year later, he's shifting with the same unease he generated in Dee (and he's sort of playing the Dee role here, a caregiver to a blonde with far-away eyes).

Don't stare into the camera, lest the camera stare back
Directed with some of Tourneur's visual poetry by Robert Wise, once we leave the daytime shots for the surreal studio snowdrifts and spooky mansion with its rattling shudders and snow tracking into the foyer, the film finally lets go of its central theme of imagination to focus on something like Christian transmutation. We come away wondering if Amy's found a new friend, a babysitter, maybe, or at lest a friendly neighbor, in the form of the formerly murderous Elizabeth Russell and dad comes around at last at which point Irina can safely disappear. THE END flashes in an ominous touch, just as it does in Curtis Harrington's CAT CREATURE, with the feeling the film is still going on, even after the house lights come up but the cats do not die, anymore than darkness.


RELATED: 

America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
At Long Last, Lost Lewtons: FALCON AND THE CO-EDS, ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY
CinemArchetype 2; The Anima
CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar
A Moon, Cat Women, and Thou: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON
“What It Takes to Make a Softie”: Breaking Noir Tradition in THE LEOPARD MAN

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Laurentiis of Drug-rabia: DUNE (Great Acid Cinema #43)



Caught the last half of DUNE on Showtime after a groovy nap and it was good enough I had to watch the first part on demand. I remembered liking its wildly uneven effects and straight-faced self-important trippiness as a college freshman catching it at the Student Union in 1985 but it wasn't 'cool' to show enthusiasm for it. What insecure freshman is strong enough to buck the flow of the masses? But this time 32 years older, unafraid and not fully awake, watching Kyle McLachlan in a sexy ribbed dark black suit riding atop a giant sand worm as the thunder cracked, the sand churned, and finally--like it's been buried under the surface of Arrakis all this time-- an electric guitar from Toto comes cracking through the orchestration like a blazing ray of sun, I knew I was home. Directed by David Lynch, produced by Dino de Laurentiis - a match made in heaven, whether anyone knew it back in the realm before cheap CGI made even unconvincing miniature work forever precious.

Even from the first scene you know you may not understand shit about what's going on, but you've never seen anything like it: a bald sister psychic asked by the emperor to psychically eavesdrop on the thoughts of a navigator (those Metaluna-brained newts in spice). escorted by a flock of austere leprous monks with cracked-egg brains--who file into a wildly psychedelic golden throne room carrying a Grand Central concourse entrance-cum- 30s diner train car betwixt them--then the windows open and the navigator swims out of the murk up against the glass to address the emperor via a translator device that looks like a 20s radio microphone. This, you realize, is not common - this is the kind of thing Bill Burroughs might hallucinate while on yage, watching an old WB movie wherein Spanish ambassadors complain about privatized buccaneers to Queen Elizabeth. In its total otherness i might even be a film actually made on another planet, one where the burnished dusky Art Deco Grand Central concourse oyster bar Illuminati 1939 Worlds' Fair Dali fever dream decor never went out of style, just matured along a separate tributary from th

The guitar of Toto made me think of another pic produced by the great world-builder Dino de Laurentiis, FLASH GORDON (1980), with it's unforgettable rock and roll Queen soundtrack. And then I thought of the 'deliverer' come to a strange new world to free the people in bondage from Von Sydow's or Jose Ferrer's galactic emperor. CONAN too... with its thunderous De Falla permutations. ORCA in reverse, to Ennio Morricone. Dino de Laurentiis did them all. Dino! I feel your guiding hand, and it is holding an electric guitar!

Now in 2017, aired on Showtime in tandem with Lynch's TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN, the true psychedelic yield comes forth, like one of those big 'Guild Navigator' beings, that look kind of like a giant newt with the cranium of a Metalunan mutant and googly eyes of a giant monster squid. Acting as a kind of intergalactic MTA, folding space through their swimming in gaseous clouds of the psychedelic spice, they blow from their icky Burroughsian orifices big plasma balls at images of planets and in doing so dissolve the space betwixt them, a kind of butterfly wing / tsunami / Dustin Hoffman folding a blanket thing. And they expect to have their fog of spice fresh and churning for their troubles. The film doesn't get much help trying to decipher all that, even with Virginia Madsen's coyly apologetic voiceover, you do get some weird-ass sights, giant worms, morgue extras who can't keep their toe-tags still and a five year-old Alicia Witt dancing with a curved knife in celebration of death and destruction like a pint-sized Kali.


PSYCHEDELICS = SPACE TRAVEL

DUNE offers a universe free of trite morality - so a 'concubine' or 'consort' can be a religious lady, choose her children's gender through sheer will, and they're not bastards but heirs to the throne. And trying big doses of spice while on Arrakis leads you to bond with far-off elements of the planet and prolong life -- not feel paranoid your mom will find out or the cops will pull you over. In short, it's an actual sane future, of the sort envisioned in 60s psychedelic mysticism and via practices like remote viewing, and 'going where no man has ever gone before' not including, necessarily, toting your body along. The internal voiceover aspect (we hear people's thoughts) doesn't bother me because for 1) theres so much telepathy and 2) Shakespeare adaptations by Olivier and Welles, both do it. And 3) The use of sound waves to formulate thought and vibrate objects to explode is amazing (though there's no sound based telekinesis - and since supposedly that's how the pyramids were built), it's still never been adequately developed in film or reality - and one side effect of the use of voice as a weapon is to rearrange how we think of language in speaking. People do not blather in DUNE - words carry heavy import - while inner monologues become a whole second tier.


And even stronger than 'the spice' there's a liquid made from the bile of the worms of Arrakis, "the water of life" equivalent to, in a sense, eating the worm at the bottom of the mezcal bottle times a million--all the preparations and anticipation of danger making a fine parallel with smoking, say, DMT or 50x Salvia Divinorum. As with drugs, psychic powers are not belittled and demonized but a part of reality, drugs not treated with disrespect and fear, and psychonauts valued for their shamanic contribution to the good of their house. Is this part of the reason the film was so panned? What about how it shows women in positions of power, as good fighters who need not be babied and protected but who can control minds with their mastery of the "weirding way"? For all its legitimate problems, for some of us, vitriol heaped on a film that features positive views of drugs and women is suspect, bro. Like if a film condones psychedelics and matriarchies, it's a film that must be panned. STAR MAIDENS and ALL THAT GLITTERS are not on DVD. The latter hasn't even been on tape! Free the matriarchal structured sci-fi from uptight fanboy damnation! 


Luckily DUNE, being a 'David Lynch Film' endures. So though we have a straight white male hero Christ figure, his mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis - left) is a badass who's taught her son the bulk of his fighting and telepathic skills. He can kill with a word. But it's his mom who taught her. As a super-human genius of the Bene Jesserit sisterhood, she's a figure unique in western literature and film. Only Jet Li's mother in the FONG SAI YUK compares in cool capability. And just having an array of holy sisters in positions of power and authority (a fully matriarchal lineage within the DUNE universe, covering both sides of the clash - there's a reverend mother within even the Fremen) makes the film worth seeing. One of Lynch's great strengths is his comfort around a large cast of female characters whose roles transcend gender norms while still retaining their sex appeal. 

PSYCHONAUTS OF THE GOLDEN CRESCENT

Time has been kind to DUNE politically as well. In 1984 all it reminded us of was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, but today--after 9/11--it seems most prescient. The character weird names all carry a Muslim whiff and the word 'jihad' is even used. We should remember that Lawrence of Arabia was working for the British, and was plenty mad when they betrayed all his promises to the Saudis, but could do nothing about it. He came home and sulked. Osama bin Laden on the other hand, went all the way, like Kurtz. a rich son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family, chose to live deep in caves with desert nomads and fight first world super powers (first Russia, then 'us') through sabotage and terrorism, very much like a certain Paul Atreiades. Not that this itself redeems either Osama or DUNE - but it shows the way creative vision always comes from somewhere. The Akashic records, or just the wind of messiah complexes and the Golden Crescent opium trade. A nicely paranoid post (by 'OsamabinladenreadDune) in the Fortean Times notes the worms resemble the jets used to ram the towers and the year of the big change in the story is 10191, i.e. 09/11. Whoa, bro.

Silver Strain - The Jihad of Muad'Dib
I don't think DUNE inspired actual terrorism, but I do believe, at least one fish of my Pisces brain believes, in the Akashic records which anyone who could come up with such an elaborate, dosey world as Frank Herbert, surely accessed. So while Lynch's film may not be perfect, it is 'connected' to a divine source - and if you doubt it. Read the book, or go to the alternate realms of consciousness yourself, and thou shalt know.

LYNCH's ICK FACTOR

Alas, to my mind the main issue with DUNE today isn't the condensed fragmentary confusion of the narrative (that explains itself after the third viewing) nor the STRANGE INTERLUDE-ish inner monologues (they make sense with so much telepathy and mysticism), but the ick factor with the lengthy torture and sadism and gluttonous evil laughing scenes with Baron Harkonen "the floating fat man" - and his family and toadies in their ugly world - the towers of which resemble skyscrapers done up in pre-code two-strip color Warner Bros. horror film pinks and jades, and light from within a giant front porch bug zapper.  In their kinky blue-black outfits, the fat ugly brother (son?) and wild-eyed Sting looking like Malcolm McDowell's Caligula stepping out of the steam bath-- in nothing but his metal jock strap, and let his relatives float around him in a delirious incestuous homosexual spice-fueled mad lust, finally sated only by pulling out the nipple plugs on some little red haired boy. The Italian fascination with red hair goes back to the giallos of the 70s, of course, and here it seems to reach a kind of incestual-ancestral zenith from which it can never return, especially after the grotesque scene with a distressed mouse sewed to the back of a cat, or something (I fast forward past it and don't look - being traumatized by it back at the Student Union), and people eating strips of meat cut from a trussed up dead cow, or cleaning out the open sores and leprous acne from Harkonen's drug-ravaged pan, all for no other real purpose except to provoke disgust and loathing. We can connect these stretches with the stuff like the house where Frank has stashed the son and husband of Dorothy Vallens in BLUE VELVET, or One-Eyed Jacks in TWIN PEAKS or some other den of hyper-intense debauchery (the red stains on the mouths of one people in league with the Harkonens reminds one of--naturally--gluttonous winos) and thus pin them on Lynch's absurdist relish for the grotesque horrors of the fantasmatic 'subconscious' zone (which always have lots of drugs, violence, and maniacal laughing). Here it's even worse, as Baron eats his beautiful boys, or drinks them, and then gloats and laughs in a point of rich hysteria, thus lumping homosexuality in as just another disgust-generating depravity.

That said, one must admire the insane commitment of Kenneth McMillan as the evil baron (though I won't show him as he's too gross) who plays his scenes as if he's peaking on a massive dose of cocaine, each death he watches or engineers gives him a loathsome thrill. Floating around like the kid full of blueberries in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, he and his party milking and crushing and otherwise destroying an array of (actual or puppet) living creatures in an orgy of odious relish, his only real competition in unadulterated odium is perhaps Albert Cole in THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT. I'll always support evil laughing fits and a chance for Sting to wear his crazy eyes but eveb in the 80s, sooner or later even the sickest freak watching this shit goes "Okay, David, we get it - these red-headed creepy Harkonen are the bad guys." On the big screen, a little repulsiveness goes a long way, and one almost senses Lynch expressing his frustration at Dino's meddling by upping the quotient. If he can't inspire us and move our souls to alternate realities, he can at least leave a slightly traumatic and grotesque imprint.


But this can be solved, this Harkonen vileness circumvented as if through magic:
Scroll! Scroll through past the unpleasantries. They're plot is followed easy enough
this way - and to true peace.
Have you On-Demand or the DVD?
Scroll through, Moad Dib, scroll to freedom

And when Paul and his family are all in their capture (up until Paul and his mother are being taken out to the desert to die by two of the Harkonen's men) when it becomes awesome --that's when I stop fast-forwarding; watching Paul's mother seduce one of the guards into cutting her bonds and stabbing the pilot via her use of a deep throaty voice (the 'weirding way') makes all the forwarding worthwhile.

WOMEN and FREMEN

Everett McGill always seemed kind of useless as the sad sack forlorn lover of Peggy Lipton in TWIN PEAKS but here with his deep voice and solemn but not dour manner finds the ornate and no-frills mythic dialogue of Silgur, leader of the Fremen, he's a perfect match. Most people couldn't get across stilted, strange lines like "Usul, we have wormsign the likes of which even Gawd has never seen!" But they McGill makes them work to flawlessly. Sean Young as Paul's lover Fremen molders too with lines like "Tell me of your homeworld, Usul," as if she's learned nothing in all our other post-BLADE RUNENR roles about the craft of acting. But it, too, works, and once her hair is down it stays down; her confessions of love and her concern over Paul's taking the water of life (No man has ever survived it, only women usually take it when advancing levels of the reverent sisterhood - which in itself is badass. Sorry boys, this shit will kill you - have a Shirley Temple.")  And here in the misty dust of the Fremen's underground universe, Francesca Anna's dark eye make-up, hair all loose and half tucked into her tunic, is gorgeous and haunting.


Sean Young's luminous presence, and the cool desert suits bring the art direction to a dusky earthen hue from which the deep blue eyes blaze most becomingly; for the next barrage - and some of the dosed montages seem to be forced to repeat imagery, but the idea of the sister being born prematurely while Paul's mom is taking the 'water of life' and tripping her brains out, and thus sister becoming a wild telepathic super killer is divine, and who could blame her, it's like getting high on all this spice has made Kyle McLachlan so much hotter. Maybe the light is just flattering on this world, but as he grows, as the 'the sleeper awakens' - the baby fat of earlier scenes is gone, replaced by angular leaner jawline. A star is hatching from its egg right before us. He really is the Ashach Backhalcharacn

In other words, dear friends, check it out on demand and see if it's better the second time. If you've never seen it, I'd say go right to the second time and never worry about following the plot. If you can't manage that, well, just relish in the fact that--simply put--there's no jokes or smiles or anachronistic winks at the audience in DUNE, yet it's never sanctimonious or plodding. You can't argue with a messiah who sends his five year-old sister alone into the imperial spaceship of his enemy in order to slice up an evil baron. These things go a long way. So long in fact, you may not appreciate them for 33 years. But now Alicia Witt is older and hot. Kyle is an institution thanks to TWIN PEAKS, and the worm turns through time's beggar king, conquering all, even through endless shots of stunt men being blown up as they run along the sand at night, over and over, and over.

THE WILD (Analog) WORLDS OF DINO DE
from top: Flash, Dune (x2), Conan (x2) Flash Gordon,  Barbarella-

And it's real crime is that in all this while, we've never seen another film where to celebrate victory a child dances in slow motion waving a curved dagger with which she's just killed someone while exultant electric guitar chords twang. Lynch may not know how to play well with others, and I think in retrospect let himself be too casually destroyed by lack of final cut, but after all- if not for Dino and DUNE there's be no BLUE VELVET (Dino funded it). And without that, would there even be a TWIN PEAKS? Without Dino, would there be such a rich untrampled CONAN, such Masonic high-weirdness in FLASH?


The great Sean Kelly shared a bit of observation with me about Dino de Laurentiis, that he spends lavishly on film design, then runs out of money, so grand and mind-boggling beauty in one lavish large sets start things out, but by the end there are barely convincing miniatures and third rate effects, wires showing, mismatched backgrounds, etc. That might have seemed like a problem at the time, but in the age of CGI, the acoustic tactile effect of real shit in real time forgives a whole mess of problems. We can always sigh and moan and wonder 'what if' re Jodorowsky's version but hey- his films aren't perfect either. His work is like a sledgehammer to reality-- he reaches in and pulls the guts out--it ain't often pretty even as it boggles the mind. In this Lynch-Laurentiis-Herbert version, it might not be perfect, but it rocks; it might be incoherent at times but it's beautiful. In its unique look and courageous bizarro conviction, it stands alone in a sea of shiite; it's only neighbors on this giant crest, CONAN, FLASH, and maybe BARBARELLA. What do they have in common? Dino de Laurentiis. His gorgeous slightly megalomaniacal bliss comes from the ability to act like Catholicism and the War on Drugs never happened, a world free of burdensome petty 'proper' morality (vs. the 'Golden Rule' standard of, say, Crowley), leading something fantasy cinema can find nowhere else, real resonant full-bodied Old Testament Nietzschean moxy, wherein women do their own killing and are fine with it; wherein drugs can exert their effect on consciousness right out in public; wherein the worm is eaten, and the tiles glisten serpentine, and the electric guitars break through the clouds, illuminating at long last something. Whatever it is, however much it cost, it's really there. Something really there... is there.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tigron and Taboo: the Freudian Dream Theater of FLASH GORDON (1936) + Aura the Merciful


The murky Freudian sexuality of dreams sometimes creates a kind of bilateral lurching movement, as if crashing sideways through a row of Natural History Museum dioramas. Each one shallow and dimly imprisoning, static yet evoking the tumultuous prehistoric landscape-- neither indoors nor out, but a strange combination, as if the whole world was now under one roof, yet offering the same limited depth of field of, say, a theater stage or one of those old 3D View Masters. It was the original STAR TREK's great genius to understand this. Their alien planet surfaces never had much depth of field, but in their surreal staginess-- a few foam rocks with a weird tree growing between them, and a strangely colored sky backdrop enhanced with colorful gel spot lighting, and we fell under the influence of its nifty vapors, a bit like sneaking off one of those cool, gloomy Disney log rides that slowly flow past pirates and dinosaurs; it was only when TREK went out of doors, in the desert canyon scrub, that mundane reality seemed to intrude. Those were never as fun--they never tapped into the dreamy sexual current.

This was all brought home to me big time after recently re-watching Universal's original 1936 serial of FLASH GORDON. Instead of masking its poverty with one too many half-assed fist fights and talky stretches, the way so many later serials did, FLASH packs in imaginative cliffhangers, monsters, fights, ray guns, death beams, hypnosis, giant lizards, allies and foes, and most importantly, sex, in every chapter. In its gonzo shoestring madness, this original 13-chapter groundbreaker captures the semantics, lurid subtext, sketchy detail, and tumble-over-itself breathless pacing of pre-adolescent 'ur-sexual' dreams, or especially (as per Freud), a prepubescent male's first erotic pangs - the magnetic jouissance that has no outlet  (the orgone energy and erotic focus is yet to cohere in the genitals, so roams throughout the body, diluted but present everywhere at once, leading to polymorphous perversity). Flash might be aimed at the younger viewer, but it's not aimed at keeping them at the same place, as far as imparting a sense of sexual anticipation that made us 10-13 year-old boys want to sing "Who Knows?" from West Side Story while mooning over girls a few years older than us at the local pool. Just as Zarkov blasts Flash, Dale, and himself to Mongo to save the Earth, the film blasts us off to adulthood at the sight of Jean Rogers' bare midriff heaving, pressed against the throne room wall as the heartily-laughing/leering King Vultan of the Hawkmen advances towards her, as crazed with desire as we are, brains scrambles and entire body alive with rocket fuel jouissance lifting us out of snot-nosed, ice cream truck-chaser phase and into a semi sexually awakened pre-teen, the type for whom just pulling a girl's hair so she chases you around the playground is suddenly no longer enough but we have no earthly idea where else to go from awkward, asking a girl to make out being far more terrifying than being jumped by the local bullies.

AURA

Kim Morgan's excellent New Beverly piece on the remake, her startling paise for the color red and the progressive awesomeness of Ornellea Mutti as Aura in the 1980 Sam Hodges' remake inspired me recently to revisit both that film and the earlier original series. Though considered just a post-Star Wars throwback at the time (though really it's Star Wars that's the Flash imitation), it has stood the test of time as a pinnacle in utilizing kinky pulp magazine ur-sexuality (1) in the service of kid-friendly feminism. Capable Aura-- the 'kinky daughter whose 'appetites' are never censured by her amoral hedonistic tyrant father'--makes the film work. 

Alas, the Aura archetype has been all but hounded out of the sci-fi fantasy sphere these last 30 years. Certainly there's no one remotely like her in the Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings cycles, nor Harry Potter --where women are but wallpaper or banal figures of 'goodness' and purity, representations of institutions or sidekick girlfriends. Even the Marvel universe tends to prefer male super-villains, and though the many female superhero characters are well-sketched in, for the most part - they never occupy Aura's unique 'centrist' position as the engineer of the action, beyond good and evil, motivated by desire for Flash which transcends any concern for her own safety or loyalty to her father. She may be Ming's daughter, but if not for her Flash would be dead after the first episode; Dale is certainly not going to help but Aura risks her own life time and again to keep him by her side and safe, and to pay her back he mustn't kill Ming even if presented with the chance. It's important that neither Dale nor Flash nor Ming nor Aura are ever in possession of their desire, but chase each other around the planet and its various kingdoms, always granting each other a pass due to family blocking - Aura makes sure Flash stays alive, diving into pits and dragon's lairs after him - but has no interest in helping Dale and indeed actively works against her; Flash makes sure Dale is safe from Ming and refuses to the advances of Aura (who is undeterred); Ming tries to kill Flash for cockblocking him; Aura prevents her father's killing him; Ming doesn't want to fire on Flash if daughter Aura in the way; Flash doesn't want to kill Ming because it would hurt Aura, who's helped him escape time and time again, and so forth, round and round the 13 chapters they go. When I see it now it reminds me of similar chains of childhood obsession I was part of, the younger sister of a neighbor following me around while I followed her older sister (my age but more mature) and she in turn the boy chasing her still-older sister, and so on, so as if the oldest cutest girl was the head of a mighty serpent, ending with whatever tyke was loping after the girl loping after me. Here the action is originated with Ming's machinations, then diverted by Aura's desire and courage--a two-headed snake. She's really the most pro-active and ingenious character in the series (Ming can only assign and delegate), while Dale can only adopt a stricken pose and shout Flash's name from the sidelines and Flash can only escape Aura's embrace to go chasing off to her rescue. 


"Because I like you."
This is not say there haven't been female-aimed and centered film myths, but these women are either plucky if regularly endangered heroines recruiting loyal men to guard their honor (ala Mina Harker, Cat Ballou), or--if villains--devouring monsters of narcissism and ice queen bitchiness (Charlize Theron in Snow White and the Huntsman, Nicole Kidman in The Golden Compass, Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak, Julianne Moore in Hunger Games, Kate Winslet in Divergent, etc.) If they should, as Aura does, learn a 'better' way, less evolution-based and more sisterhood - then they go 'un-sexed' ala Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Elsa (Idina Menzel) in Frozen--they don't get to display uninhibited carnality and be powerful, manipulative but ultimately good-hearted, complexly cross-hatched, flawed but courageous, fallible but larger than life. In literature adaptations like Wuthering Heights or Gone With the Wind alone were they allowed to move in uncorrupted by the vile touch of unsexy censorship. But in sci-fi and fantasy, where have they gone?

Just try to picture Luke's survival if the Emperor was smart enough to send some foxy enemy seductress out to get him? Or the Emperor smacked his lipless gums at the thought of buying the scantily clad Leia from Jabba (who's too fat and abstract to represent any real sexual menace). Instead, rather than risk seeming too sexist to the blue state feminists or too sexy to the red state bible thumpers, the current franchises avoid the sexually active "chaotic neutral" female altogether. Women-aimed films featuring female characters with real guts and condoned desire, as in Twilight or Vampire Academy are as maligned by fandom as my crew used to revile Archie and Charlton's Modern Romance comics. Unjustly! 

Basically Lucas raided the Flash Gordon serial crayon box and took almost everything except the Aura red. Alone there it now stands, a relic from a bygone era when desire was still allowed to exist in the heart of strong beautiful amoral women who then didn't have to die as a result. But censors needn't get into such hissy hysterics; we viewers--especially as young boys--don't judge Aura for her carnality, far from it. In both versions we judge Flash for being such a prude that he'd deny the desires of a hot babe who just saved his life, more than once, especially in favor of a square helpless Earth woman he met a mere chapter earlier. In the remake, Aura even suffers the bore worm torture \ rather than rat out the coroner who helped her smuggle Flash to freedom (via the old 'slip the condemned man into a death-like coma' drug). All Flash can do to pay her back is inadvertently tip off Ming's goons by telepathically linking with Dale instead of satisfying the lusts of his liberator like a true gentleman. 


Another 'red queen' - Fah Lo Suee- Fu Manchu's daughter
Aura represents "the Red Queen", the root CinemArchetype, and what's sad about it isn't that she's too adult, too far along on the current of budding sexuality, but that in denying her kind to the boys of today we're keeping them held in a kind of sexual check, the kind that moves from snickering football doofus in junior high to rapey jock in high, and so forth, with never a soul to tell him a sexually active healthy woman need not be crushed like a spider found suddenly under a lifted math book. In Alex Raymond's strip, just as Ming is derived clearly from Fu Manchu, Aura is derived from his insidious, super-sadistic daughter, Fah Lo Suee (most memorably played by Myrna Loy in MGM's shockingly racist 1932 pre-code Mask of Fu Manchu). I'm not sure if author Sax Rohmer himself had a source for her awesome evil,  if she was just a mainstay of kinky "men's adventure" pulp miscegenation fantasies, written perhaps by xenophobic shore-leave sailors too high to figure out how to escape their berth in a Shanghai opium den/brothel. There was the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates, which always seemed too adult and complicated (she and Terry had a complex relationship), whereas there was a feral purity to Fah Lo Suee or Aura that we could understand. If she had the hots for you, man, that was the best hope you had for staying alive. As kids too terrified of rejection to ever ask a girl to make out, Aura's kind of aggressive no-subtlety seduction was a dream come true and Flash the biggest bonehead in existence. On the other hand, if we were Flash, Ming would still be in charge, and we'd be another of Aura's smitten booty call reserves rather than her main obsession.


One of the reasons I liked Suicide Squad was the Aura archetype's re-emergence in the form of Harley Quinn. You can argue that (as per her origin flashbacks) she was driven mad by a man, the Joker, just as Aura was morally bankrupted by father Ming, so it's all just the patriarchy doing its Trilby sexual subjugation number, but you miss the point- i.e. a display of unrepentant feminine enjoyment outside of the parameters of Earth's antiquated morality is no vice, whatever the road it takes to get there. It's like decrying a straight A student's grades as being the product of abusive, overly strict parenting, i.e. a sign of child abuse, and therefore void as a testament of personal worth.

DALE

Dale Arden on the other hand, reacts, purely -- passes out and in some instances runs up to Flash and basically grabs his ray gun arm so Ming can escape; Aura leaps into the gladiator fray - she saves Flash not the other way around. Dale's main contribution to Flash's well-being is to smile like a child seeing a puppy gambol down the hallway towards her, exclaiming "Flash!" And when it should happen he's facing certain doom, she screams "Flash!" Jean Rogers lurches back and forth on the sets like they're rocking falling and twirling from one mark to the other - assuming theatrical poses and keeping them, motionless, as other actors say their lines in a kind of expressionist dream theater worthy of Brecht or the pre-Goebbels UFA.

ELEMENTAL DREAM LOGIC

Laden as it is with unconscious elemental symbolism--sky (ships) / water (kingdom) / earth (lizards) / fire (dragon)--it's natural that the trappings of childhood trauma and anxiety cohere in the ingeniously frugal art direction, the everyday things a child sees are given nightmare import: Kala the Shark Man's underwater kingdom resembles an ordinary bathroom gone Rarebit Fiend-awry: shower curtains stand in for boudoir walls; water leaks in from behind bolted metal plates as if urgent bladders; windows are laundry machine round. Rather than being thrown into an ocean (and this jibes perfectly with real dreams), Flash is forced into a large indoor swimming pool to fight the shark men (whose fin is just a ridge on their bathing caps) and they come at him like porpoises in the Olympic swimming pool standing in for a Mongo floodgate. This is a universe as imagined by an imaginative but scientifically-limited child, so if you fall off the moon you tumble down to Earth; there's no vacuum or need for space suits; everyone speaks English so there are translator devices, there's no sense of alternate time, no need for food or sleep or bathroom breaks; the ocean is perfectly represented by your bathtub, your washrag scuttles across the bottom of the tub like an octopoid as your plastic army man struggles to escape.

Another dream logic element to the 1936 serial, which always threw me for a pleasant loop, is a weird disembodied male voice that shows up regularly to do all the overdubs (narrating, news broadcasts, and actor voices) through what sounds like a tin microphone from before the age of sound recording. Way afield of the rest of the mix he was clearly added later (by the editor, Saul A. Goodkind [as per imdb]) to fill in common gaps in understanding and dead spots in the action--his attempts to match offscreen character voices are so 'off' as to be surrealistic. Lost in the zone between a commentary track and a regular dubbing, his overdubs work to enhance the otherworldliness, the dreamy disconnect. The highlight is when the bear with the white stripe down its back comes into King Vultan of the Hawkmen's throne room to harass Dale, still in her sex Ming-give dress, her bosom heaving, stomach sucked in with terror - she's a luscious, maddeningly hot vision, especially to a prepubescent boy who hasn't quite made the jump from amoral protean lust to empathic chivalry, making the weird bear so much more disconnected, especially when that disembodied voice comes on, speaking slow and strange saying something like "You don't like me? Maybe you will like my friend, Urso!" Since the voice is heard alongside the bear's close-up, we think, is this the bear talking? Does the voiceover guy even know if he's doing Vultan or the bear? Is it some weird combination? When Vultan opens the door back up so the beast will leave he gives is a playful slap on the hindquarter and the white (yellow) dust making up the stripes flies up, reassuring us the poor creature wasn't actually painted and it will all come off in the pool. Meanwhile all through the bear's arrival and departure, Dale heaves against the wall in a way to drive a boy to a man's distraction and Vultan laughs in a semi-insane impression of heartiness. It really is like a dream has spilled right onto the TV out of a fevered 11 year-old's brain.

"Maybe you will like my friend, Urso."
As for the limits of the effects, we kids (and this I remember from when it was on local TV in reruns) filled in the blanks. We didn't need to see an actual octopoid: we got aquarium stock footage of an octopus intercut with what looked like Flash caught in a nest of rubber hoses at the bottom of a swimming pool, but Crabbe's panicked eyes reminded us of when we felt we were going to drown in swim class, and our imagination filled in the gory details. Though now the footage looks very mismatched and sloppy, his panic (Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer so he knows how to convey fear of drowning) is sharply etched and I remember well my own imagination playing the scene over and over as I slept the morning after catching it on early TV after an all-night block party, my first staying up until dawn moment as a child, so fraught with mythological imprinting. The filmmakers seem to know how to use a bunch of disparate footage to activate a child's imagination so that more is seen than is actually shown.

Sex of course, is one of those things.

I know it's hard to keep this stuff out of the realm of children today, alas, due to youtube. But my generation, and that of the 30s Flash Gordon serial, certainly, could easily spend the first decade-plus of our childhood in complete sexual darkness, so that our sudden urges towards underwear models in the Sears catalogue seemed rapturously unique to us alone, and since they weren't tied to the tedious mechanics of actual sex, they scaled bizarre sadomasochistic heights.

THE LONGING FOR CLOSURE IS THE CLOSURE

Like dreams, FLASH never 'resolved' or had a distinct climax and denouement; its salient goal, as in dreams, is to keep your attention riveted, unaware you're asleep so you don't get self-conscious and jinx your REM state- i.e. wake up. My local newspaper never got the Flash comic strip; not even sure it was running by then... but certainly we knew, too, that feeling, as long stories in the 'dramatic' strips like Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom and Brenda Starr, inched along, day after day, a few panels at a time, always doubling back to bring new readers up to speed, then stalling out in delirious teasing narrative torture. The Flash strip itself seemed pretty risque (above) from what I gleaned in the comic book history tomes at the school library in high school. It was in those books that I knew and loved Little Nemo in Slumberland via a couple of comic strip history books I'd found in the library, and just as those full page Sunday strips ended with Nemo back in bed, wondering what he's missing in Slumberland now that he's 'back' in the dream of reality, there was the aching feeling, as in our dreams, that our absence was felt. While we were forgetting her, dressing for school, lurching through homeroom, I felt sure my dreamland princess was being ravished by my dreamland monster--Dale was still in the clutches of Urso --but I was powerless to know for sure.


By now you should, being astute, garnered the connection between the cliffhanger's suspense "Tune in next time, same bat channel" or "Next week at this theater!" or tomorrow's paper, and the delirious longing and frustration that comes from being teased, denied orgasm, made out with but strung along, a brother left hangin' - as it were, sometimes for years. This kind of sexual bait and switch is all important for serials for the same reason as it is for dreams - the basic function of the dream being to keep the conscious mind from 'waking up' - as if a movie being made by an internal director who loses his audience the moment the audience realizes he really does need to get up and go to the bathroom or answer the door, that the buzzing isn't spaceships but alarm clocks, so your dream weaver must make the ships sound so much like alarm clocks as to down them out, but not enough in a sense to fool the conscious mind into waking up even earlier than planned.

In this sense too the 'petit mort' of orgasm acts as a 'waking up' - leading to guilt or disgust the way one might have, for example, after eating a big steak and realizing you are now overly full and want the plate taken away asap --three hours later you're still sitting there at the table waiting for the waiter to remove the plate. What was initially so desirable at 8 PM - hhmm-mm hot and juicy is within an hour reduced to a plate of slowly rotting excised fat and grease; the age of the goddess revealed in the sudden guilty chill of post-orgasmic depression, the urge to put one's pants back on and bail tempered by the need to not seem like a douche bag.

As with kids in play, the idea is never to end the game. No one ever walks away from a game of fake war; the last man standing steps on a mine or is shot by a dying man in the bushes and falls dramatically and only then may all the slain arise. In this sense, there's never a need to just kill opposing forces. Flash has a laser beam rifle to hand only to put it down to fight hand to hand with a pack of guards; or a sword to Ming's throat, only to let him bargain his way out, never suspecting he'd go back on his word, over and over - it's a catch and release thing kids understand as that's how you keep the adventure flowing. Once a side wins for good it's all done, the 13 chapters are up. That means one thing: time to wake up and go to goddamned school again.

And just as dreams seemed to be largely repurposed imagery from waking 'content,' as if everything you saw or experienced in school, or the mall, or the back yard whiffle ball game, comprised a casting office and scenery storage palette to draw from for the shadowy figure painting your dreams, so Flash repurposed an array of familiar sights and sounds from earlier movies -- particularly from Universal's early horror classics --then in regular local TV rotation as well-- the sets, the Franz Waxman scores and Frankenstein's lighthouse laboratory; a statue from 1932's The Mummy, other weird cutaways to things too expensive-looking to not be integrated with the actors were they made for the serial itself. The many-armed statue with the scantily-clad maidens writhing on it for example, was cut away to again and again in the credits and in the serial but played no part in the evens whatsoever. Still, I dreamt about it- in its dark strangeness it tapped into a vein of dark adult sex I was scared of but drawn towards, a jagged-edged murky magnet pulling me over a cliff, the roller-coaster / looking down from excruciatingly high rooftops base-of-the-spine ticklishness.

As a kid this shot (from 1930's Just Imagine), used in the FG credits, seemed the height of erotic maturity- my future birthright giving me the feeling in the pit of my stomach as if going up a very steep roller coaster.
It seemed tied in with the weird icons on the Sgt. Pepper cover, which haunted me, too, as a child
This dream logic bears resemblance to the kind of dreams that always seem to end right as they're about to get 'lucky' (4), like an actual dream of someone right on the lip of the puberty chasm. This comes with its own sense of dread, via the symbol for the churning waves beyond desire's crashing shoreline, marriage.

MING AND MARRIAGE:

A kind of Gengis Khan in latter year post-raid repose, Emperor Ming the Merciless (Charles B. Middleton) on the throne, surrounded by brides and daughter, harkens back to a long line of primal father / barbarian kings. We can uncover racist subtext easily but it's never overt so it seems prissy to cast judgment on it for any perceived xenophobia as opposed to a more subliminal Freudian Moses and Monotheism meets a Jungian Hero with a Thousand Faces at the Lacanian brothel of renounced pleasure. Being on Mongo frees Aura and Ming and the other Mongo characters from guilt over lust or attraction --it's part of his cool that Ming doesn't try to scold or censure his daughter's uninhibited carnality, which makes it odd that, though Ming is all-powerful, his lusting after Dale doesn't include ravaging on the spot the way Dale's does with Flash, but instead, even he needs a ceremonial precursor --he's bound to follow the codes of conduct centered around the great god Tao.

Thus, in the code-cum-fairy tale mythos, there's an understanding that once the victimized party says "I do" (or--as in FLASH--when the gong strikes thirteen), their freedom is gone forever, like a limb. Though a symbolic ceremony with no real biological ultimatum attached, "marriage" stands for the entirety of the sexual experience--psychological, physical, and spiritual (one is now eternally 'not' a virgin but also not a whore; a child of a wife is prized scion, eligible for inheritance, while a child of a mere concubine or lover is a bastard, etc.); it also removes its victim from the social sphere / the world of mythic romance and freedom (they can't 'come out and play' anymore, as if marriage doubles the parental guard. Conversely, if they couldn't before, now they can, i.e. if it means escape from the grasp of an abusive patriarch). If Flash had been a gong too late, he'd lose Dale forever --we take that-- conditioned as we are by the iconography fairy tales--at face value. Marriage is one of the few instances where fallible human choice and time carries an all-powerful magic, resolute as any edict of nature, standing in for the socially condoned sexual act in the mind of a child whose birds and the bees knowledge is (hopefully) as yet quite foggy and unformed. Until it comes into focus, the marriage ceremony doubles for sex itself --he racing to stop the aggrieved/hypnotized party from saying 'I do' being as intense as racing to save them from a burning building or a mustache-twirling rapist.


Since Ming has numerous wives, marriage on Mongo especially seems to fit this paradigm, a kind of golf ball place marker for the sexual act itself. Especially in the days before it was taught in health class, sex education was something parents handed down to their children only on or right before their wedding day; thus marriage in the mind of a child becomes a kind of secret society initiation, an alchemic transubstantiation from child to adult. Marriage liberates Cinderella from her wicked stepmother; the Beast is freed from his curse; Ariel leaves the sea. Marriage then is both liberation from old prison and introduction to new one. You are free from the evil father if you marry for love, or bound to the evil husband if you marry while compelled or hypnotized.

It'll all be over in a minute, Godfrey
As with the three sisters archetype, which includes the three brides of Dracula in the 1931 original, the multiple wives or concubines luxuriating around the throne are a sign of a pre-empathic binary moralism, a disregard for Christian or modern values reflecting a lack of empathy similar to what a child feels before morality 'kicks in' (3); here, love doesn't factor into desire, making it more associated with power and objectification, the hearty laugh and mustache twirl at the heroine's fear, i.e. cocaine rather than ecstasy. There's no 'sin' to the lust felt by both Ming and Aura -there's no missionary to condemn their lascivious gazing. The other wives of Ming for the most part are his loyal agents, holding Dale in place during her hypnotized marriage (above - though maybe they're just happy Ming has shifted focus away from them), which consists of standing there on the old Bride of Frankenstein set, waiting for the gong to strike 13 times - in accordance with the customs and commands of the great god Tao. Flash races through the caverns to stop the ceremony before that 13th gong. It takes a few viewings perhaps to note a small detail. at the anticipation of the last gong, the priest whips out a set of manacles, and holds them up high in front of the old Ra statue from The Mummy - thus mixing kinky bondage and ancient Egypt, but so subliminal we'd just miss it yet pick up the dread idea of marriage to Ming as being sexual slavery.

Luckily Flash barges in right in time to sock the gong-striker. Then again, we knew he would since the main thrust of this minute detail is that there's no time for actual sex in Flash Gordon --no marriage ceremony is completed within the serial (there will be several other attempts with different grooms and brides), so no sex/honeymoon ever happens. That's a relief we can't quite understand. As adults it seems faintly ridiculous that 'marriage' should hold importance to either Ming or Flash - but Ming for all his power is bound to the rules of Mongo; and Flash and Dale are just muttonheaded enough to feel they must abide by even forced or coerced marriage's completed ceremony. That it's stopped at the last minute is the equivalent of saving Dale's virginity, as if that magic 13th gong would magically erase it. The rescue ensures continued childhood: we kids don't lose a playmate to the mysteries of the adult world, at least for another thrill-filled chapter!

FLASH the MISSIONARY
Flash as the Harbinger of WW2 and Maturity 

To this end, Flash comes to Mongo as a kind of monogamy missionary; though he met Dale literally only an hour or so before meeting Aura, he's somehow loyal to her, not out of obligation - they haven't even kissed - but out of a kind of honor-system Earth-to-Earth loyalty. We kids all would have obligingly gone off with Aura, and left Dale to her own devices, and none of this shit would have had to happen. Would it not be like real life, then? Aura and Flash might be ruling Mongo with Dale as Ming's rich widow and all's well. Instead Flash brings in a kind of New World Order of renounced enjoyment, the hems go lower, the clothes get less attractive; the actors age and get unflattering shorter hair cuts and perms. Ming, i.e. the devouring Cronus elder God, naturally sees his chance under all this repression, and erupts where the crust is thinnest.

We were so sure we'd killed or banished our dark Cronus and his Ming-y titans to the underworld that--when he suddenly erupts back from the abyss for the sequels (Trip to Mars and Conquers the Universe) that he so easily seizes large chunks of power, joining forces with whatever rising tyrant star needs an advisor. We only then realize--as if a reverse "dawn of shame in Eden" shame --how square we'd become. He's now clothed in crazy plumes and lascivious facial hair like he's fighting Fredonia at the end of Duck Soup, but Flash and Dale seem wider and squarer, as if the screen's been slowly stretching them and their clothes hiding it. Dale and Aura's wartime fashion unsexes them and unflattering masculine perms; even though it's only a four year period by the Conquers the Universe; their clothes and hair have been as drained of sex by the tastes of the time, as the actors have by time itself. Ming seems the same but his face is frozen in a macabre mask, as if he's had plastic surgery or a Ming mask was grafted to his face.

This change, only marked by Ming's 'repressed' return, illustrates the downside of Flash and Dale's Mickey-and-Judy style success in 'civilizing' Mongo; with their dewey devotion to one another and their allies, they resist 'easy' sexual awakening, and in the process 'liberate' Mongo from its tyrannical father figure--ending the idea of conspicuous enjoyment, the 'totem and taboo' moment of Freud that signals the dawn of western civilization (and the reproductive pair-bond). Like clean-souled missionaries, they represent childhood's last gleaming the way the 1936 Aura and eternal Ming represent adulthood's first dirty leer. Each approach has its points and each both endangers and educates the other. Aura (eventually) learns the value of self-sacrifice in the service of love (i.e. the kind of love wherein you help the object of your desire achieve theirs rather than force yourself on them by obliterating your rival). By turning around and making a decision to stop chasing after Flash and instead love the shambling lummox who loves her (the tellingly named Prince Barrin), Aura brings an end to the chain of pursuit and cliffhanger escape that has been going on all through the first 11 or 12 chapters. She becomes "Aura the Merciful" because--after saving Flash's life nearly as many times as Flash has saved Dale's honor--Aura 'settles' for her side of the planetary tracks. Whether or not she retains any lust for Flash seems moot: she's mature enough to hide it from us if she has - and is this not part and parcel with emotional and sexual maturity? "Strangely" in my own personal experience, the arrival of puberty saw the end of my 'decadent desire' phase by heralding a yen for WW2 stuff (model planes, HO scale armies, etc) which is mirrored in the history of film and censorship and its relation to the actual WW2 vis-a-vis FLASH GORDON. In other words, as hem lines grew longer for Conquers the Universe, the country was on its way into war and out of 30s decadence; it's as if war comes along and cleans house; there are more important things than arguing with censors, a kind of group positivity becomes necessary. The outlaw is replaced by the bomber crew; the lustful sheik is replaced by dutiful husband; Ming deposed by Barin; Flash bringing Christianity to the East; the death of the primal father / Old Testament Wrath and arrival of Jesus and an agreed-upon group chastity; decadence eclipsed by fascism; sexual freedom celebrations eclipsed by slasher movies, the luridness of childhood replaced by the joys of war. 

But just as Ming represents the Cronus primal father repressed/killed by his sons (Barrin, Thun, Vultan) who--to avoid civil war--must pay for their crime by collectively renouncing all enjoyment of his power, women (leave Dale to heaven, or earth, so to speak), so Flash represents the civilizing force, the John Wayne making things safe for Jimmy Stewart to teach the frontier to read. The consolation to this renouncement of unregulated enjoyment is to give birth to the unconscious, where id may reign free (i.e. the serial, comic strip, itself). The cost of good winning, of Flash and self-sacrifice carrying the day, is apparent in the chasteness and desexualized modesty of the fashions and figures upon their return in subsequent sequels, but those were seldom shown in syndication or remembered. Ming's uninhibited carnal appetite becomes "the legend." Carnal love desire circle games are replaced by chaste married strategy counsels and formal attire receptions but we can always read the pulps and put in the DVD once the babysitter's paid off and the wife contented in her (separate) bed. 


Natural Selection, Adieu

As for the other bachelor princes of Mongo- in their 'animism' they prove Flash's friend of foe, ally or enemy, but generally the former. Like a Christina missionary sans preaching, his goodhearted honesty and loyalty and courage convert Mongo from a barbarian fiefdom to a kind of peaceloving UN of friendship. "I've learned much from the Earth people," Barin tells Aura near the end, and it's the idea that you will never win someone's love by killing the object of their own; the idea of working from friendship and loyalty rather than direct personal gain, conquest and power, that creates nobility and peace.

Hitherto, on Mongo, a natural selection model has been the order - similar to how male lions take over the pride after killing their predecessor (and his cubs, if any), with the females having no real say in the matter - natural selection replacing love and monogamy. Flash and Dale teaching the enemies they turn into friends by sparing their lives or aiding into seeing the preferable model of peace and love --in other words, and here's the kicker - the monogamous pair bond in mammals marks the breaking point of evolution as per Darwin's Natural Selection. The flaws in the natural order/polygamous lion pride system are revealed as requiring a constant flow of chaos unsuited to civilized order. This becomes the non du pere concept: we--the sons --team up to depose our Ming-primal father, and to "free" his harem of wives, but then we renounce our rights to the enjoyment of his brides/harem, and indeed all future such arrangements (if we didn't, we'd be fighting over them nonstop until all were destroyed). This is the tape splice connecting the sides of the Moebius strip -- the bump in the road: what goes up warlord fiefdom comes down Christian monogamy based democracy. Rather than fight over the spoils, we will agree to set the spoils free, to live in peace in monogamy. Clearly, it's the more effective measure, as countries still honoring the old system are more or less stuck at the stone age, the end of biological evolution's tether, yet it is just as clearly something outside of the natural order - evolution has made its masterpiece, the monogamous pair bond ensures less genetic defect (due to incest promoting inherited chromosome issues, ala the hip problems that plague the pug community).

This makes in that sense Flash Gordon if taken as a boy version of Wizard of Oz. In that film, loyalty to Dorothy--and her fresh perspective--binds an array of 'symbolically neutered or non-threatening' male figures to her side--a lion, tin man, scarecrow --and some evil devouring mother wants her shoes, (and as we know, shoes have magic powers within the female unconscious), Flash is helped by Lion, hawk, woodsman, etc.--and some evil primal father wants his girl (13). As the new blood / new kid in town / at school / in the land, Dorothy and Flash both act as rallying points for the conglomerations of 'of-themselves' inactive elements (of the subconscious) to band together against the force that has kept them in bondage (i.e. devouring mother / primal father). These elements are all in a sense the hanged man, wild man or android/mechanical man archetypes - each a valuable source of personal power/advancement within the unconscious but on their own --inert. The effect of the visitor is galvanizing on all them, the way- say, it is for ET on the suburban household he invades, disrupting the normal flow of events - creating an opportunity for change and profound growth / maturation, and complete destruction and terror as well.

The demographic for Flash being a little older, the men friends and foes are all eligible bachelor princes and though not neutered, are otherwise unappetizing compared with mighty Flash: they're rotund boisterous brigands (Vultan of the Hawk Men), big mustached lummoxes (Prince Barin, rightful ruler of Mongo- he says), little bald gangsters with Egyptian eyebrows (Kala of the Shark Men - though he never becomes a friend), or bandy-legged bearded hermit-types (Prince Thun of the Lion Men).


ZARKOV

In Flash a dream version of 'tag' with its use of 'base'- comes roaring to life. Our sense of 'base' as a place of undisputed neutral safety is an important and oft neglected aspect of adventure and dream mythos (the jail in RIO BRAVO, for example). Zarkov's laboratory is generally 'base' - there's a lab for him in each kingdom and Zarkov himself is seldom in danger - he's too valuable, given a free pass for his knowledge, like a forerunner to Werner Von Braun, whisked from Nazi space lab to found NASA, excused from moral responsibility for any destructive use of his inventions (like the V2). Too important an asset to waste time treating punitively. Completely defanged and desexed, Zarkov is actually the most dangerous of all characters due to his knack for inventions (such as making Flash invisible)

The prison or jail also meant a kind of totally dependent sexual freedom; Zarkov's outfit looks like he's got a sand bag for an ass, or some weird Robin Hood diaper, this combined with the idea of being someone else's slave (this being prior to Roots coming out and making that word far less sexy) bringing back a sense of delight similar to the memory of being granted unlimited access to the mother (5), being delivered from the anxiety of action/motion, the agonizing indecision of free will removed, all coheres around Zarkov who is whisked from one laboratory to another while Flash is subjected to various trials and fights for the animal ruler pleasures.

Throughout the serial Flash is always in motion, circumventing one danger after the other with nonplussed resolve, challenging every aggressor, never once rolling his eyes or doubting the veracity of those who meets (as with wrestling, people are who they say they are, they represent, as per Barthes [10]). Mom never calls for dinner. The only time we see eating is when a lusty hawkman makes a great show of his barbarian feast to allow for some Aura skullduggery running a mind trick on Dale Arden. So even then the tension runs high. But with Zarkov in his lab safety is assured. Several times they barricade themselves within and escape at the last minute, they change disguises, try to phone home to Earth and otherwise re-arm themselves for future scrapes.

Sex Lacks- I.E. PHALLIC STAGE 
(The phallus is defined as its own absence)
Longing for the lost Chapter of the Tigron, the rare Topps card.

The fundamental difference is in age, of course, and the pre-adolescent phase of sexuality, when it's all tied in (or used to be) with the fear of physical punishment. Spare the rod, spoil the child was the old motto and to a degree it's true but only insofar as it remains a threat, which carries a druggy, giddy charge of dread, something we forget as adults when we're no longer subject to parental whims (unless of course we were actually molested). But if for whatever reason (usually some early sexual act or witnessing) a side effect is generally this kind of agitated jouissance, that comes out, for example, in latent adult sadomasochism, books like Fifity Shades of Grey or films like Scarlet Empress (see: Taming the Tittering Tourists
But even if this trajectory around the object produces displeasure (frustration, exhaustion) there is a kind of satisfaction found in this nonetheless. This is one way of understanding jouissance. Freud tells us that the drive is indifferent to its object, and can be satisfied without obtaining it (sublimation). It is not the object itself that is of importance, but what Joan Copjec describes as “a particular mode of attainment, an itinerary the drive must undertake in order to access its object or to gain satisfaction from some other object in its place. There is always pleasure in this detour – indeed this is what pleasure is, a movement rather than a possession, a process rather than an object” (Copjec, UMBR(a): Polemos, 2001, p.150). - What does Lacan say about Jouissance (Owen Huston)
A very young child having his first sexual fantasies usually forms them around a nucleus of bathroom imagery, spanking and other rear  discomfort ("rear" was the dirty word du jour in my Lansdale PA chidhood). (11) There's no respect for the church, and the concept of monogamy which are at the time too abstract, boring, stale. Only the warlord and his dozen captured wives social unit seemed a rational social construction (once Flash kills Ming, he will take over ownership of the wives). These relationships still show up in cults (as in the new The Bad Batch) and some countries (or states), but it's not genetically productive - as nature proves, where the bull walrus regularly has to beat back some new young challenger to his vast harem. All day and all night of mating season, his gigantic mass bounders across the beach to repel each new interloper- nothing ever gets 'done' if you know what I mean; meanwhile his vast army of children wind up copulating with one another for lack of options, and the result isn't only the benefit of strongest-only natural selection. Even the strongest fighter might suffer from hip dysplasia, which might, when half-siblings get together, result in full-on deformity. But it's part of the natural order, and so we totally understand (as children) the motivations of lusty Ming (and his predecessor Gengis Kahn whose genes live on in a large percentage of modern Asians); and Aura, more than dopey Flash, as kids, anyway - or at least I did. Ming and Aura are pro-active pre-Christian unrestricted id-expression. The one drawback to it is the constant need to beat back the young buck challengers, which then leads to paranoia.

What makes it kinky however is that this natural selection thing is here reversed. Were Flash to go with Aura and leave Dale to Ming, there would inevitably come a time when some stronger, more manipulative and aggressive girl would come along wanting to steal Flash away from her. Aura could wind up thrown into a pit with a giant dragon and left to die and Flash would dutifully trundle off with this new bitch. So a new kind of assured destruction-sourced loyalty erupts. Rather than go away with the man who kills my husband to get me, I will kill that man.

What it was that we wanted to do with our harem once we got them (or would be done to us wer we added to a queen's or princess's harem ourselves) was--as grade school children-- vague; in lieu of actual sex it focused more on ownership and dominance, submission; the fantasy of it all drove me on in a mad elliptical orbit around das ding (finding a great outlet in Charlie's Angels, since the dominant male, Charlie, stays unseen and hence not visualized as a threat - an example of Aaron Spelling's intrinsic genius). (see my Charlie's Angeles episode guide here).


Today both the movie and the serial remain one of the few unvarnished myths of kinky adolescence, and navigating hormonal drives, that in the man 'saying no' to some loose, carnal woman in pursuit of a lofty ideal, the heaving princess blonde, he will ultimately triumph and even lead the fallen woman out of the darkness of evil (or being 'beyond good and evil' as befits her royal status) and into a normal pair-bond from 'her own planet.' So often in the more 'mature' miscegenation fantasias the man and woman sleep together and fall in love (there's no Dale on their desert island), and she has to die, either taking from a blowgun dart meant for him, throwing herself into the volcano to save her people, or... well.... those are the only two options, usually - so the white man can go marry the white girl. But Aura contextualizes herself into framework of the new order brought about by Flash, who bathes like Siegfried in the dragon's blood, or Zarkov's magic ray, becomes invisible at will, able to finally de-seat Ming and help benevolent replacements step in - Aura 'settles' as Barin is no Flash, 'tis true more like a taller younger Wallace Beery, but he's good, and well-armored, and loves her unconditionally.

This is, as some analysts point out, the key to happiness, to break the daisy chain of dissatisfied Athenian lovers chasing each other round and round through the enchanted woods, stopping the chase, turning around, and loving the one who loves thee, the one who is not as hot therefore not as vain; who is less spoiled, therefore more capable; who is less indulged, therefore more grateful; who is not as aloof, therefore warmer; who is not as bitchy, therefore humbler, etc. And in the process you may observe the behaviors that move you vs. annoy you, that suffocate vs. seduce, that stifle vs. enchant, the win vs. lose you.  And if they find someone else to run off with, could you really give a shit? You'll now be much better equipped to seduce the vain, prissy, and indulged one, and maybe now she'll have missed you chasing her and turned around to chase you. Probably not - but by then, who knows if you'll care.

Face it, whomever you are, whatever gender or orientation, you'd sleep with Aura first and worry about Dale later. Both would probably tire of you both after a few nights and just give you the carte blanche to loaf around the palace, getting high on all the local druggy delicacies. Then you'd set about distracting Ming from Dale with promises of new sensations procurable down on Earth. Everything would be just as it is, only with less responsibility. And then maybe the Tigron, the great best of Mongo, and the poor dragon would all still be alive. Ever think of them, Flash? The poor woman who trained that Tigron since it was a cub, now forced to watch it die at your hands? How many more lives, Flash? That Tigron deserved better, Flash. If you'll excuse me now, I have to wake up.  That buzzing is no ship... it's my alarm. All hail, AURA - QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE!

NOTES:
1. jouissance-based sexual fantsizing of a phallic stage pre-adolescence (specifically my own such memories filtered via Freud), which are usually kinky and tied in with anal stage retention (toilet training accidents being often the cornerstones of our hitherto unused repressed memory storage cellar), Oedipal jealousy, gender difference, and power/ bondage / dominance games (to counteract the feeling of vulnerability that goes from being a small child). 
2. The most important thing, in my kiddie circle especially, was to lie about your sexual experience and knowledge so since everyone did (since we did, we figured they did too) the truths were taken with the same inwardly-horrified but surface-jaded grain of salt that the lies were, bringing about a collective body of contradictory knowledge and heresy that lives on in adulthood with myth, conspiracy theory, and unsolved crimes.
2.2. would there were a sequel about them for once - we never even learn what happens to the 3 brides after Dracula leaves Transylvania - they only get that one shot.
3. I've written before of my recollection of the moment my own empathy kicked in, and never kicked off again 'til cocaine. 
4. I've still never had a wet dream, to my knowledge, go figure, so maybe I'm the worst unconscious Puritan of all.
5. see 'Mom- A Jail' - This ironically becomes the polarizing locus of anxiety and frustration after puberty - as anything remotely to do with the safety granted by proximity to mother becomes suffocating, the same hormonal drives that bound you to her now repel you. Eventually that dies down of course, once independence is established
7. though I stayed interested in it as a philosophy, and the idea that sexual heat/desire could transmute pain into pleasure via proximity, sex turning all other intense sensations into pleasure by a kind of reverse-fever, seemed a good way for pain management. (i.e. think of sex while wounded on the battlefield to numb the pain).
9. The woman who can adapt to sleeping with the warlord who has her husband killed is the one who survives to procreate; the noble woman who merely kills herself's genes die with her --thus patrician codes of honor are meant to assuage the guilt of the losing side (deciding woman isn't capable of knowing when to kill herself  -i.e. John Carradine's nearly shooting the 'lady' at the climax of Stagecoach).
10. Roland Barthes, Mythologies
11. See Freud's Theory on Infant Sexuality,
12. See my short story 'Missing the Orgy' somewhere on the web
13. I'm not saying men wish they could collect girls like girls collect shoes, because that would be objectification.
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