Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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 drunkenly crashing sideways through a row of Natural History Museum dioramas. Each new paper wall separating a shallow and dimly imprisoning scenario, each a giddy warm panorama of exotic wonder, static yet propulsive. In their weirdly other nature, these dioramas are neither indoors nor out, but a strange combination of the two, as if the whole world was now under one roof, yet offering the same limited depth of field of, say, a low budget film or TV soundstage. 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 to evoke a whole planet, a strangely-colored sky backdrop enhanced with colorful purple gel spot lighting for the sky--was a great comfort, a 'small world' interiority; we fell under the influence of its nifty vapors. The resulting coziness was 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 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. Overflowing with pulp-sexy 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 children. 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 there. We go from wild to awkward, and from the newstand, racy shit like Heavy Metal and Vampirella suddenly lures us in rather than scares us away. But Flash is not puerile or pandering, it prefigures actual arousal or that awkward teenage lust, it's still made after the code. There are rules, and within those rules an understanding of how rules are sexy.

AURA

Kim Morgan's excellent New Beverly piece on the remake, her startling praise 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), the remake 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 myth work as more than just empty male fantasy. 

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 a desire for Flash that 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, she's more like Flash's cheerleader and imperiled rescuee, but Aura jumps in the ring with the monsters. She risks her own life time and again to keep Flash safe, and to pay her back he mustn't kill Ming even if presented with the chance, so the four become locked in a kind of continual imperil-and-rescue very similar to how children's war games are played. 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, mainly due to Aura's intervention. She's the center of the wheel: she 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 the advances of Aura (who is undeterred); Ming tries to kill Flash for cockblocking him with Dale; Aura prevents her father's killing Flash; 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, 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 sister loping after me. Action originates with Ming's machinations, which are then diverted by Aura's desire and courage: thus father and daughter are a two-headed snake. Easily the most pro-active and ingenious character in the series (Ming can only assign and delegate, 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 Dale's rescue) it should all really be called "Aura the Merciful." 


"Because I like you."
Aura is unusual even in usual women characters. The villainesses in other films tend towards the devouring monsters of narcissism and ice queen sociopathy (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? Is Aura really the only one of her kind?

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. Oh the injustice!

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, 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 to her machinations 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.

5 comments:

  1. Another excellent write up. Indeed, I will say, one of your best. The whole tarot deck is laid out and the cards are read out loud. Can you think of any other Rio Bravo "safes"? I have never consciously connected that, but now I am intrigued by that idea, the jail as a safe place. I love Flash Gordon. The modern version, the old ones - which I have never seen the complete story of, will seek them out. A friend of mine went through basic training with Buster Crabbe's grandson or great nephew or something, his last name was Crabbe. When he told me, a couple of years into the service, I was so jealous! Why? What could have possibly rubbed off about that association? It was wasted on him; He didn't even know who Buster Crabbe was! "Yeah, he said his grandfather was in a Tarzan movie..." Olympians used to mean so much more than they do now. (you really are an odd duck Puritan)

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    1. Thanks, Johnny! That's too bad about wasted Crabbe, but kids got no respect for their elders' exploits... mostly. As for the safes, they're all over the place, though mainly with Hawks, like the cafeteria in THE THING!

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  2. I spent all day yesterday periodically reading this, Erich -- I agree, one of your best. As a sign of the synchronicity experienced by mutants like us who are into this old stuff, I've been thinking lately of rewatching the '36 Flash. Like you it's rolled up in memories of my youth -- I discovered it in Feb of '87 when I was 12...I saw a VHS of the first 2 chapters at a K-Mart or something and asked my mom to buy it for me. The bastards were so cheap they only put 2 chapters on 1 tape! I never got any of the other tapes but I watched that one over and over -- in those pre-internet days I was obsessed with seeing more of the serial, but it was never on TV. I was surely one of the few 12 year olds in 1987 who knew who Buster Crabbe was; certainly the only one in my school. But then I also knew who Victor MagLaclen and Freddie Bartholomew were, as that summer I was obsessed with broadcasts of "Professional Soldier" (1937) on AMC...

    Many, many years later I got that Flash Gordon DVD set from Image that has all 3 serials, all in great shape ("The Complete Adventures Of Flash Gordon"). I finally got to watch all the '36 and couldn't believe how entertaining it was. The story goes that the serial performed better than some of Universal's actual movies of the day, and had a budget comparable to one of their average pictures. The story also goes that they got by with so much because Joseph Breen and his goons were more focused on those actual features and considered serials kid's stuff, but after the '36 this was revised. Hell it was revised while the serial was filming -- note that Aura's nipples are plainly visible in the denoument of chapter 1, yet the sequences featuring them are clipped in the recap that opens chapter 2...after which Aura is dressed in a top that isn't see-through anymore.

    In the meantime I'd read the original newspaper strip, which too is much more easily found these days than it was in the '80s. I was impressed with how faithful the serial actually was; the early years of the comic strip have that same weird fire that burns so brightly in the '36 serial...as you say, almost a dream-like ur-text.

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  3. I still haven't watched "Mars" or "Conquers the Universe." I tried with the former but dropped out when the "comedy relief" newsreporter was introduced. I read somewhere that early prints of this one were tinted green, but no copies seem to survive -- would love to see what it looked like. And "Conquers" from my understanding tried to be faithful to the strip, which had changed in the meantime...Alex Raymond's artwork became more and more ornate as the years went on, trading off that weird fire for style. Also as you know Aura again appears in the "Conquers" serial, but it's a different actress -- the actress who played her in the '36 had a sad fate, apparently losing one of her legs in some fashion during WWII (she served in the WACs or something) and dying at a young age in obscurity. But she sure turned the screen on fire in this serial! And let's not forget Dale...the character is annoying, but that actress too knew how to give it her all.

    You know the funny thing is I never even noticed that oddball narration you mention...I mean of course I've heard it, but I guess it never affected me in the same way, probably because I didn't see the chapters you mention until much later in life. Speaking of which I think this is perfect opportunity to break out the DVD and watch it again...perfect to watch with my 5-month old son. Current pediatric philosophy has it that ANY TV WILL ROT YOUR BABY'S BRAIN IRREPARABLY even though parents who let their babies watch TV say it's bs. But I was asking my pediatrician about it and he told me it's just a theory, and the concern is the flashing colors on the screen -- he said "you could just bypass the issue and watch black and white." He was probably joking, but I thought to myself, "That's EXACTLY what I'll do!" No time like the present...

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  4. Thanks Joe! Glad I inspired you to unearth the original - and that you'll be introducing it to your son - that's the perfect age to start on old movies, as I well remember, sort of - the issue these days I think is that the kids have too much access to 'kids shows' and aren't forced to watch older stuff the parents watch since they can always tune out and start going through their phone etc. - Growing up in a one TV house forced us all to experience each others' things - my dad thought Sesame Street was a gas, and he and I bonded over KING KONG one afternoon, Friday night watching stuff like the Hammer Mummy or TROG while mom made popcorn, etc. - those things must not vanish from the earth in an onrush of America's Got Talent and Kardashianism, Amen, by the holy power of the Great God Tao!

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