Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BARBARELLA 1968

I saw Barbarella for the first time in 1968 at the age of eleven (I know, what was my mother thinking?) and for years it remained this extraordinary little gem of a film that no one else seemed to appreciate. I saw it so many times that it came to signify one-third of the cinema trifecta that cemented my lifelong love affair with the movies (the other two being Rosemary’s Baby and Casino Royale…the cool one with the Bacharach score).
In the ensuing years, fashion designers, photographers, and pop stars too numerous to mention borrowed from it so extensively that it has become a mainstream / cult hit. To my unending chagrin, the many delights of Barbarella that once spoke exclusively to me are now superficially embraced (and largely misinterpreted) by text-addicted teens and iPhone-addled adults in suburban home theaters across the nation. To clarify, I don’t know if I mind Barbarella reaching a broader audience so much as I mind a movie of such exuberant creativity being saddled with the dull and lazy classification of “camp.”
Jane Fonda as Barbarella
John Phillip Law as Pygar
Anita Pallenberg as The Great Tyrant
David Hemmings as Dildano
Milo O'Shea as Durand Durand
Made at a time when the chief pop cultural preoccupations were space, spies, sex and rebellion, Barbarella was an intentional pop-art put-on. A sci-fi comic book take on drugs, un-sexy sex, and fashion as fetish. It may not be exactly what the 60s looked like, but to a sheltered, catholic pre-teen, Barbarella is PRECISELY what the 60s felt like.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Enticed by posters and TV ads that enthusiastically beckoned, “See Barbarella Do Her Thing!”, I went to see Barbarella with little knowledge of what to expect. You can imagine my thrill and delight when, within the film’s first two minutes, I discovered that Barbarella’s “thing” involved performing a zero-gravity striptease while a tres-groovy theme song rhymed Barbarella with Psychedella on the soundtrack. WOW!
The image of the almost impossibly beautiful Jane Fonda floating naked around a fur-lined spaceship while animated credits none-too-successfully concealed her nudity was a vision that burned a hole in my retinas and remained tattooed on my psyche ever since.
  
PERFORMANCES
In a career of so many memorable and challenging roles, it must pain Jane Fonda to know that one of her most assured screen performances was in a film she spent the better part of the 1970s trying to live down. But really, she has nothing to be ashamed of. Years of appearing in bubble-headed Hollywood sex comedies prepared her well for the wide-eyed hijinxs of this five-star, double-rated, astro-navigatrix. Along with most of her body, Fonda as Barbarella displays an intelligence and winning comic timing that makes clear that she carries the entire film (plus several pounds of hair) on her shoulders.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The sequence where the angel Pygar flies Barbarella to the evil city of Sogo is a Frazetta illustration come to life. Though the special effects are primitive, the sequence has a vitality and sense of fun that is a stellar example of the kind of magic that movies do best.
Barbarella's mini-missile projector vanquishes another enemy

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Barbarella is one of those films that is so visually way-out that you could enjoy it just as much without sound. The wonderful Lava-Lamp production design by Mario Garbuglia and iconic futuristic costumes by Jacques Fonteray & Paco Rabanne display a great deal more ingenuity and wit than the script.
No one passes out quite like Barbarella
Barbarella and Sogo Resistance leader, Dildano (David Hemmings), try their hand at a Exaltation Transference pill 
Barbarella in the Black Queen's Chamber of Dreams
By any serious standard of what makes a good film, Barbarella falls short. But with the passage of time many “good” films have proven unwatchable (Seen Chariots of Fire lately?), while many films dismissed at the time of their original release have gone on to become classics (The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane).
By no stretch of the imagination is Barbarella a classic (well, it IS a classic of sorts) but classic films do share one thing…they endure by having created a kind of perfect reality within the framework of their narrative.
And in this, Barbarella is a film that looks better the older it gets.
Marcel Marceau as Professor Ping
Ruminating on the druggy 1980s and the part it played in the jumble that was ultimately the film Xanadu, playwright Douglas Carter Beane said, “When you watch ‘Xanadu,’ you can see the cocaine on the screen.”
Well, a 60s variation of the same can be said for Barbarella. Some serious mind-expanding drugs had to have been behind what’s on display here. A fur-lined spaceship that looks like a flying Avon compact, blind angels, murderous dolls, orchid-eating exiles, killer canaries, a sex-machine (no, not James Brown), a giant hookah in which swims a semi-naked man …it never stops! Sure, by today's standards Barbarella's special effects are almost comically primitive (Pygar's flying is more like wind-blown dangling), but it ultimately turns out to be part of the film's charm. For 1968, this stuff was a considerable step above most of the kind of cheapie sci-fi film's I grew up on, so I was enthralled. my experience of  I love movies that transport me, surprise me, and render the fantastic tangible. Every time I watch Barbarella it reintroduces me to that kid-like part of me that can still be left thunderstruck by movie magic.
Barbarella and the evil Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) are rescued from the burning city of Sogo by blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law). When Barbarella asks why he's saving the very woman who tried to have him killed, Pygar replies, "An angel has no memory!"

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Jane Fonda signed this for me on May 5, 1976 when she was at a Bay Area college makinga political speech on behalf of then-husband, Tom Hayden. Although I caught her as she was being whisked away by an aide in a VW bug, she was very friendly, laughed at herself in the image and kindly signed.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

12 comments:

  1. Like you, I saw BARBARELLA when quite young (14, I think) and it's made a lifelong impression. I think it's popularity as a cult movie diminished when it ceased to play regularly on regular TV. I wish it would attain WIZARD OF OZ status by becoming an annual event!

    But just showing (forcing) friends photos from the film, or the trailer instantly hooks a new audience. If this was a Disney film, they'd just throw a restored negative at the marketing department and re-release it. And make money.

    This is a very readable, personal view of the film - it pretty much mirrors my own mind-blown experience, but better written!

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  2. Kind of you to flatter my writing since you're obviously so very good (I've read your movie review blog "Black Hole"), but I appreciate your taking the time to read about "Barbarella" and share your fondness for the film. I too wish it was televised more often here on cable.

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  3. There was a time where I was literally obsessed with this film! I don't remember when it was first released as I was on;y 7 months old when it hit theaters.

    I do however remember it's 1977 re-release as "Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy" in the wake of the whole "Star Wars" phenomena.

    I finally got to see it in the mid-80's on video cassette and I was hooked!

    They need to get this one out on blu-ray soon!

    I have the soundtrack! It's one of my all time favorite soundtrack albums.

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    1. Hi PTF, Yes, it seems that there is something about this movie that induces obsession. Though some can take it or leave it, those who like it tend to like it a LOT. I know the critic Pauline Kael hated the music, but I've always felt the music was perfect for the movie. I still play the soundtrack. I remember that "Queen of the Galaxy" phase when they dropped the cool pop-art like original ads for a kind of weak Frazetta-inspired look.

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    2. Not Frazetta, but Vallejo. My experience with the film is that I was too young to see it when it was first released. Then in my early teens, I happened upon Barbarella: Moon Child by Forrest, saw the stills from the film of Jane "great body, too bad about her political neurocircuitry" Fonda, and I've been a huge fan of the movie ever since. I've read where many don't like the movie, and I think their dislike stems from the 'humor' of it. After all, what good is a satire if it isn't funny. There's something a bit odd about French humor to an Anglo-Yiddish humor-trained ear. The timing's off a bit. Sometimes, even a lot.
      Whatevah. The bottom line is: the blu-ray's just dropped, and now I can see La Fondue's gorgeous face at least five times clearer when she's in the excessive machine.
      I enjoyed reading your article, and long live the revolution

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    3. Thanks very much for stopping by to read the post and leaving your comment!
      "Barbarella" was indeed Boris Vallejo's first movie poster commission, but even he would have to admit (but perhaps not) that his work is inspired by Frank Frazetta.
      I'm glad you like the movie and that it first came to your attention - like many who have become lifelong fans - when you were too young to actually see it. My experience of exposing friends to this movie mirrors what you take note of about the film's humor. Everyone loves the look of it and enjoy Fonda, but find the film wanting as a satire. Barbarella's rather anticlimactic "That's nice" response to the dramatic lead up proclamation "I am also the Great Tyrant!" always makes me laugh, however. I have yet to get my hands on the blu-ray, though. Even if folks don't find the film funny, few deny it is something else to look at. Nice to hear from someone who enjoys the film, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Long live the revolution!

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  4. Paramount Home Entertainment is finally releasing BARBARELLA on blu-ray disc on July 3rd!

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    1. Woo Hoo! I didn't know that. Can't wait to see how the visuals hold up to hi-def. Thanks for the tip off. Hello, Amazon pre-order!

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  5. The music!
    It's loud, brash and enormously catchy. the vocalists from Glitterhouse (an excellent West Coast band on their own merits) sang like gay angels and it's still one my very favorite American soundtracks (no, I'm NOT a John Williams fan). Alas, as no one took anything around this plastic fantastic sexpot movie serious, the score wasn't even nominated for an Oscar Nomination.
    But you know all that, today I came upon your name in the reaction thread on Barbarella's Shagpile Cockpit, LOL. There goes my rapturous 75.000 words Barbarella Review...
    Okay, a few things. I remember that the Barbarella main theme was released as a single, but it wasn't a big hit. On the flip side was the song that plays over the end credits, 'An Angel Is Love'. Bob sung it himself, and it's stunning, it funks & grooves and he sings it straight into the stratosphere. And the ballad 'I Love All The Love In You'; so gorgeous that one.
    The score seems loaded with electronics, yet no synthesizer - Crewe could have used one, the Moog was already available in some studios - and also no mellotron. And now, 46 years later, I read on Shagpile Cockpit that it was all 'just a small orchestra and an electric guitar with a fuzz box'. Unbelievable! Crewe was a genius.

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    1. Hi Willem
      I know...a shame that such a lively score was overlooked. I fell in love with it immediately (although it made me laugh, albeit affectionately). I'll always remember took my best friend to see it back in high school, and I'll never forget how loudly and with such disgust he exclaimed "I HATE this music!" while the credits were rolling.
      I think it helps if you grew up in the 60s or have a fondness for the bubblegum/ psychedelia music of the era. Sounds as if you know a lot about late 60s music. Tahnk you for sharing your enthusiasm about this score, which, for me isas a part of the film as it way out sets and costumes.

      I had to post the song on Facebook when Bob Crew passed away last week.
      Nothing for me could beat the Barbarella theme song used, but here is a link to a pretty nice discarded song recorded for the film (apparently there was a dispute between composer and director. Lucky for us)
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E557XniJ5oE

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    2. Nice tune, very sexy voice. But it misses the flamboyance of Crewe's songs and Charlie Fox's orchestrations.
      Should have been included as a bonus on the CD, though. Well, I guess the matter of rights would not make this possible. Thank Space for music collector YouTube!

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    3. Every fan has their "wish list" for a DVD release, but I always wshed Fonda would do a DVD commentary (or SOMEONE) and that perhaps someone had footage of Pallenberg doing her role with her real voice, or footage of the first Dildano that was cast. That song above would be great on a special edition CD soundtrack.

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