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 shallow and pleasantly imprisoning landscape offers a giddy warm panorama of exotic wonder and dichotomy: shallow yet vast, static yet propulsive, sexual yet frustrating. As they are in the museum, these dioramas are neither indoors nor out, but a strange combination of the two; it's as if the whole world was now under one roof, with no outdoors to speak of any longer. A whole world turned into a mall of stores mere inches deep. It was the original STAR TREK's great genius to understand this; unless they were actually filmed out of doors, alien planet surfaces never had much depth of field: a few foam rocks, some red sand, a weird tree growing by a ruined wall, a strangely-colored sky backdrop of purple sky and three moons, such worlds offered a cozy 'small world' interiority that mirrors a dream; like sneaking out of the long into the diorama one of a Disney haunted house. it was only when TREK went out of doors, in the desert canyon scrub of LA, that mundane reality seemed to intrude. Those episodes were never as fun--they never tapped into the dreamy sexual current. 

Sexual dreams, it seems, are almost always indoors. Such is the sanctuary complex in mens' minds, from boys building forts out of sheets and boxes to older men watching Das Boot or Ice Station Zebra every night over a few brandies after their bossy wife goes to bed.

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 stunt double fist fights, car chases around the same back lot, 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, sublimated 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, 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 in a phallic ship to save the Earth, the film blasts us off to adulthood at the kinky dream sights of bare chested electro-shock torture, flogging, Dale's' bare midriff, her back 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. Our brains scrambled by the weird pleasure/pain danger/excitement, we're lifted out of our snot-nosed, ice cream truck-chaser phase and onto a semi sexually awakened pre-teen plateau. Suddenly, just pulling a girl's hair so she chases you around the playground isn't enough anymore, but we have no earthly idea what else to do (so we look beyond Earth). We go from beautiful wild child to awkward monster; we go from Marvel and DC superheroes to racy shit like Heavy Metal and Vampirella. But unlike them, Flash is not puerile or pandering. It's still made after the code. There are rules, and within those rules an understanding of how rules are sexy. We may see lots of nubile cleavage and slave girl midriffs and chains, but the camera doesn't leer.


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, inspired me recently to revisit both that film and the earlier original series. Though considered just a post-Star Wars imitation (though really it's Star Wars that's the Flash imitation), the 1980 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, and that's especially due to Aura. The kinky daughter whose 'appetites' are never censured by her amoral hedonistic tyrant father, Aura makes the hero's journey myth work for her needs as well as the hero's, making this all more than just empty male fantasy. It's her growth from nymphomaniac to loyal friend of Flash and Prince Barin that charts the film's real story evolution. Flash is little more than an impetus, the union rep; Aura is the Norma Rae.  

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, if any, are but wallpaper, girlfriends, or buddies, less characters than representations of institutions (mom, judge). Even the relatively equal 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. Aura is the only truly 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 interference Flash would be dead after the first episode. Earth woman 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. Flash saves Dale but Aura saves Flash, risking her own life time and again to keep him safe; to pay her loyalty back (in lieu of sex) he must always spare her father Ming even if presented with the chance to run him through with a sword. 

As a result, the four of them become--Ming, Aura, Dale, Flash-- locked in a kind of continual imperil-and-rescue circle very similar to how children's war games are played (i.e. no one dies for long). 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 familial or planetary obligation. Aura is the center of the wheel: she makes sure Flash stays alive through all his many trials- but has no interest in helping Dale, as she rightly sees her as a rival. So Flash makes sure Dale is safe from Ming while he 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 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, wherein the younger sister of a neighbor followed me around in a kind of pre-tween nonsexual crush while I smittenly followed her older sister (my age but more mature) and she in turn mooned after the boy chasing her still-older sister, and so on, eventually ending with the oldest, cutest girl as the head of a mighty serpent, with whatever tyke was loping after the sister loping after me as the tail (and the older sister ever looking out for the youngest as de facto babysitter). In Flash, 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), the series should really be called "Aura, Princess of Mongo." 

"Because I like you."

Villainesses in other fantasy 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 vanity-based and more sisterhood-baed, then they become '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, flawed but ultimately good-hearted and courageous, fallible but larger than life. Only in big lit adaptations, like Wuthering Heights or Gone With the Wind are genuinely complex flawed females allowed to mature 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 Skywalker'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 operational fantasy franchises avoid the sexually active "chaotic neutral" female character altogether. They allow one girl - a bland heroine princess or tomboy--and maybe a mom, and that's it. Fantasy films featuring female characters with real guts and condoned sexual desire, as in Twilight or Vampire Academy are as unjustly maligned by male fandom, reflecting their troll-ish fear of all but the most servile and extraneous of feminine archetypes. 

For Star Wars, Lucas raided the Flash Gordon serial box and took almost every crayon except Aura red. She stands alone now, a relic from a bygone era. She reminds that, once upon a time, desire was allowed to exist in the heart of strong beautiful amoral women who didn't even have to die as penance. In Flash they don't judge Aura for her carnality, far from it; we roll our eyes at Dale's lack of guts and judge Flash for being such a prude that he'd deny the desires of a hot babe who just saved his life out of loyalty to 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 by declaring him dead. All Flash can do to pay her back is inadvertently tip off Ming's goons to her machinations by telepathically linking with Dale (which she answers out loud, like the putz she is) instead of satisfying the lusts of his liberator like a true gentleman. Flash is the type who'd repay you for busting him out of jail by calling the cops on you. 

Another 'red queen' - Fah Lo Suee- Fu Manchu's daughter
I know I'm rambling now but sorry, Aura rocks. She 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, for modern audiences. And it's all Lucas' fault. In denying her validity, we're keeping boys held in a kind of arrested sexual development, with never a soul to tell them a sexual, intelligent and aggressive woman need not be crushed like a spider found suddenly under a lifted math book.

In Alex Raymond's original 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, or if Fah Lo Suee was just a mainstay archetype of kinky "men's adventure" pulp miscegenation fantasies, the type written perhaps by xenophobic shore-leave sailors too high to figure out how to escape their berth in the opium den. Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates seemed too adult and complicated for me as a kid (she and Terry had a complex relationship), and that strip never got kinky enough. But the feral purity to Fah Lo Suee or Aura was something we kids could understand --maybe even especially understand if we were younger. As kids too terrified of rejection to ever ask a girl the time of day, Aura's kind of aggressive no-subtlety seduction was a dream come true. Flash had to be the biggest bonehead in existence! On the other hand, if we were Flash, Ming would still be in power and we'd be another of her smitten booty call reserves rather than her main obsession through the whole serial (we know that now, consciously at least). As kids we were used chasing cute older girls and being continually frustrated by a lust we never understood enough to quench.

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. Any display of unrepentant feminine enjoyment outside of the parameters of Earth's antiquated morality is no vice! 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.


Aura acts, good or bad, without thinking. Dale Arden on the other hand only reacts, also without thinking. She's good but her goodness is a burden. In at least one instance Dale actually lets Ming escape Flash's wrath, even though she's in danger. In one scene Flash has Ming at gunpoint on his throne, Dale runs up and grabs Flash's arm to embrace him, allowing a guard to grab the gun away and Ming to escape. All Dale does is scream when harassed, but then works to protect her harasser from her protector. She's utterly passive. Aura on the other hand leaps into the fire if Flash is burning; Dale just faints from the strain of seeing him inconvenienced. Aura saves Flash from death; Flash saves Dale from 'marriage.' Aura is complex but Dale is a simpleton; when she sees Flash alive she's like a child seeing a puppy gambol towards her across the park. "Flash!" When he's in trouble, Dale screams: "Flash!" Lurching back and forth on Universal's sets like there's an earthquake- locked in some expressionist dance, twirling from one mark to the other-- assuming theatrical poses and holding them as other actors say their lines--Dale seems trapped in a kind of expressionist dream theater amber worthy of the Weimar era. Even then, her theatricality mixed with dewy innocence works to establish her as a kind of inner child /anima figure caught in a dark adult web. Though highly sexualized in her concubine robes, threatened by a laughing Vultan, she's nonetheless untouchable, a true dream chimera, the unassimilable void around which the Flash-Aura-Ming pinwheel nebula spins.


Laden as it is with unconscious elemental symbolism--sky (floating city; ships) / water (undersea kingdom) / earth (lizards, Bronson) / fire (tunnel dragon, pits, cliffhangers)---the trappings of childhood trauma and anxiety ingeniously cohere in ingeniously frugal art direction showing that when you stick close to the archetypal root, cheapness actually enhances the power. The trappings of daily life, given the merest tweak, can assume nightmare potency.

For example, next time you pass that chapter, consider how 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. Flash is forced--not into an ocean or lake--but into a large water tank 'tub,' to fight an octopus that looks very much like a wash rag. The shark men who swim towards him are just men wearing a 'fin' ridge on their bathing caps; and they come at him like porpoises across the Olympic swimming pool distance - friend or foe we don't know as we watch them take their Olympic mouth open breaths. This is 'bath time' run amok, a world invented on the spot by a child with his rubber shark and soap suds. In this dream universe, scientific logic equates with the 'seemingly obvious' reasoning of children, i.e. if you fall off the moon you tumble down to Earth; in space you don't need pressurized suits and everyone speaks English so there is no need for translator devices, there's no sense of alternate time from our own earth rotation-tied clock, no need for food or sleep or bathroom breaks; the ocean is perfectly represented by your tub's spatial dimensions, your washrag scuttles across the bottom of the tub and you can feel its vastness through the eyes of your army man.

Another dream logic element is the weird disembodied male voice that shows up regularly to do all the overdubs (narrating, diegetic radio news broadcasts, and occasional actor voices) all done by the same actor through what sounds like a tin microphone invented from before the age of sound recording and spoken into from all the way at the other end of the room, way afield of the rest of the mix (added later by the editor, Saul A. Goodkind [as per imdb]) to fill in common gaps in story and dead spots in the action. if he's the editor himself, or some friend of his or whatever, he's awesome! His attempts to match offscreen character voices are so 'off' they become sublimely surrealistic. Lost in the zone between a commentary track, overdub, and voiceover, his deep slow speaking voice works to enhance the otherworldliness, the dreamy disconnect.

"Maybe you will like my friend, Urso."
My favorite example is when the bear with the white stripe down its back, Urso, comes into King Vultan's throne room to harass Dale, who's still in her sexy Ming-give dress, her bosom heaving, stomach sucked in with terror - she's a luscious, maddeningly enticing vision, especially to a prepubescent boy who hasn't quite made the jump from amoral protean lust to empathic chivalry. Her heaving and Vultan's irritating laughter makes the weird bear so much more disconnected, especially when that disembodied voice comes on, slow and deranged: "You don't like me? Maybe you will like my friend, Urso!" Since the voice is heard alongside the bear's close-up, we're led to wonder, is that the bear talking? Does the voiceover guy even know if he's doing Vultan or the bear? Is it some weird combination? The slow drawl of the voice is heard only when we see the bear close up - which could indicate it's the bear talking (about himself in the third person) or the editor is worried about lips not matching. When Vultan opens the door back up so the beast will leave he gives it a playful slap on the hindquarter and the white (yellow) dust 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 terror, her lovely exposed midriff like a flag before a bull, driving any red-blooded American boy to a man's level of hypnotized distraction and Vultan laughs in a semi-insane impression of heartiness. It really is like a fledgling dream has spilled right onto the TV out of a fevered 11 year-old's brain, nailing a time when we're not quite old enough to realize how villainous our lascivious response towards her fear really is, with Goodkind's slurring deep voice like some primal father pimp puppeteer.

As for the limits of the special effects, we kids (and this I remember from when it was on local TV in reruns) had enough visualization imagination to fill in the blank space. We didn't need to see an actual octopoid: give us 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, and that was enough for us to remember vivid special effects to rival Harryhausen. 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 so we remembered tentacles all around Flash, the memory of the scene became far more detailed and vivid than the scene looks now. Today the footage looks very mismatched and sloppy, but Flash's panic (Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer so he knows how to convey fear of drowning) is sharply etched. Budget or no, 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 X-rated stuff out of the realm of children today, alas, due to Youtube. But my generation, even in the 70s (we were maybe the last ones) 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, our imagination desperately trying to guess where these pangs were leading us and finding only Freudian punishment scenarios extended into giddy extended riffs.


Like in dreams, FLASH's sexual roundelay is never 'resolved' or able to offer a distinct climax and denouement. Its salient goal, as in dreams, is to keep your attention riveted, so that you are unaware you're asleep (or in the King's Features strip, to keep up your subscription to the local paper). My local newspaper never got the Flash comic strip, but certainly we knew, too, that feeling of mildly titillating prolonged torture to be found slogging along endlessly evolving narratives in daily 'dramatic' features like Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom and Brenda Starr (all of which we did get in my dad's daily-tossed Courier News). Day after day, a few panels at a time, always doubling back to bring new readers up to speed in the first panel, advancing the story in the middle one, then stalling out with another cliffhanger, these features loped along their elliptical paths. The Flash strip itself seemed pretty risque (above) from what I gleaned in the comic book history tomes at the high school library, where I wiled away endless "study halls."

It was in those books that I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland and--just as those full page 1920s Sunday strips ended with Nemo back in bed wondering what he's missing now that he was so suddenly yanked out of his own cliffhanger, in Flash Gordon's 1936 serial, there was the aching feeling that our absence was still being felt in the kingdom that our alarm clock had just yanked us out of (the way mom would yell for us to come in for dinner right when we were 'getting somewhere' with a neighborhood game or flirtation).

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 by a pretty schoolmate, or, in bed, denied orgasm, but made out with long into the night, but strung along, a brother left hangin' - as it were, after you dutifully went down on them for endless hours. Maybe you learned to love this torment, and if so, brother, is Flash for you. Its sense of sexual bait-and-switch is all important in 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 it really is time to get up and go to the bathroom or answer the door, that the buzzing isn't spaceships but alarm clocks. Maybe the reason rocketships 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. So the rockets are soothing - you can fall asleep to their genial hum - but at the same time their noisy enough to engulf the sound of an alarm and vanish it inside a white noise spectrum. Mwa Ha ha!

In this sense too the 'petit mort' of orgasm acts as a 'waking up' to a reality they thought they were escaping via pursuing their desire. This post-desire satiation leaves 'a mess', things are suddenly awkward and the air feels colder. The post-orgrasm blues can easily segue into guilt or disgust, like eating a big steak and realizing you are now overly full and grossed out. What was initially so desirable at 8 PM - hhmm-mm hot and juicy, is within an hour reduced to a plate of slowly rotting cut-away fat and sinew; the age of the goddess revealed in the sudden guilty chill of post-orgasmic depression as just another broad with too much make-up on. One's eye casts about the messy floor for one's pants as if on survival instinct. But the urge to run or kick the person out is tempered by the need to not seem like a douchebag. So there you sit, waiting for the check, the chance to bail, be free from a bed that mere hours before you were dying to crawl into.

The trick around this problem, to avoid that disgust and depression, is to never have that elusive orgasm. This translates for Flash into an endless roundelay of lusty chasing, where people make a concerted point to never catch each other. Every kid who's played war in their backyard knows that no one ever wins for long. The last man standing invariably 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 and pick new teams. In this sense, there's never a need to just kill opposing forces quickly in order to end the game fast and go home. Knowing this instinctively, if Flash has a laser beam rifle in his hand he is always quick to toss it away. He might point it at Ming's guards during an escape, but if he wants to subdue them he needs to fight bare-knuckled. If he surges too far ahead, and traps Ming on his throne, sword to his neck, he'll let him bargain his way out, over and over again, promising he may marry Dale at once, but in a week's time so the kingdom can prepare, and Flash dutifully agrees.

It may seem ridiculous to any adult, but this catch-and-release thing kids understand: it's how you keep the adventure flowing. Once a side wins, it's all done, the 13 chapters are up. That means one thing: time to wake up and go to goddamned school again. All out of excuses.

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, so Flash repurposes an array of familiar sights and sounds from earlier movies -- particularly from Universal's early horror classics --then in regular local TV rotation so quite familiar to us: there were the long winding stairs of Dracula, the Franz Waxman scores and Frankenstein's lighthouse laboratory; some funeral statuary from 1932's The Mummy, and so on.

The cutaways to the many-armed statue with the scantily-clad maidens writhing on it for example, is seen again and again in the credits and in the serial but plays no part in the evens whatsoever. Still, we all 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 (succeeding where the Eyes Wide Shut orgy fails) 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-
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.


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 in his name and style of dress easily but it seems myopic to cast judgment on it for any perceived xenophobia, instead of reaching deep down for the subliminal Freudian Moses and Monotheism reading. Being a resident of Mongo--as the Congo does for Kurtz in Conrad's Heart of Darkness--frees Aura and Ming and the other 'natives' from guilt over lust or attraction. This is a libidinal zone where all sexual desire is allowed and there is no hypocrisy or provincial morality. Ming might be a licentious primal father but he doesn't try to scold or censure his daughter's own uninhibited carnality, regarding it with detached bemusement. And interestingly, Aura is libidinally freer than Ming himself. Though all-powerful, his lusting after Dale still needs marriage to be fulfilled, the same way Dale and Flash would never sleep together before their own ceremony. Both need a ceremonial precursor to any actual sex. While Ming is emperor he is still bound to follow the codes of conduct centered around the great god Tao.

Thus, in the codex of fairy tale symbolism, there's an understanding that once even a hypnotized individual says "I do" (or--as in Flash--when the gong strikes thirteen), their freedom is gone forever, like a limb. Although the 'wedding' is a purely symbolic ceremony with no real biological ultimatum beyond the psychosocial, the marriage ceremony in Flash is more than just a 'green light' for sex, rather it is a substitute. It 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). On the negative, marriage removes its participants from the social sphere, i.e. 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 go out before (due to strict parents, for example), now they can. It means escape from the grasp of an abusive father or wicked stepmother who are forced to release the daughter into the care of a nice guy husband (the parents aren't invited to come along with the bride and set the house rules). If Flash had come to Dale's rescue after the the 13th gong, all relative parties, including the viewer, understand he'd lose Dale forever. We take that idea-- conditioned as we are by the iconography fairy tales--at face value.

Marriage ceremonies are universal mythic instances wherein even the most fallible human relationships are imbued with 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 (you kiss, you get married, and children appear, as if by magic). Until it comes into focus, the marriage ceremony doubles for sex itself --hence Flash's race to stop Dale from saying 'I do' (or the gong striking 13) being as frantic as any other cliffhanger.

the manacles of marriage
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 wherein the secret is transmitted. 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 on Mongo, love doesn't necessarily factor into desire, making it more associated with power and objectification, the 'love' Dale feels for Flash is the polar opposite of the lust Ming feels for Dale; the hearty laugh and mustache twirl at the heroine's fear is part of the turn on. There's no 'sin' to the lust felt by both Ming and Aura -there's no missionary to condemn their lascivious gazing. Note that the other wives of Ming are, for the most part, 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). It takes a few viewings perhaps to note a small detail (above): at the anticipation of the 13th 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 on a small screen it's 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, including Aura hypnotizing Flash in a similar bid), so no sex/honeymoon ever happens. As children, avoiding marriage seems a wise action, but for adults it seems faintly ridiculous that 'marriage' should hold importance on Mongo, especially to either Ming (he makes the rules) or Flash and Dale (not bound by Mongo law), so it's interesting that, for all his power, Ming is bound to the rules of Tao; and Flash and Dale are just muttonheaded enough to feel they must abide by even a 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. Flash would be sent home empty handed. 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 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 stays true to Dale and in the process he brings in a kind of New World Order of renounced enjoyment. In the two sequels (Trip to Mars and Conquers the Universe) 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 accruing repression, and when the hems get low enough that the sexual pressure finally erupts, he's ready, up from the underworld.

We were so sure we'd killed or banished our dark Cronus forever that--when he suddenly erupts back from the abyss for the sequels--he easily seizes large chunks of power, joining forces with whatever rising tyrant star needs an advisor (not unlike the escaped Nazi commandoes would do in Palestine after the war). We only then, when Ming returns, do we realize--as if a reverse "dawn of shame in Eden" epiphany --how dull we've become. Ming now struts around clothed in crazy plumes and lascivious facial hair like he's fighting Fredonia at the end of Duck Soup while Flash and Dale seem wider and squarer, as if Earth's gravity has been slowly stretching them. Dale and Aura's censor-sewn dresses and unflattering perms unsex them; even though it's only a four year period from the first serial to Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, their clothes and hair have been as drained of sex by the dictates of the time as the actors have by time itself. Ming seems the same but his face is frozen in a macabre stony mask, as if he's had plastic surgery, a Ming disguise 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, the price of civilization being renunciation of the pleasure enjoyed by the primal father. With their dewey devotion to one another and their allies, Flash and Dale resist 'easy' sexual awakening, and through their missionary 'decency' they liberate Mongo from its tyrannical father figure and the promise of unrestricted libidinal enjoyment. They bring forth that 'totem and taboo' moment of Freud that signals the dawn of western civilization (and the reproductive pair-bond). 

Flash and Dale represent childhood's last gleaming the way the 1936 Aura and eternal Ming represent adulthood's first dirty leer. Each approach has its good and bad 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 their union with another if that's who they prefer, 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 in turn (the tellingly named Prince Barin), 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, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this, the arrival of puberty saw the end of my 'decadent desire' phase, and in its place heralded 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. In other words, as hem lines grew longer for 1940's Conquers the Universe, the country was on its way into war and out of 30s decadence; it's as if war comes along and says hey, there are more important things than arguing with censors. A kind of socialized group positivity becomes necessary. The lone outlaw is replaced by the bomber crew; the lustful sheik is replaced by dutiful husband; Ming deposed by Barin; Flash brings Christianity to the East; the Weimar era trounced by Nazism, the death of the primal father / Old Testament Wrath and arrival of Jesus and an agreed-upon monogamy. Decadence is eclipsed by fascism; sexual freedom eclipsed by slasher movies, the luridness of pre-empathic libidinal Dionysian childhood replaced by the stringent Apollonian 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, 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 the good guys 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. Ming's uninhibited carnal appetite becomes solely the province of "legend." Carnal love desire circle games are replaced by chaste married strategy counsels and formal attire receptions, but hey - we can always read the lurid pulps under our sheets with a flashlight and put in the DVD once the babysitter's paid off and the wife contented in her (separate) bed. 

Natural Selection, Adieu

Hitherto, on Mongo, a natural selection model has been the order - similar to how male lions take over the pride after killing or driving away their predecessor (and his cubs, if any), with the females having no real say in the matter of who their next mate is. Before Flash, natural selection superseded love and monogamy. Flash and Dale buck the trend. They turn enemies into friends by sparing their lives, introducing them to the preferable model of peace and brotherly love. The catch: the monogamous pair bond 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 outsider 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 (and helps in turn) Lion, hawk, woodsman (sparing their lives in duels often is the key to earning their friendship) 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-- the hanged man, wild man or android/mechanical man --are 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 opposing forces rise to meet it.

The demographic for Flash being a little older, the men friends and foes are all eligible bachelor princes and though not neutered, are otherwise dysfunctional and unappetizing compared with mighty Flash: they're either 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 bushy-bearded hermit-types (Prince Thun of the Lion Men).


In Flash, a dream version of the children's game 'tag' with its use of a safety zone or '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 in the Flash series is generally 'base' - there's a lab for him in each kingdom. Wherever he winds up he's employed making weapons to fight the other teams, like a forerunner to Werner Von Braun, whisked from Nazi V2 lab to found NASA, excused from moral responsibility for any destructive use of his inventions, 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) but each ruler never doubts their own ability to handle his new technology.

The prison or jail also meas 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) brings back a sense of pervese 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, it 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.

(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 (presuming we escaped childhood unmolested). But if, for whatever reason (usually some early sexual act or witnessing of the primal scene) a side effect of this 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)
Growing up watching Flash on TV, never in the right sequence or in one binge, 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) and we understood the frustration of that never happening the way he eventually understood the impossibility of ever 'completing' our Topp's Charlie's Angels bubblegum card collection. We had to realize that we'd never see the serial in total. The same way dreams never 'end' satisfactorily, we'd never see the 'end' of the serial (they would show the serial chapters to fill in dead spots in the line-up so there was never a consecutive 13-week run we kids could find). Thus, the show, like our jouissance and unrequited longing for local classmates and teachers, never resolved but kept twisting our loins into new agonizing yet dimly pleasurable pre-adolescent shapes. 

Back then our romantic fantasy was never monogamous but more towards the conqueror with his many wives/slaves model. 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. The conqueror's army of children wind up copulating with one another for lack of options, and the result is not the intended benefit of strongest-only natural selection, but the deformed results of in-breeding (even the strongest fighter might suffer from hip dysplasia like pugs do today. So there's a sound reason it was replaced in practice if not in our lurid pre-empathic sexual unconsciousness. Ming and Aura, as emblems of pre-Christian unrestricted id-expression, resonate these deep chords. Like the limitations of the conscious mind, Dale and Flash stay forever dull themselves, and YET - their dullness and loyalty stir the action. The average pre-genital sex fantasy (as I recall) was mired by fairie bower inertia. It never went anywhere. Flash never stands still. 

Today, both the movie and the serial remain one of the few unvarnished myths of kinky adolescence.  Navigating hormonal drives is a lost art. There is no longer a heroic man 'saying no' to some carnal woman; no myth where he will 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 (white) man and (other) woman sleep together and fall in love (there's no Dale on their desert island), and then 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 sail home and marry the white girl. But Aura doesn't die and doesn't shag the hero, instead she contextualizes herself into framework of the new order brought about by Flash. Aura 'settles' for the lummox-y Barin, more a Beery than a Crabbe (though in the remake he's actually way cooler and hotter than Flash!)

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, the one who is less spoiled therefore more capable, less indulged, therefore more grateful. And if they find someone else to run off with, would you care? You'd be left better equipped to seduce the vain, prissy, and indulged one who will have missed you chasing her and so maybe turned around at last. Of course dreams never work out like that, only reality.

Face it, whomever you are, whatever gender or orientation, you'd sleep with Aura first and worry about Dale marrying Ming later. Once they had you for a few nights, both would tire of you, leaving you free to loaf around the palace, getting high on all the local druggy delicacies. 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? That Tigron deserved better. 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!

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 am still enthralled by the idea that sexual heat/desire can transmute pain into pleasure via proximity, sex turning all other intense sensations into pleasure by a kind of reverse-fever (going through alcoholic convulsive withdrawal was, I found, greatly eased with Ginger Lynn movies on TV in the background) I think this should be explored medically as a tool for opiate withdrawal as well (i.e. think of sex while wounded on the battlefield to transmute the pain), though people might object to XXX rated movies in hospitals. On the other hand, I find the trappings of bondage a little ridiculous in films. 
9. The roots of Stockholm syndrome lie in this: a woman who can adapt to sleeping with the warlord who has killed her husband killed is the one who survives to procreate; the genes of the woman who kills herself in protest 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. But rapey magazines like Esquire subtextually encourage such fantasies through corporate projection (owning a Rolex means you will soon own a gorgeous woman too - as they are shallow things obsessed with signs of wealth)

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

No Sex Please, We're British... from Space: DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, FIRE MAIDENS OF OUTER SPACE

Watched the amazing GLOW on Netflix this weekend, great stuff, man. I got some advice though: if you're going to watch the show don't watch the documentary (about the actual ladies of GLOW) -- it's depressing. The cheap video quality of the original program has not aged well, and between the terrible 80s hair, all the talk about the bad gym smells and cheap hotels, it's depressing. Don't sully the beauty and amazingness of the series with the brutalism that is the source reality. Go instead to CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, GHOSTS OF MARS, or STAR MAIDENS, or THE RUNAWAYS (and, presumably, the new WONDER WOMAN) and dig on how progressive and rockin' chicks can be when they wise up and finally take back the matriarchal council from hammy elder 'fathers' and dogmatic scientists.

A word of advice though, to those free ladies: if you're a bunch of space women from unfertilized matriarchies, who've (wisely) long ago killed your men (they deserved it, baby), and you're looking to boost your gene pool, come to America! Don't go to Britain, at least not in the 50s, where men are reserved under the cold tea-and-crumpet heel of something worse than fog, marriage, or censorship --that cold Brit upper lipped-stiffness so resolute they even wrote a show 'bout it. 

The following is based on a piece of mine originally published in the print zine Van Helsing's Journal, which focused on all British horror and sci-fi, with me providing a very British blend of gallows' humor and urbane drollery in covering these two films as examples of how the Brits might trim a shaggy dog story down to a single well-groomed wag. My grandmother was a daughter of the Revolution with several descendants hung in Salem (two escaped to less bonkers towns) as witches in the late 1600s, so I guess I can 'pass' in a Darby pinch and I know a mild bit about Brit horror. In fact, right now Hammer's black-and-white 1963 Bloch-chip NIGHTMARE plays behind me while I write this; the pained screaming of the heroine in the madhouse dovetails perfectly with some looney lady screaming like a possessed women on the stairs below my apartment. I love those kind of  coincidences, don't you? --they're absolutely mad, utterly bonkers! As for NIGHTMARE itself, the heroine's head is too wide. But Hammer's vampire stuff is good, in full-throated color, as seen in the other film on the disc, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE. So you'd think being so good with that end of the fantasy spectrum, with a little sex in it, that the Brits could handle sci-fi. But if I was queen of Mars and looking for willing earthmen to save my stale race, I wouldn’t look to England. A little 1953 sci-fi cheapie called CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (in 3-D) once proved America to be an ideal place from which a lusty moon matriarchy might order fit specimens. In fact, that film’s central theme, not exactly new in itself (a popular motif in pulps), prompted a slew of copycats: MISSILE TO THE MOON (1958), QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS (1953), even INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES (1963). All of them are classics, worth repeat viewings, except for... well, any of them. I do love CAT though, for all the wrong reasons (see: The Moon, Cat-Women, and Thou). After all, the sexy insinuations inherent in the formula are nigh irresistible and more or less write themselves: phallic rocket ships, sexy cat ladies in curvaceous craters, underground lairs represented by some cushions and a statue of the dancing Shiva; a giant spider on a visible cable; stock rocket shots; hopeful young starlets willing to dress up in funny tiaras or black leotards with painted eyebrows; a stock cue library score, or--in CAT's case, they hire a newcomer kid like Elmer Bernstein, then just starting out, and man he does deliver. 

With all the remakes and rehashes of the formula, it’s no wonder that even the British would timidly try and climb aboard. And yet, it seems that the material is just not all that suited to the British nature. The two versions, of the tale--such as they are-- both fall into traps even the worst of the Yank versions avoid. As we shall see, the reason may be Britain’s shyness in the face of the almighty British Censors (though they're far less squeamish about sex than about violence), or of sex itself. But hang it all, why even start the grille if all you’re serving are the same old chips?

Let’s work backwards, getting the worst out of the way first: the 1956 Cy Roth opus FIRE MAIDENS FROM OUTER SPACE, a title that is bandied about in discerning circles as akin to ROBOT MONSTER or PLAN NINE (or my new favorite,  the 1957 gem ASTOUNDING SHE MONSTER). Friends, it is nowhere near in their league, maybe because it was so hard to find for so damned long. It seemed as if Michael Medved--who 'praised' it in THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME --was the only one who'd ever seen it. I was on the lookout for it for decades, man, it would have been better I never found it.

Once seen, it is untenable to even mention it in the same breath as CAT WOMEN and PLAN NINE. Those may be gaudy messes but are nonetheless compulsively fascinating, thanks to a reasonably brisk tempo and the courage of truly gonzo convictions. Neither one is dull and both manage to be quite sexy in their offhand manner---full of robust music and wild flights of imagination. The best thing one can find to get excited about with the FIRE MAIDENS is the orchestral passage from Borodin’s “Stranger in Paradise" which accompanies the many ceremonial dances, sounding not unlike someone's listening to the radio in another room. One does tire of it rawther fast, however.

One thing FIRE teaches us, is there are levels within the idea of "terrible" in films and that all sorts of cheap effects--from visible wires to visible folds in the 'night' sky--are forgivable as long as you avoid being boring. Within the accidental Brechtianism induced by poverty row necessity emerges a a bag tricks and shortcut tactics we can use for our own films: narration over stock footage, for example, to eat up huge stretches of time without ever having to take off a lens cap. So you would think FIRE MAIDENS would make up for its badness by being a textbook example of how to cut corners and take advantage of what one does have, except the absent-minded Roth apparently threw the movie away and kept just the corners: so we have the most boring run of airport stock footage ever, and then a cheap sign to substitute for 'Heathrow.' We seem to following Luther Blair (Anthony Dexter)—an American—coming over to London to helm a space program. After another monotonous streak of stock footage (this time of downtown London), he and some cronies enter an outer office and proceed to act smug, entitled and sexist to a cute secretary before heading in to plan a big space mission with their boss. The mission should be, well, maybe, important, though Luther and company really seem to be planning a night out on the town with some potential investors: “Let’s just hope there’s some form of life!” Blair says, almost grumpily. It would be funny if it weren't so tedious and vaguely offensive, this important event shrugged off as a waste of time unless aliens show up.

It does seem like a lot of bother, to us too: several miles of film are spent adrift in tediously repetitive montage to signify take-off: hands rest on levers, crew members look at instrument panels, people sit at their desks looking up at dials; consoles and flashing lights, buttons, hands on levers, more crew members, dials, people reacting, desk surfaces, buttons, more levers, instrument panels, button, flashing lights, buttons, etc. “All instruments check out; we’re approaching zero hour,” somebody says (I wrote it all down, I was that bored). You begin to realize that you are now in zero hour yourself, the decision as to whether you should fast forward. Whether or not the intention was some state of surrealist semi-conscious trance, the slow boredom lulls us to semi-consciousness but with none of the awe, love, or even respect for either sex or God, as we might get from other boredom purveyors like Franco or Tarkovsky (who would be subtly manipulating the ambient sound to further lull us).

Time to go.  As one of the disgruntled Earthlings says later, when a gaggle of women keep trying to fondle him, "OK - beat it, vamoose, skedaddle! Hit the road! Get lost!"

The sublimated sex of the film reaches its pinnacle much earlier than this scene, though. In fact the sex seems to have already happened when the ship finally lands on Jupiter's 13th moon (in a shot lifted from Bert I. Gordon’s King Dinosaur). The way the stressed-out astronauts sit around for minutes just smoking their pipes contentedly, looking at each other like a bunch of cats who swallowed the canary, well, they hammer the symbolic point home, hard - they've penetrated the atmosphere and landed deep deep down. The moon's surface is a surprise, though: as manicured and pastoral as Kensington Gardens and there are actual women, so the astronauts exit the craft and spot--about a mile away--some cute bird in a short skirt getting mauled by some spastic janitor in a plastic mask. Even from that range one of the astronauts is confident he could “rescue” the girl with a shot from his pistol. (It should be noted that, in order to capture the astronauts’ perspective, we never see a close-up of the girl or monster, they stay way in the distance throughout the scene.) The captain--brilliant as he is—notes they might miss and hit the girl, so they wait and let maiden and monster slug it out, never trying to amble closer. In fact it takes about three hours of molesting and screaming before one of the men hits on the happy idea of trotting over there to see what’s what. The monster runs off as soon as they do, and we’re headed to the “ahem” palace.

Don't look at the camera, oh fake George Sanders! (still from blu-ray.com)

We know we’re not in an American sex-and-space film when the next inhabitant of the moon who pops up is Prassus (Owen Berry) --a kind of Hugh Hefner-meets-Disney windbag--who proceeds to lay a lengthy spiel on the astronauts, using a tedious, self-bemused elderly tour guide tone, explaining the presence of humans so far from Devonshire. With enough slow hamming to put a high school theater director into an angry coma, he declares his 'daughters' to be from Atlantis. We collectively wrestle with our feminist ire (are all these hotties actually his real daughters, or Aphrodite's as he also says?) Either way, Aphrodite isn't there; he--an old white man-- is the boss of this planet, not some queen, and his way with the girls is smugly patronizing, like they're all mentally-infirm scullery maids who must be humored but not allowed to slouch. They all came over here way back when London was still just muddy druids and magical gnomes. Aphrodite's children must not perish from this 13th of all moons! That means these boys must be kept for inseminating duties for a new generation, to preserve the race (though even the most fervent creationist will feel their inner Darwin seethe at the thought, due to the imbecile-level behavior on both sides, with the women getting nary a voice in the matter).

At this point in the story I confess I fell into a doze which I awoke from just in the nick of time to see the old man finally wrap his speech up and the fire maidens come in and do their magic dance. Now if you’ve seen CAT WOMEN you know that the far-out mating dance the kittens do is the highlight of that film; it’s a beatnik interpretive group slink set to a nicely melancholic and very hip Elmer Bernstein flute-led jazz ---it's sexy, melancholic and narcotizing all at once. The fire maidens on the other hand seem more like a Catholic School marching band who made the mistake of huffing solvents right before the big parade ---in a bad way. The more they try to sync movements the worse they get.

Confident that it could only get better now that the flaming maids were around, I still dozed off. I know it breaks all film writer ethics for me to write about it since I missed seconds--maybe hours--in my mix of boredom, feminist umbrage, and general irritation, yet I saw all that may become a man. Who ere sees more is none. Even the occasional appearance of the "monster" cannot lift MAIDENS from its torpor. Even lacking the wide-eyed enthusiasm for its genre present, in say, Ed Wood, or good scoring, ala Elmer Bernstein's in CAT, it might be bearable were the sexual vibe not so snickering virgin-ish. When one of the astronauts mentions one of his brothers is "last in line" for a crack at one of the maidens--though it's clearly not meant that way--a grotesque SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE subtext bubbles up (these boys feel outnumbered in one-on-one sexual encounters).

In the end, the girl who tries to help them gets to leave with the men, like Alta at the end of FORBIDDEN PLANET; the rest stay behind; I forget what happened to Prasus after he's drugged, not that his sudden Tourettes-like hails to Aphrodite will be missed. These weird male figurehead pimp types are outmoded anyway. The CAT WOMEN didn't need 'em, nor did any of the other Yank renditions. The old geezer's presence alone should warn even bad movie fans off.

FIRE is, in short, a rough ride. To expunge the blue-balled boredom from my psyche after finally finishing it the other day (I think I've now seen it all, though how can you really tell?), I put in Robert Siodmak's timeless 1944 classic COBRA WOMAN and lo--I was mightily healed. The restored Technicolor alone could restore faith even in a man who'd just seen MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. May it do so your faith as well. Hail, Aphrodite!

"Giff me the Cobra Jool!"

Released two years earlier but leagues of ahead of FIRE in cultivated cool, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS (1954) is still shitty but has its moments. Like the louts in FIRE MAIDENS (or the stuffed-lipper explorers in PREHISTORIC WOMEN, for that matter - not reviewed in this piece, but very similar), these tavern lads would rather die trying to escape than mate with alien women, but at least there's one cool dude, even if he is only a wee lad.

 PREHISTORIC WOMEN (1967) Naturally our stalwart explorer can't wait to escape this Hell. 

It’s based on a play set around a remote inn on the Scottish moors, ala Edgar Ulmer’s polemic-burdened but mucho expressionist MAN FROM PLANET X (1951).  This one does offer some drollery and there’s the presence of (a rather conservatively dressed) Hazel Court for "traditional” sex appeal to counterbalance the dominatrix masculine side of the statuesque Nyah (Patricia Laffan), the devil girl from Mars herself. Clad in all shiny black vinyl, she's here to grab some virile specimens to take home for breeding and to show her around London, her original destination before she got lost in the fabled "pea-souper" of English fog.

Everyone is trapped in both her forcefield net (cast from her spinning top ship out back in the moors) and the ruts of cliche: a traveling old scientist sent by a clearly dismissive and downplaying government to investigate saucer reporting, snidely dismisses Hazel Court's mention of a flashing light in the sky, assuring her she either exaggerates or is just an idiot with no sense of size. He snidely claims this event “couldn’t possibly have happened,” even after it already did; when Nyah tells how on her planet the sex wars were real and that the women won by wiping the men out with a “perpetual motion chain reactor beam” he condescendingly shakes his head, inferring, this chick is just some costumed hysteric. There's a few welcome Brit character faces like John Laurie as the Scot innkeeper, but the 'Americanized' reporter Hugh McDermott commits the triple sin of being one, a narc (he rats out escaped convict--the beady-eyed, Garfunkel-haired Peter Reynolds) and two, being a smug bastard to women, and three, a terrible actor who hits his marks like he's sleepwalking through a drama school-style nightmare. I find him even more offensive than Joseph Tomelty's Blue Book-style ridicule-and-marsh-gas professor, or the conservative sudden parenting of McDermott trying to stop young Tommy from investigating the craft.

Though she's here to conquer, Nyah truly warrants our sympathy. It's a sin against nature that these men are (mostly) spared a violent death; certainly they don't deserve the attention of cute lasses like Court or Adrienne Cori as the tavern wench. In fact the only cool human male present is a young rascal of a lad, the wee Tommy. Nyah's sagging spirit is mildly buoyed by his genuine curiosity and fearlessness, for his curiosity bypasses the fear, denial, and hostility of the rest of the cast; for a wee minute, they kind of bond; Nyah's eyebrow, raised in mock indignity at his fortitude, indicates a snatch of Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth warming to the brashness of one of her Spanish ship-sacking pirates Then, sadly, she just leads him off camera; appearing soon after back to the tavern claiming he's being held as a hostage. She'd rather exchange him for one of the more adult males, despite the fact he's the most mature and bound to grow up.

One starts to gather insights into the way the adult egos continually turn encounters with the alien into fights, the way their imbecile behavior quickly turns the potential for a close encounters into war of the worlds ("all inhabited planets have wars!" Nyah declares proudly). But once again, the script refuses to dally with anything other than pure trite cliché and Hazel Court bashes McDermott's drinking even while she provides him with brandy, ("it is a required taste," he notes. "And I've acquired it.")

Nyah is--to some of us-despite her unflattering black headgear (it looks like a melted black rubber bathing cap), pretty sexy in a dominatrix headmistress kind of way --but it’s all too clear that the makers of this film are missing the point. They don't seem to 'get' the mythic current that, once tapped into, can make even the hoariest of cliches and effects roar to life; they can’t shake off the invisible shackles of repression, even in their escapist fantasies. When imagining chicks from Mars, they don't go for Lambda of the cat women or a vain control freak queen hiding her radiation burns under a Barbie mask, but a tall masculine disciplinarian schoolmarm dominatrix, who intones her lines as if correcting her understudy’s enunciation loudly enough to embarrass her in front of the back row. Is this a result of England's corporal punishment in the socialist education system? I got no issue with that, but if she's not going to be sexy AND strong what's the point? If her imperious manner is going to only outrage the gentlemen, not tempt them, the film makes no sense. AVENGERS' Emma Peel is proof England's women got that shit squared away (being sexy AND confident, competent and in charge). There's no excuse in this case, other than a bad script as a result of a writer being so beaten down by the system so that even his fantasies are stifled by paranoid moral lip-service. We see this in Hitchcock's worst films too -- his Catholic school guilt choking the oxygen out of the water in films like THE PARADINE CASE and I CONFESS, the kind of stuff where unless you're repressed by a strict Catholic school education, you're probably going to roll your eyes at the central 'problems' at the core of the film.

Johnny knows the score.

Maybe it's because in America we had the space to escape our parents into something new called the suburbs: the post-war suburban boom, coupled to the popularity of Freud and the sudden cocktail water cooler prevalence of the Kinsey reports (?), insured a greater sense of behind-closed-doors looseness. We had our cave inside the moon, our easy chair, our picket fence oxygen mask and a TV antennae. The poor British, on the other hand, at least in these films, get hostile even at a party without a parent in sight, like a nervous virgin freshman at their first keg party who refuses to drink, shouting how he doesn't need it to have a good time, but he clearly does - all shaking with paranoia as if a cop will sense he's underage from a mile away and barge into the party to arrest him should he even touch a beer. 

Let me close loftily:

Shakespeare wrote in MACBETH, of a ravaged Scotland "almost afraid to know itself." Can this not serve epitaph duty on FIRE MAIDENS and DEVIL GIRL, two films where--even though surely no one will take it as instruction for real life--the characters remain afraid to step one inch away from their stock type's glum English-version-of-American-ish stubbornness? Instead of celebrating (and gently laying) the strong man-eating, sexually brash and forthright babes of space, our dull British astro-ambassadors merely boast, sneer, try to escape and then dourly loin-gird. "We are all the slaves of a great and powerful civilization" DEVIL's hypnotized Albert notes. "Let us prepare for our rulers." Being conquered by some highly advanced foreign power with superior weapons shouldn't be a surprise for an empire-building, colonizing superpower  nation like England --they have no right to get indignant about it. There is a clear parallel between Johnny the Robot's laser beam blasting away at trees and a cannon barrage from Her Majesty's Navy cowing some native uprising --whether or not the filmmakers even realize it. Clearly they don't.  "None of this has ever happened before," the fugitive says to comfort his girl. Does England mentally block out the guilt of their devious colonizing, the way America used to block out the horrors of slavery and "Indian" genocide? Is that maybe the core of the British 50s space sex problem, England's refusal to "know itself," to look below the surface of their own native first world soil lest the zombie claws of the colonized erupt like weeds? Is DEVIL a movie about the coming of the 'fourth world' - when the 'first' world of white straight male privilege is unseated by racial, and gender, and sexual orientation equality? Such social change feels to us (SWMs) like we're being mugged in slow motion, or overrun by OCD commies ordering us around in our own house ala Dr. ZHIVAGO - we may consciously know it's for the best, but that still doesn't shake the feeling of being robbed. 

Well, well, why fight it, comrade? You can't argue with a woman, or an alien, they're too well-equipped. Instead, let's raise a glass of vodka to our future conquerors. For--as we learn in AA or under the unfair lash of God, Queen, electoral college, or fiery sexual passion--surrender is the only surefire victory. America, Na Zdorovie! Amazons of Themyscira, Arise! 1950s England, Adieu!

Portions of this review first appeared in Van Helsing's Journal vol. 2, 2001

For another of my auld pieces from VHJ, see: Reverse Oedipus: Village of the Damned 

1. (PS since this writing it's come out on an Olive Blu-ray. Meanwhile John Huston's FREUD is nowhere to found? Oh the mundanity!)
2. I went to the cinema in London back in '05 and they still had a smoking lounge with a bar. Not sure if they're still 'sigh' allowed.

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