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's exhibits -- neanderthal couples reacting to an approaching mammoth, or whatever-- the dream theater is neither indoors nor out, but a strange combination of the two, as if the whole world was now under one roof, with no doors or ways out, only waking escapes it. The original STAR TREK's TV show displayed great genius to understand this: alien colored sky backdrops a few yards behind the actors, eerie color gel light from some unseen sun, some shadowy mist, a big driftwood branch in the foreground, a few foam rocks, some red sand, and viola! These strange new diorama worlds offered a cozy 'small world' interiority that mirrors a dream; like sneaking out of a sunny afternoon, through a back door and finding yourself behind some diorama display along the flume track of a Disney haunted house. It was only when TREK production went out of doors, in the desert canyon scrub of LA, to show their alien world, that mundane reality seemed to intrude. These worlds all seemed like TV westerns, with Native American archetypes, monsters looking hot under desert sun, and wandering too many canyons. Those episodes were never as fun or sexy.
Freudian dream theater tableaux, it seems, are almost always outdoors experienced indoors. This either/or dichotomy toppled, all the other divisions between consciousness and subconsciousness fall like dominoes. 

And on a Freudian level, all important is the sanctuary complex in men's sense of the embryonic, 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. Women dream of shoes and travel, escaping their natural morass of reproductive stasis, growing around their limbs like hyperactive tendrils of thorny vegetation, preventing egress in favor of yet more babies. Men on the other hand, dream of losing their shoes and staying home, safe in their televisual wombs, their collections and basement man caves (for obvious reasons).

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 generic fist fights between interchangeable heroes and henchmen in the same suit-tie combinations, recycled 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. Flash might be aimed at the younger viewer, but it's not aimed at 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 pre-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, but we have no earthly idea what else to do (except in dreams). But 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 keep sex exotic. 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 spoiled pagan 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: helpless girlfriends (i.e. Dale) or tomboy pals (or moms). 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. Time and again her courage and resourceful thinking save his life, only for him to let her down by his blonde moping in favor of his blonde moper Dale, always more like Flash's cheerleader and imperiled damsel, never equal or using her brain beyond feebly smiling at Vultan or Ming to buy time. 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) the best he can do is spare her father Ming's life, 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. Part of Flash Gordon's schtick is that he never doubts Ming's word, and ably steps into every new role, including dashing courtly duelist, brave pit fighter, invisible scamp, and so forth. Unable to show the slightest duplicity, he has only two speeds: doe-eyed paragon or indignant brawler. 

 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 crush while I smittenly followed her older sister (my age, hence 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."  She alone actually changes and in doing so, brings the series to a quick close. 

"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 but incredibly strong-willed, intelligent and assertive 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 and last 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. (Though this isn't really true in Asian cinema, where strong, morally complicated heroines still loom large --at least in the films of Tsui Hark).

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 we 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. The racist implications are obvious. 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 shouting "thanks for busting me out of jail!!" as you pass the officers manning the front desk. 

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, he's kept 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 rented berth at some inland 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 (I could tell). 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 girls and being continually frustrated by a kind of ur-desire 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 if that's as far as you go with your deconstruction then you miss the point, like stopping a cross-country journey after ten miles because the road you started on is closed, rather looking for a map in the glove compartment. You can turn around if you want, but don't kid yourself: you pussied out, not the highway system. Any display of unrepentant feminine enjoyment outside of the parameters of Earth's antiquated morality is empowering, whether or not it's a turn on to the boys! It's like invalidating a straight-A student's grades since they're product of abusive, overly strict parenting, i.e. a sign of trauma rather than triumph. Hey, those tiger moms delivered doctors and conductors and your own indulged kid is still living in your basement, blaming his failure to become a rock star on you for refusing to pay for his band's demo until he actually got a job. 


Aura acts, good or bad, with clever, if self-serving, thinking. Dale Arden, on the other hand only reacts, without thinking. She's all good but all-passive --her goodness is a burden. Aura leaps into the fire if Flash is burning; Dale just faints and screams his name. Aura saves Flash from death; Flash saves Dale from 'marriage.' Aura is morally neutral, i.e. complex, Dale is all-good, i.e. a simpleton; when she sees Flash alive after the latest chapter-ending trial, she blurts his name, delighted, like a child seeing a puppy gambol towards her across the park. When he's in trouble, Dale reacts by lurching back and forth on Universal's sets in a kind of expressionist dream theatrical style worthy of the Weimar era. Even so, her dewy innocence establishes 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 sleepwalking 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 archetypes, threadbare mono-dimensional cheapness can assume nightmare potency.

For example, next time you pass through chapters 2-3, consider how Kala the Shark Man's underwater kingdom resembles an ordinary bathroom gone Rarebit Fiend-awry: shower curtains stand in for boudoir walls; scallops of welded steel provide walls and thrones; windows are washing machine door round; water leaks in from behind bolted metal plates as if a sleeping viewer's full bladder; it makes you have to pee as they're all slowly turned to let Flash out of a large water tank 'tub,' where Flash is fighting 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. In short, this is 'bath time' run amok, a world invented on the spot by a child with his rubber octopus, army men, wash rag, 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. On Mongo you don't need pressurized suits and everyone speaks English and daytime and nighttime merge; 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 power in the eyes of your army man when he's smothered by it.

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 booming actor through what sounds like a tin microphone invented from before the age of sound recording, whenever the speaker has their back to the camera, or is outside the frame. (As per imdb, this is the voice of editor Saul A. Goodkind, saving money no doubt on rehiring actors for post-sync re-recording). 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 'terrorize' Dale, who's still in her sexy Ming-given midriff dress, her bosom heaving, stomach sucked in with terror. Her heaving and Vultan's near-incessant 'uproarious' 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? 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 (or 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 late at night, as a space-filler) had enough visualization imagination to fill in the blank spaces. 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 our imaginations to make us see monsters still unmatched by modern CGI.  Today the footage looks very mismatched and sloppy, but at the time, Flash's panic (Crabbe was an Olympic swimmer so he knows how to convey fear of drowning) struck me as vividly etched and I still remember lying in bed that morning (we'd been allowed to stay up all night thanks to a huge drunken block party) swooning to memories of the string of monsters and adventure I'd just witnessed in a run of the first three chapters of the original serial on local TV (after a showing of some Gamera movie). Looking at it today, I'm amazed how much work the show got out of my childhood imagination, as what I saw then as a seamless and terrifying ordeal was in reality some mismatched octoposu stock footage, unconvincing sponge tentacles, miniatures, and flailing. 

And monsters weren't the only thing conjured this way. Sex was also generated in my childhood mind, without there ever even being a kiss in the whole 13 chapters until the very... very last shot (and even then we fade out before their lips actually touch- as if with the first 'real' kiss comes the waking up from the long almost-but-never-quite-wet dream of childhood. 

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 when beholding underwear models in the Sears catalogue seemed rapturously unique to us alone, And since these feelings weren't yet tied to the tedious mechanics of actual adult sex, they could scale some pretty bizarre sadomasochistic heights. We couldn't know there was a 'release' valve that would end the sweet suffering, and so--mired in the anal stage--we could find only Freudian punishment scenarios at the end of our tortured rainbow.


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 over there in Slumberland now that he's been so suddenly yanked out of his own cliffhanger-- in the Flash Gordon 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, and we'd wolf down dinner asap to race back out, only to find night fallen and everyone gone).

By now you should, being astute, garnered my proposed 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 and then left hangin'.  Maybe, like me, 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 or evolution - 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 is 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  masks meant to block out alarm clocks like noise cancelling headphones - you can fall asleep to their genial hum.

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 between you and your lover 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 by the leftovers on your plate. What was initially so desirable at 8 PM - hhmm-mm hot and juicy, is within an hour reduced to a plate of slowly rotting cut-away fat and sinew; the age of the goddess revealed in the sudden guilty chill of post-orgasmic depression as the nymph you went home with is just another broad with too much make-up smudged off her face when you wake. 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 as the rotting meat on your plate nauseates, you long to run out before the bill arrives, 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 the first night, or even the first few. 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, loses, or dies for long. The last man standing invariably steps on a mine and falls dramatically or is killed by some dying enemy, and only then may all the slain arise and pick new teams. The game is in how well you die, how much 'veritas' you can bring to your character and to the over-all imaginative 'reality' of the pretend experience. In Flash Gordon, there is never a need to just kill opposing forces quickly in order to end the game fast and go home. What are you going to do there? Play polo? Hang out with dad and his telescope? Knowing this truth, instinctively, if Flash has a laser beam rifle in his hand he is always quick to toss it away if the opponents are unarmed. 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. Promise Flash he may marry Dale at once... then change it to a week's time so the kingdom can prepare, Flash may expect trickery, but he'd never try to out-trick Ming. You got to let Ming be Ming, then you can react, the way only Flash can, by immediate, unthinking fisticuffs. 

It may seem ridiculous to any adult, but this catch-and-release theater of the mind thing is something 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. You have to turn a blind eye to Ming's machinations because otherwise you would prevent him from making them, and then he wouldn't be Ming, and if you stopped to think ahead about anything, to make a plan or counter a scene, then you wouldn't be Flash. Once you act in anticipation of betrayal, you might live longer, but you're no longer innocent--you're on the road to Ming-hood. The frustration we feel as viewers as Flash lets Ming escapes justice, each time, is metaphorical with the frustration we get from pleasant dreams that never work out with us actually 'completing' our union with our animas - our alarm clock rings (or mom calls us into dinner) And when we finally get back to the room where we left her, she's gone, of course. That's the anima though. When you're old enough you realize the game was fixed from the start, to keep you from waking too fast, to keep the game going, so you're able to finally enjoy the ride and realize the longing for closure is closure. Come to it too fast, the whole rest of the night you have to just kind of lie there, ashamed of your bad 'performance.' 

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 horror films --then in regular local TV rotation so quite familiar to us--especually Franz Waxman scores and the expressionistic prison and other sets from Bride of Frankenstein, now adorned with some funeral statuary from 1932's The Mummy.

Then other films are used that were never on TV, like Just Imagine (1930) from which were hewn the sexy cutaways to the many-armed statue with the scantily-clad maidens writhing on it, seen again and again in the credits and in the serial but only seen on screens in the film by the priest when he "consults with the great Palace of Tao"). Still, we all dreamt about it, for those credits were magical, and-- in its dark strangeness-- tapped into a vein of dark adult sex I was scared of (like those weird Asiatic gnomes on the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) but drawn towards, a jagged-edged murky magnet (succeeding where the Eyes Wide Shut orgy fails) pulling me over a cliff with that icy coccyx sensation I now only seem to still get when looking down from steep steep ledges.

If this all then seems about a childhood sexuality and Freudian dream theater jouissance (4), like an actual dream of someone right on the lip of puberty, then let this next part be a whole other sense of dread, of the symbol for the churning storm waiting beyond desire's crashing shoreline, marriage.


Living a kind of Gengis Khan-in-winter 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, to be censored only if it undermines his own. 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 (or even be seen kissing). Both men 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 lost to gangrene. A 'wedding' is, in reality, a purely symbolic ceremony with no real biological ultimatum beyond the psychosocial, the marriage ceremony in fairy tales, as in Flash, is more than just a 'green light' for sex, rather it is a substitute, a place card, a masque for sex that must stay on until midnight (i.e. when the child is old enough to learn about 'the birds and the bees'). For a child, marriage is the transfer of one identity to another, and there is no return --more than sex it is the diploma for maturity and escape from one's own parents. If Flash had come to Dale's rescue after the 13th gong as Flash battles the fire dragon, all relative parties, including the viewer, understand he'd lose Dale forever. Even if she was coerced (i.e. given the equivalent of a roofie). her innocence would be lost. We take that idea-- conditioned as we are by the iconography fairy tales--at face value. A closer reading though, and it all falls apart. But no one does a close reading, unless they're trying to argue their way into premarital sex, of course. But kids are not and every kid knows about marriage for years longer than they know about sex, so marriage feels somehow real, retaining a mythic power even into 21st century adulthood. 

No matter the culture in which they occur, marriage ceremonies are mystical acts of transubstantiation, wherein even the most fallible human relationships are imbued with an all-powerful magic --it's as if, especially to an innocent child, babies form somehow from the ceremony alone---hence Flash's race to stop Dale from saying 'I do' (or the gong striking 13) being as frantic as any other cliffhanger. If he's a gong too late, her innocence as gone and little Ming-lets start popping out all over the James Whale leftover set.

the priest of Tao displays the manacles of marriage

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 their empathy drive '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 desire Aura has for Flash, or Ming for Dale. But there's no sense of 'sin' to either of these emotions in the context of the film -there's no missionary to condemn any 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 his focus. 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 pre/sexual slavery.


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 but out of a kind of chaste racial purity. 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 (or deferred) libidinal  enjoyment. 

Though no doubt the result of censorship, it still makes sense under this reading that the two Flash sequels (Trip to Mars and Conquers the Universe) the hems go lower, the clothes and hair get less exotic, more recognizable; the actors age and get unflattering shorter hair cuts and perms. Meanwhile once agin Ming, i.e. the devouring Cronus elder God, returns, and naturally sees his chance under all this accruing repression. You can't keep a devouring libidinal 'enjoying' father down, no matter how much Moses, totem and taboo you bury him under,. 

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 finding work and refuge after the war by escaping to Palestine). We only then, when Ming returns, do we realize--as if a reverse "dawn of shame in Eden" epiphany --how dull we've become, how much he was needed. By Conquers, Ming is way looser and more active and flashy, strutting around in crazy plumed black caps, epaulettes, shiny black boots and lascivious facial hair while Flash and Dale seem wider and squarer, as if Earth's gravity has been slowly flattening them after their bodies became adjusted to the loosey-goosey gravity of Mongo. Dale and Aura's now censor-sewn dresses and unflattering perms unsex them. It's only a four year period from the first serial to Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, yet their clothes and hair have been as drained of sex by the dictates of Mongo's new morality, pre-code jazz age libidinal freedom tampered down by Joseph Breen's Legion of "Decency" sturmtruppen, just 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. But he's the same old Ming. Crabbe and Rogers meanwhile cotton not the least to recapturing libidinal youth, refusing even light diets or modest tights. 

These changes illustrate the downside of Flash and Dale's 'civilizing' influence in Mongo, the price of 'goodness' being renunciation of the pleasure enjoyed by the primal father ala Freud's theory of monotheism's rise (in Totem & Taboo) as the guilt of the sons after they collectively murder their primordial warlord father, determined to never 'enjoy' libidinal freedom again, but to each keep but one wife, and to thus assuage their patricidal guilt (or something). This is the 'original sin' that ends polytheistic pagan prehistory (humans divided into tribes with one father and many women, including his own daughters, with sons are kicked out at puberty, or devoured), signaling the dawn of human civilization as we know it (e.g. incest is now "a crime.") With their dewey devotion to one another and their allies, Flash and Dale resist Ming-style sexual displays of enjoyment, and through their missionary 'decency' liberate Mongo from its tyrannical father figure with the knowledge that with this liberation they forever separate themselves from unrestricted libidinal enjoyment. 

Conquers' 1940 Flash and Dale represent childhood's last gleaming the way the 1936 original serial's 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 own desire, rather than obliterating all rivals). 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? (You can still enjoy sex in the post-Cronus 'moral' order, you just have to do it in private. )

"Strangely," my own personal childhood experience mirrors the psycho-historical timeline very well: the arrival of puberty saw the end of my 'decadent desire' phase (the 1936 serial and its sadomasochistic pre-orgasmic desire as per the first part of this long-ass essay), 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 between my polymorphous phase, lying in bed imagining having rows of slave girls (or the reverse, me as the slave), and lots of spanking, and leashes and lap-cuddling but nothing beyond basic anal/phallic stage sexuality), to a cocoon phase when girls were gross and all I did was play war and make WW2 airplane models, to then losing all interest in war and becoming a Playboy-stealing onanistic teen obsessed with not being the last boy in my pack to lose his virginity (the libidinal post-Kinsey/Freud late-50s-early-60s) to being a well-laid rock musician in college (late-60s/70s sexual revolution, culminating in the 1980 ultra-libidinal Flash Gordon remake) to my current Tiresias post-sexual Siddhartha the Ferryman phase (2012+ = the internet age of collective psychosexual alienation). 

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 (instead of Aura); Flash brings Christianity to the East; as the permissive Weimar era is trounced by intolerant Nazism. 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. And then, sadly, the collapse of desire's promise, the betrayal of biology, as if God has AIDS locked and loaded, just waiting to slap us back down into intolerance after a decade without shame or guilt. 

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 unrestricted libido's consolation prize to this renouncement of unregulated enjoyment is the creation of the unconscious, where id may reign free (i.e. the dream, the myth,  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, no one shall have them. 

Clearly, it's the more effective measure, as countries still honoring the old system are more or less stagnant (all it takes is one or two generation scared to rebel against their parents and you have a stalled society soon eclipsed by the rest of civilization, still shunning progress and dressing like their ancestors, ala the Amish, the Hassids, or Mormon agrarian splinter cults). The monogamous pair bond / nuclear family system ensures less genetic defect (due to incest promoting inherited chromosome issues, ala the hip problems that plague the pug community) but at the same time booming out the population with people that Darwin would willingly cull from the herd (see: Idiocracy.)

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 --as 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 girlfriend (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,(Scarecrow) wild man (Lion) and android/mechanical man (Tin Man)--are archetypes - each a valuable source of personal power/advancement within the unconscious - but on their own --just nodes of contact, stars within the unconscious' dream nebula). The effect of the visitor from Earth is galvanizing on all them, the way- say, it is, conversely) for E.T. on the suburban household he invades, disrupting the normal flow of events - creating an opportunity for change and profound growth / maturation, and risking complete destruction and terror as opposing forces rise to meet it.

The demographic for Flash being a little older, the friends and Ming-allied 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), or bandy-legged bushy-bearded Wild Men (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' (first grasped in the primordial game of 'tag') 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 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, presumably) 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. 

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 darkness ('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's system of benevolence and friendship over pleasure-seeking. 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, a key to happiness, a way 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, beach 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? That Tigron deserved better. If you'll excuse me now, I have to wake up.  That buzzing is no ship... it's my alarm. 


1. jouissance-based sexual fantsizing of a phallic stage pre-adolescence (specifically my own such memories filtered via Freud). 
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. It only works via novels, or spoken in the act.
9. The roots of Stockholm syndrome lie in this: a woman who can adapt to sleeping with the warlord who has killed her husband  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 (i.e. male family members deciding a 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 (peddling a pimp-like promise that owning a Rolex means you will soon own a gorgeous woman too - for they are shallow things obsessed with signs of wealth. I mean I've had hot girls at bars grab me by my wrist, look at my cheap watch, shake their head, and throw me back. But who would want such a vain spoiled vapid gold digger like that? Only the insecure male desperate to seem like da mack daddy pimp).

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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