Friday, March 23, 2018

Vanishing Caloric Density: QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958)

Before her there was only Peggy Hopkins Joyce. After her came all of cable TV. And now our first lady may be a secret Soviet 'handler' for a mole Raymond Shaw-style presidential sleeper agent blah blah, but who cares? She looks marvelous, darling. That bitch can wear a dress. Has a first lady ever been this glam?

In such an age as this, can we really afford to forget about Zsa Zsa Gabor?

Barely two years dead, seldom seen outside a scarce handful of cult movies (and a few forgettable 'good ones' like We're Not Married) it's easy to forget that her unique brand of 'empty' celebrity was once unique in pop culture. Well, we forget her at our own risk: she's the preface chapter to all of trash TV today. But she herself was not trashy. Along with her sisters and mother, she was Hungarian and a socialite and she got rich divorcing rich old men husbands and got famous for being famous without having anything to be famous about, which has been such a constant for so long now it's not even a novelty.

And yet, there's no one remotely like her today because she had that high-toned class that usually was seen in society pages rather than heard on game shows. She came from a time when TV was campier but less shrill, with relatively little of our current reality show 'loudest voice wins' 'diamonds-that-shine-like-rhinestone' ugliness. Instead, the blurriness of analog color TV signal and the Vaseline on the lens catching her every diamond sparkle, Zsa Zsa drifted along the talk show airwaves like a fabulous pillow feather caught in a cold Nordic draft. Witty enough to be engaging, beautiful enough to be beguiling, but nothing else, we jokingly imagined her as the harbinger of the TV future, the equivalent of what the food industry calls vanishing caloric density, her melt-in-your-mouth hungry ghost illusion left us with nothing, not even the illusion of fullness - only the vague epiphany that fullness itself was an illusion. She knew to play herself dead-on straight, like she didn't get the joke; she was able to be that paragon of social high-toned class that Joan Rivers, in her acres of furs, was a sly riff on. But Zsa Zsa knew she was playing a 'type' as stereoed-in as Charles Nelson Riley or Rip Taylor, yet it worked because she pretended she didn't know it. We were left to fathom what percentage of her schtick was pretense, and it's that which made her interesting. We could keep it up as long as she could.

The epitome of composed class and elegance: gowns and lashes for the ladies and gays, impressive cleavage for the straight boys, she was the sort of lady you bring to Vegas on your arm and know she won't embarrass you by getting hammered and pestering you to go upstairs, and if she has any 'needs', she'll make sure they're met, in austere Eastern European style (via some dashing parking attendant from Brazil who conveniently speaks no English). Her vanity and insecurity over her leggy competition might drive you to a nervous breakdown (as it did to the director of the film we're discussing today) but you don't have to worry about her mental health: you could bounce a truck off her old world European composure and worry only about the truck.

Television today has set the bar for glamor is so low it's down in the sub-basement. "Reality" stars sip Napoleon brandy mixed with Mountain Dew and end up splashing it on each other to signify a fight that will keep us watching past the next add for butt augmentation --but that's inevitable. That's science. It has to do with intelligence, education and the bourgeois pretentiousness of intellectuals, writers who never notice how their 'talking down' to audiences makes less educated audiences desperate to feel smarter than someone, anyone. While it's annoying being surrounded by idiots, maybe it's worse being an idiot surrounded by smart people. Reality TV is the chance for even idiots to feel superior. Happy now, smart person, knowing the success of Honey Boo-Boo and the election of Trump is partly y'all's fault? 

Problem is, those shows about dumb yokels are made by smart people, and the contempt they feel for their subjects is hard to hide, and contagious, and addictive. Brainy Harvard snob writers eventually start to show their contempt too broadly, like the smirky New York intellectual Walter Matthau in 1957's A Face in the Crowd (left), writing the corn pone slop in Lonesome Rhodes' show like he's doing anyone a favor when in reality his cynicism is what's dragging the world down around his ears. Watching that movie you start to think yeah, Lonesome Rhodes is a monster, but I don't want to punch him in the face as bad as I want to punch you, Matthau. This type of character, so common in the late 50s-early 60s, that thinks a pipe, white skin, glasses, a suit, college education gives them dominion over women, children, the 'working class,' and dogs. They don't respect the savvy craftiness of street smart 'hicks' or the intuitive 'soft touch' of women (though they presume their lascivious attention is always welcome). Their father can help get them any job they want and they presume they deserve them. These privileged 'wits' end up enforcing a straight white male intelligence on their non-white, non-straight, non-male and non-college educated subjects, who naturally suffer in strait-jackets of passive aggressive 'dumbing down' dialogue, the sort that used to be so common it was a kind of invisible normal that might make you slowly go insane but you were never sure why. 

It's cuzz city slicker douchebags with them pipes keeping us thinking each other is super dumb by writing our thoughts for us on TV, is why! Fight the real enemy. This asshole:

Slap the pipe out!
(from top: Matthau, A Face in the Crowd; Anthony Eisley, Wasp Woman
Another example: Anthony Eisley of 1959's The Wasp Woman who continually treats his boss--the CEO of his company--Janet Starlin, like a child who needs constant supervision lest she sell the empire for a magic bean. With his unlit pipe and bougie bow-tie it's only natural we pray a certain wasp stings him rotten.

Think I'm just free-associating? Our current shitty national situation, Zsa Zsa Gabor, empty fame, snobby Harvard writers --what do they have in common? QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958).

This is CinemaScope

As a fan of bad 50s horror and sci-fi movies (especially Mesa of the Lost Women and Plan Nine) as well as the wry work of Ben Hecht (who wrote the story, not that it's very original) and Charles Beaumont (who adapted it), I am supposed to automatically love this Queen, this presumptive sci-fi shaggy dog classic, this veritable remake of the story filmed first in 1953 (as the far 'superior', Cat Women of the Moon) then also in the same year (1958!) but in black-and-white, as Missile to the Moon. 

 (from top) the heavenly beatnik jazz dancer troupe of CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON; the celestial moon goddesses of MISSILE TO THE MOON; the tired front line of broads from QUEEN 

I love Cat and like Missile but loathe Queen. Meanwhile those films never show up on TCM when its time to fill some campy sci-fi slot in their schedule. Probably because it's in color and has Zsa Zsa Gabor. But I'd rather watch the surly sniping of Kip (Victor Jory) over Helen (Marie Windsor) being with dopey Laird (Sonny Tufts) instead of him, and the way they all play it totally straight, Jory's prima donna macho so 'itself' it becomes poetry, like watching Shakespeare act out his 14 year-old kid's metal album. The winky 'hey gang!A rocket is a phallic symbol nyuk nyuk' of Queen is the real enemy to bad movie lovers. I want to slap the pipe out of its smug Walter Mathau Face in the Crowd-mouth.  I like both its writers and love the film from which Queen 'borrowed' its wardrobe (the uniforms and a sparkly minidress from MGM's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet) and it's got babes and a giant spider (there's also a giant spider in Missile and in Cat Women and even Mesa) but most of the time it's just Cinemascope-length assemblages of under-directed actors standing around on opposite ends of a crumbling high school theater stage, ever ready for either a attendance roll call or old-school rumble that never happens. The film plays like a box of cake mix, unopened, with an egg broken over it, left it a cold oven by a director who's too busy hiding in his trailer to avoid one of Zsa Zsa's on-set rages to light the pilot. Instead he lets the soundstage fill with gas, like Monty Clift under a Place in the Sun canoe. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur are just too intellectually snotty to take this seriously, lest their Algonquin friends accuse them of reading Weird Tales instead Ezra Pound. So they embed a satyric wink so overwrought not even a near-sighted bourgeois patron of the arts could miss it.

The plot you know even if you don't: a shipload of smirking virile Earthmen head to a planet of all women where they help the good leader (Zsa Zsa) overthrow the bad one (Laurie Mitchell [who played a similar role in Missile to the Moon]) whose mask is even uglier than her ugly face. Va-Voom! Lots of girls in terrible MGM costume drama hand-me-downs getting freaky, guys makin' moves, and the captain tackling the biggest lay of his life.

sharp eyed fans may recognize Davis in Alta's 'decent' frock from F. Planet

Sounds like I'd love this film if it let me. But it loves its own smirky self too much to let anyone else share. Some of the girls are great (like Lisa Davis (right; below left) who rocks great lipstick and smoldering Gillian Anderson eyes) and the writing seems a decent framework for a more straight-faced mature approach (which would allow the magic of camp to cohere better). The problem is in the misogynistic direction and frat boy acting by the men, that pipe puffing smug-snarkiness where (SWM) actors and director think themselves too smart for their material so they think adding some bawdy audience winking will help put it over, which shows how wrong they are. Such smirky douche bag superiority has poisoned the film to never be a true cult favorite except in the smirkiest, douchiest, winkiest, most patriarchally self-important of ways. (The title + the star = a tourist version of camp, and not one to make a lifetime fan of it).

What makes the 'good' bad versions of this same plot (Cat Women of the Moon in particular) work so well as enduring 'camp' classics on the other hand, is the intent to do something straight and good but without the know-how or budget or the talent to make it, but with a genuine love of strong women. When these films are good we get the genuine eccentricity of lower rung Hollywood really trying to make nothing into something and of genuinely liking women. Unknowns and outsider artists mix with actors shunned or forgotten by the Hollywood elite and up and comers ready to try. They all take this last or first chance grab and nobly fight to stay in character as the set collapses around them. These oddballs and has-beens and non-starters are--to we classic horror / sci-fi fans--our family. They're the equivalent of the Bad News Bears, or the bar full of flea-bitten drunks in The Iceman Cometh, they're waiting us for us to come watch them again with Hicky eyes anew, to buy them drinks so they can live through the alcohol that is our eyes. They get that it's all over in well under 90 minutes, win or lose but so is the effect of an average double highball. Only the drunks survive, because thirst never dies. And neither does DVD. 

Maybe this is why (white male) barflies and has-beens tend to have more respect for women and minorities, since the men in these Z-grade films are as disenfranchised and thus less afraid they'll lose anything by portraying women as the badass goddesses they are. I know for myself, alcoholism humbled me down to the roots, made me forever grateful and in awe of the women who rescued me. And that's why we drunks, drag queens, punks, and other outsiders that make up the bad film-lover community aren't going to be drawn to such puerile contempt for either women or the sci-fi and horror genres. And thus no character in Plan Nine leers at Vampira and says some inane shit like "my coffin or yours, baby." No one in that cantina says to Tarantella in Mesa of Lost Women, "I bet you got a real sticky web." If there were such quips these films would be as ignobly remembered as this Queen. It's the celebration, the worship, of female strength, that makes them endure with stoic grace in the face of incompetence. It's there in John Waters, it's there in Russ Meyer, it's there in Roger Corman. It's not there in Queen of Outer Space. 

The 'space women need men' subgenre always has a giant spider - Analyze its symbolic meaning, write down your answer, then look at the oeuvre of artist Louise Bourgeois to see if you're right!

Only a few elements in Queen from Outer Space take the outsider/sublime approach vs. the Matthau-in-Face in the Crowd attitude, and one of them---believe it or not--is Zsa Zsa Gabor.

No matter what happens, she plays it dead straight. She should have been the evil queen- as the title and billing suggests, with her beauty being the mask and the ugly scarred face appearing after the face cracks off because she's too busy making out with the captain to moisturize. Instead, as the chief scientist and leader of the resistance, she brings that same feathery class to bear she'd bring to any 'real' social event only here it looks like the event happened five years ago and no janitor has stirred therein to sweep up. And the event was an afternoon ladies-only coffee clatch fashion show with a vague Robin Hood theme.

If it's not going to offer anything else, the casting of Zsa Zsa was brilliant touch just for marquee value alone, making Queen of Outer Space live in high camp infamy, a touchstone name easily recognized by programmers who know nothing of the genre. But it's not worth the camp adulation, for it is the kind of self-hating sci-fi that feels the need to leer and roll its eyes every five minutes.  They don't get that it's not 'fun' to presume a planet of all women is going to roll over the minute some douchebag puts on a moth-eaten blue powder and struts in like the kingdom can now relax - a man is here to take charge. It's offensive, man. You can't put women in masks deformed enough to scare Picasso out of the brothel (left) and expect them to thank you for it. You can't think some young captain bucko can topple an empire just by toying with the affections of a mask-wearing broad on Venus and have it not be so misogynist I could just scream! You can't!

Grandma, what uneven eyeholes you got

Real camp would go the opposite way - it heaps a dozen dead male spacemen at the feet of its evil goddess. Great camp celebrates strong, badass broads. It loves them. It even gives them a magical beatnik free jazz dance to quietly haunting Elmer Bernstein flute music. For Queen the contempt is so thick they don't even have the decency to put some ornamental Vishnu statuary around the place, nor to attach the painted boards that make up the evil queen's mean-spirited rocket launch control platform, the kind of thing that would earn a frown from any high school drama coach. But to not even bother to make the eyeholes symmetrical on the glittery masks the queen and her coterie wear? Unforgivable even in elementary school.

Well, either way - if we don't like it- we have two others just like it for solace, each worse than the other and far better in their worseness as a result. Today, maybe the times have changed - we've been to the moon. We know there's no babes there. Or if there are, they're fast asleep (or as Rutledge says, their "condition: not dead, not alive"). Alien women are here, instead, on Earth, and their masks are human, but just barely. Sometimes I pass one on the street - they have deep light blue dazzling eyes and blonde hair, impossibly elfin. And I send them a telepathic message of the sort one passes to celebrities spotted in a crowd ("I know who you are, but I won't blow your cover by saying hello") The alien babes I spot don't answer me, but that's show business. Maybe I'm not smart enough to be worth 'sending' to. My genes aren't worth harvesting, so no cool sexy abductions or long snogs. I am not mad or jealous and I'm not out to topple any kingdom, certainly not a matriarchy, even if it's run by a puppet doofus via his hot Russian handler. I'll write whatever I have to in order to earn my sanity, to feel observant enough about the shit I watch that I somehow contribute to the collective evolution of dude-kind. Pass me my pipe and let's get the show started, and then cancelled! And take me with you when you go back to space, long as I can bring a DVD player, can count on constant normal gravity, and Cat Women of the Moon

It's because I know you won't bring me that I don't want to go. Hail Alpha! 

Greetings from the Bilderberg Jamboree
See also:
Acidemic #8 The Brecht / Godard / Wood issue

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