Archive for September, 2019

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

There’s a problem in the Tau Ceti sector. Who do you send? Apparently, send Barbarella. Yep, send a blonde in skintight clothes, also described as Class Five Astro-Navigatrix, and her ship, Alpha 7. Doctor Durand Durand and his Positronic Ray – gasp, a weapon! – stand no chance.

So did the filmmakers capture very much of the coolness of Jean-Claude Forest’s original comics in this adaptation? It’s hard to say, the book is on my reading list for this very reason. Even so, the film script is kind of blowfully underwritten, yet…let’s just say Barbarella succeeds the way I once heard Lou Reed and Velvet Underground described. Something that succeeds in spite of obvious and prominent flaws.

Of course, Barbarella serves as a vehicle for a young Jane Fonda to change skintight costumes right after the monster of the minute tears up the previous costume. There’s also a lot of implied sex. She shags a huntsman who still can’t fix her crashed ship. And then there’s the blind angel who needs the endorphin hit to get his flying mojo back. Oh, and the “wretched girl” breaks the Machine Excessive, a sort of organ device that kills by dishing out monster orgasms.

In an earlier draft of this review, face with suddenly looking at one of my guilty pleasure movies with an actual critical eye, I trashed it. I repeated – “I got caught looking at Jane Fonda” – with an air of many today just looking for things to hate. I don’t hate the movie that much, not even now that my blog beast wants Barbarella on the Half-Shell for dinner.

Getting caught looking at Jane Fonda is, by definition, a plus for any movie. Repeating this fact as if I’d somehow rewritten Friends, Romans, Countrymen – “But, Brutus is an honorable man” – is overkill for a movie that deep down, I still like. I needed to vomit that out. Happens.

What should’ve driven this movie into the nether depths of Cinema Hell, the writing. On the surface, the script seems appropriately dramatic in the sense of “and then we’ll put her in this bubble with these birds that eat the spandex parts of her costume!” Yes, the platoon of screenwriters, including Mr. Forest brought in towards the end, understood the idea of big moments where X attacks Barbarella and eats her costume as the basic building blocks of drama.

Nothing about what happens in between these moments (story beats long before Snyder named them so) helps the story. And that’s even with the need to consider that it is still a fifty-year-old tongue in cheek French skin movie, where possibly like out and out pornos too much good writing could get in the way.

Still, the narrative here skims over the many threads you could get out of a plot that trades on – “Barbarella! Please help! A wayward scientist built a weapon and disappeared into a galactic backwater! We have no military and I can’t spare the presidential band (only that last part appears as dialogue)!” It is my assertion that since this movie exists in the spaces between pornos and movies with more pretension towards good, that you need some good writing. It is still a story.

Barbarella is nekked getting her orders from the President of Earth and Rotating President of the Solar System. Even over the vid-link, we see the lech get caught looking. He says something about meeting her in the flesh as he closes the call.

But, Earth society is later described as moving beyond sex with pills for the blast off part and other methods for everything else. Only the very poor don’t use them…or so Barbarella assumes. Yet, El Presidente is only a panty sniff and triple vodka martini away from actually going with – “Barbarella, I have an extensive collection of etchings I would like to show you.”

Ooh! Do you see the narrative possibilities in highlighting the arrogance of a politician that feels generally immune from the mores of the society he represents and leads? I do. Perhaps this thread winds up too dark for the rest of the movie. It is after all movie that over the years has picked up the metaphorical meaning that sex is good when the woman chooses it. But, letting this corrupt president have a little narrative air to be taught something by the previously naïve Barbarella is an exploitable story thread nonetheless.

The Plot – Crash. Attacked by vicious spandex eating dolls. Sex with huntsman. Ship crashes again in Sogo’s Labyrinth. Sex with Pygar, the angel. Infiltrate city. Learn how horrible the city is. Meet the tyrant in disguise. Get attacked by the aforementioned birds. Meet the rebels. Sex with the rebel leader paying off what Earth Pill Sex Looks like (Ms. Fonda doesn’t need a hairdresser). Obtain a key to advance the plot. Meet the tyrant the second time. Dropped into the Machine Excessive. Jane Fonda gives the mother of all cinematic fake orgasms (paying attention, Ms. Ryan?). Barbarella convinces the man at the sex machine controls, revealed as Durand Durand, to change sides. Confrontation in the queen’s bedroom where All Could be Lost. Final defeat of Durand Durand and the evil city eats itself, but not Barbarella nor Pygar (both are too good).

On the surface, the above should result in a great script that acknowledges the sexy and fun intended campiness while still telling a story. What is actually on screen only covers the surface. I mentioned that you could do the thing about the Earth President possibly having real sex with specially initiated young ladies likely to keep their mouths shut as a good idea for a different movie named Barbarella. There are other dropped threads.

Barbarella meets the Black Queen several times, the first time she’s doing a Henry the Fifth Night Before Battle moment. We come to learn that Sogo the City of Night is fueled by the Matmos that induces evil thoughts and deeds among the citizens under its care in order to feed. But, nothing about how Barbarella interacts with either the Black Queen or the Matmos ever gives us pause that our plucky sex positive heroine could just say “screw it I’ll join the Dark Side (apologies for the mixed film metaphors)!”

Durand Durand, likely already nuts when he left Earth with his weapon, succumbed to the Matmos. As seen in the evil glee he has playing an organ sonata, while Barbarella blows up in all kinds of ways. But, shouldn’t we have a moment where the same forces tug at Barbarella’s admittedly micro skirts and spandex tights?

A moment likely to include the Black Queen making a pitch for Evil – “Join me, Luke. Together we can end this destructive conflict and rule the galaxy together as father and son (again I keep mixing my film metaphors)!” Especially, when there is no way this moment isn’t married to a lesbian seduction scene between the Black Queen and Barbarella. Oh, the hindsight of a man that once produced a stylistic copy of Barbarella, a story for another day.

Realistically, it’s an open question how tolerant Franco-Italian society of 1967 (the shooting year) was towards lesbian sex scenes that would shock, but also make the story less dependent on the obvious assets. However, the movie needed something to make Barbarella more vulnerable with greater obstacles. Story 101 that, even before the creation of the helpful screenwriting manuals, the best writers understood.

And Durand Durand just needed a better Villain Self-Justification Speech.

So what is so good about this movie that I still like it despite the above?

One, intention counts. Letting Barbarella be a voice for “sex is good when it’s the woman’s idea” is refreshing. It allows the rest of us to enjoy things that are goofy, silly and rooted in the bad old days. Of course, I’m possibly imputing things that didn’t even cross the filmmakers’s minds at the time. Still, it’s just fun to see people just making movies, music, paintings and books just because it’s the story they had to tell instead of submitting things to the grand censorship committee that only wants to say No.

Two, hiring Jane Fonda as the eye candy has all kinds of unexpected benefits. She has always been a phenomenal actress. Which means that when handed a script requiring lots of spandex ripped just so, she’s going to bust out quite a few facial expressions meant to trick the audience that there is in fact a well thought out story arc, when there isn’t.

She expressed fear, wonder, the naïveté and the enjoyment of sex as she discovers old ways are sometimes good. All in places that make narrative sense despite I don’t think they were in the script. The irony here is if we don’t get caught looking because the filmmakers chickened out and put Barbarella in a boring Earth Space Force flight suit, maybe we don’t see what Ms. Fonda brought. And I wish I could take some time to praise the rest of the cast, all having fun.

Three, even fifty years later, the Machine Excessive (aka the Orgasmatron) scene is just the kind of clever set piece that will recommend the movie forever. The villain sticks the heroine in the device and plays a sonata. She breaks the machine because a good woman getting her freak on can’t be killed with sex. And it packs the most plot service of any scene in this underwritten movie.

One quibble, the music starts with a few bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, the organ arrangement, before launching into music that fits the rest of the soundtrack, orchestra and modern instruments. I would’ve just used the Bach for this moment. Ironically, I listened to the orchestral version just before typing this draft; yep, I’m getting better at figuring out music (a post for another day). And, yes, let a public domain classic carry the weight for a scene that lets us see a great fake Big-O and is supposed to kill her.

Four, I can’t speak highly enough about the production design of this movie. Other movies of the era have wild sets, but this one should’ve won the Oscar. Even with most of the spaceship viewer screen shots being close ups of lava lamps and ink dropped into water, the interiors of the City of Sogo are the kind encourage getting caught looking (unless Barbarella needs to change costumes).

A city of glass walls. Glass medallions and pendulums. An interesting color palette for which I might not even have the full vocabulary. A candy apple red starship that looks like a hand-vac mated with a condom rack…never mind. Lots of semi-opaque plastic for certain silhouettes to tease and somehow still get a PG out of the MPAA (huh?). Plants placed just so. The way cooler evil liquid oil slick than the one that later killed Tasha Yar. An all around work of art.

Let’s do the Egyptian afterlife thing, weigh the feather (the good stuff) against the heavier bad stuff. Barbarella is still an out and out fun movie with lots to recommend it played out against a script that while it should never even aspire to be The Scottish Play, is still vastly underwritten for the genre. Well, I guess I’m the guy that just likes fun movies.

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Sometimes diving into original source material for the movie doesn’t work as planned. While I might think the Roger Vadim film somewhat underwritten (see post), turns out Jean-Claude Forest’s original Barbarella comics have many of the same problems and several more. Clearly, the character has somehow managed to be more valuable than the books in which she appears.

The volume reviewed here under the collected title Barbarella started life as French newspaper strips. Think Mary Worth just with fewer “later that day” caption boxes, which help make this story vastly more confusing.

Barbarella crashes on Lythion, a strange planet that seems the product of haphazard kitchen sink world building. First, she bonks her boat into a greenhouse causing winds/decompression that kills off the highly sought after flowers. The dramatic problem: the gardeners in the domed city have dispossessed their neighbors out of key water rights, so crucial for survival in hot-spring settlements described as surrounded by desert.

Barbarella makes out with the leader of a liberal faction seeking a negotiated settlement to the problem. After agreeing to take a message to the opposite number among the dispossessed, Barbarella then has sex with this man. Diplomacy with Benefits. She takes a side for a fair deal where everyone shares in the wealth of the city’s flowers and arms a key uprising from the gun locker on her crashed ship. All is now right and then she leaves town on the next cargo ship to arrive for flowers.

Soon after, Captain Dildano crashes this boat with Barbarella aboard on what appears to be a watery planet inhabited by giant Portuguese Man O’War jellyfish. Said creatures are large enough to be used by their mostly humanoid inhabitants as cities and pirate vessels. The queen of the jellyfish pirates is a Medusa, condemned to immortality fueled by adopting the face of the next woman to roll into town and then killing her, making a case that Earth mythology later landed on the “don’t look, you’ll turn to stone” rule of the Classical creature.

After a highly charged and completely unrequited lesbian moment, Barbarella is finally told to look at the queen and *gasp* she sees her own face. This Medusa is soul sick at the cost of her life and agrees to die. Maybe she feels real love.

Then we have a completely forgettable segment, except for Barbarella and Dildano walking and just barely surviving the ubiquitous deserts of Lythion. Dildano sacrifices his life becoming part of a rapidly acting petrified forest. There’s also a space prince with princess sisters with carnivorous dolls somewhere in here as well.

And then Barbarella uses a borrowed digger boat to visit the completely isolated evil city of Sogo. This section that inspired the movie plays out as a truncated version of the same where Barbarella has sex with the right men and robots setting in motion yet another rebellion against cities dominated by a monster that feeds on evil.

Four main segments. All of which seem too short as seen on the page. I really would like to have seen Mr. Forest take each block and expand them into four graphic novels of the same size as the book kept in print by Humanoids Press (a successor company to the original publisher).

Milk the greenhouse city and the destruction of the crystal structure that fends off the dispossessed and their telekinesis. Milk the Medusa Queen of the Jellyfish Pirates for something, anything. Same with the space prince and his crabby little sisters and their biting dolls. And even though we saw a better version of the Sogo/Black Queen story in the movie, even here there’s not really enough on the page.

To be clear, my major criticism of the movie that the Matmos exuding Pure Evil into the city should affect Barbarella in such a way that a scene of the heroine fighting her way back to being good counts as a Big Scene (an All is Lost Moment perhaps?), also applies on the original page. Why? The segment is too short as written.

In addition to thinking that this narrative structure of shoehorning four adventures into the space typically reserved for one good story just makes things go too fast, this book left me scratching my head about Lythion itself as a imagined world. The planet is described as desert, except when Plot intrudes. In the third section, Barbarella does the Lawerence of Arabia trek in the sand, but this is juxtaposed with the jellyfish sea, or the greenhouse city and, of course Sogo.

Once I figured out that Captain Dildano never left Lythion and that creatures from earlier sections reappeared at the needs of Plot, I started asking the kind of questions that pretty much indicate I’m totally not buying the story on the page. Mostly of the kind an exo-geographer armed with Wikipedia wisdom on the subject might ask.

So the planet is described as being mostly desert but there are seas for jellyfish pirates? Where does the greenhouse city lie with regards to Sogo? And how did all the other settlements of Lythion pull off the isolation of Sogo without the inevitable consequence of the Black Queen opting to invade everyone else on the planet? How does the climate from one section affect the rest of the planet? And many more of similar ilk.

By comparison, Earth has a greater variety of regional climates and cultures than Lythion, but there’s a logic to the distribution rooted in latitude, longitude and ocean and air currents. And since the airplane, we’ve lived on a tiny blue marble that only seems large in the context of going out for a walk. So more than sharing climates where heat in the tropics becomes hurricanes in Charleston, there’s a sense of crowded that affects our politics and cultures.

We worry about ozone holes. We worry about plastic straws in the Pacific Trash Gyre. How about that carbon dioxide, huh? And don’t get us started on those people three countries over who understand us about as well we understand them (not at all) and are suddenly acting out. Earth obviously ain’t Lythion, where the cheek by jowl settings seem highly contrived.

Reading this book wasn’t a complete nightmare of contrived nonsense. Buried somewhere in each truncated narrative segment was a potentially great story if allowed time to breathe. I really wanted to see sixty pages for each, including Sogo. And I’m okay with moving segments off Lythion (Pluton Omicron Six?, Vulcan? New Vatican City in orbit around Ophiuchius Four?), but expanding each story to its proper length also allows you to keep the stories set on Lythion while avoiding the contrived feel.

The best story in the book, Sogo, stands out. While this story still proved too short to do it real justice, I could see immediately why the movie picked this segment and dropped in elements from the earlier stories as nods and callbacks. A monster spewing negative energy until incorruptible Barbarella convinces the queen to immolate the city in a bubbling venomous apocalypse? Works in almost all forms even the truncated version (sort of) seen on the page.

The book is a comic book. A few words need to pass about the art, drawn by Jean-Claude Forest in addition to his writing duties. Frankly, I liked looking at the pictures even less than reading the odd narrative. The panels on the page were tiny with even tinier lettering that already had me annoyed because of buying a magnifying lens to help my fifty-COUGH! year-old eyes get through the book. And the lettering is frankly painfully small. Bears repeating.

As for the pictures going inside these tiny panels, I find the art style loose, slashy and too impressionistic for my taste. True, I’m still learning my art vocabulary to say more, but I found myself wishing for some sort of open-loop time machine that makes alternate realities so I could live in the universe where somebody from the classic Marvel House Style could get his teeth into the Class Five Astronavigatrix. I’d initially thought Jack Kirby, but on greater reflection and discussion at the comic book store, John Romita Sr.

So far, I’ve really ripped into this book. Very little makes sense to my narrative sensibilities. But, there are also the seeds of greatness. I will reiterate that each story segment given more elbow room to breathe might just live up to the hype of the franchise. Sogo would still be the favored child, but the dolls, jellyfish could all steal more limelight.

And I’m absolutely convinced that Mr. Forest’s lasting contribution happened early in the process when designing the character. Barbarella has been asserted as a reflection of his views that the world of comics in the early 1960s needed to lighten up about heterosexual intercourse. The blonde crashes on Lythion and changes the world by strategically having sex with the right well-placed men and getting what she wants.

Barbarella thus ends up being the heroine that everyone can adopt. Men can get onboard in the sense of getting caught looking at Jane Fonda merely changing sexy outfits every ten minutes, while enjoying the story as well. The fact that Barbarella’s primary job is to release the guns from her ship into the hands of deserving rebels counts as a strong woman. And at least a portion of those same women fans might see that she has total control of her sexuality using everything to get her desired results. And the rest…well, let’s not go there.

To recap, I can’t really get behind how Mr. Forest writes or draws faced with a tiny, crowded and claustrophobic mess with few signposts to keep my mind in the game. I asked too many extraneous questions about Lythion’s ecology and politics. But, the pieces could’ve been great expanded into their own stories with greater effect. Sogo shows great imagination that bears comment all by itself. And quite frankly, the character is simply far more valuable than this book in which she first appears. A middling read. Now onto Wrath of the Minute Eaters.

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

Psychologically speaking, what is it about Devil Bunnies, other killer rabbits and me? No, don’t answer that…

When discussing said rodents that typically benefit from being cute, we start with both Bug Bunny and his steroidal cousin from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Lead with the obvious…

Bugs is, strictly speaking, not a Devil Bunny. Elmer tries to hunt rabbits in a world where he hasn’t quite caught onto the joke that in order to create laughs he’s been designated the honorary Imperial Stormtrooper for the evening. When does Baldie quit and buy hotdogs at Ralph’s?

Perspective and toon bullets you can outrun give Bugs his place in this discussion. A rabbit minding his own business and humorously defending himself seems like a good guy. Certainly, history is written by the victor and I’m sure Elmer’s thoughts are unprintable.

Okay, a history written by the victor Looney Toons story fits a small but growing niche of writing. Eventually, I do have to read The Last Ringbearer (Sauron is the good guy), for instance. Bugs is almost already there as the bad guy with just a little shove into the warm embrace of the Dark Side.

Personally, since these blog posts are as much about me amusing myself as informing you, the turn the clichés and tropes on their heads method I’ll leave for a less whimsical time (next Tuesday?). For a few seconds I have something better, another way to cast Bugs as the Devil Bunny. *snare drum* Cross his best Elmer episode (What’s Opera, Doc?, perhaps?) with…The Exorcist.

“The powwuh of Cawwot compels you! Heh-heh-heh!”

Father Elmer Merrin Fudd SJ throws the holy carrot shavings pinched from the salad bar at Sizzler all over his restrained subject. The bound rabbit writhes and screams.

“Your mother eat carrots in…”

Father Fudd slaps the bound Devil Bunny. “With warm stew, foul wabbit! The powwuh of Cawwot compels you! Heh-heh-heh!”

At which point, Father Fudd tags in his younger associate, Father Daffius Duck SJ, to keep tossing the holy carrot shavings. And this is where I admit that I lost the joke two sentences ago and this is my almost graceful exit…even before Father Duck gets to bust out his catchphrase – “He’s dethpicable!” Besides, I’m not sure I wanted to cast the Daffster in the Father Karras part. A future project for an actual comedy writer with equal affection for Looney Toons and William Friedkin…a tall order.

It’s been a while, if ever, that I’ve sat through Harvey. The film’s Wikipedia page asserts Pooka, a Celtic spirit described as benign with a side order of benign. But, a nearly seven foot invisible rabbit able to hold a conversation with a man who admits drinking too much has quite a lot of power that must continuously be promised to only use them for good.

Look, yes, the above paragraph is a valid story concept, but I just functionally cast Jimmy Stewart in the Linda Blair part. I need to think on this before proceeding. And it isn’t that different from the results of the funnier (I think) Looney Toons mashup. Also another project for a writer funnier than me.

We can always go with the regular sized rabbit puppet guarding a cave that doesn’t actually contain the Holy Grail route. But does this beast require setting Michael Palin loose to act as the setup man for the deadly rodent? Regardless, the puppet goes for the throat – GRRR-GRRR-GNAW! – “Flee! Flee! Run away!” I suppose the Vorpal Bunny could work in a context that isn’t the second funniest Monty Python movie ever.

Think of it, an actual scary movie where the cute rabbit rips out throats. Maybe. Certainly, small and cute but married to blinding speed is designed to engender the smug overconfidence seen in several of Arthur’s knights. We do need to give thought to the 21st Century upgrade to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. What ritual makes a hand grenade holy? And what is the failsafe for ensuring that characters who can’t count to three throw the weapon safely?

Lastly (at least until other weigh in), we have the Devil Bunny as poisoner of Easter eggs (see photo). Now we’re cookin’ with gas. I like this one because the class appellation ‘Devil Bunny’ always struck me as having more brains that any version of Evil Bugs or the many other killer rabbits depicted heretofore in this post. And I guess we’re waiting for the next shoe to drop with some writer out there using the dreaded Mix and Match technique to go with something really good in this category.

The poisoned Easter egg version of the Devil Bunny could even become a fight between real hard boiled eggs that you paint and our equal reverence for the plastic and chocolate eggs used in the same egg hunts. A statement against the commercialism of our holidays that belongs on the same shelf as all versions of The Grinch, perhaps? Maybe someone with an f%#^ed up psyche just needs to lash out a bit twisting common mythology on its head? Nearly all versions of Poisoner Devil Bunny figure out how to put the blame on the socially inept reclusive Boo Radley type (union bylaw, trust me) who sells the chocolate eggs.

And now a little bit about why I had to write about the many ways to use the Devil Bunny now instead of simply assuming it existed, a story that goes in the You Can’t Make this Up Category…

My family used to congregate at Easter for the big old country club Easter brunch. My three nephews, teenagers at the time, go into the craft room intended to keep little kids busy and out from under the adults while conversing. I may have been the cool uncle, but even I’m spending more time with my brothers and sisters than the nieces and nephews.

These kids promptly make construction paper Devil Bunnies. The reporting gets fuzzy because no actual Devil Bunnies survived long enough for me to get a look at them. And years after the fact, the boys assert that they really didn’t do all that scary with their efforts.

No matter, I know these kids. They helped sell the Devil Bunnies to impressionable five-year-olds by pretty much being loud and in your face to the younger kids with their artistic efforts. This triggers a small child, possibly the two other nephews who at the time were age-appropriate for the room, squeaking for – “Mooooooommmmy!” It’s all over when someone pulls the Mommy Card.

The efforts of the one sister with kids intended to be in the room, another sister without kids but who also took offense and the hapless child care supervisor hired by the country club meant that the Devil Bunnies were quickly extirpated shredded into the trashcan. So I never saw the Devil Bunnies, despite mentioning that I wanted to. More than once.

My sister with the nephews for whom the craft room was intended spent the next half hour berating the brother with the nephews that should never have been in the room. This I saw being just across the table and it quickly became one of those stories that the family gets instantly and newcomers look stupid until someone tells it again.

Since then there was one attempt to capture in print the Venomous Devil Bunny where I’m using a drawing app to do a preliminary color cover sketch: six-foot pink rabbit, bloody axe and bad attitude. All driven by not actually seeing the Devil Bunnies (imagination is worse, Kids). I work all kinds of weird and put the manuscript down. And then another book blew up that said I need to massage the “these are obviously the writer’s siblings” out of The Devil Bunny (the Venomous is a recent addition) novel. Eventually. Eventually.

So that’s the You Had to Be There story of why Devil Bunnies are such a thing with me.

Which leaves one last piece of business: the game stats. It’s kind of a rule for my Monster of the Week posts to throw in stats as an afterthought…

Vorpal Puppet Bunny. Give this version about two to three hit dice, blinding speed and an insatiable desire to rip out Sir Robin’s throat. Normal armor class (leather armor?). And have at it, but Mr./Ms. DM, do rehearse this one so you don’t break out laughing.

Most of the other variations of the Devil Bunny are pretty much the same Devil Bunny with vastly different roleplaying opportunities. They all seem to stand about man-high which says about six to eight hit dice. And unless the Devil Bunny up armors with lots of steel, Kevlar or personal laser shields, again lets call it leather armor.

The Evil Harvey version with metaphorical venom in his tongue also has selective invisibility which will add quite a lot to its armor class. And the Egg and Candy Poisoner Devil Bunny likely has index fingers that inject something particularly horrible (I like ricin, you don’t have to) into its victims. Bugs as Possession Victim, well those stats will be more akin to the rules for possession in various game systems.

Truth is, I think the next Devil Bunny that gets really good and gory is likely to be a huge mix and match version taking equally from the various Chinese menu options. And I’m waiting to see what that is…