Vintage Cable Box: Barbarella

“Better adjust my tongue box.”

Barbarella, 1968 (Jane Fonda), Paramount Pictures

Kids from my generation know very little about the actress Jane Fonda from the time period in which Roger Vadim’s Barbarella was produced, except to say that she was involved in protesting the Vietnam War, or something to that effect. She was in 9 to 5 and On Golden Pond. If you get a codger in the room, he or she will invariably spit, “Hanoi Jane!” What the kids from my generation will most remember Miss Fonda for was her marriage to broadcasting mogul Ted Turner and The Jane Fonda Workout, an incredibly successful series of videos she produced for that burgeoning industry starting in 1981 with her workout book.

When we first see United Earth Space Agent Barbarella, she is stripping out of her leatherette bubble-wrapped spacesuit, floating about her small spaceship nude in a non-gravity environment as the credits float past her.  She is given an assignment by the President (Claude Dauphin) to take renegade scientist Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) into custody for fear his Positronic Ray will be used for nefarious purposes.  Has a Positronic Ray ever been used any other way?  The movie is a whirling dervish of ’60s psychedelic effects, including oil plates, sparklers, and some fairly impressive animation and model work.  The plot recalls a much sexier version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with Barbarella’s leaps into dark tangents, and sexual encounters with eccentric characters, such as a beefy blind angel and a futuristic truant officer.

Barbarella is abducted by creepy twins (what twins aren’t creepy?) after she fails to translate their language with her “tongue box”, who then take her on a manta-ray driven sleigh ride to their dungeon, which is populated with pathological little girls and blood-thirsty dolls with razor-sharp teeth.  As strange as this seems, it only gets weirder.  She is rescued by the aforementioned truant officer, hairy Mark Hand (Ugo Tognazzi), who insists they must make love physically (instead of with pills and psychological profiles as Barbarella suggests is now the preferred method of sex) if she is to properly reward him.  In her ship, she probes the deep nether-regions of Tau Ceti and is rescued by a the hunky blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) after she is injured by falling rocks.  Pygar rescues Barbarella (yet again) from the Black Guards, strange creatures in service to the “Great Tyrant”, so she makes loves to him, thus giving him the will to fly.  He flies her to Sogo, the “City of Night.”  They are beset by attack vehicles that remind me of the Bespin Cloud Cars from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once inside the strange city of Sogo, Pygar and Barbarella are taken in by the “Concierge” to the Great Tyrant, who immediately imprisons the blind angel and sentences Barbarella to death (by bird-pecking).  She takes up with Dildano, leader of a resistance (hilarious David Hemming with his invisible keys, invisible walls, and ridiculous cape), where she becomes a lynchpin to their mission.  She is captured by Durand Durand, who forces her to submit to death by musical and sexual intercourse.  In short, he plays her like an organ, and attempts to screw her to death, but she breaks his instrument!

The movie is well-made and entertaining and visually dazzling.  If only comic book movies being made today had such wit!  This movie should be shown on a double bill with Flash Gordon (also produced by Dino De Laurentiis).  I don’t know what all of this means, but it must mean something.  If there isn’t some greater subtext in this movie, then it must’ve been made to be fun!  You don’t always have to have deep meaning in everything you do, however I do note several unusual choices.  For one, Barbarella is always in danger, and always has to be rescued by someone to whom she offers her body.  Second, as Danny Peary notes in his Guide for the Film Fanatic book, Barbarella always enjoys her sexual encounters.  This had to be keen for the Second Wave of Feminism, which started in 1961.  In Barbarella, sex seems to be her weapon and agency of choice.  Camille Paglia would be pleased.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: The Ratings Game

“In trucking, I only had to deal with thugs, hit-men and goons. But these network guys are scary.”

The Ratings Game, 1984 (Danny DeVito), Viacom Productions

There was an episode of Family Guy a couple of years back where Peter Griffin gets it into his head to steal all the Nielsen ratings boxes from a van. A few hours later, he has rigged the boxes to collect information from his viewing preferences. Peter then realizes he has a kind of power to manipulate the television broadcasting system to his peculiar standards. As a result, all kinds of ridiculous programming is produced. Tired of having his ideas rejected by the Hollywood elite, Danny DeVito’s Vic De Salvo devises a scheme to garner high ratings for his unsold pilot, Sittin’ Pretty (a kind of Three’s Company knock-off starring himself) by sending Nielsen families off on a cruise while he has friends break into their homes and watch his pilot, thus inflating the numbers.

Anyone who has ever had to deal with creative labyrinthian hurdles, heirarchies, and systems of exclusion will understand DeVito’s problem.  He’s an outsider who has gotten fed-up with playing by the rules, so he takes matters into his own hands.  In a way, he reminds me of madman moviemaker Tommy Wiseau and his truly appalling The Room, even to the point where Vic is deluded as to his own talent.  Sittin’ Pretty, while a terrible example of a television pilot, is in keeping with most television series produced at that time (and many these days) so it’s resulting success (or failure) is inexplicable.  Rhea Perlman is a low-level statistician at the ratings company.  While courting her, she gives him the idea to hijack the families.  Either, he was unaware of the need for high ratings, or the (admittedly clever) teleplay is required to educate the audience, or both.  A particularly funny scene aboard the cruise has these bored Nielsen families (no television is permitted on the cruise) engaging in lively discussion about a recent Dynasty episode.

The Ratings Game works brilliantly as a satire of not only the culture television shows stimulate, but in turn the entertainment our culture inspires.  If you believe that television is a pop culture wasteland (excluding the McLuhan argument that television is merely a catalyst for that wasteland – an argument I agree with), the movie will, at least, provide a foundation for that belief.  The Nielsen ratings exists as a kind of sample pool of viewing habits.  The percentages of viewership are based on a small sampling of “Nielsen families”.  For example, if ten people watch your television, Nielsen will estimate a thousand people (who do not have the ratings boxes in their homes) watched your television show.  It’s not an exact science and has caused consternation through the years as people have seen their favorite shows cancelled due to weak or low ratings.  Networks and syndicators take those figures and charges advertisers varying rates for commercials that will air during those shows.

First-time director Danny DeVito, working with a WGA award-winning script by Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland, and perhaps drawing on his own experience in television, crafts a deliberate, mocking parody foreshadowing his later work.  The cast is made up of a wonderful mix of television and character actors: Gerrit Graham, Kevin McCarthy, George Wendt, Allyce Beasley, and in early roles, Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Richards.  DeVito would go to direct (mostly) unusually dark comedies like Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses (a personal favorite), and Death to Smoochy.  The Ratings Game was produced for the Showtime cable television networks and aired on The Movie Channel.  HBO (Home Box Office) started producing original films a year earlier with The Terry Fox Story.  Made-for-cable films would become an industry unto itself after these first few experiments.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Something Wicked This Way Comes

“I won’t always be younger than you.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983 (Jason Robards), Buena Vista

There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she realizes his parents are not gods, not super-heroes; sources of steady nurturing and strength, but flawed, weak old analogs, begging for better days. Young Will Halloway sees this failing in his old dad (a heartbreaking Jason Robards) on the day Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival arrives in his small Illinois town. Will and his friend, Jim Nightshade, snoop and investigate. Easily spooked by an oddly porcelain Pam Grier’s tarantula, they run off. The next day, the carnival opens. Good-natured, one-legged, one-armed Ed takes a trip through the wacky Mirror Maze, where he sees a reflection of himself with missing appendages intact. Elderly and bitter Miss Foley sees a beautiful world in the Maze only she can imagine. Lonely men are seduced by gorgeous belly dancers, and given money and cigars.

Obviously, we have a carnival that promises and delivers on thrills and excitement, but of course there is a price to be paid for all that is given. Will and Jim are busted for trespassing in an out-of-order carousel, and they are confronted by Mr. Dark (freaky Jonathan Pryce). The boys stow away until after sunset so they can see what goes on here when everybody leaves. They see one of the townies, barber Mr. Cooger riding the carousel backwards, and being transformed into a child. His shop is closed down due to “illness.” The child takes up residence with Miss Foley, who believes him to be her nephew. Jim returns home to find his mother dancing with a man who is not his father. Will discovers Jim’s father rescued him from drowning during a picnic by a lake several years before. Robards regrets not having saved the boy himself, which stirs up feelings of inadequacy. Miss Foley looks into a mirror and sees a beautiful young woman staring back at her. She becomes this woman, but then is almost immediately struck blind.

Meanwhile a storm is brewing. Will and Jim smell lightning in the air, and a plague of spiders falls on Jim’s house. This is a truly frightening scene, even by today’s standards. Mr. Dark is aware of what the boys know about his crazy carnival, so he sets about looking for them. Dark confronts Robards (who hides the boys) and sees right through him. Robards holds his own, and begins to realize Dark’s awesome powers. The carnival seems to be consuming the town, devouring the hearts of it’s most promising people. In a way, the town was the prison of these people’s failures, and freedom from that prison equals death. Robards joins Will and Jim in their investigation of the carnival and it’s evil proprietor. Pryce’s Dark (as the Devil’s own stand-in) attempts to seduce the boys (particularly fatherless Jim) to join him in the carnival. Robards must fight Dark for possession of his son’s soul.

The film is truly marvelous to behold.  Ray Bradbury adapts his own short story (the story and an early spec-script becoming the basis for a full-length novel), “Black Ferns”, and Jack Clayton imbues his film with horrifying visuals that provide a grotesque counterpoint to initial scenes of small town beauty and Bradbury’s requisite hunger for nostalgia.  You can almost feel the dried leaves of October crackle under your feet.  A lot of the action is strangely intense for a film produced by Disney.  James Horner’s score is delightful.  Owing to problems in editing, the ending feels rushed in comparison to the build-up of everything that’s come before.  Richly drawn characters disappear three-quarters of the way through the film, and Pam Grier’s powers are never adequately explained.  These are minor flaws.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gem of a movie.

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks,
Whoever knocks.

Happy New Year!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.