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.

“Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980”

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“This is a party, not a safari!”

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Where the Buffalo Roam, 1980 (Bill Murray), MCA/Universal

“He was … known for his lifelong use of alcohol and illegal drugs, his love of firearms, and his iconoclastic contempt for authoritarianism. He remarked: ‘I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.'”

I figured in this review of the notorious 1980 folly, the unprescribed medley of moments in the life of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Where the Buffalo Roam, I would adopt the persona of celebrated writer, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. As long as the persona does not irritate, dear reader. Fishing cap? Check! Extra-long cigarette holder? Check! Hawaiian t-shirt? Check!  In a phrase, he was celebrated for being celebrated.

His memories exist as a wild anecdote, only partially rendered impotent by the gross complications of a film director who has lost his personal sense of humor, and instead relented and choked from insatiable gasps of Bill Murray’s star power. He lives in a swanky cabin in Colorado. His fax machine belches, demands tasty portions of words, with which he is not ready to part. Instead he shoots the infernal machine, and sicks his Doberman on the tasty testicles of his Nixon effigy. He looks at a picture of his beloved hippy attorney, Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle) and remembers those times, some ten years back in San Francisco. Lazlo is an idealist. He defends the weak. Helps the helpless! He’s God’s own prototype! To weird to live. To rare to die. I know. I stole those words directly from the real Thompson, but I can’t help it. The man was such a brilliant fuck-face, it’s hard to imagine anyone (even Master Johnny Depp) portraying him in any meaningful way.

Lazlo spends a lot of his time defending young idiots on marijuana possession counts.  I understand his reasoning.  These are victimless crimes, but in trendy San Francisco, end-of-the-decade, with colleagues seducing him to the dark side; rich clients and cushy digs, Lazlo doesn’t care.  In these all-important character scenes, we become convinced we’re watching the story of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer (which is probably interesting enough to work on it’s own) instead of a story about the celebrated icon.  Lazlo is demoralized watching his clients sentenced to hard time in prison for what would amount to (in my view) petty misdemeanors, but such are the breaks in the world of the old and powerful.  He flips out when a particularly young client gets five years in jail for possession of one joint.  He’s held in contempt, while Thompson sits on a deadline and makes his editor (Bruno Kirby) pray for Lazlo’s swift release (and also for all the people of the world).

We move forward a few years as Thompson is covering the Super Bowl.  I don’t think he has any interest in covering sports, but he runs up a huge expense account at the hotel where he is staying (including Crab Louie and sixteen grapefruit).  He trashes the hotel room, dresses the staff in football equipment. and causes a ton of havoc on his floor.  The next morning, Lazlo (wearing a Nixon mask) catches up with him.  He stopped being an attorney full-time, and now cavorts with the younger set.  Thomspon ditches his assignment to become Lazlo’s traveling companion.  I wonder if, in these later scenes, Lazlo isn’t simply a figment of Thompson’s potent and overactive imagination.  Lazlo tells him he’s been “reborn”, running guns for paramilitary types out of Mexico.  Whatever floats your boat, Lazlo.  He wants Thompson to write a story about the “struggle.”  The movie is a push-pull of idealism and gluttony that never kicks into gear, mostly because I think those so-called revolutionaries of the time could never get their shit together in a worthwhile way.

The movie is a mess, editorially, with no flow except for episodic moments in which Murray crosses paths with Boyle’s Lazlo.  For his part, Boyle is extraordinary, but he acts in a vacuum.  Murray’s Thompson is a baroque caricature.  While obviously devoted to playing this part (with some guidance from the real Thompson), he comes over as an inebriated middle-child with autism, hiding a feverish addiction to alcohol and other various substances.  Despite good production locales and photography, Where the Buffalo Roam does no favors for the time period, and the social and the political unrest it attempts to show us.  I often wonder if this is the beginning or the end of self-destructive behavior, as Thompson’s exploits become bigger and more dangerous with each scene change.

Later releases of the movie remove key bits of music, due to rights issues, and replace them with “sound-alike” tracks, which make the whole thing even more unbearable to watch.  In retrospect, I had the same issues watching Terry Gilliam’s similar Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, however that movie improves on subsequent viewings, but Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s legacy has been tarnished by his God-given desire to numb himself in any way he could.  In a way, Thompson was his own prototype.  Too rare to live, but always ready to die.

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It still hasn’t gotten weird enough for me.

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”

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.