“..It was pointless to continue it when other substitutes for ego support and self-esteem were made available.”
To live in a world where the sex-positive social movement and its many antecedents need to exist is almost baffling. I mean, many of us like to have sex. It can be healthy and enjoyable. It can be meaningful or purely entertaining. Above all, it allows us to propagate the species (though this might be something we should consider slowing down). However, for some peculiar reason, openly expressing one’s sexuality has often been viewed as taboo. Especially so in our society. Yet, now more than ever, there is a growing awareness of the harms that have been done unto all of us (sadly mostly unto women and palpably unto people who are not considered hetero- or cis-normative).
With a vast media network constantly utilizing sex to sell just about anything from hamburgers to cars and dictating nigh-impossible standards of beauty, all while going into a frenzy over so-called public indecency, it’s a wonder more of us haven’t consider mass sterilization. When Mad Max: Fury Road came out earlier this year, people were in awe of its featuring a strong female character not defined by her gender (I would argue that in this film’s case the praise is a bit unwarranted as I think none of the characters had enough depth to be strong anythings, but this is beside the point). Why must this be a surprise? At the very least, it seems there IS a growing and healthy distrust of these information sources coupled with a demand for more equitable content. The tools for sifting through the sensitive subjects of what do I like, what is acceptable, what partners I can choose, and so on ad infinitum are being developed and we must apply them everywhere to continue to hone them.
It is with these tools in mind that I invite you to partake in a serendipitous selection of campy science fiction films filtering through the Boston area. Science fiction and fantasy have long been the stomping ground of the (possibly frustrated) sexualized male gaze. The Brattle and Somerville are delivering some beautiful specimens for some serious examination:
- Brattle’s Camp Sci-Fi Camp late night series:
- 7/18 (TONIGHT!) – Barbarella (1968)
- 7/25 – Cherry 2000 (1987)
- 8/2 – Tank Girl (1995)
- 8/8 – Barb Wire (1996)
- 8/15 – The Fifth Element (1997)
- Somerville Theatre’s late night screening of the violent, animated, and erotic Heavy Metal (1981) on 8/1
Some of these pickings are of course more fluff than content, but I’m particularly excited for the grooviest in the mix—Barbarella!
From the opening credits of Barbarella, we know that this is a movie with some serious sex appeal. For those not in the know, the cult classic from ’68 is a colorful adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest’s comics by the same name in which the title character is a buxom space babe fighting and sexing for justice and love. Who better to play the part than the inimitable Jane Fonda?
In a distant future, the five-star, double-rated astronavigatrix is charged with retrieving the scientist Duran Duran (yes, the namesake of the band) from a planet of pure evil before his knowledge can be used to create the first weapon seen in the universe in ages. It’s a harrowing task full of violent children with their wind-up killer dolls, a femme fatale tyrant with a penchant for torture, an angel, and an almost unending parade of futuristic sets. Barbarella, a paragon of innocence without an iota of shame for her body (can you tell this movie was made in the ’60s?), experiences a sexual awakening.
“A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming.”
Despite the overall unique (even for today) moral stance of a world where a woman CAN be a sexual being without being ineffective, the film falls into the traps of its genre over and over again. It seems that everyone who helps her does so only in exchange for sex. Ooof. The camera lingers on scenes of her being mutilated including a particularly gruesome torture in which Fonda’s skin and clothing are torn at by an aviary of colorful birds. It’s here that we see the now all too familiar link between sexuality and violence.
What purpose do these tortures serve? Are they mainly there to sate our lust and challenge our heroine? Can we enjoy these manipulations of our gaze without becoming trapped in a repressive set of expectations? Ultimately, Barbarella perseveres in her quest for what’s right, saving not only her friends but the evil tyrant as well from a cataclysmic event that destroys the entire planet from within. She is unable to do so without the help of a blind and broken angel.
“An angel is love.”
What truly makes Barbarella a fascinating character is her belief that she can reason with even the vilest characters that surround her. Despite all of her tortures, she does not act for vengeance. Instead, she endures more and more hardships to save the friends that she is quick to make. One of these friends is Pygar, an angel who no longer has the will to fly. His blindness prevents him from seeing the woman, thereby eliminating the visual appeal she possesses. It is her empathy and her kindness that re-instills the angel’s will to fly.
Perhaps this moment holds the key to what the team behind the adaptation hoped to achieve with this kooky piece of erotica. The relationship between Barbarella and Pygar, despite some cheesiness, is a tender romance that is in stark contrast to the opportunistic and sadistic forms of sex presented elsewhere in the film. Although struggling to reach this point by taking us through the mire of filth, Barbarella proudly proclaims that sexuality is a force more benevolent than damning.
“But you’re soft and warm! We’re told that Earth beings are cold.”
I’ve long held by the belief that film is the medium through which we can explore what it fully means to be the irrational creature that is a human. After all, what is our perception of the world if not a feature film that our brains create for us? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this film and hope to experience it fully later tonight. A big shout-out to a certain coworker who traded shifts with me to let this happen.
Ari Shvartsman can reached at [email protected]