Alan Smithee Podcast 77: Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim) / Galaxina (1980, William Sachs)

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In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast, Andrew and I run wild across the universe with a couple of loose space babes. They both start out a little cold – one of them’s made of metal – but after we shove our opinions down their throats regarding how badly their movies suck, they warm up to us plenty. It’s called “negging,” refer to your pick-up artist manual for a detailed explanation. Then, of course, I take things too far and ask Fonda if she’d tortured any POWs with the pan-and-scan version of Barbarella lately, turning the mood. Stratten also cools down a bit once she remembers she’s been dead and murdered for 30 years.

This is one of those times when our nominally “good” movie is only less worse than the “bad” one, but the pairing of these two broads was too good to resist. It’s a head-slappingly silly mistake, because Barbarella is probably one of the more infamous bombs of the 60s; a seemingly imaginative yet actually highly calculated attempt to cash in on several cultural fads of the time: sci-fi adventure, comic book camp, “free” “love” and Henry Fonda’s acting progeny. You can’t blame Dino De Laurentiis for thinking that these gimmicks would mesh together, and perhaps they would have if the story or script had anything remotely interesting about them. Terry Southern and Roger Vadim have a lot of potentially clever ideas that flitter and flame out within seconds, proving that drugs tend to hamper otherwise good writers more than they help them.

Flash Gordon is practically a masterpiece of production design and witty dialogue by comparison, to give you some idea of how badly Barbarella misfires. At least Dino learned something in the interim. Actually, Flash Gordon actually came out the same year as our second feature of the episode, Galaxina – a title inspired by Barbarella, if not the story. Or lack thereof.

Galaxina is just as vacuous and lazy in terms of actual content, but with far less talent involved. Robots learning to love is one of science fiction’s oldest tropes, so Sachs (who wrote as well as directed) wasn’t necessarily in a bind to begin with. You’d think if the star of your film was Playboy Playmate of the Year 1980 Dorothy Stratten and she’s the robot who learns to love, you kind of have your work cut out for you and can simply enjoy peppering the dialogue with double entendres and concocting sexy scenes of awkward robolove between man and machine. Yes, you’d think. Apparently Sachs felt that such material was beneath him, and basically ignores Stratten for the first half of the film while he establishes, re-establishes and re-re-establishes a trio of bumbling space jockeys in what feels like a failed pilot written by someone who couldn’t get a job on Saturday Night Live even after Lorne Michaels left.

The infuriating catch to this lack of Stratten-sleaze is that when she finally makes the scene, we don’t get so much as a side boob and the proto-Spaceballs parodies are only getting worse. The cleverest thing in the whole waste of celluloid is an alien hooker with three boobs, strongly suggesting that at least one person who worked on Total Recall has seen Galaxina. Given how clumsy and rote the predictable parody scene of Alien is, it probably wasn’t Dan O’Bannon’s idea to include an homage in kind. Who did Sachs think he was, not delivering on the tagline that in the 31st century, man finally created a machine…with feelings!(?) This bozo wrote and directed The Incredible Melting Man. If you’re going to make an exploitation film, know your audience.

Galaxina “introduces” Dorothy Stratten as per the opening credits, even though she’d starred in the softcore lesbian erotic thriller Autumn Born, a film which undoubtedly featured her in the nude and was probably better written as well. Stratten belongs to that unfortunate club of actors and actresses more famous in death than life, and will go down in movie history only for this and Star 80 – the 1983 biopic depicting her murder, in which she’s played by Muriel Hemingway. Pairing that with Galaxina as the good-movie counterpoint would’ve been smart, but hey, we’re not all that smart sometimes.

NEXT EPISODE: BLUES BROTHERS SPECIAL! THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980, JOHN LANDIS) / BLUES BROTHERS 2000 (1998, JOHN LANDIS)

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Alan Smithee Podcast 57: Flash Gordon (1980, Mike Hodges) / Popeye (1980, Robert Altman)

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King Features Syndicate is a print syndication company owned by The Hearst Corporation. They distribute about 150 comic strips, newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles and games to nearly 5000 of the dying print medium known as “newspapers.” They own a heck of a lot of famous cartoon characters, many of whom started out as newspaper comic strips. Two of these are Popeye and Flash Gordon. After the monumental success of Superman (1978, Richard Donner) they must have been flustered over who owned their most famous characters and whom they could still sell off.

Flash Gordon was already owned for a long time by De Laurentiis, who produced the film version in his idiosyncratic style. Popeye’s film was a Paramount-Disney co-production, yet also very eccentric thanks to producer Robert Evans giving director Robert Altman virtual free reign to make whatever he wanted of the beloved icon. How did two films about such different matinee heroes get made so similarly by such different hands, resulting in two films both rather infamous for falling short of their critical and box office expectations? We do our best to summarize the good and bad from each oddball romp, one of which is mostly good and the other mostly not so good in this, our “King Features Syndicate” episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.

Flash Gordon opens with an ominous villain finding out the name of our planet Earth, then pushing a button marked “EARTH QUAKE” to attack us. The rest of the movie is a lot like that: archly theatrical in manners of comic book prose, but also distractingly stupid. The combination of Las Vegas pageantry and low fi special effects has its share of admirers, including famed Marvel Comics illustrator Alex Ross, whom on the special edition DVD recollects being blown away by a child in 1980 and wondering why Star Wars couldn’t be more like it. If only there had been several million more children like him; imbued at a young age with the tastes of grown men who still love ogling women in ridiculous costumes as the males in ridiculous costumes ham it up.

The target audience of Flash Gordon would probably be the same people whose favorite season of the Batman TV show was the final one where they added Batgirl and made her ride around on a motorcycle wearing purple lycra. The screenplay was written by a frequent scribe of that very show, Lorenzo Semple Jr, and he never misses a chance to include innuendos about “teaming up” or the pleasures of torture. Sometimes he just goes ahead and lets Flash remark that some girl really turning him on. There’s also language like “damn you” and “go to hell” and even “you lying bitch!” to tick off parents and titillate the film’s true audience; the adult degenerates enjoying all the scantily clad one name Euromodel-actresses populating the throne room of Ming the Merciless.

Flash Gordon has some amazing sets and costumes, corny special effects which nonetheless jibe with the art direction, and even some decent cast who can deliver lines like “NO!!! NOT THE BORE WORMS!!!” with conviction. Unfortunately the director Mike Hodges doesn’t seem remotely interested in his own movie and the decision to let the special effects look fake feels more like a lack of effort than a purposeful refutation of the new realism in effects introduced by George Lucas. There’s also no surprises to be had after the movie gets going – just more of the same cheese over and over for nearly two hours, the two-dimensional nature of everything becoming more and more of a liability. The only component of the movie with a dramatic arc is the famous soundtrack by Queen. Too slow for children and too silly for adults, Flash Gordon finds a way to disappoint everyone.

Similarly confusing to audiences then and now is Robert Altman’s Popeye, which at least has the benefit of, you know, being directed by Robert Altman. Fans of this film actually have a good case to make for it being one of the most artistically accomplished comic book films ever made: the script by Jules Feiffer incorporates as many characters as possible from the original E.C. Segar Thimble Theater newspaper strips and Robert Altman supplies a roster great character actors like Ray Walston, Richard Libertini and Paul Dooley to bring them to life. Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall were famously cast as Popeye and Olive Oyl, and they’re perfectly qualified. Altman’s choice of songwriter, Harry Nilsson, composes some rambling amble tunes which honor the laconic wit of the old comic strip splendidly, awkwardly as they are placed into the story. In an amazing coincidence, Nilsson actually took a break from recording an album titled “Flash Harry” to work on Popeye. Wolf Kroeger’s production design should have won an Oscar; he literally created an island town where in Malta, Spain where there was once a bunch of rocks and the dang place is still standing to this day as “Popeye Village,” a functioning theme park.

Altman directing musical sequences is something to behold for his fans. Seeing him have a go at slapstick is also something behold and not in a good way. Popeye has problems to be sure, some in common with Flash Gordon: the rambling, the repetitive feeling, the palpable confusion as to whom the film is meant for. On the other hand, Altman is a genius and even the lesser works of a genius are unique visions worth seeing.

It’s a tragedy that comic book movies today don’t have the freedom to fizzle out as spectacularly as Flash Gordon or display as much offbeat charm as Popeye. Of course, the super hero movie is what’s synonymous with “comic book movie” and the rare non-super hero comic book movie is a lonely subgenre rife with experimentation for good or ill.

NEXT EPISODE: AIRPLANE! SPECIAL! AIRPLANE! (1980, JIM ABRAHAMS & DAVID ZUCKER & JERRY ZUCKER) & AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL (1982, KEN FINKLEMAN)