Sunday, October 28, 2012

Flash Gordon

Cue the soundtrack: "FLASH! AAAAAHHH!"
There are some movies that seem to exert a personal hypnotic force. You're flipping the channels, you come in halfway  and you feel compelled to watch it the rest of the way through. I feel that way about All About Eve, Some Like It Hot and Enter the Dragon because they are stellar achievements in cinema and i love them profoundly and personally. But i'm not sure why Flash Gordon also falls into that category for me.

One of the most peculiar things about Flash Gordon is the casting. Art house deity Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless. Italian indie queen Ornella Muti as his daughter, Princess Aura. Future James Bond Timothy Dalton and a whole raft of top-shelf British character actors. But the mighty Flash himself?  Played by one Sam Jones, a former football player who Dino DeLaurentiis' mom saw on a game show, a man whose later career was limited to guest shots on A-Team and Silk Stalkings. His lady Dale Arden? Melody Anderson, who at least had (limited) recurring roles on Manimal and All My Children. Two more vacant-eyed human beings would be hard to find.
I also just have a rule about people who have their on names on the front of their tight International Male T-shirts. So, to get along with it, Ming and his awesome (and peculiarly analog) mixing board of disaster are plaguing the earth with earthquakes, tidal waves and something called "hot hail."
The weather causes the little plane carrying football star Flash Gordon (yawn) and travel agent Dale Arden (I remember travel agents. I also remember coral lipstick.) to crash into the lab/lair of Dr. Hans Zarkoff. He's the only one on Earth who realizes that we are! Under! Alien! Attack! So he's built a rocket, but he needs Dale Arden to, i dunno, shift gears while he steers or something. And soon the three are hurtling through space to crash-land on planet Mongol, where they are promptly captured and brought before Max von Ming.


Just look at that set. Cecil B. DeMille, eat your heart outFlash Gordon may be the most grade-A B-movie ever made. Everything was maximum quality except for the script and the two lead actors. The sets, costumes and production design were by Danilo Donati, to whose genius i bow down. Not only are the sets totally Cedric Gibbons Wishes You a Happy Chinese New Year, but the costumes involve more bugle beads than... than... than... nothing. The amount of bugle beads defies anything i can even conceive of. And i have been to Radio City Music Hall and the Liberace Museum. Donati did most of Fellini's later films, as well as working with Pasolini and Zeffirelli and winning two Academy Awards. The man clearly had an idea how to design a full-out, full-on, fully integrated aesthetic. The fabulous look of the film helps disguise some of its shortcomings -- and the fact that Donati never read the script probably helped him put forth his best effort.
Never was the absurdity more glaring than in what i will call, for lack of a better term, The Football Battle. During this, Flash brawls with a bunch of Imperial Guards as though he was at a football game because tossing an urn around suddenly makes him able to kick ass. (Max von Ming to Metalface: "Are your men on the right pills?") Also, Dale cheerleads in such a manner that i still have distinct recollections of my eight-year-old self being embarrassed for her. What does save the scenario is a wailing Brian May guitar solo. Truly, the Queen soundtrack for Flash Gordon is one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time. This is not the first time Freddie Mercury will save this move from disaster; it will not be the last.

Flash is captured, of course. He he hustled off to be executed, while Dale is hustled off to be "prepared for our pleasure." Flash is dressed up in the spiked helmet, iron manacles and leather hotpants because apparently part of a Mongol public execution is heavy bondage -- i guess he's being prepared for our pleasure as well, but in a slightly different way. However, it turns out that the execution was faked by Princess Aura, who has fucked every man on the planet and sees in Flash some rare fresh meat. The two fly off to Arboria for.... some reason.


Now, there's a title. "King of the Impossible." I wish i could put that on business cards, except it wouldn't be quite appropriate and "Queen of the Impossible" doesn't quite have the same ring. Speaking of Queen of the Impossible, Dale has put on some Bob Mackie drag and is chillin' on the waterbed, knocking back a roofie with green apple Four Loko.
Dale manages to escape and find Dr. Zarkoff -- apparently during the executing and pleasuring and roofie-ing, he managed to survive a brainwashing -- and not just any brainwashing, a level 6 brainwashing! In the meantime, Aura has left Flash on Arboria in the care of her sometime-boyfriend, Prince Barin, played by Timothy Dalton is full Errol Flynn mode. As you can imagine, the guy Aura was banging does not much like the guy Aura is planning on banging... or does he?
Arboria is basically the gay Boy Scout sleepover planet. All the boys wear tight pants and have drum circles and dare each other into fisting various damp holes. In a tree. It's that bizarre sci-fi ceremonial shit they do sometimes but Riff-Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show is there just to make sure you get that it's all twisted. After bonding over the fisting, the boys head for the planet of the Hawkmen.

The Hawkmen are better explained as the Flying Leatherdaddies -- although given that Vegas has a "men's gym" called the Hawk, perhaps this does make sense. their leader is played by Brian Blessed, who spends most of the film howling big fake jovial pirate laughs through a jaw that seems to unhinge like a snake's and have two rows of teeth like a shark. Why this butch bunch hangs out someplace that looks like Ghostbar is beyond me.

In the meantime, Princess Aura is being tortured by Klytus Metalface -- apparently there is one guy in the planetary system she hasn't boffed and it's him. People make fun of him at parties. This is the part where we all get to say it in unison: "Oh no! Not the bore worms!" And if those don't work, he's putting on the leeches of ennui.

So, somehow Flash and Zarkoff and Dale are reunited at this Hawkmen metrosexual disco. Flash fights Barin on a spiked lazy Susan. Then Klytus shows up. (Again, parties are uncomfortable for him.) Then Ming shows up and offers Flash a position as ruler of the Earth, just 'cause he likes his style. (This is where having a charisma-free wooden statue playing Flash proves problematic for the plot. Jones' performance is not helped by the fact that all of his dialogue had to be post-dubbed. He was nominated for the first-ever Razzie Award for this movie, but lost out to Neil Diamond for The Jazz Singer.) Flash refuses, Ming carries off Dale again for yet another imperial wedding. Why does Ming keep trying to put a ring on it?

Eh, pretty impressive, but King of the Impossible is still better. Anyway, yeah, Flash is leading everyone in rebellion against Ming, because I guess it never occurred to them to band together and kick his ass. Or they're shamed by the fact that someone as obviously dim as Flash Gordon has the sack to stand up to Ming. Suffice to say, with the help of the Hawkmen, the gay Boy Scouts and an incredibly phallic-looking spaceship, Flash wins! The movie ends with what the dweeb who did the cover art calls "the greatest shot in movie history" -- and, no, he's not being ironic, even though it's actually pretty much the dumbest, worst shot in movie history. The DVD comes with two interviews and it's amusing to contrast the palpable humiliation of the screeenwriter with the unbridled worship of the cover-art guy.
Time has been kind to Flash Gordon. Or perhaps it's that time has been cruel to us: After shit like Cowboys vs. Aliens and John Carter, this movie does big-budget bullshit right and nails camp in a way that would not be equaled until RuPaul's Drag Race. Actually, that is the one thing this film is missing: RuPaul. She would fit right in, though it might be hard to get her outfit back at the end of shooting....

I wouldn't say that. What would have been a miracle was if de Laurentiis had gotten the director he wanted for this film -- the legendary Federico Fellini. Of course, he turned it down -- this may be why Princess Aura's pet dwarf on a chain is named Fellini. (The dwarf is played by famed Indian little person Deep Roy, who played all of the Oompa Loompas is Tim Burton's unnecessary Willy Wonka remake. Again: Everyone but the two leads was quite talented.) I'm sure this was a smart move on his part, though it would have been interesting to see. Even more interesting, i should say.