Barbarella

Last week I finished reading Jane Fonda's massive 600 page autobiography My Life So Far. It met most of my requirements for a good celebrity book. Its intimate tone made it seem as if it had been written by the person on the book's cover and not by an anonymous ghostwriter. It walked the thin line of honesty well, since she named names often enough to make you feel as if she had nothing to hide, but she omitted them often enough that you never got the sense that she had an ax to grind. Most importantly, she described her interesting life in great detail, covering her long film career, her political activism and her tumultuous marriages in equal measure.

Well, that last part is not entirely true. If I had one complaint about My Life So Far it would be that the book spends an excessive amount of time re-litigating the Vietnam War and only a handful of pages on Barbarella, which is one of Fonda's most famous films. Don't get me wrong, I understand why she unbalanced the scales so drastically: she's gotten so much shit for being "Hanoi Jane" over the years that I totally get why she would want to meticulously explain her side of that story, and I also get why she wouldn't want to dwell for too long on a movie that constantly fetishizes her body which she made at a time in her life when she battling multiple eating disorders. (Fonda claims that she struggled with both anorexia and bulimia until she was nearly menopausal.) But while I understand her rationale, I can't wholly support that narrative imbalance. At this point I think nearly everyone agrees that the Vietnam War was an unforgiveable fiasco and thus any further discussion of that topic is basically redundant, while there is a lot that can be said about Barbarella above and beyond discussing its obsession with treating Fonda like a living pin-up poster.

Now, Barbarella is not necessarily one of cinema's greatest masterpieces. For one, its plot meanders a bit too much for its own good. Barbarella is an astronaut with a simple enough mission: land on the planet Tau Ceti and try to find the missing Earth scientist Durand Durand. However, Barbarella never pursues her goal with any degree of focus. When she first lands she spends some time chumming around with a fur-covered manly man who agrees to fix her damaged space ship in exchange for sex... Then she gets lost in a labyrinth with a mad scientist named Professor Ping and an angel named Pygar... And ultimately she explores the seedy underbelly of the city of Sogo with a freedom fighter named Dildano. The film is basically a loosely strewn together series of vignettes about some selfish studs who keep getting a naive young woman in trouble - trouble she only survives because of a series of unlikely deus ex machinas and because she is too pure of heart to get hurt. (I mean that literally: at one point she is swallowed whole by the Matmos, a bubbling lava lamp of pure evil, but it spits her out because she is too innocent for it to digest.)

But even if this movie is not exactly the rip-roaring thriller it was meant to be, it is still is an amazing snapshot of the late sixties. For one, the production design has a Dr. Seuss gone perverted vibe that is a perfect distillation of the simultaneously child-like and vulgar hippie ethos. (Again:  this film visualizes pure evil as lava lamp bubbles.) Every outfit Barbarella wears walks a thin line between futurism and filthiness: she favors shiny plastic tops, bare mid-rifts and ridiculous go-go boots. Her spaceship, which was presumably constructed to withstand the harshness of outer space, is tricked out with wall to wall shag carpeting. The evil queen that runs Sogo is supposed to be a paragon of wickedness, but she sleeps in a bed that is shaped like a naked woman the same way a young boy might sleep in a bed that was shaped like a racecar.

Quite frankly, it is kind of amazing how well this movie walks a line between being idealistic and being crass. Barbarella is sex obsessed from start to finish - it actually opens up with Barbarella doing a zero-g striptease and ends with the implication that she's about to have a threesome with Pygar and the evil Queen - but it still manages to seem more sweet than sinful. At one point Pygar says "Angels don't make love, they are love", and even though the film has some cynical elements to it, I think that it ends up endorsing star-gazing sentiments like that a lot more often than it ridicules them.

Actually, Barbarella's ridiculous-but-sincere tone probably does more to mark it as a product of the late 60's than anything else, even over its garish day-glo color-scheme and its wacky fashions. I'm not just talking about its surface level signifiers, like its emphasis on "free love" - I'm talking about the way that Barbarella fits into the context of cinema history. Sci-fi films that pre-date Barbarella tend to be so straight forward that it is hard to see them as anything but camp now, while the films that followed tend to be so self-aware that any utopian visions they offer up often seem sarcastic. Barbarella, however, is firmly in the pop-art camp - it knows that the tropes it is utilizing are goofy, but it is still trying to celebrate them instead of putting them in scare quotes. Its unlikely mixture of earnestness and camp is not going to be for everyone, but I have always found it to be a refreshing break from the overly ironic world I grew up in.

That said, I am well aware of the many ways that this film has not aged well. The script, which was written by two men - Fonda's then-husband Roger Vadim and Terry Southern - has all the pieces it would need to make Barbarella into an icon of feminist empowerment, but it never puts those pieces together. Barbarella owns her own sexuality, entering into dalliances without hesitation and then feeling no shame afterwards - but she is a passive participant who never initiates the trysts. The men are always propositioning her and she always eagerly complies. As a result, the character comes across less as a liberated woman and more as a male fantasy figure. That isn't inherently bad - in fact, her laissez-faire attitude really helps sell the film's shaggy story, since her willingness to just roll with every new twist and turn sets a good example for the audience to follow - but it does mean that Barbarella is a shallower character than she needed to be. Giving her a little bit of agency wouldn't have made her any less sexy, but it would have made her a lot more interesting.

Fonda's ambivalence towards the movie that established her as a world-class "nudie-cutie" (to use film critic Pauline Kael's phrase) makes sense, particularly given the fact that this movie is a trifle compared to her later work. Still, I do think that she's letting her personal baggage overshadow the film's many charms. Sure, it lacks the gravity that her anti-war film Coming Home has - but that is by design; after all, Barbarella was set in space for a reason.

Furthermore, the fact that Barbarella is less serious than Coming Home doesn't mean that it is less worthwhile - both films do an exemplary job of capturing the zeitgeist of the time in which they were made, since Barbarella is a silly movie for a silly era and Coming Home is a shellshocked movie for a shellshocked era. In fact, there is a way in which they act like flipsides of the same coin - the frivolous peace party from before the war devolved into a hopeless quagmire, followed by the somber wake that occurred after the war's tragic end. The highwater mark of Woodstock and the bottoming out that happened at Altamont are more obvious bookends for that era because they were larger more symbolic events, but the natural pairing of Barbarella and Coming Home could serve that purpose just as easily.

It might be hard for an old person to think that this movie where the innocent always manage to escape their scrapes without getting hurt is in any way realistic - and maybe it isn't, but there is a basically level on which Barbarella's unironic depiction of a young person's dream world is at least honest. And that honesty has to count for something; no adult should completely let their mature cynicism completely overwrite their youthful optimism. So while I get why Jane Fonda is more preoccupied with the Hanoi Jane period of her life over her nudie-cutie period, I wish that she would recognize both of those things equally, because the truth is that she was both of those things equally.

(Actually, I want her to over-acknowledge the fun parts of her life because I like entertaining books over informative ones - but that's an essay for another time.)

Winner: Me

Barbarella on IMDB