A few weeks ago, Erin Fraser and Matt Bowes asked me to co-curate their screening of Barbarella - Queen of the Galaxy, which was to be the 3rd film of the 3rd season of their Graphic Content series, devoted to comic book cinema.
My duties would be two-fold. First, I would have to write an essay about the film, which would appear on the website, and, second, I would have to join them as they introduced the film at the screening.
Because I am not the sort to half-ass these things, I decided not to attempt to pull an extemporaneous intro out of my butt and instead wrote what amounted to a second, shorter, essay. And since I quite like it a lot and it seemed to get the desired response, I thought I would post it here for your entertainment.
There are certain films that are timeless—made with a sophistication that feels as right and relevant today as it did when the work was originally created.
Barbarella is NOT one of those films.
In fact, Barbarella is so much a product of a specific era that there was really only like an 8-month span in the entire 20th Century where it could have ever been created. And it is to our good fortune that the universe aligned in such a way that it did in fact actually happen.
Barbarella is not just dated. It is transcendently dated—to the point that it actually ends up lapping itself and achieves its own special kind of timelessness. It’s like an ancient mosquito frozen in amber, but in such a way that if you tried harvesting DNA from the blood in its belly, you wouldn’t be able to recreate anything, because nature can’t find a way if there was never anything natural to begin with.
This film is a monument to the artificial, in a way that the 1970s auteurist wave tried its best to make sure never happened again. And it mostly succeeded, because even though there are examples of films that have tried to rise up to this level, almost none of them get beyond the point of homage and pastiche. Barbarella, though, is the real deal.
It is the genuine fake article.
And how did this happen? Was it planned or a glorious accident? The answer, of course, is that it was both and that is what truly makes it wonderful—the synthesis of the canny and the campy. You are going to laugh watching this film, because it is very funny, but sometimes you are going to laugh with it and sometimes you are going to laugh at it and often you’re going to find it difficult to determine which you are doing at any given time.
Now, traditionally, we would assume that the director Roger Vadim was responsible for all this, but the problem is that there’s a very good reason why he is best remembered today as a dude who hooked up with some of the most beautiful women in the world and not as an amazing filmmaker and that’s because he was not an amazing filmmaker. In fact, there are signs that he wasn’t even a good filmmaker. His best films are saved by two basic factors—interesting screenplays written mostly by other people and really, really beautiful women.
In the case of Barbarella, that screenplay had as many as 8 people who worked on it, but the most important of these is the only one who is actually credited on-screen with Vadim—Terry Southern. Now, Terry Southern was one of the defining comic voices of that era, best know for his work with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. It’s safe to say that every time you find yourself laughing with Barbarella, he’s the one responsible.
And it is interesting to note that prior to working on Barbarella, Southern once co-wrote a novel called Candy that was a parody of Voltaire’s Candide. It was about a young beautiful innocent who meets a series of strange men, who she proceeds to have lots and lots of sex with. A famously terrible film version of that novel was made the same year as Barbarella and Southern did not write the screenplay for it—Buck Henry did. So it may be a coincidence that Barbarella is also about a young beautiful innocent who meets a series of strange men, who she proceeds to have lots and lots of sex with, but I personally like to think of it as a kind of cinematic FUUUUUUUUUUUUCK YOOOOU!
In the piece I wrote for the Graphic Content website, I specifically mention the behinds the scenes folks primarily responsible for the aspects of Barbarella that make it a work of both deliberate and accidental genius—but I only have 90 seconds left to talk, so I’m now going to focus on how hot Jane Fonda was in 1968.
Jane Fonda was REALLY HOT IN 1968. She would have been 30 when this movie was filmed and when it was being made no one could have any idea that she would go on to become one of the most culturally significant figures of the past 50 years. More than just a movie star, she has managed to successfully ride in the middle of the zeitgeist throughout every decade of her fame.
And you would think that because of this she might look back with shame at a film as strange and silly as Barbarella, but Jane Fonda is too awesome for that. When she’s asked about it in interviews you can see a special twinkle in her eye. She doesn’t back down or shy away from it. Instead she tells her interlocutor about how many men over the past years have come up to her and said how much of an impact their posters of Barbarella had on them during their adolescence.
BECAUSE JANE FONDA WAS REALLY HOT IN 1968!
And that hotness has been captured here forever in a silly, wonderful film that will stand the tests of time, because it is so utterly of its time. This movie is a snapshot of a moment that never really existed—a history that never was. There wasn’t a single second in recorded time when this movie wasn’t ridiculous and because of this it is special in a way so few films are.