This is my entry into the Fashion in Film blogathon over at The Hollywood Revue. This is actually something I wrote quite some time ago, reworked a bit for the blogathon. Enjoy.
My long-suffering girlfriend is convinced that I’ve lost my mind. First, there was the Robby the Robot incident, in which I hurried her to the computer to show her a web site (http://www.the-robotman.com/) that sells seven foot-tall FUNCTIONING replicas of Robby and implored her to consider getting me one next Christmas (in truth, I would prefer to have either Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still or Maria from Metropolis, but this guy doesn’t sell those.
Then there was the Elvis lunacy. I was watching the end of a movie on the Fox Movie Channel (which mysteriously became available to us recently in spite of us making no effort to acquire the channel through our cable company). The movie was Battle for the Planet of the Apes, a palpably awful movie for which I never the less have a great deal of affection. Immediately following the final roll of the credits, this....advertisement...for something called “King-tinued” comes on, featuring a credible Elvis impersonator draped in an American flag singing Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. “Today’s hits, sung Elvis-style!” the announcer blared, and sure enough, some the worst pap of AOR pop music, including BOTH versions of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven,” et al. scrolled up the screen. But WAIT! There’s MORE! You ALSO get “King-Country!” As if the other disc WASN’T enough, you can ALSO hear the King singing the latest country hits (and some not so latest ones, like “The Gambler”). What music collection is complete without The King of Rock and Roll doing HIS take on Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA?” After my brain recovered from this, I was gripped by a divine madness: I WANTED this disc. Bad. It would go into my music collection alongside “The Ethel Merman Disco Album.“
My girlfriend wouldn’t permit it, bless her heart. That mania passed eventually, but sometimes, I still feel it seething just under my conscious thoughts.
Which brings me to the last bit of mania: There is no earthly reason I should derive as much enjoyment out of Mike Hodges’s update of Flash Gordon as I do, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t grin all the way through it the last time I saw it. The film is a travesty: it has a thinly disguised contempt for its source material and the audience for the source material, much as the Batman TV show had contempt for its source--interesting that both flow from the pen of one Lorenzo Semple, eh? It has a producer in Dino De Laurentiis who seems intent on duplicating his early Barbarella with the primary source instead of at second hand. And it has a lead couple in Sam Jones and Melody Anderson who deliver two of the worst performances in big budget film (and that’s saying something). The sneering attitude the film takes to sex and innuendo seems drawn more from Flesh Gordon than the comics or old movie serials
But....man, the production design of this film is really cool: a loving recreation of the day-glo look of the comics combined with William Cameron-Menzies-style grandiosity. The skies of Mongo, a multi-colored profusion of elaborate cloud-tank special effects are like no other science-fiction setting in film. The costumes are agreeably ornate and unbelievably tacky as only disco-era costumes can be. Max Von Sydow has taken a lot of heat for the roles he was taking during this period (many for De Laurentiis), but I can’t imagine a better actor as Ming the Merciless. You can see a barely controlled glee beneath the surface of his performance. Bergman never permitted him anything this broadly outlandish. The Queen soundtrack has kept this movie in the circle of "cult" movies for quite some time now.
I could just leave the justifications at that, but that doesn’t really explain the mania that gripped me during this film. The elements that really seal the deal are of a more personal nature.
When I first saw this film in 1980, the adolescent me developed an unhealthy obsession with Ornela Muti as Princess Aura. This wasn’t an innocent adolescent crush, but a full blown fetish. Her Princess Aura--a better predatory sex kitten pulp sci-fi has never seen--featured prominently in many a nocturnal fantasy. It was never Muti herself, mind you. I’ve seen her in a number of other films and her presence in these never really fired such a glandular reaction. It was Muti as Aura, the nymphomaniac daughter of Ming the Merciless, a character who promises unspeakable pleasures and torments....The only thing in movies, for me anyway, that rivals Princess Aura is Jane Greer in the first scenes of Out of the Past.
The other personal appeal is also probably fetishistic. The drag queen in me has been fixated for a long time on the gown Dale Arden wears for her wedding to Ming in this film. As I said, all of the costumes are ornate and unbelievably tacky, whether it's Princess Aura's skin-tight spandex or General Kala's dominatrix drag by way of Christopher Strong. And so it is for this gown, a creation in beaded black scales that flow like liquid over the curves of Melody Anderson’s body, with threatening winged epaulets and matching headdress. I mean, just LOOK at this thing:
This sucker is the soul of a drag gown. Truth to tell, like Robby the Robot and “King-tinued,” I want one. Bad.
And so I watched Flash Gordon unfold with mounting anticipation, occasionally diverted by the performances (Brian Blessed’s performance as Prince Vultan is particularly ripe), until the segments with Princess Aura would have my unwavering attention and until the film culminates with that glorious gown. Somehow, I doubt that this is a healthy approach to movies...