Sunday, August 30, 2009

Disturbing imagery is kinda cool (apparently the conditioning began rather early)

The other day something I ate did not agree with me and the stomach pain got pretty intense. So of course I started thinking about the Flash Gordon movie from 1980. Specifically, I thought that it felt like the creature in the stump (from the manhood test on Arboria) was burrowing around in my lower intestines. What with the bloated air-sac and pointy claws and so forth. And then I realized I wasn’t thinking of the creature in the stump, really; I was thinking of the thing in the swamp that Flash accidentally lands on top of and almost gets smothered/eaten/killed by. Or to be more accurate (even though my mind wasn’t working with a high degree of accuracy at the time because, you know, stabbing stomach pains) I was thinking of some weird conflation of the two beasties, something small enough to fit in my belly, like the stump creature, but with the gross inflatable body and articulated claws of the swamp monster.

I believe that if I were to say “Flash Gordon movie” to any of my guy/geek friends, that they would know automatically I meant the 1980 version, the Flash of our collective childhoods. I further believe that if I were to ask them to name the first five things that came to mind when they thought of the movie (and putting spontaneous mental challenges like that to my friends is, honestly, something I do all the time) that the lists would vary somewhat but most of them would hit on the following broad points:

Brian Blessed as Vultan (the role he was born to play). “FIRST WAVE – DIVE!!!”

Max von Sydow as Ming the Merciless (in super-heavy eyeliner). “Klytus, I’m BORED.”

Some kind of Dale Arden vs. Princess Aura hotness debate. (For the record? Aura.)

“Tell me more about this man Houdini.”

and of course Music by QUEEN

And that list is in no particular order and obviously someone/everyone would start singing “Flash! Ahh-ahhhhh!” right off the bat but my point is that I think generally we all tend to remember the movie as kind of cheesy campy action-adventure fun, ha ha, ho ho, and it is that, but it is also full of some exceedingly disturbing imagery. Which is where my mind went when I was thinking about the movie and trying to ignore, or at least work with, the sensations of hostile monstrosities in my stomach.

So there’s the whole manhood test which has a creepy beastie but also has an aspirant fail the test, whereupon he gets run through by Barin. And there’s the swamp slug-crab. There’s also the scene where Aura’s being tortured and her back has been lashed bloody and she’s being held to a table by disembodied hands. I was never quite sure if Klytus threatened her with “bore worms” or “boar worms” but either way, a disturbing thought and one I can only assume we didn’t get to see on-screen due to budget constraints. Speaking of Klytus, he dies due to multiple impalings and his eyes and tongue kind of bulge out through his golden mask like Peeps in microwave. And let us also not forget Ming himself being impaled by the prow of War Rocket Ajax and then sliding off, leaving a trail of greenish blood on the needle.

(I confess that I’ve been Wikipedia’ing while composing this post to get things like correct name spellings and whatnot. The Wikipedia article/sub-articles about the movie are relentless in their conviction that Flash Gordon was deliberately campy “in the style of the 1960’s Adam West Batman show.” Funny, I don’t remember seeing any episodes of Batman where Louie the Lilac gets eviscerated or Chandell’s liquefied flesh melts through a grate in the floor. I wonder if this Wikipedia contributer considers Eraserhead “kitschy”.)

Don't empty my mind! I've spent my whole life filling it!!
To me, though, one of the most disturbing images of all was during the scene in which Professor Zarkov has his memories drained. I liked that the monitor screen showed his memories as a sped-up movie in reverse … until it actually reached the day of his birth and then kept going until the screen was just this pinkish field of fluids and blood vessels and HOLY CRAP WOMB MEMORIES GAAAHHH. I distinctly remember that sequence being just viscerally horrifying the first time (first few times?) I saw it. Partly because of the whole metaphysical nightmare of losing your identity as every single moment of your life drained away, but definitely capped off by that inside-the-amniotic-sac vista. In a movie full of some serious in-your-face grossness, in fact an astonishing amount for a goofball classic, that there is the pinnacle moment. It’s like the filmmakers decided that everything Alex Raymond did on the comics page would need to be really muddied-and-bloodied up to survive the transition to the screen. Crazy.

I actually haven’t seen Flash Gordon in I-don’t-know-how-many years. But I remember it vividly for a few reasons. It really is a stunning spectacle, for one. And I saw it multiple times on HBO in a short span of time. But maybe more importantly, it made a huge impression on me because I was so impressionable at the time. I was seven. Maybe almost eight. Seven years old! I love my parents very much, and I don’t want to sit here nearly thirty years after the fact and judge them too harshly for their supervision (or lack thereof) of my cable-TV viewing habits. In 1981 or 1982 or whatever, cable was practically brand new. My parents certainly hadn’t grown up with it. It just didn’t occur to them that, when I was staying out of trouble and out of their hair quietly watching TV on a Saturday afternoon, that I might be watching a movie with multiple impalings and freaky aliens (not to mention aliens gettin’ freaky, or strong implications thereof) and a suggestion that maybe we all have deep recollections of our existence pre-birth (HOLY CRAP WOMB MEMORIES). Because, if it had occurred to them that that was exactly what I was watching, repeatedly, at age seven … they would have put a stop to that, right? So I’m not harshing out on my parents, I’m just saying – it’s kind of amazing to me sometimes that I’ve turned out as well adjusted (read: non-psycho) as I have.

So I’m not really sure if my main point here is that my mind goes to some bizarre places when I’m not feeling well, or that there’s way more weirdness to the Flash Gordon movie between the Flash-palace-guards-football-fight and the Flash-Hawkmen-rocket-ion-cloud-fight than its reputation allows for, or that my generation probably saw a lot of borderline traumatizing age-inappropriate stuff on cable TV back in the early 80’s, or what. Fortunately, I never promised these posts would have points.

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