Shelf Life: Jane Fonda’s “Barbarella”

Jane Fonda in Barbarella

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One of the great things about revisiting movies that you love – or even if you don’t – is seeing how your appreciation either converges or diverges from their technical merits. Moviewatching is a purely intuitive experience, no matter how much one knows about the technique required to actually create and assemble a film, and ultimately there are probably just as many expertly-constructed movies that are crap as there are clumsily-engineered ones that leave you devastated.

All of which brings me to “Barbarella.” For myriad reasons, including Roger Vadim’s legendary prowess with beautiful actresses, Jane Fonda’s effortless combination of sensuality and naivete and just the idea of a goofy sexed-up sci-fi movie, it’s always been one of my favorites. But is it well put-together? Perhaps not. But this week’s “Shelf Life” intends to bridge that divide between well-made and enjoyable and figure out if one trumps the other.

The Facts

Released October 18, 1968, “Barbarella” was a decidedly mixed success. Although it maintains a 74 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film earned a lot of pans from major publications such as Variety. Its grosses are unavailable but the film cost approximately $9 million, and ended up bringing in $5.5 million in rentals domestically. Although the film received few awards, Fonda was recognized with a nomination for Female Comedy Performance at the Laurel Awards.

What Still Works

It isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment or a pass of any kind, but “Barbarella” is about the best kind of brainless fun you can have as a moviegoer. From its iconic opening credits sequence to its finale, the film is a visual marvel, even when the technology used to achieve those visuals occasionally lacks the kind of authenticity we associate with great special effects. Vadim’s grasp on the material’s tongue-in-cheek tone is effortless and yet assured, and he allows those set pieces and the sets themselves to have a kind of camp that winks at the audience and then dares them not to embrace it anyway.

As Barbarella, Fonda is absolutely magical. There’s a perfect kind of innocence to her performance that makes the character never seem to be exploited or exploitable – she’s nude, she finds herself in sexual misadventures, but she is less a victim than simply naively complicit in the fun. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Fonda is fearless in her body and soul-baring, by which I mean she leaps with both feet into the role and never lets us know she’s in on the joke – which makes it that much funnier. But there are few actresses today who could pull off that kind of pure sensuality and absolute obliviousness to precisely how alluring they are, and Fonda consequently becomes a sort of iconic performer for what she pulls off here.

As Dildano, David Hemmings is the film’s MVP, mostly because he knows exactly how to play this campy material and just makes it work so beautifully. His “hand sex” scene with Barbarella is a comic marvel, augmented by some cinematic sleight of hand, but it’s his sleepy-eyed consummation that makes it genuinely hilarious. Meanwhile, John Philip Law is perfectly humorless as the statuesque Pygar, and while his performance isn’t “good” per se, he provides the right profile for his character and never lets up on trying to make him a pure and beautiful creature.

As indicated above, the sets and production design are all a little bit cheap, to say the least, and scarcely hold up today as solid examples of good special effects. But it’s that cardboard flimsiness that also sort of sells the universe as a whole, because there are few flourishes that transcend the technical or conceptual complexity of the inflated plastic bags or conspicuous miniatures that make up the majority of the production design.

What Doesn’t Work

Well, it’s just not a well-made or well-told movie. The plot is flimsy to say the least, and even though the set pieces are rich in entertainment value, they hold together with a clothesline’s sense of cohesion. As indicated above the special effects really skirt the line between cheap-charming and just cheap, and it’s entirely reasonable to be too distracted by how bad they are to be able to enjoy the movie. (It doesn’t help that so many of the designs are very indistinct, so there’s not even a sort of conceptual appeal that maybe wasn’t quite executed strongly.) Moreover, while Barbarella is an icon, she’s not much of an agent of her own destiny, and she frequently makes clumsy mistakes or otherwise gets herself into trouble that someone else has to get her out of – unfortunately, usually a man.

The Verdict

Cheesy but charming, “Barbarella” holds up – albeit primarily if you already love the film and have enough of a sweet tooth to appreciate its empty calories. There’s nothing especially unique or original here, but the characters are all fun and interesting, whether or not the film utilizes them well, and what happens manages to be mostly engaging if again it’s not especially cohesive. Ultimately, Fonda’s so great as Barbarella that most of those shortcomings become irrelevant. But it’s certainly a film whose appeal is linked to a personal connection with the performers or the material rather than the way in which it’s been executed. Regardless, however, the new Blu-ray looks absolutely gorgeous – Fonda’s naughty bits have never been clearer – so love it or hate it, there’s never been a better reason to watch it.

Maron S3

We Good?

Maron Is Returning to IFC for Season 4

Maron will return Spring 2016.

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Jumpstart the coffee maker and herd the cats because Marc Maron is coming back to IFC. Today the network announced it has renewed the critically acclaimed, universally loved original comedy Maron for a fourth season.

“I got the character of me into a bit of trouble last season. I hope I can get him back on track. The real me is doing fine,” said Marc Maron of his fictional counterpart. At the end of last season, Marc (the TV version, not the real one) fell off the wagon and in season four everyone’s favorite neurotic podcaster/comedian struggles to regain his sobriety, while trying to keep his sense of humor and looking for a deeper meaning to his life.


Luckily, Marc’s family and friends have his back, including Judd Hirsch as Marc’s unstable father, Sally Kellerman as his meddling mother and, of course, pals Andy Kindler and Dave Anthony. Guest stars for Season 4 include Patton Oswalt, Andy Dick, Adam Goldberg and many more.

“Marc is easily one of the most audacious comedians around today, and his pervasive sense of angst and unease is something we can all relate to and can’t stop watching,” said Jennifer Caserta, IFC’s president. “His take on society, and himself, is completely unfiltered and authentic and manifests into great comedic storytelling. We’re thrilled to renew Maron for a fourth season and look forward to more comic mayhem.”

Production on Maron‘s 4th season begins in January 2016 for a spring premiere. In the meantime, viewers can catch up on the first three seasons of Maron on iTunes. Seasons one and two are also available on Netflix and season three will be joining them in the streaming world on December 28th.

Fred on Seth

Fred's TV Recap

Watch Fred Armisen Give an ‘Extremely Accurate’ TV Recap

Portlandia returns January 21st, 2016 at 10P ET/PT on IFC.

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Did you know that Portlandia and Documentary Now! co-star Fred Armisen is so addicted to television that he can recap any show you throw at him? It’s an astounding feat, one that Seth Meyers had to share with the world in a recent episode of Late Night With Seth Meyers.

Fred is tasked to review last week’s episode of Haven which, due to popular misconception, is not actually a SyFy program loosely based on a Stephen King novel that focuses on Canadian townspeople with supernatural afflictions. Rather, as Fred explains, it’s “sort of a Friday Night Lights type of show,” centered around a small-town football team called The Havens. But because the town is so small, not only can they barely afford a football, they don’t have another team to play against. It’s a character study, really.

For more Fred, be sure to check back here for news on the sixth season of Portlandia, which premieres January 21st at 10P ET/PT on IFC.


David Cross in NYC

David Cross Is Coming to NYC’s Live Employee Of The Month Podcast

Todd Margaret returns Jan 7th at 10P on IFC.

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No one would ever accuse Todd Margaret of being a good employee. After being assigned to the London office of Thunder Muscle, he ended up blowing up the entire world. It’s safe to assume that Todd Margaret isn’t going to get a raise after those shenanigans, but David Cross, who plays Todd in the series, just got named Employee of the Month.

The comedian is appearing at the live talk show event on November 20th at NYC’s Joe’s Pub which will be recorded for an accompanying weekly podcast. Cross will be subjecting himself to host Catie Lazarus‘ trademark unorthodox line of questioning about how he created such an awesome career, including With Bob and David, Arrested Development, Todd Margaret and so much more.

David will be appearing alongside Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis and actress Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) who finally managed to escape from Portlandia‘s Women & Women First bookstore.

Get tickets here. and be sure to catch the return of a very, very different Todd when the third season of Todd Margaret premieres January 7th at 10P ET/PT on IFC. Check out the trailer for more.

What’s Employee of the Month? Watch the video below. 


Read Carrie's Book

Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Is Out Now

Carrie's moving memoir is out now.

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Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, is out now at fine local book shops and at online retailers like iBooks, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.

The book, a “deeply personal and revealing narrative of Brownstein’s life in music,” is getting rave reviews. The Washington Post writes that, “It’s impossible not to like Brownstein” in their review of her “engaging and witty” memoir. The AV Club called the book “engrossing,” adding that “for fans of Sleater-Kinney, it’s immensely compelling, particularly because Brownstein writes crisply, insightfully, and without vanity.” She even dedicated the book to her Sleater-Kinney bandmates (and Portlandiaregulars) Janet Weiss and Corin Tucker.

Pick up a copy of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl in stores today, and be sure to catch Carrie on her nationwide book tour at one of the dates below where she will be joined by specials guests like Questlove, Amy Poehler and more.


WORD Bookstore at Saint Vitus Bar

In conversation with Questlove


Barnes & Noble Union Square

In conversation with Gaby Hoffman


Philadelphia Free Library at The Merriam Theater

In conversation with Aidy Bryant


Pitchfork at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

In conversation with Jessica Hopper


BookPeople at Central Presbyterian Church

In conversation with Liz Lambert


Vroman’s Bookstore at Pasadena Presbyterian

In conversation with Amy Poehler


Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

In conversation with Dave Eggers


Powell’s Books at The Newmark Theatre

In conversation with a Special Guest TBA


Elliott Bay Book Company at The Neptune Theater

In conversation with Maria Semple


Drawn & Quarterly at The Rialto Theatre

In conversation with Jessica Hopper


Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon

In conversation with Johanna Schneller

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