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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.

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Comedy Bang Bang 7th Anniversary

7 Years in Heaven

Comedy Bang! Bang! Podcast Celebrates 7 Years With Fan Favorite Guests

Comedy Bang! Bang! returns to IFC with back-to-back episodes on Friday, June 3rd at 11P.

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Earwolf

It’s been (Barenaked Ladies style) seven years since Comedy Bang! Bang! premiered on Southern California’s Indie 103 radio station as a music and variety show, then known as Comedy Death-Ray. And in those seven years, host Scott Aukerman has evolved the radio show into a podcast, a TV series, and a comedy mainstay for fans of surreal, offbeat humor. To celebrate the special occasion, Scott invited fan favorites Jason Mantzoukas, Horatio Sanz and Paul F. Tompkins, as well as a slew of popular characters and segments, to CB!B!’s 7th Anniversary Show.

Click here to listen to the 7th anniversary show on Earwolf. And just a reminder, Comedy Bang! Bang! returns to IFC for a fifth season on June 3rd with back-to-back episodes on Fridays at 11P ET/PT and 11:30P ET/PT. Season Five will feature “Weird Al” Yankovic as the new bandleader and a bevy of guests like Kevin Bacon, Kristen Schaal, Tony Hale, Aubrey Plaza, T-Pain, and more.

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Hangin' Out

That ’70s Show Reunion Photo Proves the Kids Are Still Alright

Catch That '70s Show Mondays & Tuesdays starting at 6P on IFC.

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Laura Prepon / Instagram

The stars of That ’70s Show had their own throwback reunion as Fez, Jackie, Kelso, Donna, and Hyde recently got back together for a candid on-set photo. Posted to Laura Prepon‘s Instagram account, actors Wilmer Valderrama, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Danny Masterson, and Prepon posed on the set of Netflix’s The Ranch — which stars Kutcher and Masterson as brothers who manage their family ranch. Older and wiser but no less striking, the cast seems to have weathered the ’80s (and the ’00s) very well.

Keeping this from being a complete That ’70s Show reunion is Topher Grace’s absence, but this photo works as a reunion of the cast from the post-Eric final season. With The Ranch renewed for a second season, we could be seeing more ’70s reunion moments. Maybe Tommy Chong will stop by?

Family #that70sshow 💓💓

A photo posted by Laura Prepon (@lauraprepon) on

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IFC_PROMOS_SHARK_OVERVIEW_wBUG_FINAL_FOR_DIGITAL-H264_1920x1080_677720131779

Fin Facts

Jason Alexander Is IFC’s Shark Expert For the Memorial Day Shark Half-a-Day Marathon

Catch IFC's Shark Half-a-Day marathon this Memorial Day starting at 6A.

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As we approach beach season, it’s important to remember some safety tips for dealing with our bloodthirsty friends from the deep. For instance, did you know there’s a breed of shark whose diet consists entirely of helicopters?

To celebrate IFC’s Memorial Day “Shark Half-a-Day,” a tasty, binge-worthy 12 hours or-so block (who needs an entire week?) airing of all of the Jaws franchise films, IFC’s “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander is sharing his possibly-not-entirely-accurate knowledge in all-new IFC promos. Who knew Jason was our nation’s foremost expert on shark-related trivia?

Check out some “fin facts” below, and be sure to catch the “Shark Half-a-Day” Memorial Day marathon on Monday, May 30th starting at 6AM. (See below for a complete movie rundown.)

Shark Half-A-Day: Monday, May 30th starting @ 6am
Jaws
Jaws 2
Jaws 3-D
Jaws: The Revenge

Additional Jaws marathons:
Thursday, May 5th starting @ 8pm
Friday, May 20th starting @ 8pm

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