Thursday, September 10, 2015

Flesh for Flash


I spent last night at a screening of Flash Gordon (1980) featuring a Q&A session with Sam J. Jones (Flash himself). Jones made the mistake of asking the audience whether we wanted to do the Q&A before or after the film; we selected “after,” so Jones was stuck watching the movie with us. Given that most of his dialogue was overdubbed by another actor, it must be surreal and painful for Jones to watch Flash Gordon. Unfortunately, I’m sure most of my fellow moviegoers wanted to refresh the film in our minds before we asked questions.


I was tempted to ask Jones about the disagreements with Dino De Laurentiis that caused the actor to leave the production before the film was completed, but that felt like it would be in bad taste. Flash Gordon didn’t destroy Sam J. Jones’ career, but it must be weird when your most famous role is a flop turned into a camp classic. I didn’t want to bring down the crowd of Flash Gordon lovers by bringing up one of the more troubling aspects of the film’s production.

I certainly love Flash Gordon myself. I didn’t for a long, long time (and I still say Filmation’s 1979 animated series is better in most ways). When I saw Flash Gordon during its initial release in 1980, seven year-old me ran shrieking from the theater during the Wood Beast scene and refused to watch the rest of it. Then, like most Gen Xers, I rejected camp in my 20s in favor of deadly seriousness. It wasn’t until I fell in love with a woman who loves the rock band Queen with all her heart that I really began to enjoy what Flash Gordon offers.

And what it offers is sex.

The eroticism is obvious even when you’re watching it streamed on your smart phone, but it’s breathtaking on the big screen. The outfits Ming’s concubines wear were always sexier than Leia’s slave outfit, but I never realized just how high some of those bikinis were cut. Flash’s shirtless prison scene is obviously filmed through the androphiliac gaze and Prince Barin’s faux Robin Hood tights do a really good job of showcasing Timothy Dalton’s toned behind. The biggest revelation to me was realizing that Mariengela Melato – the actress who played stern and scary General Kala – was actually really, really hot.

(Seriously, she was like this elfin combination of Cate Blanchett and Christina Ricci.) 

 
While some of this eroticism is no doubt due to De Laurentiis’ personal vision (his other comic book adaptations – Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik – share much of Flash Gordon’s visual style), a lot of it is inherent in the property. Flash Gordon the franchise is a direct descendant of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary romances and their naked-except-for-a-belt characters. Flimsy gowns and shirtless men are part of Flash Gordon from Alex Raymond’s original comic strips. Heck, the Filmation cartoon is arguably even sex-obsessed than the movie; there’s lizard women with breasts, for Jebus’ sake! 


This sensuality, this eroticism, is part and parcel of Flash Gordon. It is a deliberate aesthetic choice that amplifies the strangeness and danger of the alien world of Mongo. To some, the near-nudity invokes fears of sexual excess and contempt for the decadent Ming. To others, those same visual cues bespeak a world of more advanced societal mores and adventures of a less combative kind. In either case, walking around stripped to the waist all the time is the mark of a culture distinct from, alien to, Western society. Mongo is alien because Mongo is sexy.


I hope that sexiness makes it into the new game. 

Pinnacle Entertainment Group announced a Savage Worlds adaptation of Flash Gordon at Gen Con 2015. The announcement was accompanied by imagery from the 1980 film, so it’s logical to infer the game will use stills from the movie or illustrations invoking that style. Given that the movie is rated PG, the raciness of it shouldn’t violate PEG’s self-imposed “PG-13 rating” on Savage Worlds products. It’s certainly comparable to the barely-clad redhead who appeared on several of their genre Companions – of which I complained about it in the past.

As much as I enjoy the eroticism of Flash Gordon, I don’t think sex should sell everything. The redhead on the Fantasy Companion is wearing less than Red Sonja and the vampire woman appears to be wearing little more than the fresh viscera and blood of a victim. How is this appropriate for a generic genre rules book for a game that is trying to attract the broadest possible audience? There are a lot of women in gaming – in geekdom in general – who are understandably upset about the continued objectification of women in a culture where rape has been a joke for too many DMs, in a society where a hectoring hypocrite claims to be a moral authority for decades while raping unconscious women. When Pinnacle originally debuted a version of the 2014 Sci-Fi Companion that needlessly objectified a starship commander’s butt, I was one of many who complained. Pinnacle Entertainment Group noted our concern and had the art subtly redone to put the commander in a far more commanding pose.


That doesn’t mean they should neuter Flash Gordon. A Flash Gordon game is not a generic sci-fi supplement; it’s a specific evocation of a specific aesthetic. Flash Gordon is sexy; Flash Gordon has always been sexy. It was created that way and it should stay that way. I opposed cheesecake covers for the Companions, but I endorse a sensuous Flash Gordon.

This is not hypocritical, because this is not a binary choice. 

Life is complicated. Flash Gordon (1980) is both the highlight and lowlight of Sam J. Jones’ career. What frightens a child might delight an adult. Sexual content is good or bad depending on context. Context is complicated, too. Sometimes the most important context is the purchasing audience, and sometimes it’s the wider world. Decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis for everything in life. Absolutism is for babies and dictators.
 
In Flash Gordon's case, the eroticism is part of the appeal for fans of the property. People who are unfamiliar with the setting are unlikely to purchase the game in the first place, so the best choice – commerically and artistically – is to serve the existing audience by making full use of Flash Gordon's inherent qualities. Let us revel in the lushness of Arboria and the strange beauty of Frigia; let us match wits with the voracious Princess Aura and the vile appetites of Ming the Merciless!
 
Give us flesh for Flash Gordon!
    

3 comments:

  1. When I was drawing alien figure flats for Slipstream, I was unnerved at putting breasts on non-mammals. I did it simply because that was the fashion for cartoons and comics. Blech.

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    Replies
    1. Chad Jones: Hell, even breasts on non-primate mammals! In a recent Pendragon session in which the knights visited a faerie kingdom of boars, I noted how the sows at court wore dresses designed for human women even though their row of teats caused the fabric to bulge in unsightly places. On the other hand, I think that creeped out the players even more than if I'd just made them standard "anthro" types.

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