Guilty Pleasures

I realize I put my readership of four at risk by admitting this, but a bubblegum aesthete has to confess-- this DVD release has me kind of jazzed.

Sam Jones! Max von Sydow! Timothy Dalton! Toss in music by Queen, and to paraphrase one E. Cartman, "Guys, it is soooo sweet."

I have many a fond memory of this film from childhood, when anything even vaguely star wars-related (includng dreck like this) would get my moviegoing dollar (ok, my parents' moviegoing dollar). I remember being thrilled by the action and color, but also noticing my parents laughing at some of the jokes I didn't get, and particularly delighting in the campy wit of von Sydow, whose Ming the Merciless (like Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is clearly having more fun than anyone else on the screen. It was a film that, whatever its cheesy hokiness, worked on two levels, and I'm not sure I'd really thought about movies that way until I heard my parents talking about it on the way home (Flash Gordon as a stealth introduction to "Notes On Camp": discuss).

The film ran continously on the relatively new HBO throughout the early 80s, and friends and I (hey, I was eight) would watch the film, then play Flash Gordon the way kids of other eras might have played Roy Rogers or Errol Flynn. Even as late as high school, it was a touchstone, although by then a more ironic one: during rehearsals for the school musical in the fall, someone would slip the soundtrack into the boom box backstage, and mockingly re-create Dale Arden's fervent cry: "I love you Flash, but we only have fourteen hours to save the universe!" Maybe this ironic/sincere, doubled embrace of Queen in the late '80s meant I wasn't that surprised when this popped up on movie screens a few years later.

Actually, the biggest surprise of the 1980 Flash Gordon for me was discovering, through this article, that it was directed by Mike Hodges, the British auteur behind grittier, more "realistic" fare like Croupier and the original Get Carter. When Croupier was released in American theaters in 2000, I remember Hodges appeared on NPR's Fresh Air, where Terry Gross constantly introduced him after breaks as newly emergent, reclusive, making a comeback. If memory serves, no mention was made of Flash, as if it was a part of the past that one could efface. Is Flash Gordon really more of a black mark than Damien: The Omen II, which IMDB claims Hodges also directed, uncredited (like a pseudonymous blog post)?

More odd links: the casting (probably inspired by Star Wars' use of Peter Cushing, or Superman's cameo by Brando) of European stars and stage actors generally associated with more serious fare: Max von Sydow (a Bergman staple), Topol (the screen version of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof), and The Black Hole's Maximillian Schnell (Judgment at Nuremberg). Even Dalton was known more in that period for his shakespearean stage work (and a turn as Rochester in Jane Eyre), than for being James Bond. Yes, there's a kind of cynical insurance here, casting big names to offset the inexperience of Sam Jones, and to get adults in as well as eager children (a trend that continues in the Harry Potter films). But the weight of these actors, combined with Hodges' own, generally darker impulses, opens up this bright, colorful fantasy to more fanciful imaginings. Is there a darker thread to Flash Gordon? If science fiction is often a metaphor, what might Gordon being saying with its images of flight, escape, hands devoured by roaming tree creatures, and shifting power relations among fantasy nations? All set to the music of a flamboyantly out band? In other words, just how "guilty" should we feel about loving Flash Gordon?


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