Barbarella

Barbarella ★★★½

It's a lazy weekend afternoon in the waning days of the twentieth century. I am 7 or 8 years old, splayed out on the floor of my parents' bedroom and idly flipping through channels on basic cable as I am often wont to do. Something suddenly grabs hold of my attention with a mysterious and vaguely intimidating amount of force, one of those indelible formative images that sear themselves onto our memory as only the movies can. My thumb hovers nervously over the "channel up" button, but I don't press it just yet. Instead, I sit in rapt confusion and watch a stunningly beautiful and stunningly naked young blonde lady writhe and moan as she lies trapped in the jaws of a whirring, smoking and sparking device that looks like a giant futuristic pipe organ.

At this time I have a fairly solid grasp on the basic concept of what sex is thanks to James Bond and Bill Clinton and the rougher kids at school who are allowed to watch South Park, but I am wholly unprepared for this and utterly incapable of processing or articulating how it makes me feel. I'm pretty sure this isn't sex, but I'm also pretty sure it somehow kind of is? All I know is that I'm deeply embarrassed by what I'm watching and how I'm reacting to it. For some time I toggle back and forth between the mystery movie and the channels surrounding it, peeking stolen glances at it a few seconds at a time as though I were trying to look directly into the sun.

Years pass, and this remains one of my clearest childhood memories. I remember the moment itself of course, the lady and the pipe organ. I remember the big hair and the funky production design and know that the movie must have been from the '60s or '70s. I remember one other image, devoid of context, a dude with huge angel wings on his back. But details become hazy with time, and our memories inevitably lie to us. For whatever reason I have it in my head that it's foam and bubbles rising from the pipe organ instead of smoke and sparks, and that the man with the wings is a live-action version of the DC superhero Hawkman. I get the whim to look up the movie every once in a while, but chasing these false leads always leaves me empty-handed. Ultimately I resign myself to the conclusion that this might just be the incredibly rare pop cultural object or event that's escaped any kind of online documentation, or more likely that it never really existed at all.

Imagine, then, the enormous dumb grin that appeared on my face a few nights ago when that very scene suddenly popped up in Barbarella. Of course! The lady was Jane Fonda! The winged dude wasn't Hawkman, it was Pygar! I was already really digging Fonda's bubbly, fearlessly game performance, the movie's totally unnecessary but weirdly legit sci-fi bonafides, and the whole general atmosphere of utopian free love at its goofiest and most charmingly sincere. Finally tracking down that elusive white whale of my personal cinematic history, though, that put me over the edge.

I find it oddly comforting to know that this weird, wonderful, silly little movie has secretly been with me all along. Much like angels, Barbarella doesn't make love, Barbarella is love.

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