John Bresland’s Flash! / Daniel Nester’s Flash Gordon: A Night at the Space Opera & Soundtrack Poems
VIDEO ESSAY BY JOHN BRESLAND
Flash Gordon: A Night at the Space Opera
ESSAY BY DANIEL NESTER
There are two eras of Queen’s music: no synthesizers and then too-many synthesizers. It would take a B-movie space opera starring a former Playgirl centerfold to get from one era to the next.
As a Queen fan for 40 years, someone who has obsessed over the band’s personalities and has written two artsy-fartsy books that meditate on their recorded output, I’ve often asked myself: what happened? How did a hard rock band, with radio hits galore, whose Led Zeppelin-meets-Beach Boys sound earned them worldwide fame and critical disdain, arrive at a crossroads in the summer of 1979, artistically and commercially, a point where they not only broke out the synthesizers, but went full-on synth-crazy, their sound rendered almost unrecognizable?
Starting April 1970, when the band formed, Queen adhered to a strict “no synths” policy. The liner notes to the band’s 1973 self-titled debut ends with a pointed statement: “… and nobody played synthesizer.” Variations of this statement on later albums followed. Queen took pride that they didn’t rely on a Moog to fill out the stacked vocal harmonies to “Somebody to Love” or a Prophet 5 to juice up Brian May’s layered guitar orchestra. Queen kept it honest. Live, the band left the stage for the opera section of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with its choir of more than 160 overdubs, and played the record instead, returning for the headbanger finale.
Then, by the end of the decade, the synthesizer-filled Flash Gordon Soundtrack came along. What happened?
There’s no single explanation, but to unravel the Mystery of Flash, I have to talk about a lot of other things. There’s the appeal of science fiction, with its camp and sadomasochism. We have to touch upon the gay macho club scene of the late 70’s. There’s The Game, Queen’s stripped-down album from 1980, which spawned two number one singles and was recorded at the same time as the Flash Gordon Soundtrack. And then there’s Fun in Space, drummer Roger Taylor’s 1981 solo album, overlooked except by Queen obsessives, which perhaps holds the missing synthesizer link.
Queen fans both casual and obsessive tend to overlook Flash Gordon. Some wipe it from the band’s history, as if it were some discographic anomaly. To be fair, it was a soundtrack, one with two or three proper songs, and it sold only a half a million copies worldwide, going gold only in the U.K. But Flash Gordon, in many ways, represents an apotheosis of Queen’s aesthetic, a campy, decadent rock band at the height of its powers.
The first indication that the British rock band Queen were to going to be involved with Flash Gordon came the band’s drummer, Roger Taylor. In a letter from the Autumn 1979 The Official International Queen Fan Club magazine, Roger writes the band will be “involved with a science fiction film project.” He also tells fans he will start work on an as-yet untitled solo album.
Let’s go back a bit further, to June 1979. The band has just released Live Killers, recorded on their Jazz tour. The band wants to make a change, and decides to record in a new studio, Musicland, owned by Italian disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder, and work with a new producer, Reinhold Mack. Lead singer Freddie Mercury arrives in town first, and immediately records “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a stripped-down rockabilly song. Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon get their parts down before guitarist Brian May, the methodical studio wizard, arrives in the studio. It’s all done in six hours, unthinkably fast by the band’s standards, which took over four months record A Night At The Opera.
In Munich, the band has discovered that they don’t have to spend months on a song.
There were signs other Queen’s style would change. Freddie Mercury’s look, for one. In 1977, Mercury wore tutus, ballet slippers, and a bushy hairstyle. “The Mercury that’s Rising in Rock is Freddie, the Satiny Seductor of Queen,” People magazine gushed that year.
Months later, Mercury switched to head-to-toe black leather biker outfits, complete with cap and chains and mirrored sunglasses. Queen fans didn’t know it at the time, but Freddie had broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Mary Austin, and had come out as a gay man. Shortly after that, he took to the gay scene in New York, seemingly making up for lost time. His new outfits were inspired by Glenn Hughes, the biker “leather man” from the Village People, whom he met on one of his visits to The Anvil, a New York City after-hours gay bar on Tenth Avenue and 14th Street. Along with the wardrobe changes is the music Freddie listened to in clubs like The Anvil and as well as the BDSM sex club Mineshaft and, later, Munich’s Sugar Shack: four-on-the-floor, mechanistic disco with diva singers. And, of course, synthesizers.
Cut to February 1980. “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” has reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 and stays on the chart for 22 weeks. It is the band’s first worldwide number one. They had just recorded a take of “Play The Game” in Munich with Bee Gees younger brother Andy Gibb. Later, the band would drape the song in synthesizer waves in its intro and bridge. But not yet.
Later that month, Queen screens 20 minutes of rough footage of Flash Gordon. Producer Dino De Laurentis, who has no knowledge of rock music, refers to the band as “The Queens.” De Laurentis is won over after director Michael Hodges plays a demo of “Flash’s Theme” written by Brian May.
In “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag draws the “natural link” between fascism and sadomasochism. Fascist aesthetics, Sontag writes, “flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant efforts, and the endurance of pain; they endorse seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude.” Sontag’s 1975 essay on Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s former propagandist, was the kind of thing Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh drew from when he dubbed Queen “the first truly fascist rock band” in a 1979 review of Jazz. But to call Freddie Mercury’s BDSM cabaret as fascist while worshipping The Who’s Nuremburgian concerts betrays a not small amount of homophobia.
Flash Gordon certainly explores sadomasochistic, if not fascistic themes. Flash is stripped, tied up and suspended by chains, an image that appears on one of the film’s official lobby cards. Prince Barin and Flash whip each other in a duel atop a circular bed of nails. And who can forget General Kala, who whips Princess Aura, who is tied to a table face down in silk hot pants? This is a scene that, after multiple viewings on cable TV as a teenage boy, remains imprinted on this essayist’s brainstem.
In 2013, Brian May wrote on his website that Freddie was “particularly fond of” Mariangela Melato’s portrayal of General Kala, “the fabulous and unforgettable camp-sadistic General Kala, who says “What do you mean—Flash Gordon approaching? Open fire—all Weapons!!!” Kala’s appeal to Freddie, May writes, “might have had something to do with her expert use of the whip! ha ha!”
At some point between February and May 1980, each member of Queen starts to use a synthesizer in the studio for the first time.
Freddie loved General Kala’s ‘expert use of the whip.’
“I’m afraid that was my fault,” Roger Taylor tells Mark Blake in his 2010 biography Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. “I’d bought this Oberheim polyphonic synth. I showed it to Fred, and immediately he was like, ‘Oh this is good, dear…”
And not just synthesizers. Listen to “Another One Bites The Dust,” and you will hear a drum loop and an attempted drum roll using a primitive drum machine. Queen were a band with four songwriters, and in their new Munich studio, each band member can assemble their own demos.
This all occurs on what can be described as holy ground for electronic music, the same studio where Giorgio Moroder fired up a Moog and sequencer and, with an unknown singer named Donna Summer, composed the eight-minute electronic disco opus, “I Feel Love.” How could the future not rub off on them?
The liner notes to The Game, released on July 1, 1980, states that “The album includes the first appearance of a Synthesizer (an Oberheim OBX) on a Queen album.”
It reads, as I look at it now on my vinyl copy, as almost a disclaimer or apology. If you talk to some of the more orthodox Queen fans over the years, they will declare the band’s crossing the synth threshold was a betrayal, that it marked the end the band’s prime creative output.
How could recording in a studio that was electronic music holy ground not rub off on them?
You couldn’t tell at the time. “Another One Bites The Dust,” the disco track written by John Deacon, would became the band’s second worldwide #1 single, charting on both pop and R&B charts in in Fall 1980.
In recent documentaries, Brian May will say that, for a moment around this time, Queen had become the biggest rock band in the world. I think he’s right. They were selling out concerts in arenas around the world. Millions of Queen records were flying off the shelves. And, in their spare time, Queen were recording tracks for Flash Gordon.
September 1980: In another letter to the Queen Fan Club magazine, Roger Taylor says Queen were shown a full working print of Flash Gordon and “persuaded the producers to ‘redo bits.’” Why? “The music wasn’t loud enough.”
Released in January 1981, Queen embarked on their Flash Gordon tour shortly thereafter. I need to type this again: Queen, in that moment the biggest band in the world, toured in support of a movie soundtrack. Freddie Mercury wore a Flash t-shirts onstage. Trailers and posters for Flash Gordon played up “Music by Queen.”
The Game was released first. But the synths started with Flash Gordon.
“The Flash stuff of course lent itself to synthesizer and it sort of flowed over a little bit onto The Game,” Brian May told Stephen Peeples in Rocks Off! magazine in March 1981. “We were working on two projects simultaneously more or less. The Flash stuff of course lent itself to synthesizer and it sort of flowed over a little bit onto The Game.”
In that same interview, the interviewer points out that all four band members are credited with playing synthesizer on the Flash album. At first, May demurs, only to change his mind mid-answer, something I find utterly charming:
Well there really isn’t an awful lot of synthesizer, to be honest. There are odd little touches on “Flash’s Theme,” and most of the ‘Love Theme’ was done on synthesizer by Roger. Freddie played it on the main Ming theme and John used synthesizer on ‘Arboria.’ What am I talking about? I guess there is a lot of synthesizer!
Before The Game and Flash Gordon Soundtrack, Roger Taylor had already started work on Fun in Space, the first solo album by a Queen member. Long out of print, it’s now available on streaming services, as well as a Roger Taylor boxed set I spent days poring over recently. Fun in Space wears its sci fi fandom on its sleeve: an alien from the July 1980 issue of Creepy magazine was used for its front and back covers. But it’s not just art direction that Taylor’s album has in common with Flash Gordon. There is also the futuristic, space opera–friendly synth-rock.
Turn down Flash Gordon’s sound, as I have, and play any of the ten tracks from Fun in Space—I recommend the title track or the completely ridiculous “Interlude in Constantinople”—and watch the Hawkmen attack or Ming the Merciless issue decrees to General Klytus. It all makes total sense.
Record Mirror described it as “Son of Flash Gordon.” They weren’t kidding.
The cap-off to this triad of Queen releases—the minimalist rock disco of The Game, Flash Gordon’s synth bombast, Roger Taylor’s solo pet project—comes from Fun in Space’s liner notes:
P.S. Hello listeners. I hope you enjoy and have fun with this, my very own album. I like it. If you don’t, sod you!
P.P.S. 157 synthesizers.
“Jaws was never my scene and I don’t like Star Wars,” Freddie Mercury sings in “Bicycle Race.” Freddie, with all due respect, wasn’t being honest. Queen had always been science fiction fans.
Back in 1977, Taylor recruited artist Frank Kelly Freas to reimagine his futuristic robot illustration for the cover of Queen’s News of the World. Brian May, who studied astronomy in college, wrote “’39,” the only love song ever based on Einstein’s time dilation effect. May’s first solo album, 1983’s Star Fleet Project, reimagines the theme song of a Japanese sci-fi series he liked to watch with his son. Queen bought the rights to use footage from Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis, perhaps the first science fiction film, to be the backdrop of their video for “Radio Gaga.” Giorgio Moroder later composed an original soundtrack to Metropolis, one that features “Love Kills,” Freddie Mercury’s first solo single, a track that is filled with—you guessed it—synthesizers.
In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag lists “old Flash Gordon movies” as part of the canon of Camp,” along with Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, feather boas, and “stag movies seen without lust.”
In Ted, Seth McFarlane’s bawdy comedy about the friendship of a man, John Bennett, and his talking teddy bear, take hits from a water bong and watch the opening credits of Flash Gordon. “So bad, but so good,” a very high John Bennett says, watching the opening credits of Flash Gordon.
Ted, the talking teddy bear and John’s best friend, takes a hit from a water bong and nods. “A study in contrasts,” he says. “Fuck yeah, Flash!”
Camp, Sontag writes, is defined by “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.”
“Fuck yeah, Flash!”
Posterity, or at least nerd remix culture, has been kind to the campy off-ness of Queen’s Flash Gordon Soundtrack. Ted and Ted 2, of course, include multiple Flash Gordon homages. There are so many others. A scene from Observe and Report has bi-polar mall cop Seth Rogen fighting a pack of real cops whole “Battle Theme” and “The Hero” play in the background. As I write this, a homemade video of the battle in Star Wars with the “Battle Theme” from Flash Gordon is up on YouTube, which makes total sense, considering George Lucas’ inspiration for the franchise was Flash Gordon. “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic,” from Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, uses “Flash’s Theme” to open the track, swapping out “Terminator X” for “Flash.”
I have become convinced that the fact that Queen chose to spend its time, however brief, as the biggest rock band on the planet while composing soundtrack to a campy, sadomasochistic space opera means something. I am disheartened when I hear about Queen fans who have never listened to Flash Gordon, or don’t consider it to be a “real” Queen album at all. They choose to skip from The Game to the next studio album, 1982’s Hot Space, a collection of synth- and disco-tinged songs largely considered to be the band’s commercial downfall (that’s another story).
To leave out Flash Gordon from the band’s history as a proper album, however, represents a serious oversight. Without Flash Gordon, we would forget the band’s sense of humor, often mistaken for some mixture of fascism and sadomasochism by sourpuss Rolling Stone critics. Without Flash Gordon, we wouldn’t be able to bask in the glory of Queen, a band at the height of its powers, indulging itself in multilayered vocal harmonies and stacked guitars for the first time in half a decade, without concern about sounding “modern” or “current.” Without Flash Gordon, we would never hear Freddie’s falsetto in “The Kiss,” employed to extraordinary heights a few months later on Queen’s collaboration with David Bowie, “Under Pressure.” Without Flash Gordon, we wouldn’t witness what it was like to give a rock band complete freedom to write music for a film that is essentially a two-hour music video, perhaps the greatest music video ever made, by the greatest rock band that ever existed.
Flash Gordon (Soundtrack) Poems
This description of Earth from afar, yes, by Death Itself (1). I picture the silent screening, the four of them, again with wonderful jackets. A large Italian man heaves up rumors in that first conversation.
Sixteenth note in a decade destined to go down the tubes, and voices intermingling still, then silence. “Nice bass line,” the cashier from the local record store said, fingering his suburban punk mullet. I stood there like a pussy.
Camp Wagner has begun.
In The Space Capsule (The Love Theme)
They look at each other. Your very own roustabout (2), a cosmos, a Kosmos bullied by timpani. Remember Flash and that Chams du Baron, sweating, bandanae around his neck?
An animal’s glance, so diagonal and quizzical in its wonder at the closing dumpster walls. Porno and science fiction’s connections sealed in her metal-bra cleavage, the exaggeration of gesture, the chest hair heave-hos.
They look at each other. One man, one woman.
Tee-hee-hee-ing, Freddie wears white shorts and sits down in all-black key ululation, 60 seconds flat, back to previous lunacy. Now, his soon-to-be prone body is strong; so strong he never sleeps.
To identify the villain is beyond capital-C Camp. It’s simply His Duty, and when one accolade is heard, it brings back his third-world days, a precocious childhood boxer winning trophies, writing home dutifully.
Eight breaths protrude like buck teeth in his high sighs.
The Ring (Hypnotic Seduction of Dale)
Eight breaths protrude and tinkle there, still, without initial sameness. Two figures stare at an idol, transfixed.
We could have been in a porno, Dark Brothers-style; we could have plunked ourselves in the booth, just the four of us, the five of us, and it would have been the best music ever for a stag film. Ever.
Instead, we stuck in this mimesis of sex, a shadowgame of onomatopoeia, wrestling money shots, bottoms-up. We can only do this for a few seconds before petering out, mistaken for dutiful loop-de-loops.
Disappointment at end, dry-faced, glass-crashed.(3)
In The Death Cell (Love Theme Reprise)
The inductive moment at last. The fishbowl glance of the hero up from the poorly text, pink walls. The device represents a second-act sexual tension, which, rules dictate, cannot be released.
An echo in the distance, a reprise. Notice a human trait in the villain as the protagonist finds an escape. Lambasted by too many, the device has a way to market good and evil, reacquaint us with his body.
Lowered into the depths, a blank screen escape.
Execution of Flash/The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)
Slid down a triad, a feeling, a husk, an actual empathetic moment—a voice in the end, a voice in the uppers. Someone must die. The voices know that. We feel sadder than we’re supposed to. And this confirmation lies where?
Only in the regnal passageway of our voices, where there can be no rehearsal.
Arboria (Planet of the Tree Men)
Our write-off is the immodest accordion. Our Immelmann Turn (4) evens out, the blonde will talk to brunette and we unite, unite, unite! We are with each other, boys, we’re all on the same team.
“Take blondes to the suburbs,” Ross says. Take brunettes to the suburbs.
Escape From The Swamp
This ain’t no transcription. No can do, special effects either carry the plot or not. They don’t turn around audio starts. Strange to think that this is more of a story than the actual animal’s captured gaze.
Wonder what she would make of a dickhead soundtrack’s story.(5)
Flash To The Rescue/ Vultan’s Theme (Attack of the Hawk Men)
Isolate my conniption—what did I exactly say? Is it unclear? He’s coming. Here. This is it. Do you understand what I’m saying? Here he comes—coming to get you and me and all of us.
Let’s ignore the repercussions of the deep deep phasers, babe. This taxidermic villainess is obsessed with the body of the hero. Her aviary awaits, still helps the still-living hero, regardless of its survival at the end of the act.
And look—little wings grafted onto their hirsute bodies!
Computer game paramour, my sweetheart Sam Jones, now a construction worker (Kevin says), out in Los Angeles hustling for bit parts. I wondered what you should be, where you should go. TV for sure.
I hold on to my knobby joystick, thinking of you, rescue my missing parts. I’m gonna keep on cryin’ with a keynote disavowal, standing there, and all my other major events happening at the same time. Attack! Attack!
My confession here isn’t to throw you off. Rather, I confess repetition.
The Wedding March/Marriage Of Dale And Ming (and Flash Approaching)
The nuptial ambush, Maisie’s sneak around the rented tent. In vowing, we throw off all preconception, fess up as well as we can. The Captain and Tennille on 8-track— “There Is Love.”(6)
But to unburden a clean breast, to unburden all correspondence, a certain reconnoitering. In one lunkhead’s candid promise, there is both bad intention and an attempts at humor. Homoerotic chorus.
Nothing is murmured, no one stands at attention in the process.
Crash Dive On Mingo City/Flash’s Theme Reprise
Chromatic in its own way, how they cufflink each other’s results. Hands raised, a festschrift, with audience, and as always an invitation for the hero to stay to make a new life.
“No thanks, Mac”—home is much better than this.
Springtime, and unsung Bo Diddley plays live, end credits in Cotswall outdoors. To no one’s avail or recognition. Perhaps the last hurrah, at least for mixing it right. It’s off to German discos for awhile.
We’ll meet German actresses there, adopt a pastel stance, and it will be exciting, yes, and the cigarettes will roughen our voices. My mother likes it, actually, and it is the beginning of the bloat. It is unhealthy.
The next montage, Riefenstahlian.(7)
Max Von Sydow, The Emperor Ming, a/k/a “Ming the Merciless”; The Seventh Seal (Igmar Bergman, 1957).
(2) Frances Lai, theme from A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme, Claude Lelouch, 1966).
(3) New Wave Hookers (Gregory Dark, 1985).
(4) A classic of air-to-air combat, engaged by the Hawk Men in Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980) and so many suburban boys with model airplanes. Developed by Max Immelmann, a German World War I ace. The turn involves flying level, then pulling back on the stick, bringing the aircraft into a steep climb, which is maintained until the aircraft passes through vertically and completes a half loop. At the top of the loop, the aircraft is inverted and the pilot rolls the aircraft back into the upright position. The aircraft is now higher and has changed its heading 180 degrees.
(5) Escape From The Swamp, Alternate Take
Hawk men, oh my hawk men. In Sexual Personae (Vintage Press, 1990), Camille Paglia calls cinema “the ultimate phallic gesture.” It frames reality, grasps outside, domesticates it. So this great hairy male insecurity complex, as we all know, this Paglia woman, ever the Freudian, genitally reduces it. Hawk men, dive.
(6) Toni Tennille introducing Chaka Khan, Midnight Special, 1977.
(7) Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1934).
Flash! Essays: Camp & Passion Play
ESSAYS BY BRIAN D. BOULDREY
In 1980, when Flash Gordon hit the theaters, I was a senior in high school and either skipping school to see Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, The Elephant Man, and the much-maligned and longwinded Heaven’s Gate, or slumming it with Caddyshack, Airplane!, and Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie (it involved reefer). Everybody else was off watching The Empire Strikes Back, The Blue Lagoon, and Ordinary People. I have always preferred high culture and low culture, and found the stuff in between less interesting—the zeitgeist, the stuff for everybody else.
That is the terrible thing, I suppose, about zeitgeist—as Ezra Pound said, “There is nothing new, only the rhythm of the times.” When you see Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, you’re not watching ancient Egypt—you’re watching Hollywood in 1963.
The zeitgeist in 1980, suddenly, was a palette was grey and tech, and while the science was just as crappy (TIE fighters screaming in space?), everybody thought that that was what space was supposed to look like. Flash Gordon looked, when it came out, dated, or not quite the zeitgeist—which sometimes comes off as dated. Flash Gordon’s idea of space was like traveling in tie dyes, not TIE fighters. Flash Gordon was from an other, other world. It had a set of values, but values that were not in stride with the values of 1980. Imagine you were born in a rural Chinese village and somebody handed you a Norman Rockwell painting. What the hell is this? No idea, but it’s certainly interesting!
I, for one, love to look at old mannerist allegory paintings, and puzzle out the inscrutable hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian filled with squat foreshortened figures and stylized posings, and attempt to imagine the plot of the in-flight movie without buying the headset. These things are all art, which looks, I suppose, unnatural.
Camp hates the natural, hates nature. Oscar Wilde says, “The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature.” In Mongo, the only planet with anything green on it is Arboria, where you can’t even live until you undergo a rite of passage involving the venom of the offspring of a squid and a scorpion skulking in a stump.
I suppose camp, like homosexuals, are an affront to sober church-going notions of good and evil. Not only is there no black and white in Flash Gordon, there is a psychedelic rainbow of colors. We are used to our romances being taken seriously, and lovers of romance squirm when the leading man allows Princess Aura, that minx, to sit on his lap while he learns to drive stick. Camp itself is villainous, because camp is knowledge, and camp prefers the artificial to the natural. Flash is the hero because he is not the brightest bulb; it was Zarkov’s knowing how to get to Mongo that nearly got the Earth destroyed. And camp is villainous because camp loves a party, loves pleasure, and although there can only be one kind of good and one kind of bad, there are many kinds of pleasures, and many different tastes.
And many different ideas of what is beautiful. Like an opera produced in a small Italian town, Flash Gordon looks on beauty and chooses to pass it by. We see every character’s vanity—the long mirror on the inside lid of Flash’s coffin, Dale grabbing her high heels in the middle of a gun battle, Aura begging mercy against the bore worms. The characters want, they desire, but they’d rather play. They are putting on a play, they are playing.
We know the trick that’s being played with us, but we enjoy being fooled a little. We like that the rocket ships racing around Ming’s galaxy look a lot like our childhood selves ramming around the living room with a toy spaceship in our hands. Watching Flash play football with a bunch of guys in tights is not so much about another world beyond our galaxy, but an en-strangement of the world we know too well. Isn’t that what camp does? Take the beauty and truth of the world you have built such an allegiance for, and just turn it on its head, like Klytus’ hourglass? You have til the sands….run up.
There’s fun in camp for everybody because the viewer’s intelligence and imagination can take as much part as the viewing. There’s not a gay bone, really, in a single frame of Flash Gordon, but it’s fun to imagine some of the characters in different roles. It’s fun the way it’s fun to imagine the two couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (camp) as gay male couples. It’s fun to imagine the trouser roles of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (camp) as drag for three women, since all three roles are sung by women, though one is a “man”.
Camp seems synonymous with “gay”, though I wish it weren’t, and I often wonder why. The thing about camp, as with camping, is that it really doesn’t require much equipment, and everybody is invited, and there’s something to be enjoyed by everybody, but surprisingly few show up. Maybe because some people think camp is a code, and whenever art feels coded, people mistrust it, or sense they are the butt of a joke. Camp isn’t a private party—the door is always open. Nobody in Flash Gordon is from Mongo—and it is interesting to note that every single member of the cast of this movie named after its all-American hero casts nothing but foreigners, for even the fresh-faced actress playing “New York City Girl” Dale Arden is Canadian and black. But if nobody is from Mongo, you’re quite welcome to hang around. “You’re certainly all invited to stay,” promised Barin at the end.
I love the old country-western ballad, “Streets of Laredo”, who doesn’t? Dying youth, last words, a gunfight, six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin. That line I love most is, “I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy”. I sing the line whenever I see anybody in a uniform of any sort, official or un- “I see by your outfit that you are a jogger”, I’ll sing, if I see some guy in all the workout apparel money can buy. “I can see by your outfit that you are a gay guy,” I’d often sing in the Castro in San Francisco.
We all love a good uniform. There’s a fascist streak in all of us. They replace the need for an actual personality. When you become a zombie in a zombie movie, the only thing that distinguishes us from other zombies is the uniform we wore to work the day we got bit.
One thing I really like about southern Europe is their bizarre embrace of both fascism and socialism. I suppose Catholicism, the state religion, is one of the reasons. Everybody lives in a big sprawl of a family with a billion sibs and everybody knows how to live with one another, and yet every chaotic family requires some big strong Papa to organize the chaos.
The minute Flash and the gang arrive in Mongo City, they can smell the fascism. “It looks like a police state!” says Flash, who also doubles as the narrator for Flash Gordon “You loony bird!” he calls Prince Vultan, who is a loony bird. And when Princess Aura starts to turn him on, Flash says “This girl is really turning me on!”
Dr. Zarkov, who, as it is revealed in his fantastic film-within-a-film brain drain, seems to have known something about police states, says, “That could be our good luck! They’re just waiting for someone to lead them in a revolt.”
It looks like a police state, but a fabulous one, an opera set of a police state. Everybody comes out in little choral bundles, Frygians and Arborians and Hawkmen and Cytherians, a May Day parade. So many reflective surfaces, it must have been a nightmare to film and keep cameras out of the picture. And everybody easily identified. I can tell by your outfit that you are an Arborean. I can tell by your outfit that you are the clergyman. But even our heroes have uniforms. Flash has a t-shirt that says “Flash”, like a note pinned to a kindergartner in case he gets lost getting off the school bus. Dr. Zarkov has his lab coat. Once Dale is forced into her fancy bridal duds, she is unwilling to let go of those high heels—she blasts a few guards, but always goes back for the shoes, because, well, they go with the outfit.
It’s also fascinatin’ fascism, the sort sexualized by the S&M community. I’ve always suspected that Peter Wyngarde, the actor playing the wicked Klytus, secretly controlled the style and attitude of Flash Gordon from behind that mask. I see him standing next to Dino de Laurentis always in his uniform, sniffing that hanky and pouring campy poison in the director’s ear (“there should be a large mirror on the inside lid of Flash’s coffin, don’t you think?”). So many masks, so many uniforms, which both identify people in a simple straightforward way, but also allow them to have secrets under those costumes. I think it’s another triumph of Wyngarde’s acting that the mask doesn’t limit his expression, but in fact adds nuance and mystery. I first saw Flash when I was constructing my own mask. What if we like our masks? Apparently, Wyngarde, playing that death’s-head pervert Klytus, begged the director to let him take his mask off in the movie—but even the movie set was a police state.
And under cover of masks, everybody can watch the spectacle. Even in the most intimate moments, somebody, a lizard man in chains, the dwarf coffin polishers, a handful of slave girls, is watching. They could have just drained Zarkov’s brain, but no, General Kala has all of his memories projected on a movie screen, so she can watch.
The costumes in Flash Gordon are meant for the stage—there’s something operatic about them, all that beadwork, meant to catch the lights. Danilo Donati designed them, the same guy who did many of Fellini’s movies, as well as the understated “Caligula” and the tasteful “120 Days of Sodom”. The care, the invention! You look at the costumes the way you look at everything in that movie, which, if it is not beautiful (which it is, fool), is always interesting and generous and exaggerated and funny (both ha-ha and strange). It’s like watching some other sexual orientation’s porn, without lust, but with curiosity, or watching an opera without a libretto in your hand.
What is it, then, that we love about fascism? It may be an admiration for perfection in and of itself, whether it is right or wrong. Nobody is immune, I think, to the beauty of the emphatic, of the certain, even when the beauty is the artificial gleam. And the pageant, the parade of the plenitude, after all, serves to make you feel grand and small at the same time, part of a big scary spectacle, but a spectacle you can watch while eating Thanksgiving dinner or attending Ming’s wedding.
John Bresland is an essayist who works in film, radio and print. His work has been anthologized in Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time as well as The Fourth Genre, an anthology of contemporary creative nonfiction. His video essay, “Mangoes,” was recently installed at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. He teaches creative writing and media arts at Northwestern University.
Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina Anthology (2013). His writing has appeared in the Morning News, the New York Times, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, Third Rail: The Poetry of Rock and Roll, and Now Write! Nonfiction. Nester is an associate professor of English at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, where he teaches in the MFA program in creative writing and serves as editor of Pine Hills Review.
Brian Bouldrey has written eight books, most recently Honorable Bandit: A Walk Across Corsica, and edited 7 anthologies, including Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of the Muse, published this year. He teaches creative writing and literature at Northwestern University.