Monday, August 22, 2011

Television: Flash Gordon: The Brain Machine

There's nothing so banal but that some people can't find meaning in it.  Especially when they're professional academics.  Take one Wheeler Winston Dixon, who may sound like a southern publishing house, but who Wikipedia assures us is actually "a writer of film history, theory and criticism... as well as a professor who has taught at Rutgers University, New Brunswick; The New School in New York; and the University of Amsterdam, Holland."  This is his view on Flash Gordon, and particularly today's episode:

[F]ar from decrying the series for its production values, Dixon finds that "the copious [use of] stock footage and the numerous exterior sequences shot in the ruins of the bombed-out metropolis [of Berlin] give Flash Gordon a distinctly ravaged look". He writes that its international origins give the series "an interesting new cultural dimension, even a perceptible air of a split cultural identity". Dixon quotes German cultural historian Mark Baker, who writes of a particular scene from the episode "The Brain Machine" as emblematic of this cultural split. The scene uses stock footage of a June 17, 1953 demonstration by East Berlin workers against the East German government. Soviet tanks opened fire on both demonstrators and bystanders, thus confirming East Germany's status as a Soviet puppet state in the minds of West Germans. American viewers, Baker speculates, were probably unaware of the iconic power in West Germany of the images of fleeing East Berlinners, which were used to illustrate a panic on Neptune.... The "ravaged look" of the series, Dixon writes, "underscores the real-world stage on which the action of the space operas played".

Me, I think it was stock footage that was used because it was close at hand, although in highly questionable taste.  But that's why I'm not teaching at a university.  It does give the show an unusual look, though.  It's not a clean future of people in spotless tunics.

I was thinking last week that it's one thing to watch actors playing miserable, desperate people, and quite another to watch what you know are actual miserable, desperate people being used to represent fictional miserable, desperate people in an entertainment program.  It says something, but I'm not sure what.  Perhaps that we go to fiction to have the reassurance of distance between what's going on on screen, however terrible, and real life.  But when, suddenly, the terrible things are from real life, the whole thing sort of collapses, and it's profoundly unsettling.

Hmm.  I may get into academe yet.

Incidentally, postwar Berlin actually plays itself in a later episode utilizing that money-saving plotline of time travel to our present day.

I managed to get this episode uploaded in one piece.

It looks like the opening credits were lost at some point, and reconstructed in more recent times.  The words "The Brain Machine" flying on screen is clearly a video effect.

1:50 "...and while Flash and Dale prepared the auxiliary converter."  I'm amused by the shot used to represent this: Dale working on the machine, while Flash, standing off to the side, tosses his sweaty t-shirt onto it.  Thanks for the help, Flash.

3:49 "What's that all about?"  Beats me-- the mad witch's voice was too badly mixed to make out.

4:09 You watch a lot of old science fiction, you get used to some really mismatched effects dissolves.  This one was actually very good.

5:21 Wow, 1955 is pretty late for the amazing powers of radium.

11:51 "A matter transmitter machine!"  I always love it in science fiction when someone can look at something almost featureless, and know immediately what it is.

14:10 If this were on MST3K, this is where a "hat party"/"and mine will be the grandest of all!" joke would come in.

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