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A friend just asked me what I think will be the ultimate end of the computer.

It’s a good question and although there have been many entertaining science-fiction answers to that question — mostly involving supercomputers developing artificial intelligence to a point the computer no longer needs humans to operate it and thus enslaving humankind — the real cyberuebermensch — what came to my mind was something else.

And that is that the computer — and by extension the whole cyberworld — has no throat. No pancreas, either.

That is, in the eternal division we idiot humans have made between mind and body, the computer is all mind and no body. Not even the beige box can count as a body, when we can download the whole brain on a thumbdrive and move it over to another interchangeable box.

No, the computer is the final version of the mind existing for itself alone.

And that, I think, is where we will finally recognize the limitations of the computer.

After all, why did intelligence evolve? It developed to help our bodies survive. The smarter animals were better able to get food, protect themselves and their young, and know when to move to a new neighborhood when the ripe bananas gave out. In other words, the mind is the servant of the body.

In the computer, however, the mind serves only the mind.

Sometimes our human brains forget this simple fact and think that our bodies exist to cart our brains around from place to place, that it is the function of our bodies to turn the pages in the books, or to push the buttons on our remotes or shuffle our computer mouse around.

Our brains have everything backward. In fact, our brains were created by our bodies to serve them.

One senses a theme: machine carries body

One senses a theme: machine carries body

What can be the function of a brain without a body? To serve only itself, a function that is ultimately trivial, narcissistic, onanistic and pointless.

Because we live in a media-saturated culture, we think that the purpose of intelligence is to amuse us, keep us entertained. We use our minds to fill out crossword puzzles, write books and split the atom.

In essence, we are spinning our wheels. And we invent computers to spin our wheels even faster.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against computers. I love my iMac; I even love the blank-faced golem I face every day on which I write these words.

But ultimately, humankind will come face to face with the problem of being chunks of meat walking around. And the computer, as glorious an invention as it is, is irrelevant to our physical lives.

Oh, I know that our air-conditioning is controlled by computer, and that we wouldn’t be able to fly from Phoenix to Boston without them. The computer is a tool, and a useful one.

But when it comes to the future of the computer, we will have to recognize that mind and intelligence are not ultimately what life is about, and that the computer, which makes our lives both easier and infinitely more complicated, has no voice on the subject.

The expectation that the computer will eventually grow into artificial intelligence is likewise an irrelevant question.

But they have it backwards. Body really carries machine

But they have it backwards. Body really carries machine

Artificial intelligence is hotly debated between those scientists who think the human brain is inimitable and those who think it is merely a mechanism.

They are both missing the point. The problem with artificial intelligence is that it serves no purpose. It is really just one gigantic mega-New York Times crossword puzzle for scientists to play with.

Meanwhile, our pancreases and our throats keep us alive.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The 1950s were a decade of fear and paranoia. Schoolkids learned to duck and cover and at night, dreamed of mushroom clouds. Grownups were spooked by Commies hiding behind every bush and screenplay. They built fallout shelters in their back yards. Congress held hearings and inquisitions. They had lists. Not only were spies giving our secrets to the Rooskies, but comic books were debauching our youth. Armed soldiers accompanied little girls to school, defending them from angry, fearful mobs.

It’s all there to see in our movies. It was a decade of noir, a decade of “psychological” Westerns. But most of all, it was the decade of crummy science fiction. In those films the shadows that frightened us were allowed out of their cages. There be dragons.

Godzilla was really only the most overt of those films, but the message was everywhere. If it wasn’t about nuclear bombs reawakening prehistoric beasts, as in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth (can there be a small behemoth?), then it was about our fear of Cold War Communists: The subtext of Invaders From Mars — one of the creepiest movies ever — was that aliens could infiltrate our comfortable suburban lives and we wouldn’t even know it. It was a nightmare of true paranoia. It was there in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too: People weren’t who we thought they were and we couldn’t trust anyone.

Subtext was king.

There were few sci-fi films from the time that didn’t bear this extra freight, from Them! (not us) and its giant ants in the LA sewers to The Thing and its call to “keep watching the skies.”

Certainly the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds carried this Cold War message. We were at risk of invasion from aliens, and whether they were from Mars or the Soviet Union hardly mattered.

The narration made this explicit, describing the course of the 20th century from World War I — “nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days” — through World War II — with “new devices of warfare which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction” — to the next war, “fought with the terrible weapons of superscience, menacing all mankind and every creature on Earth.”

This was a movie about the fears we felt in the 1950s.

And it is why those wretched movies, made on a shoestring with cardboard sets and vacuum-tube control boards, can stick in our memories like some pop tune. There is the power of dream and nightmare underneath the aluminum spray paint and prehistoric iguanas.

Star Wars? Star Snores.

Can’t compare with Devil Girl From Mars. There is a unacknowledged fear of a rising feminism. Same for Cat Women of the Moon or Queen of Outer Space.

Devil Girl from Mars

Devil Girl from Mars

Those of us who grew up on the real thing know that if you want the bona fides, you must find them not in the Technicolor epics, but in the mustier corners of your video store or the back channels of your basic cable.

For the kind of sci-fi that sticks to your frontal lobe for a lifetime, you must look to something a lot less classy than George Lucas’ New Age Wookiee-fest.

You’re talking the 1950s. The decade was to science fiction what the 1930s were to screwball comedies, or the 1940s to war movies.

The production of that single decade is astounding. There are hundreds of them, really cheesy space monster movies, made with the collective budget of a middle-size Levittown, N.Y., household. During Lent.

Those films, from Rocketship X-M in 1950 to Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959, outlined a genre. Even today’s most up-to-the-state-of-the-art FXtravaganza will manage to pay homage to those cheese-athons of yore.

You know the drill: An elderly scientist with a beautiful daughter discovers a new planet or an underground civilization that will destroy the world, or at least dent a small out-of-the-way English coastal village. All the best World War II stock footage of tanks and cannon cannot gun down the menace until our hero invents a new ray or oxygen destroyer that manages to vaporize the menace or at least cause it to doze off, meanwhile winning the daughter, whose name, by the way, is always a transgender name like Chris or Pat. (The hero has to be surprised at the beginning that the elderly scientist’s assistant is a ”girl.”)

And at the end she hugs her man, who is usually dressed in a leather flight jacket, and they stare off into the empty ocean and she asks him if the danger is over, if the flying saucer/interplanetary dinosaur/giant centipede will ever come back, and he looks pensive and says: ”Keep watching the skies.”

How can Star Wars compete with that?

And the acting in these low-budget classics is sometimes mind-blowing. Hollywood didn’t put its Gary Coopers and Cary Grants in cheap genre flicks. No, it drew from the shallow end of the pool of talent that included such luminaries as William Lundigan and Lyle Talbot. Most of them made Al Gore look as animated as Roger Rabbit.

I mean, let’s face it: Mark Hamill may be a lousy actor, but he’s no Sonny Tufts.

What is so surprising about those awful films is just how much affection we feel for them when they show up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or during a baseball rain delay.

Actually, there are two types of affection we feel for them. For there are two different ways they stand out.

First, there is the movie that is so bad, it is fun to watch.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) is the archetype for this. Director Ed Wood has often been credited with making the worst movie ever. But this is calumny. There is something naively loopy about Plan 9 that makes us cherish its every goofy blunder.

And the dialogue: ”Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Now, that’s writing!

And: ”Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, and you explode the universe.”

Audiences howl with laughter all the way through the movie. Nobody could have made anything so cheesy on purpose.

But Ed Wood wasn’t alone. There are plenty of bad movies, with plywood sets, paper-plate flying saucers and cardboard acting.

But there is another sort of film that we love, too. In those, a miserable script and lumpy acting are somehow saved by either a director who makes more of it all than you have any right to expect, or by an idea or image that sticks in the mind like a dream.

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

What alien is more inexpressibly “other” than the glass-helmeted homunculus from The Man From Planet X (1951)? And what planet is more memorably odd than the partly solarized, red-colored landscape from Angry Red Planet (1959)?

And there is a subgenre in this, in which such moviemakers as Ivan Tors tried naively but sincerely to show what space travel or robots would be like. Destination Moon (1950), or Gog (1954), for instance.

The movies are not actually good, but they have good hearts.

The ’50s had its share of larger budget sci-fi, too. Some of them are classics, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). They transcended their genre.

Some people consider Forbidden Planet (1956) to be a minor masterpiece.

Robot Monster

Robot Monster

But it is those benighted films such as Robot Monster (1953), with its man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet, or Killers from Space (1954), with its out-of-shape zombies dressed in spandex with fried eggs for eyes, that truly deserve worship.

Killers from Space

Killers from Space

Unfortunately, with the advent of the 1960s, science fiction took a turn and not for the better. What had been naive attempts at entertainment in the previous decade took on the more ominous tone of exploitation. Producers aimed their films at the teenage market, and the gore level rose. The monsters had faces like used chewing gum and they oozed slime.

And worse, it was all caught on really bad, underlit color film.

The flatly lit black and white film of the ’50s was a signature style. You could tell instantly what you were in for. Flood lamps illuminated the scene evenly and spread twin shadows to the right and left of everything. But the bad lighting of the ’60s couldn’t help the goo-faced monsters. There was a failure of sincerity.

We can recognize that in retrospect, looking back through an age that imitated the loopiness of the earlier films. But it doesn’t matter if you call your film Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987), these made-for-cable cheesers are way too self-conscious.

We can never regain our innocence. And as for our paranoia? Welcome to the post-Sept. 11 world. You can now see the same subtext showing up once more. Not only in the many Middle-Eastern villains in our superhero movies, but in our science fiction once again.

And Steven Spielberg’s new take on War of the Worlds is fairly marinated in it. It oozes everywhere.

The new film has a different shadow villain: “Is it the terrorists?” little Rachel asks when things start blowing up.

Although Spielberg never undercuts the sheer velocity of his thriller with academic discourse, he fills his movie with striking imagery that makes the subtext clear: An airplane crashes into a building, posters stapled to walls with pictures of missing people, debris falling from the sky.

These are the images of our current fears. Older movies reveal our former fears.

The newer subtext is terrorism, which even comes out in the comic relief.

When Tom Cruise is trying to escape the destruction of the aliens with his two children, they ask him about the fearful strikes of lightning that have prefigured the chaos. This wasn’t ordinary lightning, he tells them, “It came from somewhere else.”

“Like Europe?” his teenage son asks.

“No, Robbie, not like Europe,” he replies. And we recognize, someplace non-European, where people have different clothing and different beliefs, somewhere utterly alien to most Americans.

It isn’t that Spielberg’s film is about 9/11, but that some of the emotion and fear we feel watching it is recalled from having seen the real event. It sets up a resonance: You can’t see the one without thinking of the other.

This is subtext speaking.

TOP 10
Cheesy Sci-Fi movies from the 1950s

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

10. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) – Our astronauts, led by Sonny Tufts, reach
the moon only to find a cave full of exotic dancers in black cat suits. There
is also a giant spider. Similar plots show up in Missile to the Moon (1959)
and Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1954), but neither can top the original.
9. Angry Red Planet (1959) – An American space team lands on Mars and is eaten
by giant spiders with rat faces. Only the ”girl” survives. The acting is
rudimentary, but the visuals are unforgettable, even in their cheesiness.
8. The Crawling Eye (1958) – Forrest Tucker acts his heart out in this tale of
giant eyeballs with tentacles that live in frozen radioactive clouds above a
Swiss village and communicate psychically with a young woman.
7. Invaders From Mars (1953) – This is almost a work of genius. Despite
vestigial special effects, no movie has ever portrayed childhood paranoia
better than this. A boy suspects his parents have been made into zombies by
the buried flying saucer. No one believes him.

Kronos

Kronos

6. Kronos (1957) – A giant cube from outer space eats energy and gets bigger.
So, what does the army do? Try to kill it with an A-bomb. ”You Earth people
are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!,” as Eros says in Plan 9. The sight of a
building-size monster moving across the landscape is eerie.
5. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) – Sometimes called ”the worst movie ever
made,” Plan 9 nevertheless has a loopy genuineness to it, an almost
soft-hearted pacifist message at its core, as zombies raised from the dead by
aliens are meant to take over the Earth. This movie is a party waiting for you
to invite your friends to.
4. Riders to the Stars (1954) – One of the rare color films from this age of
black and white, Riders is a straightforward, even humorless attempt to
explain the travails of space travel, with lots of centrifuge scenes and a
love triangle. Little excitement, but lots of sincerity.
3. Gog (1954) – This is Ivan Tors at his best, telling a story about how man’s
development of technology can come back to harm him. Gog and its twin, Magog,
are among the best robots ever put on film. They are not humanoid but look
more like what we see in industrial robots today.

Queen of Outer Space

Queen of Outer Space

2. The Queen of Outer Space (1958) – This may have been Zsa Zsa Gabor’s best
role. She plays a kind of Hungarian freedom fighter rebelling against a masked
evil queen of the universe and saving the lives of the American space men.
This is actually a fourth version of Cat Women of the Moon, but it is even
campier. Its silliness unfortunately forecasts the doom of the naive space
movie.

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

1. The Man From Planet X (1951) – Shot for less than $50,000 in six days by
low-budget genius Edgar G. Ulmer, this film manages to make a virtue of every
budget shortcut he was forced to take. The atmospheric sets, supposedly
English moors, are foggy to hide their phoniness. But the imaginative
spacecraft – a sort of upside down aluminum ice-cream cone – and
pathos-evoking blank-face alien are unforgettable. So is villain William
Schallert, before he became Dobie Gillis’ teacher, Mr. Pomfritt. This film is
a minor classic and shows how you can do a great deal on a shoestring and an
idea. And a scientist with a lovely daughter.

Angry Red Planet

Angry Red Planet

SCI-FI OF THE ’50s
Angry Red Planet, 1959
The Astounding She-Monster, 1957
The Atomic Man, 1956
Attack From Space, 1959 (Japanese)
Attack of the 50-foot Woman, 1958
Attack of the Puppet People, 1958
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953
The Blob, 1958

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953

Conquest of Space, 1955

The Cosmic Man, 1959
The Cosmic Monsters, 1958
The Crawling Eye, 1958
The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
The Day the World Ended, 1956
The Deadly Mantis, 1957
Destination Moon, 1950
Devil Girl From Mars, 1954
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956
Earth vs. the Spider, 1958
The Electronic Monster, 1958
Enemy From Space, 1957
The Evil Brain From Outer Space, 1956
Fiend Without a Face, 1957

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens From Outer Space, 1954
First Man into Space, 1959
Flight to Mars, 1951
The Flying Saucer, 1950
Forbidden Moon, 1956
Forbidden Planet, 1956
The 4-D Man, 1959
From the Earth to the Moon, 1958
The Gamma People, 1956

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth, 1959 (and try to imagine a tiny behemoth)
The Giant Claw, 1957
The Giant Gila Monster, 1959
Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1956
Gog, 1954
The H-Man, 1958
I Married a Monster From Outer Space, 1958
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957
Invaders From Mars, 1953
Invaders From Space, 1959
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957
It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955
It Came From Outer Space, 1953
It Conquered the World, 1956
It! The Terror From Beyond Space, 1958
Killers From Space, 1954
King Dinosaur, 1955
Kronos, 1957
The Lost Missile, 1958
The Lost Planet, 1953
The Magnetic Monster, 1953
Man Beast, 1956
Manhunt in Space, 1956
The Man From Planet X, 1951
Menace From Outer Space, 1956
Mesa of Lost Women, 1953
Meteor Monster, 1957

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon, 1959
The Mole People, 1956
The Monolith Monsters, 1957
Monster From Green Hell, 1957
Monster From the Ocean Floor, 1954
The Monster that Challenged the World, 1957
The Mysterians, 1957
Phantom From Space, 1953
Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1958
Project Moonbase, 1953
Queen of Outer Space, 1958
Radar Men From the Moon, 1952
Riders to the Stars, 1954

The Mole People

The Mole People

Robot Monster, 1953
Rocket Attack, U.S.A., 1958
Rocketship X-M, 1950
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, 1954-55
Rodan, 1956
Stranger From Venus, 1954
Tarantula, 1955
Target Earth, 1954
Teenagers From Outer Space, 1959
Terror From the Year 5000, 1958
Them!, 1954
The Thing, 1951
This Island Earth, 1954
Tobor the Great, 1954
20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957
The 27th Day, 1957
Untamed Women, 1952
Warning From Space, 1956
War of the Colossal Beast, 1958
War of the Worlds, 1953

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide, 1951
The Wild Women of Wongo, 1958
X The Unknown, 1956
Zombies of the Stratosphere, 1952

Barbarella group

Forty-five years  ago, Jane Fonda  got naked in outer space.

That zero-G striptease is all that most people know about Barbarella,  a movie that opened in October 1968  and was seen at the time as the worst kind of cheese.

“A mix of poor special effects and the Marquis de Sade,” one reviewer said.

And that is the reputation it has been saddled with ever since.

But the movie, directed by French Svengali Roger Vadim  and made for a pittance, has an odd staying power: Many of its scenes are memorable the way a Mozart melody is. Whether it is Pygar the blind angel, the eye-patch Evil Queen — the “Great Tyrant” —  or the psychedelic “Mathmos”  — a kind of molten id-lava that flows under the city — the film sticks in the mind like a particularly disturbing dream.

English and original French comic book versions of "Barbarella" with scene from film.

English and original French comic book versions of “Barbarella” with scene from film.

“A dream we dreamt with our eyes open,” as Fellini  says.

If you look at it purely objectively, Barbarella is a really bad movie. The dialog is campy. The acting is either wooden or, if you are feeling generous, stylized. The plot wouldn’t hold a Flash Gordon  serial together.

The costumes are polyester and scanty. Even the sets are comically shoddy: Barbarella’s space ship is covered up the walls with orange shag carpeting and even the exteriors, like the Forests and Lakes of Weir,  or the Labyrinth of the City of Evil,  have the claustrophobia of a cheap soundstage. Special effects are not much more advanced than a lava lamp.

The Mathmos

The Mathmos

Yet, none of that ultimately matters. Like a small cache of sister films, Barbarella transcends its tawdry birth because it gives us dream-memorable scenes. The parts are greater than the whole.

“A film is a ribbon of dreams,” Orson Welles  said. “The camera … is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret.”

One shouldn’t be too portentous about such things, but the history of cinema is littered with bad movies that are too memorable to die. Like advertising jingles you can’t stop hearing in your head, they just stick.

Think of King Kong (1933).  Its acting is wooden, its writing jejune, yet it is one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. On any objective level, the movie is awful – every time Bruce Cabot  opens his mouth, you cringe – yet those scenes with the big monkey have buried themselves in our collective unconscious. The movie is great not because it is a finished work of art, but because it connects directly to our psyches like a dream you can’t understand, but know is meaningful.

The majority of great bad movies are science fiction or horror films. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all fear has a more driven imagination than hope.

It is what makes 1950s’ monster films such an instantly recognizable genre.

Our fear of nuclear annihilation is given vent in fighting giant ants, spiders or iguanas; our fear of the Soviet Union shows in the number of Martian invaders.

But the list isn’t limited to Them!The Angry Red PlanetThe Crawling Eye  or Things to Come. For it isn’t only a B-movie thing. Mainstream Hollywood schlock can lodge in our collective brains, too, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes  or the spinning head of Linda Blair,  spewing invective and vomit in The Exorcist.

The value of such films is not in their thin plots and narrative contrivances, but in those brief scenes that traumatize us. They are straight from our id and are burned into our memory like a cattle brand.

Think of Freddie Krueger  pushing the girl around the ceiling in Nightmare on Elm Street,  or the flaming Plymouth chasing the teenager down the road in Christine.

Or Rae Dawn Chong  teaching the missionary position to the Neanderthal in Quest for Fire.

All of them have left the confines of their movies to become part of our common mythic inheritance.

Barbarella is full of such mental peanut butter to stick to the roof of our brains. Before Barbarella, did you know that angels built nests? That flying manta rays could pull sleds? That you could be killed by a mechanically induced excess of pleasure? That the mathmos could rise and devour us all in a colorful burp of lava lamp?

 

Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the "Excessive Machine."

Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) tries to kill Barbarella in the “Excessive Machine.”

Despite its candy-color design scheme and its stretched polyethylene see-through sets, Barbarella overflows with unforgettable detail. But that isn’t all it has.

Barbarella has one claim to uniqueness. It is a camp film all the way.

Writer Susan Sontag defined camp in a famous 1964 essay as a style that emphasizes artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess, among other things.

You couldn’t find a better description of Barbarella.

More important, she said, “You can’t do camp on purpose.” It cannot be made to order; it bubbles up from the sincerity of lesser talent. Camp cannot know it is camp.

Yet Barbarella may be the exception that proves the rule. By all appearances, it was meant to be read as camp, and yet, it still functions well as camp, unlike all the other films from the era that tried so hard to be hip and with-it, but now only seem as dated as bell bottoms.

The reason must be found with its maker, Roger Vadim.  A minor-league filmmaker, Vadim was the creator of Brigitte Bardot,  whose most famous film, And God Created Woman (1956),  managed to transform her into a “sex kitten,” the neotonic French Marilyn Monroe. Vadim’s Bardot films are filled with memorable scenes, mostly coy and erotic, but none rises to the level of great cinema. When he was done with her, he tried his star-making power on Jane Fonda;  he also married her. Their films together, including her 1964  remake of the great Arthur Schnitzler  play, La Ronde,  were entertaining, but mediocre at best.

But sometimes, when you put a mediocre mind to work on a mediocre idea, something clicks. With Barbarella, Vadim could create a camp world sincerely, because he believed in it, but without the self-consciousness that ruins most trendy films of the time. His esthetic level and the camp level meet perfectly, with neither aspiration nor condescension to upset the balance.

Perhaps that is why the proposed remake of Barbarella, by super-hip cinemaker  Robert Rodriguez,  went nowhere. Rodriguez is too knowing a filmmaker. Barbarella works on the thin, slippery edge between sincerity and irony, a place too small for a large talent like Rodriguez to find foothold.

Worse, he proposed to use Rose McGowan in the title role, and she is prima facie the wrong actress to play the part: too smart, too sophisticated, too knowing. All wrong.

Other actresses run up the flagpole include Scarlett Johansen, Carey Mulligan and Anne Hathaway. You have to scratch your heads.

When Rodriguez gave up on it, the rights were bought by Dino de Laurentiis, before his death in 2010. His widow is now set to produce the new version. The de Laurentiis name on a film is the kiss of death. Remember King Kong of 1976?

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

Fay Wray (1933) and Jessica Lange (1976), best forgotten.

The new Barbarella would ostensibly be a TV series, perhaps for French TV, perhaps in English.

Don’t hold your breath. Like the original King Kong, it was done right the first time.