Saturday, February 12, 2022

Regret Double Bill Watch: "Sheena" and "Bolero" - both (1984)


Watched:  02/11/2022
Format:  Amazon Prime/ HBOmax
Viewing:  First/ First
Director:   John Guillerman / John Derek

So, usually we announce an Amazon Watch Party well in advance, but when I wrapped work on Friday at 5:00, Jamie said "are we doing a Watch Party?" which roughly translates to "I know you hadn't planned a Watch Party, but we're doing one" so, as I generally DNGAF, I was like "yeah, fine."

After some looking, we landed on Sheena (1984), because if I was getting roped into a movie party, Tanya Roberts.  I think maybe I'd seen Sheena in middle-school, because I vaguely remembered bits.  And I was, even then, vaguely aware of Sheena as an old-school pulp/ comics character.  In fact, she debuted in 1938 - which is 3 years before Wondy.  I also remembered what I considered to be "too many flamingoes".  And, boy howdy, was that memory right.  

Of course in the era of Blockbuster and other video shops, Tanya Roberts looked back at you from the cover of many-a-sun-bleached box covers.  

Bolero (1984) I saw a piece of in college, and recognized a "sophisticated artistic erotic film" when I saw one.  They'd been the original late-night programming on the Bravo network back in the 1980's when Bravo was an arts network (no, really).  If you ever enjoyed the running gag about "Rochelle, Rochelle" from Seinfeld about a young girl's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk, this was more or less based on a genre of movie, both pornographic and just regular movies with the same loose plot as those porn films.  I am not sure that Emmanuelle is ground zero for this sort of movie, but its certainly one of the biggest of the genre of "erotic art film".  

Sheena (1984) isn't exactly in that genre.  Yes, for a PG film, you will see more of Tanya Roberts than one would figure, and there is a romance, but it's 95% chaste romance you associate with kid's adventure serials.  But the movie does seem to have aspirations of artistry.  The soundtrack seems imported from a completely different film, and seems to misunderstand what is happening on screen - suggesting a sort of ethereal majesty to the proceedings that the film isn't going for in those moments.  It seems to want to say something grand about its "white savior" plotline, but it's a dubious claim as the film treats locals as cannon fodder for the most part, and the content of the film never rises above a bar so low its been buried.

But, yeah, the movie is from an era where it was taken for granted that anything with comics or pulp origins would immediately be made tongue in cheek or be satire, and this movie... isn't?  It's hard to explain to the kids that the pre-Boomers and Boomers absolutely could not do the math to treat comics-stuff sincerely, but the wackiness is more or less limited to comedic relief (Fletcher the cameraman).  

The plot:  white scientists of some sort are in Africa with their young daughter, when they are squished in a cave-in.  The locals adopt said girl, and decide she's the figure at the center of their prophecy.  She's raised to believe that's who she is, and she's given powers over all animals.  And to make magic circles.  I'm not sure.  There's a sorta-coup where they frame her adoptive mom and for reasons the new king and his very attractive lady-friend head into the NOT A JUNGLE to endlessly pursue Sheena and a dopey guy. Eventually Flamingoes save the day.

Also, Sheena rides a horse painted with white stripes to look like a Zebra, but that is a horse, madam.

Bolero is about the very much not a 21 year old Bo Derek playing a 21 year old who is supposedly naive to the point of idiocy as she seeks to be de-virginized by first a sheik and then a bullfighter.  The movie dithers endlessly, has a plot, but the plot is both wafer-thin and feels like it needs months of workshopping.  

I should mention that this was my follow up choice because I'd noticed it was new to HBOmax, I'd had more rum than I should while watching Sheena and my attempts at watching anything more complicated failed (I tried to watch a French noir, and... no).

What's maybe most remarkable about the film is that this is what old man John Derek decided he should make with his deeply younger wife (who he'd met at 16 and fled the US to live with her in Germany where it was legal for him to be with her?  This was a man in his 40's, and it's all very gross but seems like it's just Hollywood of a certain period.).  Like, no one was forcing them to make this movie this is what they, as a couple, high-fived on, which makes me start filling in all sorts of blanks about the Dereks that are probably wrong, but.  Look, I think I just watched a movie by a guy with a cuckold fetish and was made a participant in his kink 20-something years after his death.

If I place the two movies together, it's because for a window there in the 1980's, if you were a woman with a certain figure (and Derek and Roberts are clones from the neck down), and pale, vacant eyes, you could get work.  Both films also fetishize the hell out of naive girlishness in grown women - something I remember from the era, when having a blonde who couldn't do math on your arm was portrayed as deeply desirable.  So much so, that stuff like X-Files in the 1990's with a red-head who was smart and didn't giggle was seen as unsellable by network suits.   

I don't think Roberts saw herself as vacuous.  No one ever does.  According to Wikipedia, she fought like hell to play Sheena, but she's not exactly a revelation in the role.  The movie (again, rated PG when the PG-13 rating had been introduced a month and a half before the film's release) leans heavily on the unspoken, untapped sexuality of its lead.  While Bolero is about a lead who wants to know about the passion and sensuality she's only experienced vicariously in the same way as millions of women who watched Rudolph Valentino films.    

The intellectualism of sexuality, or artistic take, was always awkward at best.  Despite the fact you could almost hear a producer chomping on a cigarette talking about how the film was "gonna be all class", it was very, very often clearly exploitation.  But if there was enough handwaving, tweedy-types in theory could nod about how this was the proper eroticism.  But I don't really remember the tweedy-types actually defending those movies all that often - we all were just kind of in agreement that because porn was stigmatized, we'd do this.  I don't think it's a huge mystery that these movies vanished concurrent to the appearance of the internet.  We can debate that, and it's maybe wrong, and there was also a not-much-discussed pushback for treatment of actresses in movies that required nudity, sex scenes etc...   

There's certainly a feminist reading of both movies, and that's what I am positive the talent talked themselves into.  And to the credit of both films, the leads sort of don't need men.  Sheena sure as hell is better off alone, and Derek's character comes fully into her own, in theory, by film's end.  For the 1980's, from a certain point of view, this was some progressive stuff.  And that includes the character's owning their sexuality.  And, look, I'm no prude.  Were these movies different or better, or made with a sincere sentiment to back them up, I'd buy it a lot more.  

Anyhoo...  that will likely be the last time I watch either movie.  I didn't even get into some curious casting in Bolero (George Kennedy! A very young Olivia D'Abo!), or the politics of 1980's Africa creeping into the not-a-jungle adventure in Sheena.  

I do wonder, had Bo Derek not won the Golden Raspberry, would Tanya Roberts (also nominated!) have won at the 5th Annual Golden Rapsberries.  But, Bolero was the big winner that night.

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