Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Zeta One (1969)

We have talked in the past about my dislike (okay, let’s call it “hatred”) of shaky cam filmmaking techniques.  Don’t worry; we’re not going to rehash that old saw today.  Today’s peccadillo is psychedelia in cinema.  In the 1960s, the youth culture was fed up with just about everything; war, consumerism, and all of the inequities of their parents’ society (real or perceived).  In the cause of opening up their minds, there was a growing trend in the use of psychedelic drugs.  These drugs can create a non sequiturial experience, and people felt that, via their various trips, they were being told the secrets to all of life and the universe (though I’m sure other people just relished the opportunity to escape from reality).  This experience, however, does not (in my opinion) usually make for good cinema.  The typical “trip” scene in a film from the late 60s on would consist of smash cuts to any variety of visual (the less coherent, the better), shots that look like the inside of a lava lamp, shots bled out with swirling colored lighting gels, shots of naked (they’re more likely than not covered in body paintings that make jailhouse tattoos look like the work of Goya but naked, nevertheless) hippies dancing and grooving out to the sitar-heavy score, and so on.  It all irritates the living hell out of me.  These scenes are ugly, vapid, and most ironic of all, clichéd (and I’m sure they have felt that way even from the very first).  I’m sure I’m being irrational about this to some extent, but it takes two to tango, as they say.  Some people get a headache from strobe lights.  I get a headache from head trip scenes.

Secret Agent James (Robin Hawdon) comes home to his hip, attic pad only to find sexy secretary Ann (Yutte Stensgaard) cooking up a little coq au vin.  After a bit of necking, Ann decides to grill Agent Word (as in “James’ Word is his Bond,” get it?) about his last mission in Scotland.  She decides to play strip poker for the information (yes, really), but eventually she winds up just banging him, after which James is more than happy to start giving up the goods (one wonders how he’d hold up under adverse conditions).  It seems Major Bourdon (James Robertson Justice) has been at war with the nation (Planet?  Island?  Dimension?) of Angvia for some time, and he wants to conquer the civilization, which is populated entirely by women and led by the titular Zeta (Dawn Addams).  ‘Nuff said. 

Michael Cort’s Zeta One (aka The Love Factor) was produced under the auspices of Tony Tenser’s Tigon British Film Productions banner.  Generally speaking (and I am no expert, though I know of at least one book in regards to the subject – Beasts In The Cellar by John Hamilton – though I can’t attest to its quality), the studio produced cheap Horror and Sexploitation films (though I believe there were one or two more serious films to come out of the company) to compete with the classier (and better-produced) output of Hammer Films.  Of Tigon’s total body of work, I would think that film fans are most familiar with Michael Reeves’ great Witchfinder General, and rightfully so.  Sexploitation Comedies like this one (Zeta One, not Witchfinder General) are the type of affairs which play it fast and loose with whatever trends are popular at the moment, and they are generally pretty sloppy in execution.  This movie is no exception.  The opening twenty-plus minutes of the film, which should either draw us into some type of story or, at the absolute minimum, do something to titillate the viewer (the old “Boobs Or Blood Every Ten Minutes” tenet) does neither.  Instead, we get a little bit of teasing and one of the longest card game scenes I’ve ever witnessed (minus the tension of, say, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale).  Worse than that, once the strip poker game does start to actually get interesting, the editing suddenly switches to a lame montage style and drops the viewer back off at square one, exhausted and exasperated.  We have learned next to nothing, and it feels distinctly like our time has been wasted, despite what female flesh is on display.

The rest of the film plays out as a flashback, but even the framing device of the film is hamfisted and sloppy.  James and Ann spend minutes doling out exposition, rather than setting up the story quickly and allowing the rest of the film to play out of its own volition.  The editing of the remainder of Zeta One is just as horrid.  Outside of the basic concept, the scenes don’t connect together in any coherent way (and not that this endorses the psychedelic angle; it’s simply poor filmmaking and extremely irritating).  Scenes happen (a few are even sort of intriguing), but they don’t advance anything in the film.  They just take up time and move on (kind of like a feature length version of The Benny Hill Show, without the sophistication).  The key question that has to be asked then is, “does it matter in this context?”  Isn’t a film like this better off not making one whit of sense?  Wouldn’t having something like a plot just get in the way of checking out nekkid chicks?  Isn’t asking for more from a film like this just being a bit snobby?  Perhaps.  But I’ve seen hardcore porn that had more of a story than this movie, for good or ill, and better made porn, at that.  

The big draw to the film, of course, is the very concept of Angvia.  A place populated entirely by women is something straight out of the early pulps, and for us comic book fans, we’re familiar with it from Wonder Woman’s Themyscira/Paradise Island (Zeta even looks similar to that comics’ Hippolyta), and let’s not forget the fabled Amazonian culture of warrior women.  The Sapphic connotations are self-evident, and William Moulton Marston’s penchant for bondage in the early Wonder Woman books is hinted at in the Angvian warriors’ “uniforms,” which consist largely of purple lengths of rope and pasties.  Of course, on the opposite side are Bourdon and his male cronies (one of whom is named Swyne and played by skinny nebbish Charles Hawtrey).  The two factions are opposites in almost every way (aside from the obvious).  The men are crude and warlike (Bourdon even has an “interrogation room,” essentially a dungeon where women are tortured and, I assume, killed).  The women are peaceful and quasi-aristocratic but can still handle themselves in a fight.  The men rely on mechanical weapons.  The women can kill by channeling some inner power.  Of course, the one thing the women cannot do without men is get pregnant and perpetuate their race.  To be surrounded by beautiful women who just want to have sex is the big carnal fantasy of a good many men (or at least of a good many adolescent boys).  And even though some animal vestige hangs onto this fantasy beyond puberty, it doesn’t make the thought any less ridiculous when depicted onscreen.

MVT:  It’s crass and nigh-Neolithic and probably contradictory to almost everything I’ve just written here, but the best thing in Zeta One is the birds.  And I don’t mean the kind with feathers.

Make Or Break:  The opening of this film is a major Break.  It is dull and silly and overlong, and it sets the viewer up for tedium and tits (in equal measure, I grant you).  And if you haven’t a problem with putting up with the one just to get to the other, then good for you.  You’re a better man than I am (apologies to Kipling).   

Score:  4.5/10   

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