Barbed and Dangerous

Barbed and Dangerous March 25, 2024

Do not call her “babe.”
Source: Deviant Art user yellowroseart
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Barb Wire
(1996) is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. That is a value neutral statement. Despite pondering the question for a whole day, I’ve not yet been able to disentangle the film’s frantic, leathery energy from the schizoid cultural paradigm it represents. In this case, I wish a cigar were merely a cigar and that Pamela Anderson Lee (Barb Wire herself) were merely Pamela Anderson Lee. But Pam is her breasts and leather onesies. And Barb Wire is the product of a society so wounded and so shattered that I cannot help but see its epigenetic fingerprints pressed deep into whatever madness the internet has beckoned or manifested. In a word: it’s a fun movie.

The setting shows this alone. No comment is needed from me. The year is 2017 and a coup by the Congressional Directorate has led to a dictatorial United States in which everyone addresses each other as “citizen” and the military wear Nazi uniforms. (Seriously, full on. Not a jot or title of wiggle room). This would-be Committee on Public Safety + Thule Society levels American cities and seeks to develop and spread a form of super-AIDS called Red Ribbon. Barb Wire is a stripper, prostitute, night-club owner, and former Resistance fighter who runs a warehouse punk bar in the last free city, Steel Harbor. She wears leather bustiers and kills men with stiletto heel shots to the head. Her only friends are a Rottweiler named Camille and a baldheaded German butler named Curly.

Everyone wants Canadian money because US scrip is worthless; everyone wants to escape to Canada because the US is a disease-riddled wasteland. There are prostitution licenses, rampant homelessness, and (for some unknown reason) the cops in Steel Harbor work hand in glove with the Congressional military, which tortures its victims with cyber-bikinis that seem to recover memories by approaching the asymptote “pleasure-pain.” Pam Anderson’s boobs are often out and usually backlit. In one scene, she kills a man who lives up to his name (Big Fatso) by lobbing a grenade into his greasy, turkey leg-stained lap. Somehow, the future co-creator of The L Word (2004-2009) conceived of and co-wrote this film.

Barb herself is full of the comic-book character one-liners that have now attained a ubiquity far outweighing their interestingness. She kills anyone who calls her “babe.”  Barb works for no side, seemingly because her old lover left her waiting after some disaster in Seattle. She’d rather watch the world burn than get over a grudge. Or at least, so it seems.

There’s immense silly fun to be had in this premise. I know because I had the aforesaid fun. At the same time, the film’s sexual and political imaginary is so bizarre, so saturated under the weight of endless contradictions, that I couldn’t help but feel an undergirding sadness. The tyrant is the US Congress? They’ve set up some kind of Robespierre-inspired directorate but also make the military wear SS uniforms? Everyone wants to live in Canada?

And none of that even begins to encapsulate Anderson’s role in the whole thing. In this film, she occupies the role of a slippery sex goddess who spits out insipid discursive owns. For me, quasi-young person that I am, it felt like a glimpse into the psyche of some bygone sexuality in which leather, bold make-up, and cartoonish breasts were the stuff of Pepé Le Pew. R. Crumb’s fantasies make more sense; at least those involved obvious self-castigation. In the age of debates over Sydney Sweeney and how precisely beautiful she is, Barb Wire feels like a skeleton key, even if I haven’t quite figured out to which door.

Still, it’s a lot of fun. You don’t need to have the psycho-sexual audiovisual vomit strike you in the way it did me. Watch it; have some fun. Leave the neuroses for the critics.

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