Sunday, May 28, 2017

Help! Help! The Globolinks (West Germany, 1969)

Help! Help! The Globolinks may be a weird film, but it is also a weird film with a pedigree. Commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera, it’s a television film of a children’s opera written and directed by Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-American composer who was American composer Samuel Barber’s librettist of choice. Menotti’s most well known work is another children’s opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, the filmed version of which, commissioned by NBC, became the first television Christmas special to be aired on American TV on an annual basis (this was obviously quite some time before the advent of Rudolph and Charlie Brown.) That it is not quite so well known is perhaps due to the fact that, while Amahl had clear biblical overtones, Globolinks is about psycho-surrealist space aliens whose spoken language sounds like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

The film begins with an alarmed news reader shouting the warning that the Globolinks have arrived on Earth and have completely taken over “parts of” Germany. We are then delivered into a lengthy sequence during which the Globolinks undulate to random electronic noise amid a psychedelic play of light and colors worthy of an Iron Butterfly show at the Filmore West. It is a credit to this film that I find myself at a loss for words when trying to describe the Globolinks. Essentially, they look like segmented upright windsocks that constantly telescope up and down in a Slinky-like motion. You could almost imagine them being employed as wind dancers outside a car dealership. There are also a bunch of humanoids in brightly colored head-to-toe body stockings who appear to be suspended from the heavens, marionette-style, by multiple scarves--whom I think are supposed to be humans in the process of turning into Globolinks. To tell the truth, the whole thing was overwhelmingly reminiscent of that bizarre sequence in the Starman movie Invaders from Space in which the malevolent aliens pose as a modern dance troupe—and almost as strange. Yes, I said it.

At the risk of spoiling Globolinks for those who plan to only pay half attention to it, it  early on reveals itself to be a parable about the power and value of music. Thus we are informed in the opening announcement that the only thing that can destroy the Globolinks is music. This would seem to suggest that the industrial noise that the Globolinks groove to is intended to be the absolute opposite of music—a notion that might have some Music Concrete fans up in arms. That is, until you consider that the specific “music” being referred to here is opera, which is unarguably the most easily weaponized form of music on Earth.

To that end, a busload of schoolchildren on their way back from Easter break find themselves stranded in the creepy forest in which the Globolinks have set up camp. The handsome young bus driver, Tony (William Workman), seeing that his charges are sleeping peacefully, is the first of many in the film to express his feelings through bone rattling song, opining about how strange and scary everything is. And it’s a further credit to Globolinks that, despite my distaste for opera, its visual strangeness was enough to keep me engrossed for the whole of its brief running time.

In keeping with its operatic roots, Globolinks’ action is limited to two indoor sets, one representing the forest and another representing the office of the school’s headmaster, Dr. Stone. The forest set, in particular, is creepily evocative, giving the scenes set in it the feel of one of the old Hammer horrors, or, when bathed in multicolored lights (as it often is), a Mario Bava film. I also couldn’t help being reminded of set-bound low budget sci-fi films like Devil Girl from Mars and Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X, two films which no one is likely to have ever considered turning into an opera.

It’s apparent that all of the singing in Globolinks takes place in some separate sphere from where the Globolinks are, because none of it has any effect on them. It is only when an instrument is played that they cower and flee. Unfortunately for the schoolchildren, none of them have brought their instruments along with them for the holiday—save for Emily (Edith Mathis), an older girl who plays the violin. Because of this, Emily and her violin are tasked with hiking back to the school in search of help. This she does while sawing out an appropriately mournful tune (presumptive title “You Guys Are All Assholes.”)

Meanwhile, back at the school, Headmaster Stone (Raymond Wolansky) is getting an earful from the music teacher, Miss Euterpova, who threatens to resign in response to her students’ indifference. Euterpova is played by Arlene Saunders, a Cleveland-born soprano who found fame with the Hamburg State Opera in the mid 60s. For some reason, Saunders is fitted with a putty-molded proboscis worthy of Cyrano. While the other teachers are simply given ridiculous names (Professor Turtlespit, Mr. Lavendar-Gas), she is the only one caricatured in this manner, which seems odd, given that she is the primary bearer of the film’s “can’t stop the music” message (one song, in which she details the roles of various instruments, comes across like a staidly Teutonic version of “Turn the Beat Around’.) Once she leaves, Stone is ambushed by a Globolink, after which he begins the process of turning into a Globolink himself, which starts with him being able only to speak in random electronic sounds.

Globolinks announces itself as “an opera for children and those who like children.” And, like all of the best children’s entertainment from the Sixties, it contains elements that would certainly terrorize many among the younger set. Chief among these is Stone’s transformation, which begins with him being sheathed in a face-distorting stocking mask and ends with him being suddenly yanked into the stratosphere. Also potentially scarifying are the Globolinks themselves, who are terrifying by virtue of their inexplicable nature—a far cry from the face painted, floppy-antenna-wearing actors in Santa Claus vs. the Martians. As a tot, I was similarly petrified by the marionette aliens in Fireball XL5, because, being neither cartoons nor people in costumes, they were entirely unrelatable to my undeveloped little brain.

Globolinks’ final act is set in motion when Miss Euterpova, taking control of the situation, forms the other teachers into a marching band and sets off to rescue the children. I won’t spoil what happens next, other than to say that the film ends with Euterpova admonishing the children to “keep music anchored in your souls or the chords of your hearts will freeze.” This tenet is given heft by the fact that the story’s only casualty, Dr. Stone, had earlier announced that he didn’t sing or play an instrument. You hear that, tone deaf people? You are doomed. That chill you’re feeling in your heart is the icy fingers of non-musicianship claiming their due. I think this also applies to drummers (ouch!)

In the end, I really enjoyed Help! Help! The Globolinks¸ mainly for how it combines so many familiar genre elements into something so unlike anything I’ve seen before. It also has a certain visual allure, thanks to its psychedelic color scheme and fanciful set design. Also of note is the level of commitment of its performers, who belt out those high notes with so much gusto you might expect their faces to explode. Of course, I feel safe saying all of this because I am fairly certain in the knowledge that no other literal space operas like it exists.

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