One of the greatest monologues ever written and performed for television is Don Draper’s ad pitch for the Kodak Carousel slide projector in the finale of the first season of Mad Men:
“In Greek, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backward, and forward. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
Among the many things that make this scene one for the ages is the counterpoint between Draper using slides of his own life and family for the presentation and the audience’s knowledge that said life and family are hopelessly broken. Like pretty much everything about Don Draper, the speech is a lie.
Also, “nostalgia” is not an old Greek term meaning “the pain from an old wound” but rather a 19th century portmanteau of the words for “pain” and “homecoming” coined by a German psychologist seeking to describe the extreme homesickness felt by soldiers fighting away from their own land.
Still, the idea of the “pain from an old wound” is a powerful one, and it brings me to the Walt Disney Company’s 1979 science fiction film The Black Hole.
Some movies trigger great spiritual awakenings, deep epiphanies, and occasionally inspire the young to become artists on their own right. The experience of watching The Black Hole is closer to that of acquiring a new wound. One of my dearest, most trusted friends holds The Black Hole as a pivotal point in memory because of how—at the age of seven—it was the first time he realized that Hollywood movies were far from magical and could actually, you know…suck.
The Black Hole began its journey to the screen as a desperate effort to cash in on the disaster movie trend of the early seventies (The Towering Inferno in a starship!). Many rewrites later, the film was finally green-lit in the mad scramble to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Being a kludge of ideas from one genre retrofitted as a kludge of ideas from another, The Black Hole is an objectively hard sit; a bleak and turgid slog from one science fiction cliché to the other punctuated by moments of dire horror, portentous spectacle, and heaps of Disney-style cuteness and “humor.”
It is hard to imagine any sane mind thinking that the way to capture the Saturday matinee nostalgia so successfully evoked by Star Wars would be to produce a gloomy remake of Disney’s own 1954 hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in space, with Maximillian Schell’s “Dr. Hans Reinhardt” replacing James Mason’s Captain Nemo. Unable to poach any of George Lucas’ crew, Disney even brought the key visual effects artists involved in 20,000 Leagues out of mothballs to contribute to The Black Hole, giving the entire thing a palpable old-timey sheen.
Disney may have thought they were producing a science fiction epic about how the crew of the deep space exploration vessel Palomino discovers Dr. Reinhardt’s ship, the Cygnus, precariously perched over a black hole, and proceeds to discover the horrible secrets of both the ship and its master. The Black Hole’s true accomplishment, however, is to bear damning witness to the scope and ferocity of The Walt Disney Company’s misunderstanding of the success of George Lucas’s film.
Consider the casting. Star Wars benefitted from an ensemble of unknowns made necessary by the film’s low budget. The most famous names on the poster were Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, and all the new and unfamiliar faces helped establish the sense of an alternate reality.
The Black Hole, however, had a budget almost triple to that of Star Wars and a sensibility straight out of Old Hollywood, so it sports an ensemble of well-worn faces that would have just as easily been at home as the guest cast of a sweeps episode of The Love Boat…or a film originally designed to cash in on the disaster movie craze of the early seventies.
One can almost imagine a couple of executives discussing it while “doing lunch” at some hot pre-Spago Beverly Hills eatery:
So The Black Hole. Is it classy? We need it classy like the Star Wars.
It is classy, we got Ernie Borgnine playing the cowardly reporter, Tony Perkins playing the gay guy—
There’s a gay in the picture?
It’s subtext—and Maximillian Schell’s gonna be our Captain Nemo.
Didn’t he get an Oscar?
Not so much that he’s gonna break the bank, oh, and that French gal, Yvette Mimieux, I think she dated Roger Vadim, maybe Godard.
She speak English?
Does it matter? Anyway, we got Bobby Forster playing Hans Solo and Joey Bottoms as the Skywalker kid.
Bottoms? From The Last Picture Show?
His brother, but who’s gonna know?
Hell of a thing going through life with a name like “Bottoms” amirite?
It doesn’t end with the bizarre cast. The film’s wisecracking flying robot, the Mickey Mouse-eyed, mostly candy-apple-red V.I.N.CENT who is both a telepath and a sassy narcissist, is played by Roddy McDowall. The supporting cute robot, a beat-up earlier model named B.O.B., is voiced by Slim Pickens with the southern drawl he made famous in the role of Captain T.J. “King” Kong in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
With a cast like that, one might come to the conclusion that The Black Hole is a comedy, or maybe a light action adventure film, or an epic spectacle…but no…the film is a dark meditation on the nature of scientific obsession wrapped in a minor-key haunted house film set in a starship that resembles a gothic cathedral as it might have been designed by Norman Foster on the last of a month of rainy Sundays.
If that doesn’t seem incongruous enough, I should mention that, alongside the big-eyed cartoon-ish robots with the funny voices, The Black Hole features a hissing, desiccated, black-eyed ship’s crew who are forced onto a conveyor belt leading to a mechanized laser lobotomy machine: all of which is shown on screen. Also, there’s the battalion of goose-stepping Darth Vader-rip-off stormtroopers who compete for rank and supremacy in a virtual shooting gallery and apparently torture other robots for pleasure.
Equally dissonant is the on-screen disembowelment of Anthony Perkins’s character, which, while bloodless, is implied entirely in a tongue-wagging close-up and gurgling death rattle that is pure nightmare fuel. On top of all that, there’s John Barry’s funereal score, which—though beautiful—appears to have been composed with no awareness of the film’s plot and mostly dirges and burbles on as languidly paced scenes of laser combat streak across the screen.
Just as every other aspect of the film fails to evoke the magic of Star Wars, the visual design of The Black Hole is equally mystifying. The film presents a beautiful and sumptuous but utterly unconvincing reality: hand-painted and stagey, full of saturated colors and design flourishes more meant to evoke than represent. Half the walls clearly consist of fabric stretched over frames, “futuristic” Eames office chairs roll around on wheels in what is supposed to be a zero-gravity environment, and the actors all look ill at ease with the props, costumes, and sets, as if they were seeing them on the day for the first time.
Even more confounding is how the film’s color timing stands at odds with the production design. The Cygnus looks something like the Pompidou Centre—all scaffolding and brightly colored ducts—but these colors appear to have been muted in post-production, perhaps to try to retroactively match the film’s dark tone…kind of like someone had no choice but to throw a wake in a fast-food restaurant and did whatever they could to bring solemnity to the indoor ball pit.
The pièce de résistance of this bizarre stew is the climax, which I can only describe as how the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey might have been remade by a breathtakingly cranky church lady. One of my favorite memories of The Black Hole is taking a colleague to watch the screening of a 70mm print a few years back. She was a first timer, and even before this sequence began, she turned to me and asked, “What is happening?”
To which I replied, “Buy a hat, and hang the fuck on to it.”
Here’s what happens in the last ten minutes of The Black Hole. The putative heroes, having completely failed in their every attempt to stop Reinhardt from plunging his ship into the titular threat, wind up helplessly traveling through the singularity and find themselves in…wait for it…
A highly stylized vision of Hell.
Yes, that Hell. The Judeo-Christian one that looks like an Iron Maiden album cover. In a film that up until that moment has presented zero interest in being about anything even remotely related to matters of faith.
In case the metaphor doesn’t land, Dr. Reinhardt somehow floats alive through the black hole, merges with the satanic robot he built as his enforcer, and finally perches on a rocky cliff to witness the funeral procession of his zombified crew. This is followed by the heroes ascent to Heavenly salvation, represented by a disco-like mirrored corridor complete with a numinous welcoming angel and a chorus of harps and glockenspiels.
The heroes ultimately emerge from disco heaven, shoot out the back side of the black hole, and head to a nearby planet.
What planet? Fuck if I know.
There are no explanatory scenes or dialogue after the entrance into the titular black hole, much less the ensuing whip-lashing ecclesiastical turn. The movie just stops, cutting to end credits in a sort of shrugging admission of defeat.
These articles of impeachment notwithstanding, it is easy and probably cheap to armchair quarterback decisions made in the process of putting together a film, especially with no first-hand knowledge of the exigencies of time, budget, and scheduling involved. In the case of The Black Hole, however, it’s not just that the decisions involved led to a poor result, it’s that the incongruities are so glaring and persistent—that so many of the film’s parts seem at complete odds with one another—that these inadequacies take on a whole new life. The Black Hole may be bad, but that badness is so baffling that it gives way to a sort of beguiling weirdness.
It is because of that very weirdness that I have been obsessed with The Black Hole since I first watched it on a VHS tape in the early eighties. I am not alone in this. Forty years after its release, Disney continues to license toys and merchandise for the film targeting a small but devoted audience that just loves big-eyed robots.
And I do love them. There is something about the design of V.I.N.CENT that strikes a deep chord in me, like some long-forgotten memory of an imaginary childhood friend. V.I.N.CENT flies, talks, is telepathic, shoots lasers, and has a drill attachment. Design-wise, he’s like the most fun parts of C3-PO, R2-D2, BB8, and Pluto rolled up in one large floating ball. What makes me love it even more is how out of step the Bambi-eyed/swiss-army-knife design is with the vocal performance attached to the character. If the physical form of V.I.N.CENT reads like a welcome memory from a childhood that never existed, his dialogue as interpreted by Roddy McDowall sounds to a more adult ear like it could pass muster on RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the same way a grown-up viewer might wonder why Anthony Perkins’ character becomes so very quickly and utterly besotted with Dr. Reinhardt, that viewer might also see V.I.N.CENT’s diva-like demeanor as a coded message from a less enlightened time.
Or not. Maybe the writers were just going for “snappy patter.” Either way, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. have far more personality than any of the human characters in the film—and have a greater emotional bond than any of the humans in the film. Because of this, in one of The Black Hole’s strangest moments, these two red and silver golf balls have to carry the emotional climax of the entire film when B.O.B. tragically gives up the ghost. However, between Roddy McDowall having a kiki and Slim Pickens doing his best impersonation of Slim Pickens doing his best impersonation of a robot, the scene comes across as comically, catastrophically, head-scratchingly insincere: a hail Mary pass for emotional resonance in a film that has completely failed at establishing any.
Unlike the cute good-guy robots, the role of Pure Evil is manifested by Reinhardt’s aforementioned enforcer robot, Maximillian. Voiceless and decked out in muted red livery, Maximillian also looks and behaves like a childhood fantasy, albeit a very frightening one: a massive floating torso with airfoils for legs, six arms—each equipped with something deadlier than the last—and a neckless head like an inverted bucket, punctuated by a single lambent red eye. Like everything else in the visual design of The Black Hole, Maximillian is an empty vessel whose exterior design is so evocative that he ceases to be a character in a shitty movie and crosses to become a truly menacing figment of far better imagined nightmares in the audience’s mind.
That unintended spark of imagination—the multitude of places in which The Black Hole invites speculation into what might have been had it been actually good—is the entire reason it persists, decades on, as an unshakeable object of my childhood. The movie’s failure as a cohesive cinematic experience is, conversely, the reason for its success as nostalgia. It is, however, a different brand of yearning that that one might have for that first ecstatic viewing of Star Wars. This nostalgia is more like a yearning for completion. Loving The Black Hole isn’t about reliving a great experience, but rather about having had a bad one and wishing for the ability to reach back through space and time to make it better.
This desire is constantly aided and abetted by the contradictions I have taken such pains to describe. Every one of those canvas panels that look so fake on screen signifies an empty space that could have been occupied by a better film. The big-eyed robots could be the stars of their own story, one set in a universe more appropriate in tone to their appearance. I want to know the world that made V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B.
I want to know the rip in the fabric of space and time through these two Disneyfied characters fell that deposited them in the grimdark realm of Hans Reinhardt. I want to see a movie where the crew of the Palomino consists of well-written characters in whose lives and successes I am invested. For me and many others, all of the holes in The Black Hole’s story, visual presentation, thematic cohesion, and approach to character somehow transcended from mere sucking voids to vast open fields where our imaginations revel in infinite possibilities inspired by the pain of enduring the truly inadequate.
The same Teutonic knack for putting words together to describe otherwise indescribable emotional states that begat “nostalgia” also birthed the term “sehnsucht.” Though not directly translatable into English, Wikipedia defines sehnsucht as “thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences.”
Further on, the article breaks down the sensation of sehnsucht into six component parts: 1. utopian conceptions of ideal development 2. sense of incompleteness and imperfection of life 3. conjoint focus on the past, present, and future 4. ambivalent (bittersweet) emotions 5. reflection and evaluation of one’s life and 6. symbolic richness.
I can’t think of a better way to describe The Black Hole.
When I was seven years old and sitting in a Levittown movie theater near Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Star Wars made me point to the screen and say, “I want to do that.” In that moment, I had a “utopian conception of ideal development.”
Then I came of age in the Reagan Era, under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, and the AIDS crisis, and Chernobyl, and the fall of communism, and 9/11, and America’s endless wars on drugs and terror. I also went, and continue to go, through all that one would expect from the well- but mostly badly- lived life of a middle aged man: the two marriages, the one divorce, the two children, and trying to raise them and preserve my own sanity in a time of racial, social, and political turmoil made even more urgent by the reality of a coming catastrophic shift in our entire way of life due to pandemic and climate change. Oh, and somewhere in between all that, there’s also been three decades spent in the entertainment industry trying to fulfill my dreams.
All of which is to say that my experience of living has definitely felt a lot more like watching The Black Hole than Star Wars.
I have spent many a moment trying to dream up a story in which all the disparate elements that make up The Black Hole come together in a sensical way. While it pains me to report this as a professional writer for comic books, film, and television, I have not even come close to succeeding. The Black Hole frustrates all my attempts at a cohesive and satisfying synthesis of its component parts, even as it sparks constant creative speculation.
That is why more than forty years after The Black Hole was released, I haven’t forgotten this sad and misbegotten assembly of old Hollywood death throes groaned in the wake of a new wave. In fact, all I have to do is lift my head and look across my office to see a shelf on which rest little plastic figures of Maximillian, B.O.B. and V.I.N.CENT.
Floating on their lucite stands, these big-eyed angels and their towering devil remind me of how the broken and wretched, the incomplete and imperfect can still offer a space where consideration of the past, present, and future give way to bittersweet emotions, and reflection on one’s life, and finally a symbolic richness evoked by the persistent tokens of childhood, no matter how badly they were abused in the past. In failure, The Black Hole does something that evades many far more successful films: it creates light where none should exist.
© 2021 Javier Grillo-Marxuach