Sex, Movies, and Traditionalism on Mars

Christopher Mihm is a Minnesota-based producer and director of radically inexpensive, independently financed entertainment films whose gimmick is that they disguise the impoverishment of their production values by mimicking the low-budget, black-and-white “B” science-fiction films of the 1950s – and they do so with fairly consistent comedic brilliance.

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Mihm came on the scene in 2006 with his Monster from Phantom Lake, filmed for around ten thousand dollars, according to his website.  The Monster makes allusions to a number of vintage man-in-a-suit shock-and-horror movies, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), except that Mihm plays his story as a farce rather than as a straightforward fright-drama.  In its farcicality, The Monster also recalls films of more recent vintage, such as The Toxic Avenger (1984), from Troma Studios, and its several sequels.  The Troma films, however, were always crass and garish: That was their idiom.  Mihm’s approach to farce, as well as to pastiche, is civilized rather than vulgar, and even at times rather gentle.  Mihm clearly loves the films that he spoofs, and as he has found his feet in his self-defining genre a humane interest in his characters has increasingly informed his work.  Mihm followed The Monster with It Came from another World (2007) and Cave Women on Mars (2008).  The former riffs on the alien-possession motif of Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  The latter, Cave Women, stands out as Mihm’s best film thus far even though since 2008 he has completed at least seven others: Destination: Outer Space! (2010); Attack of the Moon Zombies (2011); House of Ghosts (2012); Terror from Beneath the Earth (2012); Giant Spider (2013); X: The Fiend from Beyond Space (2014); People in the Wall (2014); and Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015).

These later films have their merits although the growing number of them means that their quality will be uneven and that the filmmaker will have begun inevitably to repeat himself.    None of these later efforts quite succeeds in surpassing Cave Women in its achievement.  Destination, for example, which tries to supply a sequel to Cave Women, runs fifteen minutes too long and never directly picks up the story of its alleged prequel.  What a pity!  It would be interesting to know what might have happened in an actual follow-up.  Cave Women, on the other hand, enlarges what might be called the meaning-capacity of its narrow conceptual niche, the contemporary low-budget retro-pastiche with science-fiction attributes, as played for laughs.  Mihm’s planetary romance – casting its net of allusions both widely and deeply – suggests that, in this rare case, a deliberately cheap production, made to be risible for its apparent incompetency, might become the inadvertent carrier, so to speak, of a culturally serious insight.  The network of allusions contributes abundantly and essentially to the film’s self-transcendence, but other factors play a role.

Mihm works habitually with local, not to say amateur, talent, including his wife and children.  In Cave Women, however, he mixed a number of more-or-less trained actors and actresses with his usual repertory company.  The four “Cave Women” of the title are: Eina, as played by Brooke Lemke; Orla, as played by Alana Bloom; Hagra, as played by Rachel Grubb; and Gorga, as played by Emily Fradenburgh.  These actresses at the time were all young women in their twenties whose experience was bit-parts and extra work in minor films, but, as the outtakes show, they treat the production as a professional occasion.  (Not that they can hold themselves back from breaking down in laughter while trying deliver some of their lines.)  Lemke and Bloom are blondes; Grubb and Fradenburgh are dark-haired brunettes.  Mihm’s leading men are Josh Craig, who plays both Captain Jackson of the “Mars 1” expedition and Director Jackson (“Dad”) of the Space Center; and Daniel Sjervan, who plays Lieutenant Elliott, the expedition’s pilot and junior officer.  Under Mihm’s direction, the six players find a fair degree of coherence as an ensemble.  Sjervan told Rogue Cinema in an interview: “Believe it or not, it was all shot in the back yard of a home in a Twin Cities suburb.  We did a lot of laughing on set [and] it doesn’t take a lot to make Brooke laugh.”

The lore to which Cave Women allusively addresses itself, thereby transforming itself from an item of comical pastiche into a meaningful story, and from which it draws its major devices and symbols, is both literary and cinematic.  Literarily the fons et origo of Mihm’s story lies in that extraordinary phenomenon of popular fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, first serialized in All Story Magazine as Under the Moons of Mars in 1912 and subsequently issued as a book in 1914.  It is a mild irony that A Princess of Mars, despite being optioned for cinematic treatment as early as 1939, would not reach the silver screen until 2012, in Andrew Stanton’s John Carter of Mars.  A Princess of Mars established the pattern of planetary romance.  The novel’s protagonist John Carter finds himself transported to the planet Mars, whose details natural and cultural Burroughs richly imagines.  Making his advent on the Red Planet Carter swiftly becomes involved in its fractious politics and continual warfare.  A Princess is a romance first of all in that it corresponds to the pattern of chivalric narrative, with elements of a quest.  Carter’s displacement from Earth to Mars strips him of station and necessitates that he rise in rank solely through the exercise of his valor.  A Princess is a romance in the contemporary sense in that Carter’s amorous devotion to Dejah Thoris, the eponymous royal daughter, supplies much of his motivation and functions as the erotic armature of the tale, but A Princess is not a female fantasy.

A Princess possesses literary merits that lift it far above the category of mere entertainment fiction.  Carter’s precipitation on Mars functions symbolically as a ritual death-and-rebirth.  Naked on the new world he can initially only crawl like a newborn; he cannot speak the Martian Interlingua but must learn it among the newly hatched pups of the Green Men, the race among whom he has fallen.  A Princess, in being a quest, is also a travelogue, but with noticeable direction.  Carter begins his Martian sojourn among the most savage of that world’s peoples.  He rises through the levels of social development in Burroughs’ equivalent of the Voyages of Odysseus, winning in the climax a decisive victory on behalf of the exemplarily civilized kingdom.  The king in gratitude gives his daughter in marriage to Carter.  It is a marriage of love, already elected by Dejah Thoris, not merely of form.  It is also a marriage between two worlds and with issue.  That issue moreover – the son, Carthoris, of Carter and Dejah Thoris – promises the deliverance of a dying world.  The Burroughsian Mars or Barsoom, reflecting the theories of Mars-observers such as Percival Lowell and Camille Flammarion, is an old world, both physically decadent and spiritually torpid.  Those qualities express themselves in an anarchic, entropic situation that Carter and Dejah Thoris resolve.

At the same time that Carter’s advent on Mars redeems that world, so too the Martian milieu redeems Carter, who like his author Burroughs finds that earthly living has become so much getting and spending, in which men lay waste their powers.  These Burroughsian tropes inform the remainder of the Barsoom series of some ten books and the parallel Venus and Pellucidar series by the same author.  They also turn up as exploitable nuclei of original narrative in the work of Burroughs’ numerous followers.  The first chronicle proper, for example, of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950), “Ylla,” rehearses the John Carter and Dejah Thoris story, as tragedy rather than as romance.  For Bradbury, however, as for Burroughs, both Earth and Mars are decadent worlds in need of redemption.  Bradbury’s mentor, Leigh Brackett (1915 – 1978), who rightfully regarded herself as one of Burroughs’ successors, wrote many planetary tales in which the Earthman’s erotic or nuptial union with an otherworldly female sanctifies and transfigures the heroic violence in which, to defend an ethical dispensation, he must engage.  This tradition of masculine narrative, which planetary romance inherits from medieval legend and saga, endows on that subgenre an especial contemporary significance.  

Celebrating vital femininity and actual masculinity, the genre-writers whether male or female articulate an essential tenet of Western Christian Civilization: Namely that the sexes differ complementarily while sharing an equal dignity.  Dejah Thoris draws from Carter the decency that his sojourn among the brutal Tharks has blunted while he draws from her the loving self-transcendence that her royal pride has hitherto suppressed.  The sexes come into balance against a planetary or even a cosmic background.  Readers know then that they are in the realm of mythopoeia, that they have confronted a truth that modernity habitually and petulantly denies.  A Princess offers a vision of the absolute equality of the sexes that at the same time is completely incompatible with modern feminist ideology.  That vision is incompatible with feminism because it knows that any effacement of sexual difference throws the human arrangement out of balance and leads to a catastrophe.  A Princess offers images of the sexes that belie the false and propagandistic images offered by ideology.  This fact would account for the tendency, when A Princess is republished nowadays, as it often is, it is invariably prefaced by scholarly remarks denouncing it for its “sexism.”

That is the essential literary background to Cave Women.  The cinematic background, which stems from the literary background, rivals its counterpart in richness.  The movies visited Mars already in the Silent Era although regrettably Georges Méliès never went there.  Yakov Protozhanov’s Aelita – Queen of Mars (1924), based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy that might have taken inspiration remotely from A Princess, is a monument both of film and of Soviet Film.  Despite its plethora of overdetermined Agitprop elements, Aelita gains most of its interest unsurprisingly from the love-relation between the visiting Earthman Los and the Martian Queen, Aelita, but neither Protozhanov’s film nor Tolstoy’s novel permits the archetypal cosmic marriage to occur.  In its Leninist phase especially, the Soviet Union militated itself vehemently against marriage.  Communism’s hostility to marriage merely reflects its hostility to all inherited wisdom, including traditional wisdom about the sexual aspect of the order of being.  Under the Marxist arrangement, everyone is married to the state, and sex dissolves in the homogeneity of the proletariat.  Aelita thus qualifies itself, despite any affiliation, as the anti-Princess of Mars stories.

More directly antecedent to Cave Women is the Mirisch-Selander production of Flight to Mars, previously mentioned.  Among the characters of Flight are a young Martian woman named Alita as played by Marguerite Chapman and the leader of the first expedition to Mars from Earth, a Professor Jackson, as played by Richard Gaines.  Motifs from A Princess appear in the story: Mars is a world in decline, its resources dwindling critically, and its society subject to political corruption.  A band of ethical Martians, including two Martian women, release the Earthmen from captivity and facilitate their recovery of their spaceship.  Flight reverses the basic Princess trope by having the Martian women return with their new Terrestrial husbands to Earth.  Two years before Flight, producer Robert L. Lippert and director Kurt Neumann created Rocketship X-M, also previously mentioned, many of whose props and one of whose cast members, Morris Ankrum, turn up in Flight.  The Mars-explorers of Rocketship discover a radioactive desert brought about in the recent past, as it seems, by a global nuclear war.  The survivors have degenerated into small bands of genetically mutated, morally degenerate savages.  The film ends bleakly.

Both Flight and Rocketship showed up frequently in the schedules of local television broadcasting in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.  Later they appeared on video tape and then on disc.  Mihm, who looks from photographs to be in his mid-40s, probably first saw them as a child in the last days of broadcast television before cable and the Internet.  In appearance, Cave Women more closely resembles Rocketship, for being filmed in black-and-white, than it does Flight; in mood, however, Cave Women cleaves more closely to Flight, despite the latter’s garish colors.  But Mihm inserts into his film a number of indisputable visual allusions to Burroughs’ Princess that indicate it to be the primary source of his vision, before the two films, albeit also filtered through them.  The most outstanding of these allusions, seen for the first time about eleven minutes and thirty seconds into the story, takes the form of a matte showing two large Luna-like moons in the Martian sky.  Mihm’s story takes place quite literally Under the Moons of Mars, the original title of A Princess.  As Lieutenant Elliott says to himself while gazing on the sight, “Now there’s something you don’t see every day.”

The line partakes of cliché, to be sure, as do many other lines deliberately in Mihm’s script, but it behooves the sympathetic viewer to contemplate the nature of cliché.  In one sense, a cliché is simply a truism or banality, something of an order too trivial to bear mentioning.  In another sense, however, cliché is truth that, becoming commonplace, has lost its link to its object.  In the latter sense, cliché indicates a diminution of consciousness and a concomitant retraction of the subject’s world.  Where the latter sense pertains, an artist’s deliberate usage of a cliché might well represent his insight concerning the sundered link to an object and his concern to recover that object for consciousness.  Elliott’s verbalized affirmation of his new environment functions in this way both for him in the context of Mihm’s story and for viewers, as a reminder to them that what has lapsed into the status of a stock filmic gesture through lazy repetition might once have had real content.  Indeed, viewers should understand the entirety of Cave Women on Mars in this manner, including Mihm’s insistence on black-and-white photography.  Mihm’s purpose would be to capture the spirit of planetary romance at its inception in Under the Moons of Mars and to do the same for the spirit of those 1950s “B” science fiction films that stemmed from Under the Moons of Mars and still participated in its spirit in their day.  It is more even than pulp fiction and low-budget second-feature films: It is the remarkable astronomical art of the mid-Twentieth Century, purveyed in Colliers and Life to illustrate hopeful articles about the possibilities of space travel.  The matte in Cave Women on Mars showing the two moons has then a generic relation to the work, say, of Chesley Bonestell in the lavish and supremely romantic books on which he collaborated with Willy Ley, such as The Conquest of Space (1949).

Old fashioned values: Cave Women on Mars.

Old fashioned values: Cave Women on Mars.

The main title sequence of Cave Women mimics similar main title sequences from various vintage B-grade “space flicks,” while recalling the cliché-refreshing reuse of the same formula in the famous main title sequence of the original Star Trek series.  Against a field of stars, an unseen voiceover (probably Miss Lemke) announces that it is the future – or as the letter-card in the trailer puts it, “The distant future of the year 1987.”  Furthermore, “Great scientific advances have allowed mankind to achieve that which previously only existed in speculative fiction – space travel.”  One word in particular in this otherwise formulaic iteration holds interest: Mankind.  The voiceover invokes, not humanity, or any other sexually neutralizing term, but the term, precisely, that feminist discourse invariably stigmatizes: Mankind.  The same diction also substitutes an Anglo-Saxon word for a Latinate abstraction.  As further exposition will show Mihm’s script although written to seem awkward and incompetent is actually quite carefully composed.  It is also insistently dissident and provocative, given the prevailing politically correct codes.  The introduction and credits having run their course the scene shifts first to an exterior view of the spaceship, which resembles a toy from the 1950s, and then to an interior view.  

The set is minimal.  Captain Jackson sits behind the Lieutenant in a command chair, which is simply an office chair on rollers.  Elliott sits before a flight console cobbled together from a miscellany of desktop barometers, obsolete electrical gauges, and what appears to be the joystick from a 1970s toy called Rock ‘em-Sock ‘em Robots.  The Mars 1 spaceship is equipped with a computer that takes the form of a square screen on the cabin wall to the crew’s left as they face forward.  (Viewers never see the right side of the cabin.)  The computer can speak.  When indeed it speaks, connoisseurs of 1970s television science fiction will recognize the voice as that of the robotic Cylons from the series Battlestar Galactica.  Like the subaltern Cylons, the Mars 1 computer responds to orders with the assenting phrase, “By your command.”  Jackson incidentally pronounces the word computer with the accent transposed to the first syllable and with a caesura between the first and second syllables – cóm… puter.  Once Captain Jackson has received permission from Director Jackson, an exchange that emphasizes the paternal-filial relation, Elliott lands the ship on Mars and the two men disembark.

Despite scientific predictions, Martian air proves breathable, so the two astronauts doff their spacesuits.  The ship having alighted in the center of a large plateau, Jackson decides that he and Elliott should split up to reconnoiter in opposite directions.  Jackson wants to investigate a large body of water to the north; he sends Elliott to investigate a patch of suspected vegetation to the south.  Viewers see the two explorers walking against a desolate landscape.  Mihm draws his musical accompaniment from vintage recordings (they sound like scratchy old LPs) of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Liszt’s Preludes, or perhaps it is Die Ideale   The patch of vegetation turns out to be a lushly forested valley stretching away to the horizon.  It is while staring in wonderment at the forest that Elliott has his encounter, so to speak, with the Moons of Mars.  Suddenly and unexpectedly Elliott hears a cry for help – a male voice speaking in English, as everyone does in B-grade science fiction films.  Receiving permission from Captain Jackson to investigate, he descends from the plateau into the forest.

The cry emanates from a scrawny, dirty male, who cowers when he sees his rescuer and warns him that “they are coming for me.”  They are the first of the Cave Women to make an appearance, Hagra, the leader, and Gorga, her subaltern, of the Amazonian Liak tribe.  Mihm has dressed his two brunette actresses (Grubb and Fradenburgh) in “dominatrix” outfits from a Halloween costume catalogue.  He has directed them to glower and sneer, as archly as possible.  Both carry bow-and-arrow combinations with quivers slung over their shoulders, as well as staffs.  Gorga shoots an arrow into the leg of the runaway, laming and capturing him.  Hagra asks rhetorically of Elliott, “Well, well, well, what have we here?”  When Elliott responds with a similar question, Hagra says, “Hold your tongue, stranger – I don’t remember giving you permission to speak.”  Elliott returns her imperiousness with the sarcasm, “I didn’t ask you for it.”  The key word in the exchange is stranger, several times repeated.  The term has a proleptic function in the script.  When Elliott receives a call from Jackson through his walkie-talkie, Hagra, identifying it as a magical totem, knocks it from his hand with her staff and smashes it.  At this moment, sounds tell of an approaching posse.  Hagra tells Gorga that, as they are currently in Zill territory, they had best scoot from the scene, which they do, leaving Elliott behind.  The walkie-talkie, incidentally, belongs to Cave Women in its guise as parody: It is simply a piece of two-by-four, spray-painted silver, with two nails driven in the top to resemble antennae.

Three new females appear on the scene, forcefully, but neither so imperiously nor scowlingly as Hagra and Gorga.  They are Eina, Orla, and a prepubescent female, Eema, who is, it seems, in training to become a “warrior.”  In contrast to Hagra and Gorga, they are blondes; they wear minidresses of skin, furred bracelets, and fur-topped boots of skin.  Eina is the leader, the “Warrior Prime” of her tribe; Orla is her subaltern, the counterpart of Hagra’s Gorga.  Eina’s greeting to Elliott is, “I will not harm you, male, unless you force me to.”  She then calls him “stranger.”  She asks, “What is this strange clothing that you wear?”  She wants to know whether he has “escaped from the mines.”  Presumably these are the mines of the Liak tribe, as the Zill tribe never enslaves its males, but only subordinates them.  Elliott, by now thoroughly annoyed, makes it clear that he no longer wishes to be ordered around by women.  In a kind of Three Stooges fall-gag Eina feints to placate Elliott only then to knock him cold with her staff.  (The Zill tribe prefers the staff to the bow-and-arrow.)  Eina dismisses Orla to take Eema back to the village while she remains with the captive.  When Elliott revives from the blow to his head – and to his pride – Eina says, “I apologize for having to attack you, but you were out of control.”  She adds that, “The Zill are not barbarians,” and inquires after his tribal identity.  When he insists that he belongs to no tribe and adds that he finds her beautiful, she first makes an apotropaic sign, something like crossing herself, and then responds with, “You will not enchant me, wizard.”

To recall the framing thesis of this unfolding exposition about Cave Women: “Mihm’s planetary romance – casting its net of allusions both widely and deeply – suggests that, in this rare case, a deliberately cheap production, made to be risible for its apparent incompetency, might become the inadvertent carrier, so to speak, of a culturally serious insight.”  In light of the thesis, punctuated by blows of the staff and other comedic business, Mihm can be seen to have made a number of identifications.  He has identified male independence in the milieu of his story with strangeness; he has identified the mentality that sees male independence as strange with Amazons at a tribal level of social development for whom technology is so much incomprehensible magic; and he has identified the male stranger as a chivalrous person who responds instinctively to a cry for help.  Mihm has likewise made several distinctions: His dark-haired dominatrix-type Amazons willingly use bloody violence against their male slaves and scheme to betray one another; his blonde, Artemisian Amazons, on the other hand, see themselves as superior to men, but they display nothing of the sadistic misandry characteristic of the brunettes.  Eina even concocts a poultice to soothe the bruise that her blow has raised on Elliott’s brow, and applies it to him tenderly.

The constant iteration of the word stranger in reference to Elliott suggests another literary allusion that complements the allusions to Under the Moons of Mars and related items, namely Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), where a philosophically evolved Martian-born Earthling, Michael Valentine Smith, returns to his ancestral planet and must contend with the barbarism there of a totalitarian state that is quite willing to kill and enslave.  Having never seen a woman, he must also come to terms with sex.  Smith fulfills a redemptive role in Heinlein’s narrative, and that is the role that Mihm confers on Elliott in Cave Women.  Like Cave Women, of course, Heinlein’s Stranger is itself related by literary descent to Burroughs’ Princess.  That Mihm’s Amazonocracy requires redemption is indicated by the hostility of the tribes.  The dialogue hints that there might be several tribes, not just two.  The computer tells Jackson in one scene that there are about eight thousand human beings on the planet.  The tribes are not strange to one another.  On the contrary, they appear to be all too familiar to one another, but they live in a constant crisis of mutual hostility.  

Among the Zill, then, Eina is unusual in her capacity for self-criticism; uniquely she can sympathize with her sexual alter in a virile man and suspend Amazonian prejudice, traits not shared by others of her ilk.  Orla, for example, expresses only revulsion for the stranger.  Alana Bloom who plays Orla plays her like a militant virgin from Greek Myth, one whose contempt for men is automatic and voluble.  She resents it even when Eina insists that Elliott should eat his meal with the two of them, not in segregated apartness.  While Orla is priggish to perfection, making faces like a stuck-up sorority girl, she will eventually and dramatically redeem herself.  In the meantime, Jackson searches for Elliott; so too do Hagra and Gorga, Hagra’s motivation being that she wants to make use of the “wizard’s” magic powers, presumably to gain personal hegemony over all the tribes.  Eina promises to return Elliott to the spot where she and Orla first captured him, so that he can make his way back to his spaceship.  During their wanderings, Elliott saves Eina from assault by an ojjo, a fierce, ape-like creature of the Martian forest.  (Rather like the “white apes” of Burroughs’ Princess.)  When he has wrested Eina from the ojjo’s grasp, she aids him in dispatching the beast.  Mihm’s story turns on this incident.

Eina says in candor, “I have never seen a male exhibit such – bravery.”  “Elliott says, “You weren’t too bad yourself, sweetheart.”  Eina, perhaps not understanding the term sweetheart, adds that ojjos are especially aggressive during the mating season.  Elliott quips back with a world-weary, “Tell me about it.”  Eina gives a grin, in remarking which, Elliott asks, “Did I just make you smile.”  Eina blushes.  She says, “Why, yes, you did.”  They begin to link arms affectionately when Orla, who has been scouting ahead, returns.  Orla demands to know what Elliott is doing to Eina, berating him contemptuously as “male.”  Elliott demands that Orla stop calling him “male.”  She should call him either William or Lieutenant or “nothing at all.”  Orla prefers “nothing at all.”  Eina orders the two to stop bickering.  She is quiet and pensive.  Turning to Orla she asks, “Do you remember ‘The Song of the Stranger’?”  Orla replies that she has not heard the “Song” since she was a girl.  Orla now recites its opening verses:

A stranger from a strange land will be found;
And be unbound toward holy ground
By valiant tribeswomen under banner of gold –
From war their destiny be fierce and bold.

The verses are bad, no doubt, but they serve their function.  When Orla protests that the words are simply those “of a children’s story,” Eina retorts that it is a story that “has been passed from generation to generation” and that she has come to perceive a truth in it.  The term generation might be accidental, and then again it could be deliberate, but in either case it is meaningful.  It points back to the much earlier scene in which Captain Jackson converses with his father Director Jackson, a conversation that highlights their filial-paternal relation and makes the “Mars 1” expedition a multi-generational masculine endeavor.  Taken aback by Eina’s strength of conviction, Orla makes an apotropaic sign, the same one that Eina has earlier made.  Eina extends her hand to Elliott and bids him, “Follow me.”  She takes him to the “holy ground” to which the verses refer.  Mihm is back in his mode of significant allusion.  Orla and Elliott come to a sacred tree that resembles the tree in the Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker must confront his primal fear.  A girl acting as verger makes the now familiar sign and addresses Elliott: “We have been expecting you – William Christopher Elliott.”  She bids him enter the sanctuary alone.

The Star Wars allusion is patent, but another less obvious linkage will have occurred to savvy viewers who are familiar with the old saga-literature from which the story of Cave Women ultimately derives: The oracles of Erda and her prophetess stand-ins in the Elder Edda, especially as adapted by Richard Wagner in his Ring of the Nibelung.  Erda, the Earth-Mother, is ancient and memorious; knowing the past, she can foresee the future.  The future looks bad, and Erda advises Wotan of looming disaster.  In The Ring disaster overtakes gods and men.  Mihm’s story aims at a less tragic ending.  Inside the sanctuary, Elliott meets “The High Priestess.”  She remembers for him the past that the tribes – that is to say, the women – have forgotten.  She recites: “During the First Age, when the tribes were one, the High Priestess Erla received a haunting vision that told of many things – each more terrible than the previous one.  The Vision told of war and pestilence, but there was a ray of hope…”  (Note the near-identity of Mihm’s Erla with Wagner’s Erda.)  The current High Priestess informs Elliot: “You are the Chosen One…  It is your son who will reunite the tribes.  You are here [that is, on Mars] for a very specific reason.”

Josh Craig (Captain Jackson) and Daniel Sjervan (Lieutenant Elliott).

Josh Craig (Captain Jackson) and Daniel Sjervan (Lieutenant Elliott).

The divulgence of Elliott’s full name – the middle element of which, Christopher, has a well-known saintly etymology – even further elevates the redemptive dignity of his commission.  Mihm’s verbal gesture, once again whether intended or not, resonates with the medieval Christian dispensation of chivalrous narrative in the later sagas and the Arthurian quests.  The High Priestess’s pocket history of her world meanwhile has indirectly commented on the origin and character of the Martian Amazonocracy.  The female-dominant societies of the tribes represent no natural condition but on the contrary they give evidence of being the radically unnatural result of a catastrophe, from which the survivors have emerged (barely) in culturally sickened and declining state.  The highest index of this malaise is the imbalance of the sexes, with its subjugation of the male.  The next highest, hardly less significant, index of this malaise, the lack of Eros, derives from the first.  Should that subjugation continue, and should love remain a foreign experience, the High Priestess implies, the Martian race will meet its demise in the near term.  Seeing Elliott emerge from his encounter, Eina asks what transpired within.  “Quite a bit, actually,” Elliott replies.  Then, taking Eina’s arm, he asks her, “Have you ever been in love?”  Looking puzzled (a bit of nice acting on Lemke’s part), she asks: “What is this ‘love’ you speak of?”  Elliott kisses her impulsively.

Throughout Cave Women, Mihm has exploited comic japes preemptively to deflect a certain type of attention from the meaning of his story.  The point is an important one.  Mihm gained early publicity by entering his films, including Cave Women, in various independent film festivals and juried competitions with public screenings.  He made an impression and swiftly acquired an audience.  What is the probable audience of an independent film festival or juried competition with a public screening?  It is young, college-educated, and therefore badly educated, pseudo-bohemian liberals.  Had Mihm highlighted the distinctly anti-feminist narrative of Cave Women, he would have been booed out of court on the first screening – or rather he would never have made it into the event.  He therefore constantly prestidigitates; he asks his audience unexpectedly to look quick at the bunny-rabbit!  In this way he distracts all but the most perspicacious viewers from following the moral continuity in his tale.  He permits the other portion of his followers to laugh at the jokes and think them the entirety of the film.  The deliberate clumsiness and poverty of the production conduce to the same end.  Perhaps Mihm hopes that his real message will transmit itself subliminally.  Given Mihm’s virtuoso manipulation of allusion, however, the contention being made here that his story is a traditional one, at odds with at least one major strand of modernity, stands on firm ground.

Using Elliott’s amorous impetuosity as his occasion, Mihm once again japes.  Eina responds instinctively to being kissed by punching Elliott in his gut.  As he staggers backwards, she says fiercely, “I will not be devoured by you.”  Recovering from the blow, Elliott tells Eina that, “I was only kissing you,” whereupon (repeating a verbal joke) Eina wishes to know, “What is this ‘kissing’ you speak of?”  Orla returns on the scene abruptly, remarking to Eina that, “Your skin appears to be flushed.”  The sequence is brilliant.  Viewers see Elliott receive the punch, but that is only a metaphor for the non-physical punch that Eina has received in the awakening, at last, of her proper Eros.  This scene is the moral and spiritual goal and climax of the story, but a number of action-related plot-lines need resolution.  Mihm resolves them in a set-piece showdown involving all six of his major characters.  The contest claims the life of Orla, who takes Hagra’s arrow for Eina.  Orla’s death is at odds with anything comical.  Its unexpectedness guarantees the underlying seriousness of the tale.  Eina defeats Hagra.  Jackson, who has finally tracked Elliott, stuns Gorga with his ray-pistol.  In the final scene, back on the edge of the plateau where the spaceship had landed, Jackson awaits Elliott and Eina.  Elliott tells Jackson that he will not return to Earth but intends to remain on Mars with Eina.  It all takes place under that splendid imagistic allusion, the Burroughsian Moons of Mars.

What is the symbolic “carrying-capacity” of a calculatedly impoverished production played for laughs?  Is every single one of the Cave Women’s numerous and significant allusions the result of a conscious decision on Mihm’s part?  The two questions are really one.  Tackling the second question first, Mihm need not have planned consciously every single one of the allusions remarked in the previous paragraphs although one supposes that he did.  If not, having immersed himself in the literary-filmic tradition that stretches backward in time from A Princess of Mars to chivalric narrative and forward in time to the robust spaceflight movies of the 1950s, Mihm would have opened out his psychic sensitivity, so to speak.  Certain key allusions would belong to Mihm by deliberation, while others would have penetrated to him by themselves in that non-causal way that Carl Jung called synchronicity.  The reigning reductive materialism knows nothing of such processes and, rather like Mihm’s Martian Amazonocracy, armors itself against them, but they are real despite that.  One of the pleasures of reading Burroughs, for example, is the way in which, as the decades pass and he extends his various serial narratives, his awareness of his affiliations to a tradition and indeed to sundry likeminded contemporary developments opens out and his text (as the literary critics like to say) begins to resonate to all sorts of influences.  The very last of Burroughs’ Barsoom books, Llana of Gathol (1950), reveals itself as the most richly steeped of the series in its own immediate ancestry; but Llana is also keenly sensitive to, and aware of its being sensitive to, an enormous range of mythic and legendary narrative, not least those of the Hawaiian Islands where Burroughs lived in the final decade of his life.

What about the first question?  What is the symbolic “carrying-capacity” of a calculatedly impoverished production played for laughs?  Such a production’s symbolic “carrying-capacity” is high indeed.  For one thing, a project like Mihm’s Cave Women is completely extra-institutional.  As actor Sjervan says in the interview, the movie was filmed in someone’s backyard.  Freed from the need to conform to commercial standards, which invariably impose the institutional straightjacket of political correctness on cinema entertainment, Mihm has arranged a situation in which he can respond to his own honest impulses.  Honesty is a good word for describing Cave Women, which uses its science fiction B-movie vernacular to articulate basic elements of the order of being, not the least of which is the sexual dimorphism of mankind, to use the film’s own word.  Would it be pretentious or, worse yet, ridiculous to assert that Cave Women is philosophical?  No – because Mihm’s story works itself out as a quest for wisdom.  Its theme of Eros belongs to philosophy, aboriginally: The very word philosophy indicates a desire for wisdom.  Are the recent Stars Wars or Star Trek films philosophical?  Hardly.  They are three-hundred-million-dollar CGI extravaganzas that differ not at all from the thrill-rides at the so-called theme-parks.

Cave Women might usefully be compared with several more-or-less recent Mars-themed films, starting with Ridley Scott’s entry The Martian (2015), a Matt-Damon vehicle and would-be summer-season blockbuster.  Cave Women lets on candidly about its heavy indebtedness to earlier films and the literary sources of those films.  The Martian, heavily freighted with politically correct tropes and images, lamely remakes Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) – a gem of a film, in which the human drama, or even the spiritual drama, is in the foreground – without any credit-giving gesture.  Aside from lacking a Man Friday, an aspect of Daniel Defoe’s novel that Haskin deftly incorporates, The Martian is merely a materialist problem-solving drama.  The Damon-character’s ordeals are entirely technical and resource-related.  None of the variegated treasure-trove of Martian lore enters into the story.  Cave Women surpasses The Martian by many orders of merit both as a story and as an item of genuine cinema.   Antony Hoffman’s Red Planet (2000) with Val Kilmer and Carrie-Anne Moss actually incorporates an erotic subplot, but otherwise subserves the cynicism and nihilism of its scriptwriters.  Brian de Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000) was anything but nihilistic; it included an erotic theme, but the director had no idea how to end his story once he got it started.  Again, Cave Women offers a more satisfying story.

Sex is the basis of every interesting story since the Expulsion from Paradise.  In Red Planet, Hoffman de-sexes Moss, but he never re-sexes her, nor will he permit the erotic union to take place on the Red Planet, which the Kilmer-character dismisses with a crass, “F— Mars” at the end of the film.  That is only one of the film’s demerits.  There is no profanity in Cave Women.  There is no crassness of any kind.  Mihm’s female players are extremely beautiful and pleasantly feminine young women.  Mihm has an eye for feminine beauty, which he is not ashamed to put on screen in a non-made-up way.  That Mihm puts his own wife and children in bit parts conclusively proves that he has a wife and children and thus also that he has taken a personal interest in the matters of generation and issue.  In the Burroughsian Mars series, the son of Dejah Thoris and John Carter later finds his own wife, Thuvia, and they produce issue.  In the symbol of the cosmic marriage, science fiction rises, as it does in other recurrent tropes, to the level of the mythopoeic.  The Martian and Red Planet studiously avoid mythopoeia because in mythopoeia the truths of the human condition arise spontaneously to indict their oracles, as Erda rises from the ground before Wotan in Wagner’s Ring to predict the consequences of his lies and sophistries.  Like all ideological regimes, political correctness wants to suppress spontaneous oracularity.  Mihm has permitted himself to become oracularity’s vessel.  And more power to him!  

Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.