There’s more to Russ Meyer’s films than breasts, though those are pretty important
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Russ Meyer
Why it’s daunting: U.S. Army infantryman turned Playboy photographer turned independent-film pioneer Russ Meyer was a peerless poet of softcore porn, a breast man whose undying obsession with outsized mammaries fueled a career as a cinematic renegade. Meyer’s films were lewd, crude, tasteless, and unapologetic. But few could deny the craftsmanship behind the sexed-up shenanigans, from the bold use of color to the ferocious editing to the extreme camera angles. Meyer made films that looked, sounded, and felt like nobody else’s. He put his stamp on everything he did, elevating sexploitation to an art form in the process. But a man whose muses had names like Pandora Peaks and Melissa Mounds was never going to win an Oscar, honorary or otherwise.
Meyer’s films are all ribald, over-the-top comic melodramas about busty, sexed-crazed harlots and the he-men who lust after them. That’s why newcomers may find it hard to delineate between the ones that are just silly, and the ones that made Meyer an outlaw icon to the likes of John Waters, who famously hailed Meyer’s 1965 breakout film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! as the greatest film of all time. (The band Mudhoney was also named after a Meyer film.) These movies tend to sound similar—the title of Meyer’s 1979 swan song Beneath The Valley Of The Ultra-Vixens might intentionally recall his 1970 cult smash Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, but there’s a distinct drop-off in quality, resources, and cohesion between the two.
Possible gateway: Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls
Why: In the late ’60s, the tradition- and convention-bound world of American studio filmmaking started to tilt dramatically in a Russ Meyer-friendly direction. The studio system had died, the bloated corpses of old-school flops like Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly! served as warnings about the dangers of clinging to the old ways, and outsiders like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were making obscene amounts of money with their glorified B-movie about bikers on acid. The studios were suddenly willing to take risks, and Meyer was a proven moneymaker with a string of profitable, albeit thoroughly disreputable softcore films, beginning with 1959’s ultra-low-budget The Immoral Mr. Teas and continuing through the 1960s with films like 1965’s Motor Psycho, 1968’s Vixen!, and 1969’s Cherry, Harry & Raquel. Meyer’s cinematic sexual revolution began in the late 1950s, well ahead of the rest of the world. The sexual revolution had many beneficiaries, and Meyer’s film career was one of them, though by the ’80s, the times had passed him by, and his softcore fantasies couldn’t help but look quaint compared to the graphic sex found in porn films.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls was originally conceived as a straightforward sequel to the blockbuster 1967 show-business melodrama Valley Of The Dolls, but in the hands of Meyer and critic-turned-screenwriter Roger Ebert—a longtime fan who became one of Meyer’s most important collaborators—the film steadily morphed into a satire not just of Valley Of The Dolls, but of show-business melodramas and show business as a whole. A young film critic and a brazen provocateur who shot his films on shoestring budgets somehow wound up in business with the respectable likes of 20th Century Fox, and were keen on making the most of the incredible bounty afforded them as bona fide studio filmmakers.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls consequently has the appealingly overstuffed quality of two spectacularly talented filmmakers cramming everything they’ve ever wanted to do into one ridiculous extravaganza. The film is a little bit of everything. It’s a show-business melodrama and a spoof of show-business melodramas, a counterculture be-in and an outsized parody of hippie free-love culture, a loving tribute to Hollywood’s past and a merciless send-up of everything silly, slick, and superficial about the movie industry.
The film takes the form of a show-business saga about The Carrie Nations, an unusually buxom female rock group whose relative collective innocence is compromised when they move to Southern California and fall under the sway of “Z-Man” (John Lazar), a Phil Spector-like youth-culture mogul of indeterminate sexuality. Z-Man is one of Meyer’s greatest creations, a one-person omnisexual freak-fest blessed with flamboyantly stylized dialogue like “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” and “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” (There’s more than a little Z-Man in Austin Powers: Mike Myers even borrowed the line “This is my happening and it freaks me out” for Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery.)
Meyer and Ebert weren’t just getting away with something. They were getting away with everything. They made a film that belonged to every genre and none, a show-business-rock-musical-sex-comedy-drama-satire-horror-shocker like none the world had ever seen. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls found a way to make Meyer’s fixation with huge breasts, big muscles, outsized caricatures, double entendres, and free-floating naughtiness palatable to a mainstream audience that would never think of going to a drive-in seeking cheap thrills and T&A. The film made millions at the box office, in spite of an X rating and a $900,000 budget, but Meyer’s love affair with studio filmmaking was short-lived. Meyer followed up Beyond The Valley Of the Dolls with an ill-considered foray into “serious” filmmaking (the Irving Wallace adaptation The Seven Minutes, a resounding flop), then retreated back into the world of independent financing for good for his last few films.
Next steps: Meyer’s 1966 masterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! opens with an unknown narrator delivering a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the nature of violence, violence’s relationship with sex, and the emergence of a “rapacious new breed” of vixen that “prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, any time, anywhere, and with anybody.” The monologue operates gorgeously as stand-alone Beat poetry, but it’s also a beautifully succinct summation of Meyer’s grim perception of the world as a place ruled by the insatiable lust for sex, money, and power, as well as his conception of women as both seductive and destructive forces.
The badass villain (Tura Satana) of Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! is a nasty piece of work, a chesty sociopath who rules over her minions with brute force and zero sentimentality. But she’s also a feminist and queer anti-hero who’s stronger and more fearsome than any man unlucky enough to cross her. The film opens with Satana killing a man with her bare hands. Then, along with her two go-go dancing sidekicks, she abducts the poor man’s girlfriend and takes her to a small town where the trio of kill-crazed thrill-freaks set about separating a creepy, wheelchair-bound old man (Stuart Lancaster) from his strategically hidden fortune.
Like 1965’s Mudhoney, Pussycat! is Meyer’s version of film noir, so he’s as concerned with his leads’ undulating bosoms as he is with various betrayals and seductions. Pussycat! is pure dime-store pulp, a cinematic gut-punch from a filmmaker who wasn’t inclined to subtlety or understatement under the best circumstances. Meyer went on to make plenty of other exploitation movies of varying quality over the years, but none of his films matched the influence, quality, or visceral impact of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and Faster Pussycat!, upon which his unexpectedly timeless legacy is built.
Where not to start: Meyer’s films were always lurid and over the top, but by the time of 1975’s Supervixens, his oeuvre willfully abandoned even the fuzziest relationship to recognizable reality. In Supervixens’ most flagrantly ridiculous segment (it has a lot of competition), a deaf, dumb, mute, and appropriately cantilevered vixen has sex with one of Meyer’s beloved giant muscle-men while he does reps with comically oversized barbells. In its climax, the film essentially becomes a Wile E. Coyote cartoon with Meyer fixture Charles Napier hurling dynamite at the hero. Supervixens has a certain loopy charm—all the appropriately cartoonish vixens have nicknames with “super” in them—but it’s decidedly for cultists, completists, and obsessives rather than the general public.