Friday, September 24, 2004

Russ Meyer In Memoriam

Those of you who know me, know that I love movies. Those of you who know me well, know that my friend Jay is in my opinion the world's greatest source of B-Movie information. Jay is a veritable imdb in his own right. I think his parents were wise in naming him John Ford, his knowledge of film deserves the title. Were he a member of this small community, I am certain he would have written some wonderfully droll prose regarding the life and films of Russ Meyer. Alas, he is a busy man and has yet to join our community of friends, and it is up to me to fill his all to proficient shoes.

Loving movies is easy, loving bad movies is not. This is not because of any difficulty in watching the films themselves, they are often products of sophisticated (even sometimes brilliant) talent. The skill level of bad movies often surpasses what some consider worth watching. No what makes loving bad movies hard is your friends. Most of my friends have a hard time understanding my enjoyment of AIP or Hammer films. And God save me when I venture into Sexploitation territory. I very much enjoy, but as the above caveat should make clear have nowhere near the sophistication of Jay when it comes to the genre, watching a good Sexploitation film. "Why?" you ask, "After all, Christian you are a Graduate Student in Political Theory. Surely you are more intelligent than to enjoy such sexist trash!" Why? To be honest, it is the innocence of such films that continually brings me back. When these films are being exploitative, they are often making fun of exploitation at the same time. When they aren't, it is still usually in the name of farce or satire (I can't remember which is appropriate in this case). In Sexploitation, nowhere to be seen is the grim reality of a Taxi Driver Jodi Foster prostitute. These films are meant to be fun...dammit.

Which brings me to Russ Meyer, who died last Saturday at the age of 82 suffering from dementia and succumbing to pneumonia. The internet movie database describes his career as follows:

Meyer found fame with his 1959 filmmaking debut The Immortal Mr. Teas, a movie that changed the standard "nudie film" format by working in an actual plot – as well as the amazingly endowed women that would become his trademark. In essence creating a new film genre, Meyer cemented his reputation (and his legacy) in the 60s with cult classics like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And Vixen, which poured on violence as well as healthy doses of sex antics. It was the latter film's success that attracted the interest of 20th Century Fox, which signed him to helm the 1970 major studio release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was scripted by film critic Roger Ebert ; a year later he made his most mainstream film, The Seven Minutes, which featured then-wife Edy Williams . With the advent of hard-core pornography (Meyer's films were titillating but never explicit) and the demise of drive-ins, Meyer found his career success waning...

My friend Jay introduced me to Meyer with Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a fun and sexy version of anIn Cold Blood story (after all these are killers for a thrill) with a twist that the "victims" aren't as helpless as they otherwise might be. I loved the film and found it funny, sophisticated, and in an over-the-top way appropriate for the genre well acted. Today, if Tarantino were doing the project, it would be graphic and cold and missing something (much like his Bride is less appealling than the women in Switchblade Sisters). But how does Meyer-friend and screenwriter Roger Ebert describe the women in this film?

Meyer's extraordinary women are of course fascinating to those with breast fetishes, but look a little longer and you will notice that the breasts are not always presented as centers of desire. Instead, they're weapons used to intimidate men.

Tura Satana's character is the "Bride" of her day, bad kung fu and all.

It is no mistake that a majority of the discussion here is about Meyer's Pussycat it was one of his most popular films, along with the Roger Ebert scripted Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Meyer made many other films, including an awkward version of Fanny Hill. Of course the "master" of the Sexploitation film would attempt that piece, but as the IMDB article points out his work was not pornographic in its eroticism and at it's best the women were intimidating rather than desirable. In his Fanny, the narrative isn't as expicit as the source, nor is the lead as intimidating as his usual female fair. Thus the awkwardness.

I don't think that it was an accident that one of his last films, though not his last, had a title combining two of his cult classics Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. and was once again a partnership with Roger Ebert. It always seemed to me that Meyer made films because he liked it and I wish more filmmakers made movies just for the fun of it.

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