Erotica (1961)

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After the somewhat labored narratives of his first two nudie cutie films, The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve & The Handyman, Russ Meyer stripped away a few layers of narrative pretense for his third feature, Erotica. A series of ostensibly erotic vignettes, Erotica is little more than a loosely connected series of in-motion pin-up shoots strung together to reach a feature length (barely more than an hour, all things told). After the mundane & oddly nudity-light slightness of Eve & The Handyman, however, Erotica‘s loose anthology of naked girls & disorienting narration set-ups feel like a godsend. Just as the narrator of Mr. Teas hilariously droned on about such non sequiturs as the absurdities of modern life & the history of bathing while the screen was filled with the film’s true main attraction (bare breasts), Erotica‘s vignettes are each nudity-filled exercises in dissonance, establishing a strange contrast between the images on display & the completely besides the point narration (provided by Jack Moran, who would later write one of Meyer’s undeniable classics, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) that compliment them.

The wraparound

The segment that binds this loose anthology is a self-reflective piece about the production of nudie cuties in general. In Erotica‘s opening minutes Moran rambles on about how a film evolves from an idea to an outline to a treatment to a shooting script until, eventually, “projectors explode their images across the movie screens of America.” Posing the nudie cutie to follow as a series of “intimate, moving portraits of women […] made by adults, for adults”, Erotica bends over backwards to remind you that it is but a simple, entertaining diversion that amounts to “one hour, a very small segment of the day”. In other words, don’t get your hopes up for anything too significant.

“Naked Innocence”

Perhaps the least disorienting of the film’s five segments, “Naked Innocence” makes the brave decision to actually match the off-screen narration to the action on display. A woman explains that she was, more or less, just too damned horny & tired of being stared at by strange men on city streets so she retreated to the woods to calm down. Stripping nude & enjoying an impromptu tanning session & nude dip in a stream, our narrator starts to muse about how even Nature is trying to seduce her. She describes the Sun as a “hot, burning eye probing my bareness” & the feeling of water on skin like “many hands moving against you.” Originally escaping city life to avoid the oppressive male gaze, she discovers that even in Nature she is not safe from salacious oggling. If nothing else, this is a much stranger idea than anything you’d encounter in Mr. Teas or The Handyman, but at the same time all three properties really don’t amount to much more than a reason to gawk at naked women, the very thing this character is trying to escape.

“Beauties, Bubbles”

The second vignette keeps the first’s weirdness improbably rolling with an even stranger idea. Upping the on-screen nudity from not one, but three beauties, “Beauties, Bubbles” depicts a trio of nude models bathing each other in a swimming pool in what, without the narration, could’ve just have easily been titled “Boobs, Boobies”. As with the first segment, it’s the narration that makes the accompanying images so odd. As the girls bathe each other using swimming pools, trash cans, and army helmets full of soapy water (sometimes in the pastel voids that populate Meyer’s other nudie cuties), an offscreen East Coast plumber poses the segment as a PSA to help promote the act of daily bathing in hopes of boosting work for plumbers in general. There’s a goofy dissonance between the plummer’s nonsensical words & the pin-ups in motion imagery at here that’s enjoyably disorienting . . . when it’s not testing your patience.

“The Bare & The Bear”

Speaking of testing your patience, the exact same format from the plummer’s segment is repeated in “The Bare & The Bear”. There’s only one mild variation: instead of promoting bathing, this segment is promoting the sales of bearskins by, how else, showing a nude model wearing nothing but a bearskin intercut with images of real life bears. It’s a very strange sensation to flip back & forth from monstrous bears to a woman rolling around in the nude, especially once the narrator goes off on tangents about “beatniks & coffee drinkin’,” but back to back with the plumber segment the weight of the film’s mercifully short runtime becomes a little laborious.

“Nudists on the High Seas!”

Continuing the diminishing returns of the film’s segments, a narrator drones on about “damsel deckhands” & the history of women being excluded from sailing as the titular “Nudists on the High Seas” sun their nude selves of the deck of a sailboat. It’s nothing much to speak of.

“The Nymphs”

Seemingly becoming bored with itself, Erotica completely devolves here. The narration erratically switches from rambling about subjects as varied as botanical gardens, the sex life of the amoeba, and proper card-playing etiquette, the movie just completely falls apart & loses faith in itself in an irreverent & self-referential way as the models combine previous segments’ affinity for bathing & sunbathing into a single incomprehensible vignette.

“Bikini Busters!”

Falling apart even further, Erotica concludes with a chaotic segment about the history of the bikini. In the only segment to approach the purple prose absurdity of the “Naked Innocence” opener, “Bikini Busters!” features this insane thought: “This is a bathing suit. And this is a girl. Separately these are both in a sense aesthetic, appealing, but together a certain chemistry takes place & the living compliments the inanimate.” “Bikini Busters!” is deliciously empty work that features not only Meyer’s affinity for visually comparing a well-built woman to a well-built steel structure, but it also calls back to both the half-hearted disgust with the male gaze of the first segment (this time featuring the only on-screen men of the film, all ogglers) & the self-referential musings about the nature of the nudie cutie in the wraparound segment, making direct nods to the two Meyer pictures that precede Erotica by displaying their advertisements poolside. “Bikini Busters!” follows the history of the bathing suit from the time the biblical Eve first covered herself with a leaf through a possible future of space-age pasties, a very silly & improbable endeavour that I doubt was well-researched.

By the time an over-excited Russ Meyer (presumably playing himself) falls into a swimming pool trying to film the nude models on display & breaks his (amusingly fake-looking) camera at the end of “Bikini Busters!” Erotica reveals itself as what it truly is: a light romp without too much of anything on its mind outside of bare breasts & cheap jokes. It’s neither the height nor the depth of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, but it is occasionally amusing in its narrative dissonance & surprising attacks on the male gaze in its opening & closing segments (considering that the film itself is an act of leering). However, you could easily cut out at least three of the film’s six segments & retain its full range of amusement, which isn’t exactly high praise for an anthology film that barely lasts an hour from front to end.

-Brandon Ledet

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7 thoughts on “Erotica (1961)

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