“The sex film? I think it’s on the way out. I want to get into horror films. Suspense, mystery.” -Russ Meyer
Russ Meyer may have been done with sexploitation (if you believe that for a second) but the bosoms weren’t done with him. The director’s follow up to his camp masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls may have pretended to be a straight-laced courtroom drama, but The Seven Minutes was just as plagued with Russ’ sexual id as any of his nastier works. Reportedly, Fox Studios took the opposite approach to its hands-off policy with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & pressured Meyer into not only adopting this specific property (an Irving Wallace novel) for the screen, but also demanding that the film achieve an R-rating from the MPAA, perhaps as a reaction to the sting of the studio’s X-rated disaster Myra Breckinridge. High octane Meyer works like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls & Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! had established a certain maniacal standard for the director’s work that The Seven Minutes demonstrates little-to-no desire to fulfill. Still, I find that the negative reaction to The Seven Minutes was largely unwarranted. It was far from Meyer’s most personal picture, but I found it to be more enjoyable than a majority of his catalog, much to my surprise.
Despite how subdued The Seven Minutes may come across at first glance, it actually commanded twice the budget of Meyer’s previous big studio effort & the director’s all-time longest runtime. There’s no doubt that the director initially intended the film to be his grandest work, his once chance to be taken seriously. So, where did he choose to set his sights for his major studio manifesto? Now on top of the world (in terms of ticket sales, anyway; most critics still scoffed at him), Meyer gloatingly fired back at the censorship boards & moral policing that plagued the theater run of his otherwise-successful film Vixen! just three years earlier. The Seven Minutes (named for the average time it takes for a woman to achieve orgasm), revolves around a courtroom battle in which an oversensitive moral vanguard attempts to convict a sexually-oriented novel guilty for the rape of a young college student by providing “living proof that a dirty book can destroy a clean boy.” Of course, Meyer’s tirade stands firmly on the other side of the issue, railing against the hypocritical piety of the prosecutors looking to condemn this piece of fictional smut and, by extension, condemning the work of Russ Meyer himself. In a lot of ways The Seven Minutes is a highly paranoid piece of art, one that thumbs its nose at the extensive past of Meyer detractors in a grandly expensive display of gloating.
Solidifying the film’s straw man argument against the freedom of expression of sexual liberation in art, The Seven Minutes openly mocks the fictional Strength Through Decency League. One of the best stretches of dialogue in the film is the following rant at one of the STDL’s political rallies; “There is virtually no area that remains untainted by the quick buck artists who pander to our lowest forms of taste, and the public be damned. Just the other evening, my first night off in weeks, I decided to take my wife Mary & our three children to the movies. In our neighborhood, we had such subject material as rape, lust, motorcycle gangs, homosexuals, lesbians, drug abuse, you name it. Whatever happened to the movies we used to be able to take our children to?” What’s so great about this speech is that it not only jokingly jabs at the exact smut Meyer had himself been peddling for over a decade, but it also serves as a distinct antithesis to the anti-censorship rant that opens Meyer’s Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. Meyer never forgave the goody two shoes who complicated his otherwise-successful run with Vixen! He wasn’t satisfied with protesting them at the beginning of his modest indie movie Cherry, but waited to use the big time stage of his second major studio release to portray censorship-happy do-gooders as two-faced monsters who pretend to be “protecting the public”, but behind closed doors are hoarding pornography for themselves while maintaining a holier-than-thou public persona.
This aspect of The Seven Minutes positions the film as a personal work for Meyer, even if his personal interest in the work is centered mostly on a vicious pettiness. It’s not the only thing that distinguishes the film as a uniquely Meyer work, though. Old Meyer standbys like Charles Napier, Stuart Lancaster, and Uschi Digard appear in the film, as do old-hat Meyer tropes like themes of male sexual inadequacy and the idea that heterosexual romance is a form of emotional pugilism, an antagonistic back & forth seeped much more in vitriol than sexuality. Perhaps the best metaphor for what the film accomplishes can be found in the character Babydoll, played by Shawn Devereaux. As rooms full of law men argue about decency & censorship, Babydoll undulates like the go-go dancers of yesteryear, purring like a high-pitched kitten, blaring hip dance music, and trying to make innocuous acts like eating potato chips the most seductive transgressions imaginable. When her lecherous, lawmaking cohorts bark commands like, “Babydoll, shut off that damn radio!” the push & pull between Meyer’s natural absurdity & the studio’s forced browbeating can be felt in full effect.
The difference between my reaction to The Seven Minutes & that of the film’s contemporaries is that I find that compromised dichotomy fascinating, while critical publications like Playboy Magazine called it “a losing battle of mind over mattress.” In short, The Seven Minutes featured a lot of dudes talking & not a lot of boobs bouncing, something that couldn’t be saved by Meyer’s trademark rapid-fire edits or lip service paid to the virtues of smut in the eyes of the film’s contemporary audience. The critics & the box office returns had their way with the film, making sure that it stood as the very last major studio production that Meyer saw to completion.
Although I’d sympathise with the idea that The Seven Minutes‘ courtroom procedures & undercover police work aren’t as interesting in the abstract as Meyer’s feverish nudie pictures could be, I still stand by the film’s quality as a finished product. I think that being the very first Russ Meyer film that couldn’t be read as a campy trifle may have clashed harshly with what people had come to expect from the director, resulting in a vicious reaction to a decent film that didn’t deserve to be met with such an easy dismissal. Meyer himself had even distanced himself from The Seven Minutes in the end, blaming a lot of the film’s shortcomings on the studio’s oppressive influence. I’m willing to chalk that reaction up to wounded pride resulting from the film’s hurtful reception, though, as The Seven Minutes reads as far too distinctly personal for me to dismiss it outright.