Mondo Topless (1966)

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fourstar

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With his first six films, Russ Meyer pioneered & eventually mastered what is now known as “the nudie cutie”, an antiquated genre that is exactly what it sounds like: a cutesy comedy featuring nude models. His first feature, The Immoral Mr. Teas, is cited as the very first example of the “nudie cutie” and, following a few Teas-imitating stinkers, his final film in the genre, Heavenly Bodies!, proved to be a finely-tuned, navel-gazing example of the limits of what the format could accomplish. The next phase of his career was a series of black & white “roughies”, a collection of crudely violent crime pictures that were about as far from the word “cutie” that the director could possibly get. Again, that phase saw some highs & lows for the director, including the irredeemably vile Motorpsycho! & the indisputable crown jewel of the “roughie” genre, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. For his followup to Faster, Pussycat!, Meyer deviously combined the “nudie cutie” & “roughie” aesthetics into a single, incomprehensible picture, Mondo Topless. Mondo Topless is the cinematic equivalent of a child being forced to smoke an entire pack after failing to sneak a single cigarette. Meyer effectively asks his audience, “You want breasts? Here’s more than you could possibly handle. Choke on them.” The resulting film is an overwhelming assault on the senses, featuring an ungodly chaotic jumble of topless go-go dancing & non sequitur narration. If it were any longer than an hour, it’d be unwatchable. As is, it’s a oddly engaging spectacle of pure madness, one that summarized the full extent of what Meyer had accomplished at that time in his career.

One consistent feature of Meyer’s nudie cutie work is the non sequitur ramblings of an offscreen narrator, often delivered with the blank expression of an industrial film. Like with everything else it delivers, Mondo Topless adds a barely digestible layer of aggression to this Meyer trope. The narrator, John Furlong (who worked on several Meyer features, including Mudhoney & Common Law Cabin), delivers his relentless monologues in a near shout, backing the audience into a corner as the screen is overloaded with go-go dancers doing their thing. He starts by describing an especially salacious view of San Francisco, a city that reportedly “thrusts itself into the bosom of the Pacific” with the “bulging peaks & deep canyons” of its landscape, its trollies “digesting & disgorging humanity at will”, and structures that “thrust their bulk majestically toward the sky.” The rapidfire montage of this opening segment features a nude woman maniacally driving through the Bay Area intercut with images of the skyscrapers, ads, automobiles, and dancing naked women that make up Russ Meyer’s America. In a fit of shameless self-promotion our aggressive narrator promises an expose on the artform of “the topless”, “the phrase & the craze that is changing the mood & the morays of people everywhere […] Here, go-go girls in & out of their environment will be revealed to you in scenes that can only be summarized as a swinging tribute to unrestrained female anatomy. Mondo Topless is believably real in Eastman color. But ‘unbelievable’ just barely describes all of Russ Meyer’s discotheque discoveries: fantastic women, fantastic dances, featuring the world’s loveliest buxotics. You only dreamed there were women like these until now. But they’re real! Unbelievably real!” It’s an onslaught that makes you so dizzy you could puke.

The rest of the film’s dialogue is provided by the dancers themselves. As they answer interview questions that were not included to provide context, performers with names like Donna X & Babette Bardot dance frenetically while making strangely disconnected statements like “I used to play cello in a symphony orchestra when I was 13,” & “All you’re doing is a dance, it has no meaning whatsoever.” The range of topics covered in these “interviews” are as disparate as women’s sexual autonomy to the freedom of not wearing a bra to bed. The narrator only occasionally interjects to literally dare you to focus on what the dancers have to say as they’re violently shaking their bodies for your visual pleasure/motion sickness. When he shouts at you to “sit back!”, “relax!”, or “enjoy!” what the women have to offer it takes immense emotional fortitude to not shout back “Okay! I’ll try! Stop yelling at me!” There’s a very small amount of variety to be found within the film, mainly in the different styles of the featured dancers & the locations where they’re filmed (a rocky beach, near a passing train, underwater, in a mud puddle, etc.), but otherwise Mondo Topless is aggressively one-note: gorgeous women dance topless to portable radios & tape players at a maddening pace that never once pumps the brakes so the audience can catch its breath.

There’s a little bit of cultural context that makes Mondo Topless significant as a historical document, but there’s no way that it can be mistaken for a documentary. It only makes the slightest differentiations between “the erotic” dances of the past & “the topless” dancing (aka go-go dancing) that reportedly started in San Francisco. Erotic dances are supposedly built on the tease of the reveal & use of obscuring objects like pasties, where as topless go-go dancing is an all-out “burst of inhibited frenzy.” Mondo Topless does its best to recreate this feeling of frenzy in its relentless pace, intentionally distancing itself from Meyer’s burlesque nudie cutie past despite re-purposing the exact footage of what seemed to be every single dance from Europe in the Raw in its short runtime. Meyer also takes multiple breaks to pat himself on the back for his own accomplishments, like in an interview with Lorna Maitland, star of his film (duh) Lorna. The narrator brags, “Without artistic surrender, without compromise, without question or apology, an important motion picture was produced: Lorna: A Woman Too Much for One Man.” Maitland then goes on to speculate about her boundless future as an actress, tellingly only describing & showing footage only from the exact two scenes of the film I found worthwhile in my initial review.

Otherwise, Mondo Topless makes no attempt to pretend to be anything more than it is: an overwhelmingly aggressive hour of frenzied go-go dancing, Meyer’s bizarre editing style (that would later reach its apex in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and disorienting, besides the point dialogue that only added confusion & obscurity to the proceedings. But, why should I attempt to describe the overall effect of the Mondo Topless to you when the film was content to review itself in its final monologue? It concludes, “Well, Mondo Topless measures up. The unmistakable Russ Meyer touch makes this more than a gang of great gals. It makes it move. We sincerely hope you enjoyed the flick.” Indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

Mudhoney (1965)

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twohalfstar

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While filming the atypical yuck-it-up comedy Fanny Hill in Europe, Meyer received word from wife/producer (and titular star of Eve & The Handyman) Eve that his first venture into black & white “roughies”, Lorna had racked up a nice chunk of change in his absence. How did Meyer celebrate? He took his lastest white hot mistress Rena Horten (who played a sex worker in Fanny Hill) on a lavish mini-vacation. This affair, of course, ramped up some pre-existing marital tension & lead to a rather speedy divorce back home. Not to let a little old speed bump like the dissolution of a marriage get in the way of making a buck, however, Russ immediately talked his now ex-wife to produce his next venture in to pitch black roughies: Mudhoney, starring (of course) Rena Horten.

Reportedly lifting the title from, of all places, an Oscar Wilde quote, Meyer set Mudhoney in a Depression-era Missouri, later referring the film as his “homage to Grapes of Wrath.” Despite the incongruity of the setting, the film was in fact filmed in the desert, a tumultuous terrain that fondly reminded the director of his glory days as a WWII combat photographer “because you could die there”. Of course, Mudhoney actually has much more in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the ancient freak show Spider Baby than it does with The Grapes of Wrath, no matter what Meyer believed to be true. Depicting a maniacal family of impossible, sex-starved, rural lunatics & the small town of simple farm folk they terrorize, the film has the vibe of an unhinged party that’s taken a peculiarly violent turn after a marathon of day-drinking. Sidney, played by a leather-faced Hal Hopper (who starred in & sang the lounge lizard theme song for Lorna) sets the tone early after getting ejected from his favorite drinking hole with shouts of “Why don’t you go home to your wife for a change?!”. Unfortunately, he does go home to his wife (played by Antoinette Christiani, for whom this is her sole film credit), only to force himself on her in a truly grotesque display. Even in these opening minutes Meyer establishes that Mudhoney firmly in the roughie territory, the carefree days of the nudie cutie firmly in the rearview.

Despite a distinct, depraved atmosphere, however, Mudhoney doesn’t have too much going for it. A lot of the problem is its very slight narrative, the same Achilles heel that sunk the almost-enjoyable Lorna. A city boy drifter (John Furlong, who ended up working on many Meyer films & enjoyed a second life as a character actor) finds his way to Meyer’s warped version of Missouri & decides to take up work as a farmhand on Sidney’s property despite so, so many red flags. A nearby house that functions as a sort of brothel/drinking hole offers a gateway to vice that eventually drives Sidney & his corrupt priest cohort to a violent madness, intensified by the farm hand’s designs on his wife & his property, eventually leading to his public execution in the town square. Somewhere in there is the usual Meyer jabs at the city boy’s supposedly unmasculine weakness, best exemplified by Luther’s acidic line, “She needs a man. A real man! Not some gutless boy.” In this case, though, it’s Luther who’s punished for his transgressions. His wife spits the line, “I hate everything about you! Don’t ever touch me again!” in his face, threatening to stab him with a gigantic kitchen knife and, of course, the film concludes with his public execution, Meyer himself making a cameo among the lynch mob. The film may fail to sympathize with the violent alpha-male Meyer would usually side with (although his escalating mental illness in the back half does help a bit in that respect), but it does at least typify the adversarial war of the sexes vibes that plagues nearly all of the director’s onscreen romances.

Although Mudhoney doesn’t quite work on the whole, it has a great deal of killer atmosphere, of which I have a hard time finding any comparison points besides the aforementioned Spider Baby. So much credit for this has to go to the cast. Hal Hopper holds it down as a vicious brute as usual, but this time he’s backed up by the wild, toothless coot Princess Livingston (featured before in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West & Erotica), a hot to trot, go-go dancing Lorna Maitland (star of Meyer’s Lorna, duh), and, of course, Rena Horten, who portrays a deaf/mute beauty tactlessly described in the film as “the perfect woman” due to her handicaps (yikes!). The dialogue is a nonstop barrage of atonal yelling without any real breaks for breath or traces of human behavior, the exact kind of stuff that must’ve inspired many a John Waters performance down the line. The unhinged living room dance parties (accompanied by Princess Livingston’s one of a kind cackle) & moonshine swilling are a sight to behold, feeling like true glimpses into a maniacal, rural underwold that must exist somewhere, right? With all of this going for it, it’s no wonder that Mudhoney has sort of persisted as a cult classic despite its initial commercial flop, even going so far as to inspire the name of an infamous grunge-era punk band. Still, the bizarre atmosphere rarely overpowers the weak plot & the movie unfortunately works a lot better as a strange afterthought & a memory, like a half-remembered nightmare, than it actually does as a movie-watching experience.

-Brandon Ledet

Lorna (1964)

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twohalfstar

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With 1963’s Heavenly Bodies! Russ Meyer effectively brought the nudie cutie chapter of his life to a close, summarizing nearly all of his post WWII pin-up work in a single, enjoyably frivolous (but financially disastrous) picture. Having effectively invented the nudie cutie with The Immoral Mr. Teas & more or less running into the ground with the five films that followed, it was high time for a change in Meyer’s career path, one telegraphed by his curmudgeony “documentary” on European sex trade Europe in the Raw. What was next for the moustachioed pervert was much darker territory than the playful narration & pastel voids of his nude comedies. Meyer would spend his next four or so features pioneering an entirely new kind of sexploitation picture: black & white “roughies.” Far from the hokey vaudevillian gags of nudie cutie titles like Mr. Teas & Wild Gals of the Naked West, roughies were vicious, often hateful pictures that would lean toward the violent & the salacious, but were also quick to damn the very characters they leered at with (in the films’ view) well-deserved deaths for their transgressions. Russ Meyer may have not made the very first roughie (many attribute that milestone to fellow schlock peddler David Friedman), but it was a genre he would eventually damn near perfect with his cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.

Although Lorna may not have technically been the first roughie, it was easily one of the first recognizable & successful examples of the genre. A twisted tale about sexual inadequacy, adultery, and betrayal, Lorna paints an ugly, ugly picture, one that’s only made more ugly by the harshness of its vivid black & white cinematography. In the film’s opening minutes a preacher stops the camera from cruising down a desolate highway to ramble vague, Biblically-themed warnings about loose morals. The following scenes feature a pair of rough drunks following an intoxicated woman home, only to beat & undress her once she spurns their sexual advances (thankfully leaving the scene before it escalates to rape). As the horrifying, leather-faced bully Luther (played by Meyer-newcomer Hal Hopper) rolls out his dim accomplice in tow, his victim shouts “You bastard! You dirty bastard!” & a lounge lizard song (composed & sung by Hopper) about the titular Lorna overtakes the soundtrack. All of this unpleasantness before we even meet the main characters. With this slap to the unsuspecting audience’s face Meyer effectively drove the last nail in the coffin of the nudie cutie & revealed the weirder, meaner brute that had been lurking under his surface all along. And he hadn’t even really gotten started.

The central couple in this sordid tale is Jim (a square-jawed James Rucker) and his wife, duh, Lorna (a most buxom Lorna Maitland), prototypes of what would eventually solidify as the typical soldiers in Meyer’s never-ending war of the sexes. Jim is ostensibly a nice guy. He’s sweet to his wife, studies to better himself, etc., but these character traits actually play like flaws in Meyer’s fucked up sense of logic. In Meyer’s view, Jim is an irredeemable weakling who gets less & less admirable with every “I love you” he coos to his nonplussed wife. Jim’s major malfunction is that he’s bad in bed. In an early scene Lorna lies in post-coital boredom, musing about her husband’s “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” approach to lovemaking, asking “Why can’t he make love to me the way he should?”, and slyly suggesting that he just flat out does not provide her orgasms. There’s some classic Russ Meyer insanity in these moments, like when disorienting shots of running water appear as Lorna recalls a more lustful time in her relationship with Jim or when her daydreams about moving from their remote marital cabin to the big city devolve into rapid-fire montages of the well-endowed actress drunkenly dancing topless among flashing neon signs. It’s in these moments that Lorna shines brightest.

Unfortunately, the generally sour vibe of the roughie format drags the film down a great deal more than it should. When Jim leaves for work it’s revealed that his co-worker is none other than Hal Hopper’s leather-face Luther, a real prick who incessantly teases Jim about his white-hot wife & the distinct possibility that she might be committing adultery behind his back. This tension amounts to an on-the-job fistfight & near-fatal stabbing. Meanwhile, an unattended Lorna actually does become an adulteress at the roaming hands of an escaped convict (Mark Bradley). More than happy to play house for a “real” man, Lorna invites the convict home & into the bed she shares with her husband, which eventually leads to (of course) their infidelity being uncovered & nearly everyone involved getting fatally wounded in a bodycount-heavy finale that’s faithful to the chaos of a traditional stage tragedy. Somewhere in the kerfuffle the Grim Reaper makes an onscreen cameo & the preacher from the opening monologue returns to babble about the definition of adultery & the fate of Lot’s wife. It’s fairly straight-forward stuff, unpleasant or not.

Shot in just two weeks with a five man crew, Lorna featured Russ Meyer’s biggest budget to date & marked the first time he shot a feature on 35mm film. Meyer’s most vocal critical supporter & improbable friend Roger Ebert calls this picture the start of the director’s “Gothic period” & some credit it as the first mainstream film to combine the nudie picture with high stakes drama. Prosecuted in vain on obscenity charges in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Florida (courtroom battles that later New Hollywood productions would greatly benefit from), Lorna is unfortunately much more interesting as a historical milestone than it is as an actual film. There were elements of Lorna that really worked & you could tell that Meyer was really stretching himself thin trying to grasp for something new & exciting, but much of the film reads dull at best and heartlessly cruel at worst. The best five or so minutes of the picture arrive very early, when Lorna’s daydreaming about better orgasms & dancing topless in an urban, neon-lit fantasy world. Meyer would later learn how to better consolidate these more out-there moments with a feature-length narrative, but Lorna never quite reaches an enjoyable cohesiveness, which feels just out of its reach, thanks to the constraints of the newly found roughie genre holding it back.

-Brandon Ledet