Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979)

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three star

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For better or for worse, Russ Meyer’s penultimate feature film repeated both the virtues & the failures of his previous film, Up!. With script contributions from a pseudonym-masked Roger Ebert, the film feels in its first 15 minutes as if it might be one of Meyer’s finest works, a vibe spoiled early on by irreverently-treated sexual assault. The film starts with Meyer-vet Stuart Lancaster playing an omnipotent narrator from Small Town, America giving a tour of “beautiful people driving terrible cars & living in squalor . . . all oversexed.” After a brief prologue in which an escaped Nazi general has vigorous sex in a coffin with an Atari-playing religious radio host (the Atari feels anachronistic in Meyer’s universe until she tweaks its controls like nipples) while the pair sing “Give Me That Old Time Religion”, Meyer assaults the viewer with a trademark rapidfire montage of America’s dumps, boudoirs, and radio towers, this time with a welcome return to the pastel voids of his early “nudie cuties”, particularly The Immoral Mr. Teas. I could’ve ridden the wave of that eccentric intro forever, but it promptly crashed on the jagged shores of pointless sexual assault & the fun was over.

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens‘ conflict centers on an otherwise-loving husband who can only perform sexually when engaging in anal intercourse. This plot was reportedly concocted by Meyer when his then-girlfriend (and Ultra-Vixens star) Kitten Natividad introduced the aging director to anal play, a practice he found most distasteful. At first the conflict plays as if the husband is being shamed for working instead of attending to his wife’s sexual needs, a classic Meyer plot. As he crunches numbers in the living room, his wife masturbates with a comically oversized vibrator in a cacophonous attempt to drive him mad. This is an absurdly well-executed example of Meyer’s war of the sexes set-pieces . . . until the husband forces himself on his wife despite her protests. I’m not sure that Meyer realized the full impact his work’s depictions of sexual assault had on his otherwise playful atmosphere. I’m actually not sure that he had much of a grasp on “normal”, healthy sexual behavior at all. That doesn’t make watching it play out any more amusing, though.

It’s no surprise, then, that the husband’s spiritual quest to save his marriage by learning how to “look a good fuck in the eye” is not nearly as interesting as the film’s more general detailing of an oversexed, underserved Middle America. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens has such an uncomfortably surreal view of the world’s garbage men, lingerie salesman, and barroom strippers that they could, with a little tweaking, easily pass for characters in a Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine feature. There are some obscured touches to the film (for example, a coward bleeds yellow; a black man bleeds white; a gay man bleeds pink, all for reasons unknown) & Meyer became increasingly adventurous in his onscreen sexuality, depicting here an extensive pornographic use of a double-ended dildo as well as close-up shots of the head of a penis. Since these weird touches are mixed with the film’s homophobic caricature & clueless depictions of sexual violence, though, it’s impossible to commit to Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens‘ sexually-adventurous charms wholesale. Much like with Up!, Ultra-Vixens features some of Meyer’s best moments when considered in isolation (I particularly like the caveman line “I don’t eat pussy. It’s un-American.”), but they’re poisoned by his most vile tendencies, resulting in the ultimate mixed bag of failure & fascination.

It’s probably a godsend that Ultra-Vixens proved to be Meyer’s last theatrical release (he would later attempt to cash in on the home video market), despite the film’s promise/threat of a The Jaws of Vixen follow-up. Regardless of Ultra-Vixen’s recognizable charms as an over-the-top mess, it’s an ultimately exhausting exercise. Not only is the film exhausting in itself but as yet another assault from a director who had been hammering at the same themes for two solid decades, it was also exhausting in the context of his career at large. The movie concludes with a very touching scene of Meyer himself packing up his camera equipment & calling for his Kitten to pack it in, seemingly conscious that it would be his last outing as a feature film director. Just as with his career as a whole (if not just his post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls work), Ultra-Vixens portrays Meyer as an eccentric character with an overly voracious love of gigantic breasts & a limited understanding of the nature of women & romance that sometimes clouded his more admirable achievements as an intensely-focused artistic eye with a masterful command of the editing process. Even though it’s far from his best film, it’s an appropriately fitting, but complicated end to a bizarre, near-unbelievable career in Hollywood.

-Brandon Ledet

The Seven Minutes (1971)

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fourstar

“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.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! (1967)

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fourstar

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If Russ Meyer’s first venture in in-color soap operas, Common Law Cabin, was a moderately enjoyable sampling of what the director had to offer as a horndog auteur & a misanthrope, his follow up Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! cranked up the heat to an almost insufferable degree, making for a much more memorable picture in its sex-crazed emotional sadism. A lot of what made Common Law Cabin a decent watch was its hateful battle of the sexes vibe. The dialogue had the abrasive quality of a longterm couple breaking up at an impossibly late, drunken hour, unloading all of their aggression onto each other in one last attempt to elicit hurt feelings. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! twists the knife even further, improbably featuring some of Meyer’s most sadistic, anti-romantic exchanges to date. Although screenwriter Jack Moran had penned the early Meyer classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it’s tempting to claim that Good Morning was actually the height of his work with the tirelessly perverted, curmudgeony Meyer. Faster, Pussycat! survived largely on the backs of its over the top performances from the likes of Tura Satana & Haji. Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!, on the other hand, excels on the spiteful, misanthropic dialogue Moran brought to the screen. It’s terrifyingly bleak stuff. It’s also darkly hilarious.

Of course, Good Morning begins with some true-to-Meyer form, besides-the point narration. The narrator asks the audience,“How would you define nymphomania?” Unwilling to settle for that simple question, he goes on to ask for the definitions of a long list of terms that include “irregular union”, “deflower”, “voyeurism”, “strumpet”, “hedonism”, “promiscuity”, “ribaldry” and so on. Although the narrator goes on to promise the definitions of these terms in the film to follow, along with an exploration of the “deepest complexities of modern life as applied to love & marriage in these United States”, this is all, of course, gobbledygook, as should be made apparent by the image of a naked woman galloping through an open field that accompanies the rambling. It isn’t until the narrator begins introducing the film’s central characters that a clear picture of what’s to come takes shape. He promises the story of “eleven losers in a game all of us play” coming together “like a beef stew, a casserole” (I’m guessing sex is the “beef” in that metaphor), a bit of preemptive plot summarizing that feels more like a trailer than an actual beginning to a movie. The go-go dancing, screwing, fistfights, cars, and skinny dipping that make up this would-be trailer are where Russ Meyer’s America starts to feel familiar & grace the screen. This is solidified by the time the narrator introduces Angel, a woman who serves as a “monument to unholy carnality & a cesspool of marital polution prepared to humiliate, provoke, and tantalize.” He also describes her as a “lush cushion of evil perched on the throne of immorality.” Meyer may not have an entirely favorable view of women (to say the least), but he does make them feel extremely powerful in their supposed wickedness.

The best part about this introduction to Angel’s vicious femininity is that she somehow lives up to the hype. Played by Alaina Capri, who filled a very similar role of a sex-crazed sadist in Common Law Cabin, Angel is an adulteress housewife who hates her husband’s guts because of his erectile dysfunction. She expresses this hatred as soon as the film’s first proper scene, a callback to the sexual failings that started the tragic adultery tale Lorna. After her husband Burt fails to get it up, Angel practically spits this insult in his face:“You’re a turd, Burt.” She goes on to say, “You’re the worst in town. Thank God I know somebody in the country.” When Burt complains about her infidelity, she shoots back, “My life is such a blank. I gotta fill it with something.” To his credit, Burt has some nasty, hate-filled things of his own to say. When Angel twists the knife with the line, “I lead you to it, spread it all out, ready & waiting and suddenly you got no appetite,” Burt retorts, “Well I don’t enjoy a picnic that cockroaches have beaten me to.” Yikes. This conversation is Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! in a darkly bitter nutshell. It’s funny stuff, but goddamn is it ever ugly. Burt is played in the film by Stuart Lancaster, who filled the role of the maniacal, train-hating, crippled paterfamilias in Faster, Pussycat!. By combining Lancaster’s natural ease with bitterness & Capri’s knack for cold, cuckolding provocations, Meyer created a powder keg of seething hatred. It’s a sight to behold.

Besides the film’s acerbic dialogue, there’s plenty of other ridiculousness to enjoy. Most notably, Faster, Pussycat! star Haji returns to the Meyer fold here to play some sort of natural, feral witch that meows like a cat & ostensibly cures Burt’s medical condition through vaguely defined sex magic. It’s ridiculous. There’s also a continuation of the swanky Gidget music of Common Law Cabin that brings some ill-deserved levity to what’s mostly a morbid, hateful affair and the would-be passion of the film’s big love-making scene is interrupted by absurd circumstances – a farmer’s report on the radio & the intrusion of Burt’s drunken teenage daughter. The film also sees the return of a new visual trick Meyer started with Common Law Cabin, displaying the opening credits on physical objects (this time they’re painted on mailboxes), as well as the return of nudity in Meyer’s dramatic work for the first time since the black & white “roughies” Lorna & Mudhoney got him in a heap of not-worth-it legal trouble.

These points of interest aside, it really is Jack Moran’s dark, hateful, anti-romance dialogue that makes Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! such a memorable piece of work. It would be Moran’s fifth & unfortunately final script for Russ Meyer, including the films Erotica, Wild Gals of the Naked West, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and, of course, Common Law Cabin. Besides Meyer’s eventual, unholy union with Roger Ebert, Moran proved to be the best writer the director ever partnered with, especially if you focus your attention on those last three credits. In appreciation of Moran’s contribution to the Meyer aesthetic and just because it’s hilariously inane, I’m going to close this review with his final words on a Russ Meyer project, the closing passage of Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!

“That’s keeping one’s family together the hard way. Yet while history has proven that might does not always make right and possession is 9/10ths of the law, more often than not what’s worth owning is worth fighting for, whether it be life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, Mom’s apple pie, or even something as basic as sex. And don’t go knocking it. That three letter word makes a mockery of the four letter ones that try to cheapen it. It’s a wonderful game for people of all ages. And even for losers it’s worth a try. That’s Good Morning . . . and Goodbye!.

-Brandon Ledet

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

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An offscreen narrator beckons us into a black & white underworld like a carnie ushering rubes into a mysterious tent, “Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word & the act.” Promises of a “salacious new breed” of women whose “very existence are synonymous with violence” are followed by typical Russ Meyer rapidfire images– gogo dancers filmed from empowering low angles, jukeboxes, spinning records, leering men shouting “Go, baby! Go!”, etc. As soon as half a minute into Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! you already get the distinct feeling that Russ Meyer has finally made his masterpiece, eleven films & six years into a bizarre career still with a long way to go, baby, go. It’s a jazzy, psychedelic vibe just as much as it is a feature film, a true work of art that somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts. It’s also a very simple example of the “roughie” picture Meyer had been more or less tooling with since he broke away from his Immoral Mr. Teas-imitating nudie cutie work & decided to get much, much darker in his cinematic hondoggery. With Lorna & Mudhoney, Meyer was on the verge of accomplishing something truly great within the roughie genre, but fell just short. Faster, Pussycat! is that greatness.

At the center of this greatness is three larger than life superwomen: Varla (a beyond real Tura Satana), Billie (newcomer Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji, who was the sole highlight of Meyer’s misogynistic abomination Motorpsycho!). Varla, described here as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron” is the undisputed leader of this girl gang & the undisputed highlight of the film. She runs a tight ship, leading her two cohorts to recklessly drive roadsters across a desert hellscape (Meyer’s specialty, because the perilous locations fondly reminded him of his life-threatening time spent as a WWII combat photographer) & torment any little pissant insects that have the misfortune to fall into her web along the way. While playing chicken & generally causing havoc, they encounter such insects in Linda (Sue Bernard, who is a literal baby) & her dumb-as-bricks beau Tommy (Ray Barlow). When challenged to a time trial race by Tommy, Varla barks “I don’t beat clocks, just people.” She follows up that promise by more or less karate chopping the schmuck to death while his girlfriend is held in captive horror. A lot of the dialogue in Faster, Pussycat! is delivered this way; one-liners are shouted atonally in an adversarial tone Meyer first struck in his near-likeable Mudhoney. Varla & her girls are more female impersonators than actual women, striking the image of exaggerated cartoon versions of violent femininity. When a still-alive Tommy offers Varla a soft-drink she retorts “Honey, we don’t like nothing soft. Everything we like is hard!,” a line that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a drag show. It’s no wonder that this film turned a young weirdo John Waters into a lifelong Meyer fan.

After Tommy’s early demise, the girls move on to their next male targets: a physically crippled, thoroughly vile curmudgeon (played by a pitch perfect Stuart Lancaster) and his two sons: good cop & dumb cop (Paul Trinka & Dennis Busch, respectively). Varla & the gang arrive on the curmudgeon’s farm practically dragging the traumatized Linda by her hair and immediately start scheming to rob the three men blind. The evil, crippled paterfamilias, of course, has his own schemes, mostly involving unsavory activities targeted at the much younger, much freaked-out Linda. His youngest, simplest son is first depicted as a stuttering mess gently nuzzling a kitten, but is quickly revealed to be quite a threatening tool when manipulated by his old man. Not that any threat they could possibly pose as a pair could match the brute strength of the superhuman Varla, who always seems to be poised to take control of any situation through pure, unadulterated violence. The result of this cosy set-up is a tense, divided household. Two rival, isolated gangs grit their teeth in each other’s presence, aching for someone to make the first move so they can start to draw blood, a true testament to a war of the sexes vibe Meyer introduced to his work as early as Europe in the Raw & Lorna, a contentious atmosphere that would follow him through the end of his bizarre career.

Although Faster, Pussycat! is a brisk 83 minutes of carnage, it’s near-impossible to touch on everything that makes it great in a short-form review. Rapidfire sex jokes, transgressive (for its time) representations of homosexuality, stark black & white cinematography, incredible shots framed by flanking beautiful denim-clad rumps, a classically tragic/climactic bodycount that would make Hamlet sweat, every precious frame of Tura Satana’s performance as Varla, the list goes on. Faster, Pussycat! is the moment when the self-propelling rhythms and seething anger of Meyer’s work really start to take hold. It’s no wonder that Roger Ebert says of the film in his memoir Life Itself, “That was when it first registered that there was a filmmaker named Russ Meyer, and he was the same man who made The Immoral Mr Teas.” Meyer had arrived as an artist & his first significant work was a real doozy. There was a palpable violence to the film, especially in the scenes were Stuart Lancaster’s curmudgeon angrily mumbles to himself about passing trains and where Tura Satana manhandles underage actress Sue Bernard in a too-believable violent manner. When Linda pleads, “All I want to do is go home! Please let me go home!”, it may as well be Bernard pleading directly to Russ. There is real terror in her eyes.

Still, despite all of its brutality, the film has a compulsively fun vibe to it that makes it perfect fodder for midnight movie screenings & is a decidedly sexy picture solely to the credit of its three leads, given that there is no nudity & no fornication typical to a Meyer film (although it stops just short on both counts). All of this greatness came from a very simple idea: after filming a bunch of male brutes beating on women in the vile picture Motorpsycho!, Meyer thought, “Why don’t I have the women beat up men for a change?” Screenwriter Jack Moran (who had been with Meyer since the nudie cutie days of Erotica & Wild Gals of the Naked West) built a wonderfully strange, violently tense world from there & the rest is trash cinema history. It would be another five years or six pictures before Meyer could even come close to topping this achievement with the beyond-reason Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and some (not me) would contend that even that picture can’t match the lightning-in-a-bottle magic he captured in Pussycat!. The film is that remarkable.

-Brandon Ledet