Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! (1969)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

campstamp

When Russ Meyer voluntarily adopted the “X” rating for his first “hard sex” picture (read: softcore porn) Vixen!, he thought the distinction would serve as great free press. In a lot of ways he wasn’t wrong. Vixen! turned a huge, multi-million dollar profit for Meyer & opened a lot of doors to successes he wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise. Unfortunately, not all of the attention of being the first American-made, X-rated release brought Vixen! was positive, though. A lot of moral policing followed the film across the country, resulting in, among other complications, arrests of projectionists & audience members at multiple screenings in the Deep South. In response, Meyer opened his next “hard sex” picture with the following rant:

“IN THE FACE OF RECENT EVENTS, SOME OF WHICH THREATEN OUR VERY EXISTENCE, THERE ARE STILL THOSE WHO CONCENTRATE THEIR PUNY EFFORTS IN AREAS WHERE NO CONCERN IS NEEDED. THEY CALL LOVE EVIL . . . THE HUMAN BODY OBSCENE . . . WHERE THEY CAN NEVER BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN BEAUTIFUL. OUR LAKES AND RIVERS FILL SLOWLY WITH DEATH. THE AIR WE BREATHE STRANGLES THE MIGHTY OAK. LITTLE BY LITTLE WE CAN SEE HUMAN COMPASSION AND LOVE GROWING LESS. AND STILL THERE ARE THOSE WHO HAVE THEIR TOY BANNERS OF PROTEST. THEY ATTEMPT TO THINK FOR THE REST OF US. DICTATE OUR FREEDOM OF CHOICE. THEY, THE STRONG AND PURE OF HEART, MUST PROTECT THOSE OF US WHO “THEY” HAVE DECIDED ARE WEAK. WE DO NOT QUESTION THEIR RIGHT TO PROTEST. BUT LET THEIR DECISIONS BE FOR THEMSELVES, FOR NO MAN HAS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE FOR ANOTHER. THINK ABOUT IT!”

Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens in this way, with that full rant scrolling in ALL CAPS on top of a frantic montage of pornographic & industrial imagery, announcing that Russ Meyer’s id was back in full swing. In a lot of ways, Vixen! felt like a toned-down Meyer trying to reshape his bizarrely straight-laced perversions into a  marketable commodity, his weirdo tendencies only showing at the fringes. Cherry ditches that pretense & lets Meyer’s freak flag fly. Here, the chaotic montage work of Mondo Topless meets the soap opera, soft crime machinations of Common Law Cabin to reveal a new, fully-realized Meyer aesthetic that would soon reach its full potential in the Ebert-penned Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Not wasting any time in unleashing its madness upon its victims . . . I mean audience, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! opens with no less than three separate introductions. After the contextless, anti-censorship rant transcribed above, the film’s second opening rails against the “Evil of Marijuana” that “caresses all it comes in contact with.” Adopting some of Europe in the Raw‘s xenophobia (now directed at Mexico) & the industrial narration/pin-ups-in-motion formula of Meyer’s nudie cutie work, the film immediately launches into a second rant, this time against recreational marijuana use. The narrator flatly intones, “Pity the poor potheads, innocent victims subjugating their own free will at the mercy of the pusher, the real predator. Scant sympathy can be given to the parasites who would profit from the weaknesses & fragilities of the ill-informed.” Unfortunately, the film that follows is not exactly Meyer’s version of Reefer Madness. In fact, it has very little to do with marijuana at all. The best I can guess of what he was trying to accomplish there was in saying that just because he was willing to cash in on hippie counter-culture & “free love”, he in no way condoned the drugs that accompanied the scene. That’s Meyer in a nutshell. He’s willing to rail against censorship in one breath, but then chastise the youth for their recreational drugs in the next. To him, an unnatural, fetishistic obsession with gigantic breasts is wholesome & American. Marijuana? Not so much. That egotistical moralizing about What is Right & What’s Not often provides some of Meyer’s most fascinating work. For instance, the director’s new-found love of boobs-touching-boobs lesbian scenes wasn’t nearly as interesting when it was introduced in Vixen! as it is when paired in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! with lines like “I don’t like women messing around with women. It’s un-American.” Meyer’s films work best when you can see his own self-contradicting moral core battling itself on the screen.

If you’re wondering why I’ve only touched on the film’s introductions so far, without even mentioning its central narrative, it’s because they’re relentless. Reportedly, actress Linda Ashton (who played the titular Cherry) stormed off set mid-production, leaving Meyer with a half-completed picture. Perhaps this is what saved Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! from Vixen!‘s made-for-TV-esque mediocrity. After a third introduction sequence (keep in mind this film is only 70 min long) that features a  psych rock theme song, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! finally launches into action, telling an absurdly thin story about Harry, a corrupt, drug smuggling sheriff at the Mexican border, who’s ordered by his higher ups to take out a mysterious whistle-blower/assassin named Apache. Oh yeah, and he’s involved with a red hot nurse named Cherry. And other beautiful women are around also, including a prostitute named Raquel. And these women like to have sex. Some people die. It’s all very loose, as Meyer filled in the gaps of his half-finished scraps with his infamous sign & landscape montages, a naked mystic character named Soul (who recalls Haji’s distinctly similar role in Good Morning . . . And Goodbye!), and levels of sex & violence previously untouched in Meyer’s oeuvre. It’s a beautiful mess.

There are very few innovations brought to the table in Cherry, Harry, and Raquel!. It’s the first Meyer film to graphically suggest fellatio (which is pretty racy for him), the first to feature full-frontal male nudity, and the first to feature a black actress in the raw (a nice change of pace after the racist rants of Vixen!). Instead, Cherry is more remarkable for the way it brings all of Meyer’s old-hat tropes together for a single, incomprehensible picture. The lesbianism & food-fellation of Vixen! (this time it’s a celery stalk, not a dead fish) are back. Reaching further in the past, the violence of Meyer’s black & white roughies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! return here in full color this time in the form of decapitations & bloody gunfights. Also present are the strange back & forth cuts between the sexual & the innocuous, this time mixing the image of the titular Cherry & Raquel making love with Harry fighting Apache over possession of a rifle. There’s also the aforementioned industrial montages, naked frolicking, Wild Gals of the Naked West‘s cowboys & Indians cosplay, and misguided, far-reaching statements about women like a closing monologue that calls them “bi-products of our society, pretty toys to play with, superficial in their make-up, but so necessary to our way of life.” It’s all there.

At the time of its release, Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! was the most Meyerest Meyer picture, a huge improvement upon the largely personality-free Vixen!. It’s a distinction that would be immediately surpassed in his next picture, but it still made for an interesting slice of over-sexed chaos nonetheless. It ended up being a blessing that Meyer had to piece together a half-completed picture in the editing room. I doubt the film would be nearly as fascinating if it were filmed as originally planned.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Overnight (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Usually, filmmakers have a tendency to keep their dark comedy & their sex romps separate. Full-blown sex comedies are usually mindless entertainment more concerned with raunchy gags than existential contemplation & while a black comedy might lighten the mood with an occassional sexual diversion (last year’s sadistic Cheap Thrills comes to mind), it’s rare that sex is its main focus. Even the recent raunch fest Wetlands, which I absolutely loved, kept its dark streak separate from its hedonism, a difficult task for a movie mostly remembered for its ungodly volume of on-screen semen. There might be a reluctance in blending the sexual with the menacing both because it’s awkward to take sex seriously & because sexual menace is difficult to play for a laugh for reasons that should be more than obvious without explanation.

In The Overnight, we have a surprisingly successful homogeneous blend of the black comedy & the sex romp, one where both elements are fused together completely instead of played off each other for a contrasting effect. The movie strikes a consistently terrifying tone through its depiction of underhanded sexual coercion, but somehow never loses grasp of the sillier raunch tangents you’d expect in a typical sex comedy. The effect of this powerful combination is that the sex gags are twice as funny as they’d normally play, thanks to the way they relieve overbearing tension of the the film’s sexual menace. In a lot of ways The Overnight follows the typical party out of bounds story structure of classic black comedies like The Exterminating Angel & Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where in-over-their-heads guests feel compelled to remain at a social function even though the mood has soured, but the four characters at the center of this particular party out of bounds & their surprising tenderness for each other are unique to the genre. It’s a very well-written example of a very familiar story that I have a huge soft-spot for.

Besides the deft balance & gradual escalation of the razor sharp script, The Overnight‘s strongest asset is its cast. Adam Scott & Taylor Schilling are fantastic as the befuddled North Westerners struggling to decide if their Los Angeles party hosts are just having a California-style good time or if they’re swingers trying to take their newfound friends to bed. Jason Schwartzman & Judith Godrèche steal the show as the film’s sexual menace, making both sly & overt sexual advances through maneuevers as simple as a hand on a knee and as ludicrous as an art studio packed with abstract paintings of buttholes. It’s difficult to decide through most of The Overnight whether the L.A. couple is taking advantage of their more uptight out-of-towners guests or if they’re apparent sweetness is genuine. The tension between those two competing readings is a great dynamic and both tones could be read in some of the film’s best scenes, like in a stoned, strobe-lit dance party or in a literal dick-measuring contest by the poolside. It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that what lingers in your mind after the credits is not the film’s individual sex gags, but rather the implications of the relationships that form between the film’s two central couples. It’s both an equally fun & terrifying experience, as well as a must-see for fans of Jason Schwartzman at his most mischievous.

-Brandon Ledet