Pandora Peaks (2001)

twostar

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In the two decades between Russ Meyer’s last proper theatrical release, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, and his straight-to-video swan song, Pandora Peaks, the once-on-top-of-the-world pervert auteur suffered a long line of never-completed projects. He mostly attempted to continue his thread of warped, post-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls retreads of his former glory days that started with Supervixens. This included the never-realized The Jaws of Lorna; The Jaws of Vixen; Blixen, Vixen, and Harry; Mondo Topless, Too; Up the Valley of the Beyond; and Kill, Kill, Pussycat! Faster!. Even more intriguing were the announced anthology projects Hotsa, Hotsa & the reportedly 17 hour in length The Breast of Russ Meyer. Worse yet was the nearly-realized Sex Pistols film Who Killed Bambi?, with a Roger Ebert screenplay ready to go. Dejected by the endless assault of false starts, Meyer had pretty much resigned himself to retiring from filmmaking altogether & focusing on his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast (which actually did see the light of day). It wasn’t until a friend introduced him to the money-making possibilities of the home video market that he decided to return to his home behind the camera.

Pandora Peaks is a home video advertisement for its eponymous stripper/porn star. A supposed “documentary on Pandora at the peak of her popularity, the film plays like an episode of HBO’s Real Sex or a Playboy TV exclusive. Narrated by Meyer himself, Pandora Peaks resurrects the rapid-fire montage & non sequitur background chatter of the feverish go-go dancing nightmare Mondo Topless, but distinctly lacks that film’s white hot passion. You can also find traces of his home movie tourism in Europe in the Raw in sequences featuring a Hungarian stripper named Tundi (whose “interview” dialogue is provided by Meyer vet Uschi Digard), but again the film lacks any of the paranoid jingoism that made that “documentary” special. Perhaps the saddest part of the whole going-through-the-motions affair is that he director continuously references the glory days of past works in the film, particularly the successes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As clips from better Meyer times & shots of Pandora doing her thing at old shoot locations roll in, it’s apparent that the director is in an exhausted, retrospective mood, clearly disinterested in making earnest art out of what ultimately feels like a DVD extra.

There are some residual Meyer charms lurking in Pandora Peaks, mostly in the way the innocuous narration mixes harshly with the supposedly titilating imagery to crate a disorienting effect. As Pandora herself tells fond childhood stories about her enormous breasts & her over-active libido, Meyer blandly intones passages from his 1000+ page autobiography A Clean Breast. His anecdotes about how his boob fetish saved him from a dull life toiling away in a battery factor & why he loves to go fishing with his old war buddies are oddly sober & level-headed, far from the unfocused ramblings of the madman vision in his previous two pictures: Up! & Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. The best effect the film has is in its way of lulling the viewer in to a dulled, hypnotic state, one occasionally interrupted by slide whistle & sqeaking toy sound effects. In its worst moments, though, it’s an entirely dismissable home video of a nightmarish Dallas strip club on a field trip. Even excusing his diminished enthusiasm, Meyer’s aesthetic didn’t translate well to the modern, plastic era. The plastic Walkmans & modern street signs of Pandora Peaks have nothing on the old world radios & hand-painted advertisements of Mondo Topless, Similarly, the director’s love of gigantic breasts had reached its crescendo in its final picture, with Pandora trying to pass off her HHH-sized busom as a natural phenomenon, fooling no one.

If Meyer hadn’t already entered the arena of self-parody critics had been accusing him of since Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Pandora Peaks pretty much solidified the transition. It’s a little disappointing that his career ended with such an empty exercise instead of a more ambitious project like Who Killed Bambi? or The Breast of Russ Meyer, but there are honestly worse possible fates. At least Pandora Peaks is far from the morally reprehensible depths of Blacksnake or Motorpsycho!, except maybe in a couple isolated moments of casual homophobia. The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which the auteur & eternal perv is yearning in some way to make sense of his own career, reaching back to past glory & repeatedly cutting to a mosaic representation of his own face as if frustratingly gazing into a mirror & asking what will become of his legacy. 15 years after Pandora Peaks & 11 years after Meyer’s death the answer to that question is still ambiguously hanging in the air. He’s a tough artist to pigeonhole, a complicated brute of a man that defies you to defend everything he’s said & done in its entirety. And yet he’s made some of the most vibrant, idiosyncratic films the world has ever seen. The question is what are we to do with the mess he’s left behind? It’s been fun picking through the pieces of the wreckage, but I doubt I have any significant answer to that conundrum now that I’ve made it through to the other side. I doubt I ever will.

-Brandon Ledet

Supervixens (1975)

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fourstar

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“Is the fucking you get worth the fucking you get?”

The back-to-back financial failures of Russ Meyer’s near-campless Blacksnake & The Seven Minutes left the director pretty shaken. Runaway successes like Vixen! & Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had inflated Meyer’s already oversized ego to the point where he was convinced that the sex film was a fixture of his past, something he had outgrown. Although I felt the vicious critical reception of The Seven Minutes was largely unjustified, audiences were very clear that Meyer films without over-the-top silliness (& endless parades of gigantic breasts) just weren’t doing it for them. The director heard them loud & clear. Supervixens was supposed to be Meyer’s return to his roots, a back to the basics tour through his (recent) past life as a sexploitation schlockmeister. Self-reflection wasn’t the only thing on the director’s mind, though. Fresh from a nasty divorce from actress Edy Williams (a featured player in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Meyer let his troubled love life poison his work even more than it ever had before. The vitriolic war of the sexes the director had explored before in his delightfully hateful soap operas Good Morning . . . and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin paled in comparison to the (literal) romantic warfare he punished the world with in Supervixens.

In its own strange way, Supervixens plays like a greatest hits of Russ Meyer’s past achievements. The film is crawling with “super” versions of bombshells from Meyer’s past work: SuperCherry, SuperLorna, SuperSoul, SuperHaji, SuperVixen, etc. Callbacks to classic lines like the “Suck it!” snake bite scene from Motorpsycho! & the “Can’t wait to strap on your man sometime” line (wow, that really has changed meaning over the past few decades) are almost word-for-word passages from old screenplays. Then there’s the farm life pastiche from Mudhoney, Mudhoney‘s despicable portrayal of a deaf & mute “perfect woman”, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!‘s desert sands drag racing, and the mindless go-go dancing of his “documentaries” Mondo Topless & Europe in the Raw. The difference is that the ugliness of Meyer’s past work is cranked up to an impossible heat, one that intentionally corrupts the frivolity on display with a severely misanthropic take on the state of male-female romance.

At first it may seem that the war of the sexes on display in Supervixens is no more dangerous or violent than it is in Meyer’s past films, but it gets rough. Clint, a brutish gas station attendant, is shamed for ignoring the advances of his oversexed wife & eventually blows his top, berating her in the following tirade: “Always dealing from a position of strength, blowing my hard-earned  bread . . . Angel #1, screw everybody else. Giver her what she wants, when she wants it, how she wants it. Money! A shit pile of it, just lay it on Angel. Forget where it comes from, right?” Not one to take this lying down (after she’s through having sex, anyway), SuperAngel taunts Clint into a frenzy until he punches her & winds up in trouble with the law. SuperAngel then seduces Harry, the police officer in charge of the case, in order to further punish her husband, only to discover that Harry is impotent (another classic conflict in Meyer’s work). SuperAngel then turns her womanly villainy on Harry, taunting him with homophobic slurs & shouts of “All those muscles & not the one that counts! Get out of my  bedroom, you phony!” Henry reacts . . . poorly, stabbing SuperAngel in the shoulder just before stomping her to death in a bathtub. That bathtub stomping is one of the most violent attacks I’ve ever seen on film, much less in Meyer’s work, and it’s followed by a ridiculous, cartoonish death-by-electricity finisher. As a whole, the scene is Supervixens in a nutshell: horrific violence in one breath & over-the-top camp in the next. It’s a difficult combo to rationalize, but so is most of Russ Meyer’s catalog.

After the brutal bathtub scene, Clint is convinced that he’ll be blamed for Harry’s murder of his wife, so he hits the road in an attempt to escape the charges. It’s on this cross-country trip that he has run-ins with hot-to-trot bartenders, farmer’s wives, motel owner’s daughters, and diner waitresses (all of which sound like the set-ups to bawdy jokes or letters to Penthouse) in a Middle-America take on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. After that bit of adultery-laden silliness, SuperAngel magically reappears both as a goody-two-shoes version of herself named SuperVixen and as a Greek chorus ghost version of her former incarnation. I’m not going to pretend that this particular detail makes sense in any way, because the movie doesn’t either. Following SuperAngel’s transformation, the Supervixens‘ war of the sexes becomes literal as Harry catches up with the now-happy  couple of Clint & SuperVixen, attempting to blow them up with stolen dynamite on a desolate mountaintop while SuperAngel’s ghost comments on the action from the mountainside perch of out-of-nowhere bathtubs & bed frames. It’s pretty nuts, but it’s also so vile in its violence that it’s difficult to fully enjoy as campy entertainment.

A few people cite Meyer’s next film, Up!, as the early signs of the director’s gradual mental decline & as a hint that he may have dealt with unaddressed issues of repressed homosexuality. Although many of the director’s friends & fans would deny both accusations outright & chalk up the bizarre crumbling of Meyer’s plots and his newfound interest in gigantic dildos & half-dressed beefcake to a growing disinterest in traditional narrative structure, I find that there’s a good deal of credence in those two claims. In fact, I think traces of Meyer’s mental decline & possible bisexual attraction surface as soon as Supervixens. There’s no doubt that there’s some sort of subliminal symbolism at work in Clint & Harry’s violent war over SuperVixen, but what it means exactly is anybody’s guess. At times it feels like it could be that Meyer’s conscience (Clint) & his violent sexual id (Harry) are battling it out as an external projection of an internal struggle, whether that was a conscious decision or not (probably not). Still, there’s enough homosexual subtext to support a possible romantic connection between the two characters. The two are shown congenially entering a bathroom together, sensually fellating cigars, stroking police batons, and often spurning the sexual advances of women they obviously hate.  Even with all of the film’s the-lady-doth-protest-too-much homophobic slurs (when Harry turns down a blowjob from SuperAngel, for instance, he spits “Knock that queer shit off!”), there’s way too much macho beefcake on display between the pair for that reading to be dismissed entrirely. Even their character names, Clint Ramsey & Harry Sledge, sound like the lead credits for a gay porno.

Russ Meyer made a deeply strange film with Supervixens, one that earned its X-rating from its violence alone (not that the boobs didn’t pitch in). It was validated both  by the public at large (making an impressive $17 million profit from a measly $221,000 budget), but also from Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock himself, who reportedly had immense respect for the brutality of the bathtub stomping scene. It’s tempting to read a lot into the film’s homoerotic subtext mentioned above, but there’s just so much unusual-for-Meyer weirdness going on in this film– female on male rape, gigantic breasts used as weapons, sudden use of Nazi imagery & sound cues, female masturbation, rampant F-bombs, Olympic fucking that tears down beds & buildings, reincarnated ghosts — that it’s difficult to say if Harry & Clint’s potential romantic attraction means any more or less than anything else in play.

The only clear thing going on in Supervixens is Meyer lashing out at ex-wife Edy Williams and, thus, womanhood at large (it’s probably no coincidence that the title sounds similar to “supervillains”). I think the rest of the film is a coin flip between either Meyer’s growing indifference for  clear narrative structure or the early signs of his fading mental facilities, something apparently very recognizable in his final three films.  The result of that dichotomy’s internal struggle is a strange work both at times deliriously campy & disturbingly misanthropic. It’s difficult for me to say if these dueling tones ever reach a harmonious balance. It’s more like they co-exist side-by-side, difficult to digest, amounting to the cinematic version of what Clint orders from his reincarnated wife when he finds himself in her roadside diner: “a cheeseburger with everything.” It’s just that the “everything” in question sometimes includes enough hatred & violence to spoil the trashy, fast-food charms of the cheeseburger camp.

-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