Heavenly Bodies! (1963)

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three star

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In the four years following the breakout success of Russ Meyer’s debut film The Immoral Mr. Teas, the director mired himself (pun intended) in soulless repetition, churning out a mostly dull sequence of Teas-imitating nudie cuties that nearly broke his spirit by the time he made his fourth picture, Wild Gals of the Naked West. Obviously bored with his own creation, Meyer began to branch out genre-wise in the delightfully hateful shockumentary Europe in the Raw & started to show his true colors as an eccentric misanthrope. That, however, didn’t stop him from returning to the well one last time for a fifth & final nudie cutie, the enjoyably low-key Heavenly Bodies!. Meyer was reportedly not particularly proud of the way Heavenly Bodies! came out, both because of his growing boredom with the nudie cutie as a genre & because of the public’s similar boredom that lead the film to flop financially, but I find that to be a shame. Heavenly Bodies! is not quite as historically significant as The Immoral Mr. Teas or Europe in the Raw, but it does feel like a warm, fond farewell to the director’s pin-up & nudie cutie work, effectively closing that chapter of his life before the next, darker saga began.

Heavenly Bodies! is such a fitting tribute to the culmination of Meyer’s previous works that the subject of the film itself is a love letter to nude photography. It opens with intense close-ups of belly buttons, hair, kneecaps, and (of course) breasts while an industrial film-style narrator (Vic Perrin, who also voiced Europe in the Raw) helpfully explains that “You have just seen the component parts of a woman, a very voluptuous woman.” Meyer’s script goes on to espouse lofty platitudes about how nude models have been the main focus of photography since the invention of the camera & even the most beautiful paintings from fine art masters of the past can’t match the beauty of a nude photograph. Meyer isn’t even content to stop there, continuing to claim that nude photographs, the kind that he himself produced for “glamor magazines”, were the backbone of the US economy. Perrin dryly intones, “It is by no means far fetched to state that America’s entire vast fabric of prosperity, from automobiles to frozen foods, depends on this affinity between beautiful women, camera, and cameraman.” Why is that “by no means far fetched”? Because sex sells, dummy.

Although Heavenly Bodies! is by all means Russ’ love letter to himself, one that even name-checks the director as “Russ Meyer, one of Hollywood’s best known glamor photographers,” it at least vaguely pretends to be something more significant: a documentary on nude photography as a business. An early reenactment in the film retraces “glamor photography” back 30 years to stage a silent film shoot on the beach featuring Meyer vet Princess Livingston rolling around in a swimsuit. Anyone familiar with the elderly Princess Livingston’s toothless, maniacal screen presence (first seen in Wild Gals of the Naked West) should have a ball picturing the lovable coot sarcastically pretending to vamp it up for the camera. Another sequence depicts a pin-up cameraman who learned his trade as a combat photographer in the Army Corps during WWII (just like Meyer) feverishly snapping “glamor” photographs of two beautiful models lounging poolside & (in a particularly intense moment) jumping rope. All the while, the narration rattles off long, detailed lists of camera equipment that the Russ-surrogate is using, drooling just as much over the gear as it is over the bare breasted models. Another excursion involves Meyer himself & his real-life 166th Signal Corps war buddies retreating to the woods with two more cuties to snap more “glamor” photos and drool over more top notch analog camera equipment. The narrator cheekily asks, “Was your class reunion ever like this?” The film more or less goes on this way.

In these scenes, all of Meyer’s pin-up & nudie cutie calling cards are present: the rapid-fire editing, the swanky music, the besides the point narration, the self-glorifying cameos & bit roles for his war buddies, the otherworldly pastel voids, the navel gazing philosophy on the nature of photography, and the lingering effects of WWII. By the time he made Heavenly Bodies! Meyer may have have become bored with the nudie cutie as a format, but he also became extremely adept at injecting his eccentric personality into these by-the-numbers pictures, something he had struggled to do since he created the genre in The Immoral Mr. Teas. In every silly, frivolous minute, Heavenly Bodies! is easily recognizable as a Russ Meyer film, something that’s difficult to say about long stretches of lesser titles like Eve & The Handyman & Erotica. It’s by no means a mind-blowing picture, but it is a fairly enjoyable one.

-Brandon Ledet

Europe in the Raw (1963)

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threehalfstar

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By the time Russ Meyer made his fourth consecutive nudie cutie picture, the dull-yet-oddly-chaotic Wild Gals of the Naked West, his boredom with a genre he had inadvertently created was starting to show. What did not become boring to the tireless pervert, however, was large, naked breasts. As a result, Meyer’s fifth picture, Europe in the Raw, attempted to shift away from the “cutie” part of the nudie cutie format & moved the director’s work ever so closer to the much darker, stranger territory he would later revel in for decades. Unlike his later works, however, Europe in the Raw was far from unique in terms of genre. Part of what made Meyer’s debut, The Immoral Mr. Teas, such a wild, controversial success was that it for the first time combined moving pictures of naked girls with the mainstream comedy. Pre-Teas nudie films usually snuck past censors by treating their own sexual content derisively (when not vainly disguising  themselves as “documentaries” about nudist camps). An old sexploitation tactic was to get away with showing copious amounts of “depraved” behavior by demonizing the participants & punishing them for their transgressions (often pre-marital sex & the resulting back alley abortions) with a well-deserved death in the final act, in effect denouncing the very thing that made the picture fun & interesting in the first place. Europe in the Raw is hilariously guilty of this strategy.

In its opening narration Europe in the Raw boldly promises to be “undoubtedly the most unusual & intriguing documentary film every brought to the screen” that will expose “the stark realism of contemporary life in Europe.” Uh huh. What the film actually exposes is Russ Meyer’s Jingoistic/xenophobic thoughts on the sex trade in Europe (where he had learned his craft as a combat photographer during WWII) & deeply bizarre, self-contradictory relationship with women, whom he simultaneously worshipped & completely misunderstood. It’s fascinating stuff. Packing only short reels of film so they could pass as tourists, Russ & then-wife Eve traveled to a slew of major European cities to film this fiercely American diatribe: Paris, Stockholm, Hamburg, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Brussels, etc. The original plan was to film candid footage on a (loudly humming) camera conspicuously “concealed” in a briefcase with a comically visible window cut out to expose the lens. This was ill-advised. Meyer soon discovered that attempting to film sex workers without their knowledge was a dangerous, life-jeopardizing tactic & decided to instead fake a significant portion of the footage once he was back on American soil. What’s left is a lot of touristy photojournaling, obviously staged footage in which the “hidden” camera itself is filmed in multiple scenes, occasional glimpses of the actually-real, actually-dangerous candid footage Meyer managed to sneak in a couple scattered red light districts (including one terrifying sequence in which he is essentially chasing a leather-clad dominatrix down the street), and some beautiful documentation of European strippers doing their thing. To borrow a phrase from Dana Carvey’s Johnny Carson impersonation, it’s weird, wild stuff.

As with Meyer’s previous four pictures, nearly all of the audible dialogue in Europe in the Raw is provided by an offscreen narrator, in this case Vic Perrin (who would return for Meyer’s next picture & final nudie cutie Heavenly Bodies!). Perrin’s industrial film intonations are strange glimpses into Meyer’s self-contradictory thoughts on both women & Europe, two subjects on which he is far from qualified to comment upon. Meyer’s simultaneously straight-laced & perverted views on these two subjects feel uncomfortable as soon as the opening monologue, where he states that Europe is, like a woman, a “land of many moods […] On the surface it is usually cheerful & happy, but somewhere underneath this pleasant exterior lies cruelty & lust,” going on to describe the continent as “sometimes a virgin, sometimes a libertine.” This is the first true glimpse into the bitter, bizarre war of the sexes that would populate nearly all of Meyer’s future works, to an almost obsessive degree. Europe in the Raw is full of these strangely acidic, but openly salacious musings. In one passage, he describes Amsterdam as “the most prostitute-infested Dutch city” where women are “displayed like sides of beef in the windows of a chop house”, potrays one red light district as “a cesspool of cheap hotels, tawdry bars, and wanton women”, and says of another that “The street clamors with the sound & fury of unbridled passion & manufactured lust, peddled wholesale at outrageous prices.” Worst of all he claims that in these supposed moral cesspools every sexual aberration can be bought except for rape, because every woman walking the street was for undoubtedly for sale. What an vile, insane thought. As enjoyable & transgressive as Russ’ films could be, he was always eager to remind you that at heart he’s a hopelessly cruel misanthrope & a bully, a real piece of shit.

What’s so peculiar about Meyer’s vilification of “women of easy virtue” & his skewed view of a Europe where “exhibition is the rule rather than the exception”, of course, is that he himself is, in essence, a peddler of smut. It’d be much easier to believe Europe in the Raw‘s prudish dialogue if its writer/director hadn’t previously made a fortune selling pin-up photographs & inventing the nudie cutie, essentially establishing himself as a remarkably talented softcore pornographer. For instance, when the narrator half-heartedly scorns European beaches for being “infested with bevies of bikini busters,” the first things that comes to mind is “Bikini Busters!”, the openly-drooling, dubious history of the bikini segment in Meyer’s previous film Erotica. Part of what makes Meyer’s best work so fascinating is this absurd sense of self-contradiction, especially in his treatment of women. Despite the often misogynistic war of the sexes vibes that infect much of his work, Meyer has a God-given knack for making women look powerful on film, (Tura Satana’s turn as Varla in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! being the most infamous example). Although Meyer speaks ill of sex workers & burlesque dancers in Europe in the Raw, he also films them beautifully from drastically low angles that make them look gigantic & powerful. He had a way of verbally tearing women down in his films & in the press, but his obvious reverence for the gender permeates his visual work in an undeniable way and that bizarre dichotomy is noticeable for the first time in his career in Europe in the Raw.

With Europe in the Raw, you can feel the real Russ Meyer starting to show his true colors, hideous warts & all. Even so, he manages to incorporate some of the hokey humor from his previous nudie cutie work, like in an extended ping pong match staged at a (ridiculously fake) Dutch nudist camp, a gag where a chamber pot is emptied on a passing pedestrian, a scene where the Leaning Tower of Pisa rotates full circle like the hands of a clock, and (my personal favorite) an ungodly long sequence of German street signs that feature the words “Fart” & “Fahrt”. Speaking of the “Fart” sequence, finally coming into its own here is Meyer’s talent for blinding, rapid-fire editing. Flashes of European street signs, advertisements, food, bikes, toilets, neon lights, fine art and, of course, bare breasts overwhelm the viewer in a bewildering assault that would eventually reach a fever pitch in his 1970 picture Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Commercial vessels, automobiles, and steel architecture are also filmed in the same low, reverent angles the director films his burlesque dancers, establishing an aesthetic that what would eventually solidify itself as Russ Meyer’s America. All of the basic building blocks of Meyer’s ouevre are present for the first time in Europe in the Raw, right down to the lingering brutality of WWII. Meyer even once described the film (which he was evidently not too proud of, despite its obvious superiority to dreck like Eve & The Handyman and Wild Gals of the Naked West) simply as “Tits and War”. Honestly, if you had to boil the man’s entire career down to just two words, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Similarly, if you wanted to watch the majority of Meyer’s career without tuning in for the stinkers between the milestones, Europe in the Raw wouldn’t be a bad place to start either.

-Brandon Ledet