By Christopher Sharrett.
The Criterion Collection’s release on Blu-ray of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls might bring accusations of slumming. Such accusations won’t come from me. I have long seen Meyer as one of the great American satirists of low-rent cinema, able to rip the nation and its entertainment to shreds while still indulging his infantile taste for female pulchritude (something that brings qualification to any critical judgment). Meyer is our Petronius, chronicling the postwar decay that set in at the first moment of breast-beating triumphalism.
After learning his craft in the Army, Russ Meyer eventually became the dean of soft-core porn, with titles like The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), Mondo Topless (1966), and Faster, Pussycat! Kill!, Kill! (1965). Meyer’s fixation on large female breasts has always struck me as a Rabelaisian comment on the American male’s obsession with this body part, suggesting an eternal need for mother. I recall waiting about in the garages of my home town while my father had the family car repaired. I would inevitably spot a greasy calendar on the wall, featuring the required image of a half-naked woman, her body arched, her bare breasts emphasized. At a pre-pubescent heterosexual young age, I was aroused – within a few years I was mainly curious. What was it about this stuff? The female breasts suggested a taboo easily broken, with this part of the female body the most historically vulnerable to exploitation. Over the years, the culture of male voyeurism drifted to other parts of the female – the buttocks, the vagina, the anus. The trajectory might suggest something about the decay of society, from nurturance to defecation. My introduction to porn suggested to me the alienation at the heart of male sexuality under patriarchy, and the need for body fetishism as a replacement for authentic interaction with women, hardly a revelation on my part.
Russ Meyer seemed to share my amazement. Of course one can argue that he partakes of that which he spoofs, knowing that sex sells. Meyer’s fixation on his “buxotics” conveys his own sexual longings while his puns and conglomerated diction jab at American advertising culture.
Meyer is an authentic auteur, writing, directing, producing, and photographing all of his on-the-cheap movies. He dutifully uses an exaggerated version of the “classic Hollywood style,” and with a vengeance. His films flourish shot/countershot, high and low angles, and above all, in his later phase, push-processed color that verges on the cartoonish. He may be close to Godard in suggesting “this is the cinema you seem to want.” Meyer is famous for cutting a shot of a person speaking to the person spoken to, just as the speaker is finishing his/her last line of dialogue. Meyer may be the first to introduce cartoon mania to the American cinema through his impatient editing, and especially through his version of Technicolor that renders the landscape obscenely garish. There is as much satire in his themes as in his images of America. Common Law Cabin (1967) turns the American dream of a plush summer home into a bent romp about a grifter and his dilapidated tourist shack on the edge of a swamp. Cherry, Harry, and Raquel (1970) is about the ever-popular (certainly now) topic of border patrol, as a small-time hoodlum and a corrupt cop engage in drug running with the help of a caricatured Mexican and the hindrance of a berserk, thoroughly Hollywoodized Native American, who eventually brings the degraded antics to a crashing halt. Amid the bouncing bosoms, Meyer gives the middle finger to America. The joke is explicit in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), based on Our Town (down to an off-camera “stage manager”), with small town America a rural slum adjacent to a junkyard. We are introduced to the town’s good citizens: a racist, sadist, and a Meyer fetish: Martin Bormann (always played by Henry Rowland), the unaccounted-for Nazi leader who became a topic of pop culture guesswork. He shows up in several Meyer films – as a bartender, a gas station owner, the everyday sort one meets on Main Street. Meyer suggests, with scathing intelligence, that Nazis fit easily into American scenery and its everyday assumptions.
Many of Meyer’s late films have long, windy, hyper-serious and deliberately clichéd voiceover introductions and wrap-ups that supply enough court-mandated “socially redeeming value” to ward off accusations of pornography. The voiceovers fill that function while adding more satire, more contempt for the way movies have to appease bluenoses.
Meyer became so popular that in 1969 the Hollywood industry, of which he constantly made sport, let him in the door with the Twentieth-Century Fox production Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which a long crawl under the opening credits reminds us is not a sequel to Mark Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trashy novel about aspiring models and starlets hooked on pharmaceuticals, Valley of the Dolls (also released, for reasons that escape me totally, by Criterion).
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seemed to be Meyer’s sell-out, but for all its commercial success Meyer’s time in the Majors was limited. His next studio film, The Seven Minutes (1971), adapted from more trash by Irving Wallace, died at the box office, sending Meyers back to his own devices, but again at lower budgets.
Beyond the Valley appears to be Meyer’s send-up of the Sixties, as an all-female rock band travels to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. As the women set out with their male groupie, we get a quick montage of Los Angeles that is an Eisenstein exercise; we get a lesson in dialectics as we see a seedy image of that awful urban sprawl colliding with an image of Hollywood glitz. The band runs into trouble in the form of rock impresario Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar, in a role rivalling that of Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Z-Man was based on producer Phil Spector, who was convicted of killing a woman in 2007, making Meyer prescient). Z-Man and his coterie, including blond beefcake superstar Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), a take-off of the gay man re-closeted by Hollywood, are in perpetual heat. The girl band, renamed the Carrie Nations, is on its way to fame and fortune until all hell breaks loose. The movie’s penultimate reel turns into a spoof of the Charles Manson murders. An orgy goes comically berserk, with Z-Man ripping open his Prince Valiant shirt to reveal breasts, as Lance, naked except for a leopard-skin bikini, writhes hog-tied and well-oiled on the carpet. The frustrated Z-Man beheads him with Excalibur as the Twentieth-Century Fox fanfare fills the soundtrack. Two women are shot dead, one with the pistol imitating a penis, slowly entering the sleeping woman’s willing mouth in a moment of comic-grotesque Freudianism. But Meyer concludes with the mandated happy ending, including a group marriage and a scene of a young woman helping her crippled boyfriend through a verdant field, a scene styled and scored after shampoo commercials. The pious voiceover appears as the film ends.
I said that Beyond appears to be a send-up of the Sixties. Meyer is actually taking on the media representation of the Sixties, with the pop band the Strawberry Alarm Clock posed as representative of the era’s rock, nude love-ins (in Meyer’s usual glossy color) a constant, the grossest psychedelia omnipresent, and the Manson parody made apocalyptic, the avatar of “end of Aquarius,” as declared by every news magazine. To this day, Manson is viewed not just as another psychopath with some gullible lackeys, but as a prophet of liberalism’s doom.
Meyer knows that our gentle sensibilities are social affectations: Deutschland Uber Alles is the film’s opening theme, reappearing as the mayhem unfolds (actually, the murders first appear at the film’s opening, Meyer not giving a hoot about suspense, or even plot, as things fall apart to allow the unrestrained image make his points).
The film has the added credential of being written by the late reviewer Roger Ebert, which gave the film a little hip cachet years after it was made. In fact, Ebert seems simply to be copying Meyer’s style of writing, with each line dripping Meyer’s combination of corniness and sarcasm. Still, some of the lines stick, like Z-Man presiding over an orgy with the pronouncement “This is my happening and it freaks me out,” words that John Lazar could hardly utter and are probably Meyer’s best-remembered snatches of dialogue.
Is Meyer an American avant-gardist? I would argue so. He tears apart most genres, thumbs his nose at the Hollywood style (while showing sometimes extraordinary skill with a camera) while giving the public what it wants. At moments his films make me think of a straight, paunchy, lecherous Kenneth Anger. He might also be a latter-day H. L. Mencken in making sport of the middle-class “boobisie” (was the word better applied?) and its predilections
There is a question as to why Criterion undertook this restoration, since the UK’s Arrow Films issued its own Blu-ray several years ago. The Criterion version appears to copy Arrow down to the supplements, and the Arrow edition includes Meyer’s other Fox film, The Seven Minutes. Criterion’s rendering is arguably crisper, and the obvious choice for those without an all-region player.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International.