As you know, I not only write my own blog here but also contribute to a great site called Videotape Swapshop. I’m very lucky to have the guy that runs the site, Michael Commane, write this great piece on Russ Meyer and soviet montage in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. Enjoy guys!
As an underfed film student many moons ago (far too many to care for nowadays) I took a course in early Soviet Cinema. In it, we were told about the theory of montage, the juxtaposition of images to create emotional engagement and how Soviet filmmakers had created a new cinematic language in their commitment to the fast, rhythmic editing of politically charged symbolism. We duly watched screenings of the key examples. Eisenstein’s October, Strike and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera were all wheeled out in front of us. One day, after a boozy lunch, we were shepherded into the lecture hall to watch The Battleship Potemkin – without the accompaniment of a score. Needless to say, the gentle tick-ticking of the flapping projection reels acted like a metronome and sent the students gathered in the back rows, myself included, into a drunken snooze. To this day, I can only really recall the Odessa Steps sequence as a weird half dream. Oh wait, that’s The Untouchables.
Now the reason I mention this is because, that same evening, after a session at the Union drinking cheap beer and smoking cheaper pot, my fellow underfed student pals and I went back to our digs and chucked Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens into the trusty VCR.
We didn’t do this to be clever or ‘owt – we just wanted to see some tits, but that evening did have a long-lasting affect on me. In a stoned, drunken haze, I realized Meyer had pilfered the Soviet style of montage and used it to meet his own ends. It gave me comfort (and still does) to realize that Film as Art (as our stuffy Bordwell and Thompson text dictated) was just as applicable in the lowest common denominators of film and film appreciation. Not that I consider Russ Meyer to be the lowest common denominator of anything, you understand – though I challenge anyone who claims to have approached his films for the first time to, er, “stroke” their chin; only that it occurred to me that film technique and film theory inhabit the public domain and, as such, are made equally available to, say, Patrick G. Donahue as they are to Orson, fucking, Welles.
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, like a lot of Russ Meyer movies, is book-ended by the rich moral commentary of John Furlong who, as the voice of God, describes the small town American milieu of sexual peccadillo. The space in-between, the saucy parable if you will, concerns itself with the fraught relationship between Levonia and Lamar, and specifically, “rear window redneck” Lamar’s libido – fuelled almost exclusively by “back yard” love-making. Naturally, this immoral habit puts stress on the couple’s love life and poor nympho wife Levonia (the vivacious Kitten Natividad) is left with no option but to screw a multitude of grotesque characters – a bug-eyed traveling salesman, a horny teenager, a sweaty brute of a bin man, in a bid to get her conventional rocks off. Along the way, there’s a trip to a gay dentist marriage counselor, some tomfoolery with the fleshy Junkyard Sal (June Mack) and, most bizarrely, a baptism sequence played out on air at the Rio Dio Radio station courtesy of the morbidly endowed disc-jockey Sister Eufaula Roo.
It should go without saying that Meyer throws in an obligatory reference to his “other” favourite subject – the perverted Nazi, and in this instance, Henry Rowland as the Martin Boorman type, gets his kicks in a coffin while buxom beau Ann Marie wiggles about above him. But only when she’s not chewing bubblegum and playing Pong.
Now, if narrative in Russ Meyer movies required a job description, it would be pretty basic at the best of times. It’s all pretty perfunctory and the director’s previous career as a war photographer betrays his predilection for the visual emphasis in filmmaking. Where we might say the narrative function is undermined, it’s probably more appropriate in the case of Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens to describe it as being whole-heartedly, even aggressively, suppressed by a visual bombardment, an artillery barrage of cinematic methods that borrow from the Soviet arsenal. These include, but are not limited to, incredibly quick cutting, attention to detail in the mise en scene and, best of all, a stubbornly static camera.
With the exception of some location photography, the camera never seems to move in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens and the effect is something close to being faced with a stills projector strung out on amphetamines. This stylistic approach is not uncommon in Meyer’s films. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls played with sound synchronicity to the image and extreme bursts of static repetition, and before that Mondo Topless had enjoyed immobile depth in frame – all close-ups on swinging breasts one moment and long shots of the go-go girls they belonged to, gyrating in the distant landscape, the next.
Composition is Meyer’s art and for my money, he’s better at it than the Russians any day of the week. Well placed furniture, like the standing lamp which Levonia uses to burn the garbage guy’s balls are theatrical props that litter the micro stages. The fact that Meyer’s camera refuses to glide around these items gives them new meaning. They become either 2-dimensional articles that define the space or symbolic, often phallic, things that work in the absence of movement elsewhere.
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens further celebrates the faux Kinetic approach by indulging in lurid swathes of shocking primary colour. In fact it is the film’s most distinctive attribute. Bed springs are painted bright red to stand out in the low-level photography of a sex scene, blood is colour coded to characterise those who bleed it and every conceivable surface and backdrop is given a lurid feature colour treatment- likely to sake the thirst of the most enthusiastic interior designer.
By using montage and defining it with violent colour, Russ Meyer positions himself left of the straight forward and functional exploitation filmmaking principle, getting closer to a psycho-saucy Art House style instead. You could even say the leaning towards Formalism in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens makes Meyer the cinematic equivalent of a Mondrian or Rothko. Though there is more pubic hair and mammary action to sift through here than you’d typically find in the Louvre or the Tate.
Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens is not Russ Meyer’s best film. Though it is my favourite. It is filled with visual quirks and lovingly crafted with attention to detail. The story is a load of old tosh, but it is told in such an incredibly inventive and comic book fashion, that it is hard to dislike. And in any case, it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than watching a bunch of miserable Russian sailors running around in silence for over an hour…