Like many talented filmmakers there is a general sense that Russ Meyer was great at what he did without much real sense at what those skills were. Meyer often gets called “Eisentenian” in his style, but what does this adjective really mean? This is what makes film such an enjoyable art form, just how persuasive it is – each frame is composed of so many elements that parsing every single decision that goes into making an effect work in a scene can be difficult for even the most hard-working critic. As such, the word “style” gets overused in film criticism, as a placeholder for whatever a film is doing that works. Like a man under hypnosis we get the general sense of purpose but the specifics get blurry.
Film is also expensive enough an art form, and dependent enough on technology, that it is also useful to consider how a filmmaker managed to arrive at those decisions and whether they were under his control at all. How decisions were affected by constraints, as much as the freedom of imagination to put up anything on-screen, is part of appreciating what goes into a filmmaker’s style.
With Russ Meyer, it is possible to simplify the conversation by concentrating solely on his editing skills, since this is such an important part of what makes his films his. Although he had plenty of other talents too, it was his editing that earned him the lofty “Eisensteinian” adjective above. But, like the cliché line about every smut film ever made, writing was not one of his strengths. This was due more to a lack of interest than a lack of effort, Meyer was the kind of filmmaker who preferred to pick up a camera and go than spend months in careful pre-production trying to refine a story. And in any case, he was enough of a realist to know that nobody paid for his films for the dialogue, to recycle another hoary line about the softcore and beyond.
Meyer spent most of his life making low budget films were he controlled almost every decision directly – and were there were major limits to what he could do. Actors were never well paid and never that good, and in any case he was rarely casting for acting talent first and foremost. Films had to be short and quickly made, and re-shoots were hard to come by, a tough limitation for a perfectionist like Meyer. Editing was the way he could hide a lot of these limitations and try to squeeze style out of dried out situations, and so came a prominent part of his directing style.
According to Jimmy McDonough in his biography Big Bosom and Square Jaws, Meyer was often editing on site, taking a van with him with a suit on site to see what he had. This was likely why Meyer’s films, for all their other faults, always have a great sense of rhythm – his editing was reactive, and often informing the film as it went along.
In the case of his first feature and hit, the film was almost entirely made in editing. Saddled with even fewer resources than he’d had before, and friends as actors, the director had to keep the film short and snappy to distract attention always. To screen means both to show and to cover, and very early Meyer showed he was in good control of both. From The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) comes one of the main staples of the Meyer style, the plentiful use of cutaways. Meyer had started his career in industrial films, the corporate videos of those days, and had learnt how a few still shots, some music and a well placed voice over was enough to create a piece that worked. Mr Teas was the sex film as an industrial film, which is appropriate, since there’s never been a larger industry.
So Meyer starts his film with still shots of California, with a largely nonsensical voice-over getting quick to the point of the movie as these images go by: “The guitar as we know it today, came about as a result of many types of earlier stringed instruments. There was first the harp, the lute, then the zither, and mandolin. The guitar is a very sensitive instrument, with “G” being the third string, and is played over a system of frets. Sensitive men have been fretting over G-strings for years!”
Certainly not the obvious way to start your smut film. Unlike the industrial films, where the copy was earnest and mannered, Mr Teas’s voice over is loose and sardonic: this is a tease rather than an open sale. Meyer manages a lot of character in such a short space: that of a fun, subversive movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And this done with almost no resources, just his camera to take what are essentially moving stills and recorded sound. That he had enough confidence to start a film without characters, dialogue or acting showed early on that Meyer was a distinctive filmmaker, one with bold ideas for his films, never mind the genre or budget.
Mr. Teas, saddled with an actor who had the look Meyer wanted but not any experience, also made plenty of use of the point of view shot, much more so than any of his later movies, which for obvious reasons tend to show their characters in medium shot. These uncomplicated techniques allowed Meyer to make a tight film on zero resources. The main shoot took only a four-day weekend but Meyer then spent days putting together additional bits of film, shooting those early shots, adding some more point of view of scenes with local models, slowly layering the film with more and more material. Meyer learnt the lesson that he could create a film himself in the editing room, getting plenty of coverage and putting slowly splicing it together in his mobile Steenbeck. His films usually feel very episodic, born not out of screenwriting rhythms but out of creating short sequences in editing.
With the success of Mr. Teas, Meyer had found a style he could make work in practice, and he made sure to keep learning as an editor, moving away from his still photography, industrial film days, to work that was more dynamic, more in tune with the moving image. Perhaps his best film, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), was the culmination of Meyer the filmmaker. It has one of the best-edited opening sequences of any independent film ever made. Meyer starts on his three leading ladies, with shots of Haji, Tura Sutana and Lori Williams, alternating between six, second vignettes of them go-go dancing shot from the director’s favourite angle (below to above) and a medium shot of the three.
Slowly, Meyer starts to intercut the source of the music, with close up shots of a jukebox.
And finally the punters, from whom Meyer gets great reactions.
Notice how all three elements are shot separately against black backgrounds (in fact each of the three spectators is also shown separately, never all of them together) so Meyer could build this whole sequence separately, without needing them all in the same room, or even to use the same place again. The sense that they are all in the same club is created by rapidly juxtaposing all these different elements together. This is where Meyer gets called “Eisensteinian” by the critics. One of the early proponents of this juxtaposing techniques, the Russian director in his books of montage looked at studies of audience reactions when different still elements where edited close together, a scene followed closely by close up shots of a crying woman created a feeling of sadness, etc. Meyer might not have intellectualized his approach in the way Eisenstein did but understood that film editing meant you didn’t need to start everything in a master shot. Film wasn’t theatre, cut it all together and the audience would get it.
Meyer creates a great rhythm in this opening sequence, slowly decreasing the time he gives to each element, down to a few seconds and then flipping between the dancers and the punters in bursts of as low as sixteen frames at a time. For those who find Meyer an unappealing self-publicist who only knew to shoot topless women, it’s worth noting how much care and work it must have been putting this sequence together. This was before the days of Final Cut and digital editing, and cutting such short bits of filming meant actually handling small pieces of material and carefully splicing them together. To make such a loose “MTV-style” editing required at the time focus, patience and an early belief that it would cut together and the work didn’t need to be repeated.
The sequence also allows Meyer to make a great jump in time and space, as he gets closer to each element until he is in macro shots of the jukebox (if Quentin Tarantino, one of Meyer’s most prominent fans, shows his influence it is in his careful use of the macro, otherwise their editing styles are diametrically opposite). From this close up of the jukebox we jump into a close-up of a radio car (for a moment it seems we are still at the club), a hand changing the clutch, a wide shot of three cars, and we are in the main narrative.
Faster Pussycat!’s great opening sequence introduces the characters, sets a mood, serves as its own self-contained scene and Meyer even finds a way to tie it seamlessly into the main body of his film. And the sequence would have been so easy to actually shoot, any independent filmmaker could do it, it is all created in the editing room. This is where Meyer shows he is worthy of all the accolades.
In Vixen! (1968), the director would get even more inventive with his juxtapositions, creating a fun, subversive tone not dissimilar to The Immoral Mr. Teas tone through smart use of subjective editing. When Vixen is circling the female half of a couple that is staying at her husband’s mountain resort, we get a brief look at the wife in negligee:
Followed by a quick reaction shot of Erica Gavin, a tossed off over the shoulder look with a twinkle in her eye (Erica Gavin really was Meyer’s best actress):
Followed by the wife sans negligee:
The effect is all in the quick editing between the first setup, the reaction, and the second setup repeated with the exact same framing minus one key element, but it manages to be witty and please the director’s core audience at the same time. Meyer always found an interesting way into nudity, which placed him head and shoulders above any other X-rated director out there.
Meyer developed his style as a fight against the limited means he had to make his often self financed movies with. Editing was a way to get the most out of little, of making a point with the use of what he was getting into camera alone. Often directors, particularly in those days, abandoned these down and dirty independent styles when they hit the big times, buckling down to the Hollywood house style of well lit, wide, medium and close up shots. This was usually due to the bigger budgets, which went to an outside editor, cameraman etc, which diluted a director’s idea into blander committee decisions. But not Meyer, who requested what for the studios was a small budget in his first big Hollywood film, precisely so he could retain his control and style. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) is where Meyer showed he was a true artist, committed to his ideas through good times and bad, in the big film or the one shot with friends, because he believed they worked for what he was trying to say, regardless of budgetary pressures.
Beyond… is in fact a compendium of all of Meyer’s editing ideas. There is the montage of California shots with a sardonic voice over (a great improvement on the sequence from The Immoral Mr. Teas). There is the fast juxtapositions of short sequences, which Meyer uses for the crazed Hollywood industry conversations – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has the fastest dialogue scenes you’ll ever see on any film. Meyer also plays with cross cutting of action, in a beginning and ending sequence were a crazed maniac threatens the film’s young heroes. He also even experiments with cross fading in montages where he shows the development of the main protagonists all at the same time. Meyer’s only misstep was in choosing Scope to shoot the film. The 2.35:1 wide frame does not suit his low angles and how he likes his to photograph his women. But overall, it’s obvious watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that Meyer was the right director for the material. Only Meyer could have shown the fast, crazed world of Hollywood with so much style, the film is as full of unconnected off-the-cuff ideas than its vacuous characters.
Editing was the saving element for Meyer’s first film and through it he learnt that he could get a lot out of very little. It was also the difference between the worlds of photography and static industrial films he was used to and the super accelerated films he wanted to make. It is a crucial element in what makes Meyer’s films recognizably his own, since often he didn’t have the budget to make choices on any of the others. By his later films Meyer had truly become a master editor, and a precursor of the fast editing styles that are now so tired because they are so easy to do (his fan Tarantino would push the other way, with long medium shots of long dialogue sequences). In Meyer’s time of manual editing, and particularly with the lack of resources the director had, it was a style that required ambition, precise cutting, and hard work above and beyond the call of duty. It is in his editing (and flawless photography) that Meyer showed he wasn’t just another smut film director but had dreams of being the ultimate exponent of lust in film.