Tag Archives: performance anxiety

‘Feminism and Male Inadequacy in the Films of Russ Meyer’ by Syvology

10 Nov

A belated post but as part of this years MEYER MONTH I was forwarded this nice little article via twitter. The original post can be found here but I’ve included it below, and you can also follow its author Syvology on twitter here!

 

A dual biopic exploring the friendship between Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer is apparently in the works. Simpsons/SNL writer Christopher Cluess penned the script, which focuses on Meyer and Ebert’s formative collaboration on Fox’s big-budget fiasco Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Though it will be fun to see young Ebert in his humble side-burned glory, the most interesting character in this story is Russ Meyer.

Russ Meyer

An ongoing fascination of mine, Russ Meyer is one of the most misunderstood figures in film history. To fans of sleaze and camp, he’s a deity. He invented the sexploitation genre as we know it with The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), a hallucinatory exploration of compulsive voyeurism. According to John Waters, the iconic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is “beyond a doubt, the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” To other, more genteel audiences however, Meyer is often thought of as a seedy proto-pornographer whose films trade in adolescent prurience, irredeemable violence, and general bad taste. Meyer himself subscribed to the latter characterization, rejecting intellectual interpretations of his work and insisting that he only made movies for two reasons: “lust and profit.” But as any true student of his films can attest, Meyer’s bizarre career encompassed much more than that. To appreciate the thought-provoking complexities inherent in Meyer’s work, one must first confront its most frustrating contradiction: that his films are simultaneously misogynist and feminist.

Meyer’s career unfolded concomitantly with second-wave feminism, but it’s primarily third-wave (or so-called “sex-positive”) feminists that appreciate his aesthetic. B. Ruby Rich famously labeled Meyer “the first feminist American director”, praising his progressive sense of female empowerment in Faster, Pussycat! and his bold rejection of hetero-normativity in Vixen! (1968). Similarly, quasi-feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia laments, “his women had an exuberance and vitality you rarely see in film anymore.” Roger Ebert has always been Meyer’s most high-profile apologist on this point, encouraging critics to appreciate “the quintessential Russ Meyer image: a towering woman with enormous breasts, who dominates all the men around her, demands sexual satisfaction, and casts off men in the same way that, in mainstream sexual fantasies, men cast aside women.” Indeed, Meyer himself credited much of his success to the fact that many women enjoyed his movies just as much as men. But things get tricky once you contrast these progressive interpretations with some of the director’s own words. He described his ideal target audience as “some guy…in the theater with semen seeping out of his dick.” When asked whether his films exploit women, Meyer responded plainly, “I’m prone to say, yes, I do exploit women. I exploit them with zeal and gusto.” On feminist thought itself, Meyer was pretty vile: “I don’t care to comment about what might be inside a lady’s head. Hopefully it’s my dick.” There’s really no question that Meyer was at all times primarily concerned with delivering male sexual gratification, not promoting feminist ideology. But he was the first American filmmaker to consistently depict and celebrate women who were in charge of their own sexuality. So what, then, was the connection?

costume 6

Whatever is incidentally pro-feminist in Meyer’s work was likely an accidental, albeit fascinating, side effect of his idiosyncratic sexual appetite. The theoretical disconnect in his treatment of gender may be explained by the extent to which Meyer’s films are exceedingly personal, one might say solipsistic, expressive vehicles for exploring his own masturbatory fantasies. Describing his creative process, he once said, “each film must begin with me. I am the idea. I’ve got to have the hard-on.” The relationship between his sexual personality and the feminist overtones of his work gets clearer once one acknowledges that Meyer’s obsession with female dominance was always complemented by another, perhaps even more continual thematic hallmark of his narratives: male inadequacy. Themes of sexual impotence permeate his entire career. In Lorna (1964), the title character’s husband is a sexually inept wimp that bores her into infidelity and recklessness. In Common Law Cabin (1967), a female character cuckolds and basically murders her husband as ostensible punishment for being, essentially, a pussy. Meyer’s failed attempt at First Amendment proselytizing, The Seven Minutes (1971), features a rape defendant vindicated at trial by the stunning revelation that the crime was physically impossible for him to commit. Charles Napier’s utterly despicable villain in Supervixens (1975) brutally murders a woman after she taunts his inability to perform. Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) is a preposterous and anarchic profile of a hopeless idiot who can’t bring himself to have anything but anal sex.

What’s more is that his focus on male inadequacy was no doubt a highly personal topic. In addition to his reputation for being decidedly wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am in the sack (corroborated by multiple former lovers), one particular episode of performance anxiety is instructive. Just as his filmmaking career was getting started, Meyer’s obsession with busty burlesque icon Tempest Storm caused him to abandon his first wife and nearly ruin his own life. But when it came time to go to bed with Ms. Storm, Meyer’s manhood was nowhere to be found. He described it thus: “When I first met Tempest Storm I was so in awe of her great big cans that thoughts like performing badly or ejaculating prematurely ran through my mind –all connected to the dick bone. So when I made my move to hump the buxotic after the last show in her Figueroa Street scatter, I felt inadequate, plain and simple. Fuck, what can I say?”.

tempest 1

Tempest Storm happens to be the star of Meyer’s first short film (now lost), The French Peep Show (1954), and her breasts make a cameo in his first feature-length film, The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) (As far as I’m aware, this isn’t actually true. It was June Wilkinson’s breasts that had an uncredited cameo, Storm was not involved in the film at all – Lydia). To a significant extent, she was the sex symbol that launched his whole career. So quite literally, feelings of sexual inadequacy were at the very root of his development as an artist.

Meyer’s brand of transgressive femininity may be thought of as the natural result of his own self-loathing, which subliminally translated into deep skepticism for contemporary masculinity at large. It’s likely he viewed female sexuality as something hopelessly out of his personal control, and ultimately out of society’s control as well. That’s why his work exhibits what UC Irvine film professor Kristen Hatch called “an ambivalence toward the traditional authority figures that classical Hollywood had helped to reinforce, showing masculine social authority to be in a state of disarray.” Characters like Varla and Vixen don’t just transgress rules associated with physical gender norms like strength and sex drive; they represent the rejection of all rules that paternalistic society is stupid enough to rely on. At its best, Meyer’s work subverts traditional sexual power dynamics and celebrates the disorienting sexual chaos that results. Female liberation in Meyer’s universe is not the product of paternalistic sympathy or cliché moral epiphany. Rather, he depicts female sexuality as being by its very nature violently irrepressible and self-actualizing. Socio-masculine anxiety about this threat to male sexual hegemony is the principal component of Meyer’s continuing subversive appeal. But as Ebert once put it, that’s only apparent to viewers “if they can see past the heaving bosoms.” Not likely.

Geek To Geek Chic – ‘Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade’ (2007)

7 Jan

In 1982, Life magazine went to Ottumwa, Iowa, the gaming capital of the world, to photograph a group of young gamers. The photograph, part of a spread which was meant to capture the various moods and themes of Western culture, featured those with, at the time, the highest scores in arcade gaming. At that moment in time, the group were recognised as the video game champions of the world. In 2007, director Lincoln Ruchti used the portrait as a basis to catch up on those who were involved, developing the interesting documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond The Arcade.

gaming

Back then, being hailed world champions in their field by such a renowned publication led to local and national interest and popularity. Twenty three years later we pick up where photographer Enrico Ferorelli signed off, catching up with nine of the original sixteen as they share their initial childhood/teenage experiences and dreams and how they all changed when the arcade scene began, through to its eventrual demise.

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Full of nostalgia, hope and the cruel realities (and differences) or changing landscapes (puberty to adulthood, local to national fame, arcade gaming to home console gaming), Chasing Ghosts will not only appeal to gamers, geeks and fanatics but also those who truly loved something when they were younger and never let go of the passion for it.

About Sex, But Not – ‘Shaun Of The Dead’ (2004)

30 Jul

ON THE SURFACE – Shaun must face up to his masculinity and restore his relationship with his girlfriend whilst dealing with the reanimated undead.

SCRAPING THE BARREL – Shaun must face up to his masculinity and realise that going down on his girlfriend Liz will not make him less of a man. Shaun of the Dead is about zombies? Oh no. Shaun of the Dead is about a guy who, after three years, will still not give his girlfriend oral sex for fear of losing his masculinity incase she prefers it to his penis. Yep, those aren’t hordes of zombies roaming the streets, it’s the male population that Shaun feels has become emasculated and is scared of becoming a part of. That strange virus that attacks people one by one, turning them into the undead is none other than a metaphor for those becoming sexually enlightened and active. Quite literally being bitten by the oral sex bug. No wonder his girlfriend gets fed up, there’s only so many blowjobs one can dish out before expecting, and wanting, something sweet in return (‘I want you to want to do it too’). I couldn’t last with that deal for three years and neither could Shaun’s ex who marvels at the fact that him and Liz are still together (‘Glad somebody made it.’). Especially with that stupid phobia of getting menstrual blood on his face. No Shaun, you haven’t got red on you, that is the worst excuse in the bloody book. Still, as they say, perseverance pays off and eventually Shaun realises that going down on Liz (going down into the Winchester’s cellar) isn’t a bad thing after all and can lead to a happy ending and relationship enlightenment (taking that little lift back up to the street pavement). If zombies can be sexually happy so can we…

About Sex, But Not – ‘Death Proof’ (2007)

11 Aug

ON THE SURFACE – A film about a man who kills women by using his car.

SCRAPING THE BARREL – A film about a man suffering from performance anxiety. Just like the slasher film employed phallic objects to represent the penis, director Tarantino uses lead character Stuntman Mike’s car to represent his sexual drive. Stuntman Mike can’t get it up and can’t give it out. Need proof? The scene where he goes to sneeze in front of the girls but it just doesn’t happen. I don’t think I have ever seen a more obvious metaphor for a man failing to ejaculate at the moment he most needs to. It’s not that Mike doesn’t get aroused, check him (and the rest of your audience) getting hot watching the lap dance that Butterfly gives him. It’s the closet thing he gets to physical foreplay with another person. But give him his car, an extension of his penis, and watch him dish it out real good. The first car crash at the start of the film is effectively his orgasm and ejaculation (watch those cars blow up!). However, in the second part of the film watch his performance get taunted by the second group of girls he chases and his lack of confidence take over. Is there anything more demeaning for him that being hit with an iron rod bigger than his own cock by a woman? He is an example of a man who can’t handle an overt female sexuality and he gets shot down, literally, for it. As Earl McGraw says, ‘It’s a sex thing’.

Go With The Flow – Bud Townsend’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ (1976)

26 Jul

Following on from Al Adamson’s sexploitation-musical Cinderella 2000 , I gave Bud Townsend’s 1976 X-Rated musical Alice In Wonderland a viewing, with it proving more entertaining than the former! Originally released as an X certificate feature, the film was picked up by 20th Century Fox and re-released the following year with an R-rating and three minutes of cuts. Upon its VHS release, the three minutes of hardcore footage were reinstated and the DVD disc menu gives you the option to watch either this ‘XXX’ version or the cut ‘X’ version. Of course I was going to choose the ‘XXX’ version!

The picture begins with a screen message telling the audience that the feature being seen is a ‘brand new motion picture’ with ‘never before seen scenes’. The supposed speculation that extra footage had been shot was correct and ‘the Producer has finally relented. The public should be allowed to see this motion picture as it was intended to be shown’. In other words, the cut footage has been put back in. After a credit song that could rival the disco-esque title tunes of Cinderella 2000 and Norman J. Warren’s Spaced Out (1979), we are introduced to our titular Alice, Playboy Pin-Up and cover girl Kristine DeBell. The situation that Alice is in is your very basic and typical porno/sexploitation relationship scenario. She has a potential love interest, William, but she spurns his advances deciding working as a librarian is more important and time-consuming. Cue William’s response of ‘You’re body’s all grown up but still the mind of a little girl… too bad you’re missing so much… You’ve got all the equipment, you just don’t know how to put it to work’.

Kristen DeBell promoting the film on the front cover for the April 1976 issue of Playboy

 After being left by William, she falls asleep reading a copy of Alice In Wonderland and suddenly finds herself being taken on a journey of sexual discovery. This is when it starts to get a little bizarre, with cue cards announcing sexual landmarks that Alice is about to overcome (‘Alice makes new friends and gets a lickin”, ‘Alice learns you can’t keep a good man down’) and the odd moment that’s meant to be erotic but feels awkward. Kudos to the filmmakers though for being the first adaptation of Alice that I’ve seen where she drinks the ‘Drink Me’ potion and her clothes don’t shrink with her. Then again, it is a porno so getting her nude in the first ten minutes is pretty much a ‘must’…

The film is full of a cast that Lewis Carroll would be jealous of. Wonderland’s animal creatures are far more disturbing than the woodland friends of Cinderella’s in Cinderella 2000, channeling the school-play-gone-bad look. They also play host to the most awkward sexual moment in a porno I’ve seen so far, asking Alice to come back and let them play with her when her breasts are full of milk. Not really what I want to hear when I’m trying to get off… The Mad Hatter is typically off the wall with a penis that’s just a big to match (‘That’s not the size of my hat, that’s the size of my thingymajig!’). Much to my surprise, Humpty Dumpty makes an appearance (I had no idea he featured in Carroll’s sequel Through The Looking Glass) with a problem that could easily be solved in this decade with a certain blue pill. The Queen of Hearts is a sexual predator out to sleep with whoever she wants, with a wardrobe that could quite possibly be worn by Lady Gaga in the next few weeks. My favourite interpretation would be that of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, two incredibly randy teenagers who are stuck to each others bodies like glue. They also get the prize of the best interchange between two characters; ‘I love you like a brother’, ‘Aren’t you forgetting I am your brother’.

To sum up, if you like dated porno chic and pornography that genuinely tries to have some kind of narrative then this is a must. Far more musically accomplished than other musical sexploitation pictures that came out in the same decade, the film certainly does have some unique charm about it despite being full of clichés (Alice and William do end up together in the end, having the most ‘romanticized’ candle-lit sex with each other I have seen yet…). Kristen DeBell is delightful as Alice and tries to play her with more to her character than just a two-dimensional adult movie prop. She continued to act in TV movies and series but her career never really took off to stellar heights which is a shame as she seemed to have some actual talent (and no, I’m not talking of that kind of talent…). If it’s sex you’re after than the ‘XXX’ cut has its far share, from the somewhat touching moments between Tweedledum and Tweedledee to the random, like The White Rabbit taking the euphemism for cunnilingus of ‘eating out’ to the next level by literally eating out a woman’s vagina with a spoon. Now, if that doesn’t sell it to you somehow, I’m not sure what else will.