Tag Archives: Racism

‘Tura! The Tura Satana Documentary’ Kickstarter Campaign

31 Mar

The Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited documentary on Russ Meyer star and B-Movie legend Tura Satana is finally underway! The film, the release of which was Satana’s deathbed wish, is being produced by longtime manager and friend Siouxzan Perry and produced and directed by Cody Jarrett, with support from the YOMYOMF Foundation. With eleven days to go, the duo still need to raise roughly over $30,000, but there are some fantastic rewards up for grabs if you choose to back! Plus the end result of the documentary itself!!

tura doc

I, for one, am very excited for this project! Tura stunned audiences when Meyer’s cult film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was released in the 1960s and became a firm fan-favourite when the film became a midnight movie darling and cult favourite on the drive-in circuit. She left a lasting impression in cinema and pop culture with her dynamic depiction of Varla, the dominant, fast-driving, karate-chopping lesbian leader of a small girl gang, but unknown to some fans, also had a dynamic and turbulent life, including a childhood spent in a WWII Japanese relocation camp and a racially motivated rape that she would later avenge. It goes without saying that Tura was one hell of a woman, and her story deserves to be told.

There is some great involvement so far in this project, with contributions from Dita Von Teese, Ted V Mikels (who directed Tura in Astro Zombies and The Doll Squad), Margaret Cho (who will be providing the documentary’s narration), Shannon Lee, fellow Pussycat actors Lori Williams and Dennis Busch, and, of course, director John Waters, whose early championing of ‘Faster, Pussycat!’ in the 1970s helped elevate its cult status. As he so eloquently puts it; ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is beyond a doubt the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future’. 

tura model

Covering Satana’s personal life, career and the impact she left on the worlds of film, art, fashion, music and pop culture, Tura! looks set to be a rollercoaster of fun, and an eye-opening look into one of cinema’s unforgettable women of power.

Please, please donate where you can and help support this project to get off the ground. Tura had and continues to have so many fans, and if we all chipped in $5 each we could get this made and her story out there. I know personally how hard Siouxzan and Cody (and Helen!) have worked to get to this point, and all the work they have done to date to keep Tura’s memory alive and maintain and restore her estate. This has been a long time coming, and I have absolutely no doubts that it’s going to be great. This project could not be in the hands of more capable people, and I really wish them all the best with this.

You can contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here, and keep up to date with news on the project by following Tura Satana Productions on Twitter and Facebook!

MEYER MONTH – Russ Meyer’s ‘Black Snake’ (1973) review

10 Mar

Michael Ewins reviews Russ Meyer’s 1973 attempt at Blaxsploitation filmmaking Black Snake. Warning, it’s not one of Meyer’s best films…

In the summer of 1970 Russ Meyer unleashed Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an X-rated satire depicting the drug-fuelled hedonism of early-70’s Hollywood, following a sexy three-piece rock outfit (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom) as they descend deeper and deeper into its swinging, sensual realm. It was the first of Meyer’s pictures to be distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox, but following a major flop (1971’s The Seven Minutes) he was forced back onto the independent scene. One might assume that this two-picture quickie would have whetted Meyer’s appetite for destruction, and marked a return to the garishly camp pictures of yore (Vixen!, 1968, for example), but the director had other – somewhat stranger – aspirations. Rather than producing another corset-busting crime caper, Meyer instead turned out the bonkers blaxploitation drama Black Snake – or as it’s known in France, Serpent Noir

The year is 1895. Blackmoor plantation is ruled by the heel of Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel), an oppressive, toffee-nosed dominatrix who inherited this corrupt empire from her first (deceased) husband. Her iron grip is upheld by the nasty Joxer (Percy Herbert), a foul-tempered racist who indulges his prejudice with the crack of a whip (the titular black snake). Into this world comes Charles Walker (David Warbeck), a plain sort of chap aiming to unravel the mystery of his missing brother, who disappeared sometime after marrying Lady Susan. The island’s prehistoric barbarity disgusts Charles, but his efforts to defend the black slaves only serves to incite more violence. So yeah, it’s miles departed from the sort of softcore romp usually associated with Meyer, who here trades his bold colour schemes and taboo-busting humour for po-faced politics and unflinching sadism (there’s even a crucifixion sequence!)

Meyer had always intended Black Snake to be a “statement” on racial bigotry, but his navigation of complex moral lines is frequently dogged by a (surprise, surprise) penchant for excess. The film does actually boast a solid thesis, and some dedicated performances go a long way toward anchoring the drama in some sort of reality – Warbeck (who was once on the shortlist to play Bond, before losing out to Roger Moore) is really effective here, especially in his scenes with preacher Isiah (Thomas Baptiste), who delivers lines like “You think God is white?!” as if they’d been handed to him in stone. The hodgepodge of accents on display are hilarious, but hey, awkward line readings are as much a staple of Meyer’s cinema as voluptuous females…

His intentions may have been admirable, but Black Snake ultimately suffers in the chapters most recognizable as Meyer’s. At the halfway point he finally reveals Charles’ brother, Jonathan (David Prowse), who turns out to be a zombified, rape-happy hunk, supposedly struck by some kind of voodoo curse (although that’s never clarified). During the finale he runs rampant through the plantation HQ, whose railings are littered with hung corpses, each emitting the clang of a church bell when Jonathan bangs into them. Meyer’s zany sound design has always managed to land laughs, but here it feels so awkwardly misplaced as to become borderline offensive. I wish I didn’t have to treat the film so seriously, but from the opening frame it practically begs for a pedestal to stand proud from.

What’s really missing from Black Snake, however, is a commanding female figure. Even ignoring her proportions (it’s no secret that Meyer preferred the bustier model) Hempel just doesn’t pack the physical heft to convince as a nymphomaniac warden – there’s just no confidence in her stride, and her slinky contour feels lost every frame (Meyer was notoriously unhappy with her casting, even editing in a breast double for the close-ups). Tura Satana, Erica Gavin and Raven De La Croix typify the Meyer model – Hempel seems almost the antithesis, and her acting chops certainly don’t make up for the fact. The actress got her start in Hammer’s Scars Of Dracula (Baker, 1970) and starred in a few cult titles before retiring in 1980, following her marriage to Sir Mark Weinberg. Now residing in London as Lady Weinberg, Hempel is a celebrated hotelier and designer (recently ranked among Architectural Digest’s Top 100 interior designers). I was interested to learn that, although Black Snake is available on DVD in the UK, its star bought the TV rights in 1998. Needless to say, it’s no longer in circulation. You’re not missing much, but if this film isn’t Meyer’s finest hour then it’s certainly among his most interesting…

Russ Meyer’s ‘Vixen’ (1968)

29 Mar

Sex! Nudity! Lesbians! Incest! Fish?! Russ Meyer’s 1968 sex flick Vixen is one of his most memorable and successful. Starring Erica Gavin in the lead role, the film went on to challenge obscenity laws in America and helped to change the landscape of sex in western film.

My love for all things Meyer started when I was ten years old, when watching late night television I stumbled upon Vixen. Back when Channel 5 first launched and showed soft core sex films every evening (now replaced with permanent CSI re-runs…), I sat fixated on my old 80s television, amazed at what I was seeing. There on my screen was a beautiful woman with thick, gorgeous hair wearing lots of skimpy clothing and doing naughty things with both men and women! Somewhat confused, I fell in love with Vixen there and then, the film remaining one of my favourites to this day.

Meyer’s film concerns the exploits of Vixen, happily married to her husband Tom (Garth Pillsbury) and living in lush Canadian woodland. In her spare time Vixen likes to have sex, and lots of it. The film starts with her playful seduction and sexual encounter with a Canadian mountain rookie. She then sleeps with her husband and has sex with a couple that comes to stay at their cabin. The climax (excuse the pun) of it all? The infamous shower scene with her brother and their subsequent romp. Meyer is even quoted as saying that this is one of the sexiest scenes he’s ever filmed.

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Vixen (Erica Gavin) and Janet (Vincene Wallace)

The actual sexual scenes and their themes (lesbianism, incest), along with lots of nudity and suggestive language, were the main reasons Vixen was so controversial upon its release in 1968. At that point the Hays Production Code was replaced with the new MPAA rating system which had just been established. Vixen became the first American-made film to receive the X certificate, meaning no one under seventeen would be admitted to see it in cinemas. This new X-rated feature challenged obscenity laws in every state in was released in, whilst going on to earn $7 million in its first year alone. Not bad for a $72,000 budget. (Meyer would later claim Vixen eventually netted him a cool $26 million, one of his most profitable films.)

Over the course of the next year, Vixen  ran into problems. In January 1969, one manager and projectionist in Georgia were arrested and their print of the film confiscated. October of that year saw a theatre in Jacksonville, Florida busted by the vice squad and the cinema’s reels seized. The theatre owner was charged for projecting a ‘filthy and indecent picture’ by the courts. In May 1970 a Center Theater manager in North Carolina was fined $250 for showing the film. The biggest battle of them all though would be in the state of Ohio.

In September 1969 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Guilds Art Theater saw both its prints of Vixen seized on two consecutive days. In the November, a permanent injunction was placed against the picture in five Ohio counties on the grounds that it was obscene. July 1971 saw the ban upheld; Vixen could be shown in cinemas if Meyer cut out all the sex scenes. Meyer refused, after all a Meyer film without any sex is hardly a Meyer film. Not surprisingly he lost the case. Vixen has not been seen in the state of Ohio since 1969 and is still legally banned.

 

No sex please, we’re American… One of Vixen’s many banned clinches

 It seems strange, watching the film now, to think it is still an illegal act to screen the film in Ohio. Only three years later Last Tango In Paris and, more explicitly, Deep Throat were unleashed in American cinemas. For 1968 Vixen was certainly a challenging picture in its sexual depictions but watched now would possibly be considered a poor soft core sex film. At the time however, Meyer was making waves in the sexploitation industry. As a filmmaker, Meyer was influenced by the laid back attitude towards sex and sexuality in European films, such as 1967s I Am Curious Yellow, and tried to create western equivalents. There is no doubt that Meyer’s efforts and successes contributed to the eventual greater explicitness that we today are perhaps more used to.

Vixen was not only responsible for raising the bar in cinematic representations of sexuality and physical sex but it also helped to draw in female audiences. The film is regularly referred to as the first instance in ‘couples porn’. This is thanks largely to Erica Gavin’s portrayal as the lead character. Meyer decided to go against type and settled on Gavin’s more ‘smaller’ and ‘normal’ physique. In her physicality, she is less intimidating than some earlier, and later, Meyer women and in that respect, is more identifiable for women.

It wasn’t just Gavin’s looks that made Vixen so unique and irresistible but the potency of her beauty mixed with her behaviour. Vixen oozes sex appeal, and plenty of it. If her bedroom eyes and cheeky grin don’t win you over then her playful and dominating sexuality will. Here was a woman who loved sex, was confident and comfortable in her own (very) active sexuality and got what she wanted, when she wanted. To hammer this point home, the first sexual encounter we see Vixen have is weighed more in her sexuality, with her sexual desire far exceeding the Canadian Mountie’s ability to perform. Once he is done she gets up and leaves to get on with the rest of her day, her focus firmly and always on herself.

And this is where Meyer excelled. In order to play in drive-ins and grindhouse cinemas Meyer added one fabulous little touch to all his films to justify the nudity and sexual depiction; redeeming social value. In previous and subsequent films, many of Meyer’s women are ‘punished’ for their behaviour or desires. But not Vixen, she gets away with it, incest included. The reason? She saves America from communism.

 

Vixen and her brother Judd. One of Meyer’s sexiest scenes?

Part of the film’s plot involves Vixen’s racist attitude towards her brothers black friend Niles (played by Harrison Page). When Vixen gets going, boy does she get vicious. This gets overlooked by Meyer when a greater threat enters the characters woodland idyll, communism. (On a side note, Meyer hated Communists and the Nazis after serving in the Second World War. Certain aspects of his feelings would reappear throughout his work, including the frequent casting of ‘Martin Boorman?’) Towards the end of the film, an Irish man called O’Bannion comes to stay with Vixen and Tom. He later confesses to being a communist and tries to hijack a plane to fly to Cuba. He too also happens to be a racist which angers Niles. A fight breaks out in the plane which results in Niles knocking out O’Bannion and Vixen flying and landing the plane to safety, getting O’Bannion arrested on the ground. At this point Niles and Vixen come to some sort of ‘understanding’. And thus the All-American Vixen saves the day and her racist and sexually deviant escapades are all forgiven. Your typical Meyer heroine then.

Vixen is one of Meyer’s best films. The plot is admittedly somewhat ridiculous but overall the picture has a certain charm you can’t ignore. Gavin is excellent, one of the few true natural actresses in a Meyer film. Alongside Tura Satana (Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) and Alaina Capri (Common Law Cabin), Gavin’s acting is miles away from the forced, wooden performances of other Meyer leading ladies. She is also incredibly beautiful, her natural good looks shot wonderfully by Meyer’s camera which clearly loves her (Meyer himself describes her as ‘Radiant! Alive!!’ in his autobiography A Clean Breast which seems incredibly accurate and poignant). Sadly, Gavin would later develop and battle anorexia and anxiety upon watching herself on the big screen and lives partly as a recluse in Hollywood.

I love Vixen now as much as I did when I first watched it all those years ago. It has had such a large and profound impact on my life ever since, with Meyer being my favourite director and my main interest being sex in cinema. However, all these years later I’m still trying to perfect Vixen’s make up and get that back-combed bouffant of a fabulous hairstyle. I’ve had no luck in finding a yellow push-up bikini either. Still I can dream…

 

The other infamous scene. Vixen sleeps with everyone in this video except, surprisingly, the fish.

A Quickie about Russ Meyer (very brief…)

27 Feb

Russ Meyer is a lot like marmite. You either accept him at face value appreciating his filmography for what it is or you loathe him and fail to see any cinematic worth in his work. Dubbed ‘King of the Nudies’ by the Press, Meyer had a prolific career in independent cinema. Using his previous experience as a Pin Up photographer, he stablished himself as one of the best and most successful sexploitation film makers. Creating films on a small budget and exploring sex in any way possible (nudity, suggestive language, scenes of sexual activity), Meyer was a key film maker in helping to bring sex and sexuality to the big screen.

His film career started in 1959 with The Immoral Mr. Teas, a nudist comedy made to rival the other nudie cutie films that were playing in the independent/exploitation circuit. Though not the first film to show female nudity, it was the first feature film to use women purely as sex objects. On a budget of $24,000 the film grossed over $1 million. Meyer knew he’d found a niche in cinema that he excelled in and would in turn be a profitable investment. He made two more films before the nudie cutie genre had run its course and after, went on to produce sexploitation films with a rougher edge.

The roughie period in Meyer’s work is a big contrast to his previous output. Filmed in black and white, the films handle darker material and play out as rape-revenge narratives. Effectively morality tales in which the bad guys eventually get their comeuppance, Meyer scored himself another first with Motorpsycho. Released in 1965, Motorpsycho’s narrative was the first to explore the idea of Vietnam veterans coming back to America suffering from mental illness and stress disorders. It was his last film in this period that would eventually have an influence on the public and feature film makers alike.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! opened to little response back in 1965 but has since gained a considerable cult following. Meyer’s premise was simple. His last film had featured three guys terrorising women; why not make a film about three women terrorising guys? Meyer cast three striking women in the films leads, notably Tura Satana in the Amazonian role of Varla. They were women out to get what they want, when they want, using everyone and anyone they can. Only ever looking out for number one, the film raised the bar in empowering roles for women on screen. With the subtle hints on lesbianism, the film unapologetically embraces strong, active feminine sexuality showing that women could certainly rival men in all aspects of life.

Meyer’s following films would continue to depict sexually charged women and focus on the failure of the men in their lives to satisfy their needs. Infidelity, bed swapping, outrageous flirtation, lesbianism and even the odd hint of a father lusting after his daughter. Meyer continued to exploit any angle he could in order to show more nudity and sexual behaviour. Exhibiting each new film city by city, state by state, Meyer would regularly have problems with the law. Aware of the amount of nudity and sexual freedom in European/art house cinema coming to western shores, the director put out his most shocking film at that point.

Vixen! was released in 1968 and was an immediate hit with both the public and the law. Whilst people queued around street blocks numerous times to catch the film, Meyer faced prosecution in many states under obscenity charges. Most of its charges were overturned but to this day Vixen! is still banned in Ohio. The film was also another cinematic first for the film maker, becoming the first American made X-rated movie. This film follows the oversexed Vixen as she seduces everyone she meet, infamously ever her brother. Whilst full of taboos, the end of the film shows Vixen bringing down an unruly communist. Only Russ Meyer could make a sex film with a commentary on American apprehension against communism!

Two years later, the director released his first studio film with the backing of 20th Century Fox. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls debuted in 1970 with another X certificate. Originally intended as a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, the film eventually became an intelligent satire on the 1960s as a decade. Parodying cultural references and cinematic techniques, clichés and genres, the film was billed as something ‘never seen before!’ Featuring a cast of buxom women, the film starts as a musical melodrama before turning into a violent exploitation flick. Beyond is well known for its ending which channels the end of the hippy decade with the Tate/LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was Meyer’s last cinematic high. His next studio picture, The Seven Minutes, was poorly received critically and commercially. He never made another film with studio backing again. Returning to independent film making, he released Blacksnake in 1972. His first foray into the blaxploitation genre, the film was not a success. Set on a plantation, the narrative follows a slave owner who manipulates both the black and white men on her estate. The film has some violent scenes and the lead actress, Anouska Hempel, is not suited in the role. Without the satire or humour present in Meyer’s previous work, Blacksnake is a jarring and uncomfortable watch.

Returning to what he knew best, Meyer made two sexploitation films in the mid 1970s, Supervixens and Up! By now the public were used to seeing more extreme sexual imagery in cinema. Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat were released in 1972, raising the bar of screened sex in film and challenging pornography and obscenity laws. Meyer, despite being a sex film maker, was repulsed at anything hardcore and refused to incorporate this aspect into his own work. Whereas once he was ‘King of the Nudies’, the sex film industry’s evolution left Meyer out in the cold. It would be the downfall of his career.

In the late seventies, Meyer was approached by Malcolm McLaren to make a film about and starring the Sex Pistols. Work was started on the picture, called Who Killed Bambi?, but was abandoned when it was apparent there was no funding. He made and released one more sexploitation film in 1979, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. A parody of his previous work and still containing nudity and simulated sex, it was still a lot less than the images found in harder films.

Russ Meyer made one last film a few years before his death entitled Pandora Peaks, though it is sometimes considered out of canon with his other work. He enjoyed numerous screenings of his work in various festivals and universities across the globe, including a big retrospective at the British Film Institute in 1983. In his later life his major project became his autobiography, A Clean Breast, which was released in 2000 in three hardcover volumes totalling over 1200 pages. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the same year and died four years later, aged 82, from pneumonia.