Tag Archives: sexual dissatisfaction

‘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.

Sounds Of Silence – Gerry O’Hara’s ‘All The Right Noises’ (1971)

5 Nov

With the tagline ‘Is 15 1/2 too young for a girl?’, Gerry O’Hara’s All The Right Noises was bound to cause a wee stir upon its release in 1971. A British film backed by 20th Century Fox in the days before the withdrawal of American funding in British film production, the feature tells the story of a married family man (played by Tom Bell) who has  an adulterous affair with a fifteen year old girl (played by the naturally beautiful Olivia Hussey).

Play out with some sympathy towards its topic, the picture feels somewhat dated upon viewing now but it is lovely to watch a film like this, one that doesn’t sensationalise the subject matter like other exploitation fare would have. Hussey is delightful to watch as a young girl in love with someone she shouldn’t be, her nerves showing in her body movements, scared at intruding into the family home that she isn’t a part of and showing slight sadness towards a wife she knows she is disrespecting. Bell fares somewhat less well, not quite displaying the conflict  that a man in his position might be feeling honestly. Compared to Hussey’s sincerity in her portrayal of a girl aware she is worth more than the role of a mistress, Bell seems slightly two-dimensional.

Sadly for the film it was shelved after production and wasn’t released until two years later, quickly becoming something of a forgotten British gem. Well worth seeking out, it is refreshing to see a film that neither completely sympathises nor condemns its characters behaviour. No-one here is completely right or wrong, merely human beings displaying the realities of human error. A wonderful addition to the BFI Flipside label.

Russ Meyer’s ‘Lorna’ (1964)

22 Sep

1964, the year of Lorna and the start of director Russ Meyer’s Gothic period and obsession with social redeeming value (aka the morals that make smut acceptable). This black and white beauty, Meyer’s first film shot in 35mm and with live dialogue, marked the end of a successful run of nudie cutie features (The Immoral Mr. Teas, Eve and The Handyman, Erotica) and the beginning of his first ‘proper’ foray into theatrical filmmaking. Opening with a shot that tracks a long winding road, we are suddenly met with a maniacal preacher. Spewing the directors first morality tale, the gentleman asks us ‘Do you know where this road leads?… Do you do unto others as they do to you? Do you judge as others judge?… Pass on… There is no return’. And right he is. There is no return from Lorna.

With the tagline ‘Ever wonder why wives WANDER?’ it’s not too difficult to see where Meyer was going with the narrative. Oft referred to as the female Tom Jones, the story focuses on Lorna (Lorna Maitland), a sexually unsatisfied housewife who is married to nice guy Jim (James Rucker), a miner studying to be a CPA. Jim loves Lorna very much but when it comes to bedroom antics he leaves her completely exasperated. Lorna has to be persuaded to have sex with Jim, and not only reluctantly gives in, but has a face like a slapped arse during and after. Cue a cute monologue where Lorna stares out of the window and expresses her disappointment; ‘I’m a woman, not just a tool’. She dreams of another life, one full of excitement and a lot of topless go-go dancing (real footage of Maitland that would also crop up in films Europe In The Raw! and Mondo Topless, not surprising given that she was a Vegas dancer before the film). Instead, Lorna goes for a nude swim one day and gets raped. But instead of being a victim, the attack finally brings her rampant sexuality to the fore.

And what a town to commit adultery in. The picture was shot in Locke, a depressed town in a run down area of Sacramento, with boarded up shops and grimey bars. This is a town that harbors the worst in people and stifles those that genuinely have some good about them. A real boiling point for morals to play out, it was the perfect environment for Meyer’s melodrama and makes the religious element of sinners being punished seem all the more fitting (apparently an added piece of cinematic insurance so it played well within the Bible Belt). Upon viewing it’s hard to ignore the influence of Italian neo-realism, something that Meyer both acknowledged and dismissed quickly along with other academic theories related to his work. In Meyer’s eyes, it was a melodramatic piece shot in black and white because he couldn’t afford colour film stock. That said, like environments in other Meyer feature films, the location is beautifully shot and incredibly lush; run down shops and small houses juxtaposed with lush lakes and shrubbery.

Cast wise, the feature has some memorable creations made all the more comically large by the actors playing them. James Griffith played the formidable preacher; the bearded and somewhat morally rabid provider of the films prologue and epilogue. Griffith also wrote the screenplay, in four days no less, going on to provide Meyer with the story for Motorpsycho the following year before having a long career in as a supporting actor in film and television. The role of the poor, naive husband Jim is played like a total wet blanket by Rucker. His sin is that he could never satisfy Lorna and by the end of the film you end up feeling both sorry for him and his wife; sympathizing towards his wife because bad sex is bad towards him because he genuinely loves her. The real stand out amongst the crowd in Hal Hopper in the role of Luther, Jim’s sadistic co-worker. So slimy and horrible (watch him rape and beat a woman in the opening fifteen minutes of the film in a scene that sets the moral tone for the rest of the picture) that he steals the role of the villain away from the real rapist himself. With rather menacing eyes and a sickly smile, Hopper doesn’t have to do much to get under your skin and it isn’t remotely surprising that Meyer cast him in Mudhoney in a similar role (what is surprising is that he sung the film’s title theme).

The crown jewel of the entire film though is Lorna herself, played by Barbara Popejoy. Meyer christened her with the name Lorna Maitland when he finally cast her in the film, giving her the name that she would eventually be most known for. It’s not hard to see why the sexploitation director liked Maitland so much. With a 42D bust size and breasts that were swelling even more (to 50 inches) with the hormones of a pregnant woman (Maitland was three months pregnant at the time the film was shot), the star also had the wholesome looks that made her attractive to all sorts of clientele that the film would be watched by. It’s hard to believe that Maitland wasn’t the first choice for the role. Meyer had cast another actress, Maria Andre, whom he had used in Heavenly Bodies at the insistence of Griffith. Maitland had made very little in terms of an impression went she went to the casting call for the picture and it was only thanks to her manager who handed Meyer’s producer wife Eve a few Polaroids of her that she ended up with the gig. Eve eventually found them, the day before they were meant to start shooting, and showed them to Russ who knew instantly that Maitland was the one.

That said, it would seem that Maitland and Meyer never quite saw eye to eye, with both parties apparently hating each other and Maitland being quite vocal about it. Lorna would go on to star in Meyer’s feature Mudhoney which was shot and released the following year, somewhat of an expansion on the themes that were explored in Lorna itself. Not that Meyer seemed to care. He complained and told a large number of people that Maitland’s figure had gone post-pregnancy and that her now 42 inch chest was intolerable due to its sagginess. It seems no love was lost between either of them, just as some states in America found it hard to love Lorna as a picture. It was deemed obscene and prosecuted in Florida, Maryland and Pennsylvania, despite making a tonne of money on the Drive-In circuit. Meyer even had his appeal to have the seized print returned to him denied by the Florida Supreme Court who decided that it should be burnt instead. Watching it now is hardly shocking in comparison to subsequently released features but it still packs a punch, a rare mix of remotely genuine emotion, sex and the dark side of morality. One of Meyer’s classics.

About Sex, But Not – ‘Prey’ (1978)

26 Jun

ON THE SURFACE – A relationship between two people comes under threat from a hungry alien from outer space.

SCRAPING THE BARREL – A relationship between two women comes under threat from a women-hungry man. Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Brit director Norman J Warren’s horror films as much as his early sexploitationers but this one has lesbian paranoia written all over it. Low budget flick Prey is all about a lesbian couple who struggle to deal with a man coming into their mix. Jessica (Glory Annen) and Josephine (Sally Faulkner) live in isolation, away from anyone (or rather any man…) who might take the former away from the latter. Enter Anders Anderson, an alien that also happens to be a bloke. A solitary male in a sole female environment… It’s clear what’s going to happen, that chick be wanting some dick! And boy do tensions explode in a good way. Wide eyed feminine type Jessica developes the hots for Anders, wanting to know everything about him and become his friend, even letting him stay as a guest in her house. Green eyed masculine type Josephine developes nothing but pure rage for the man that’s stepping on her turf (‘What we have is real… We must never lose it!’). She is determined to keep Jessica to herself and will do anything to fend off her competition, even welding all manner of phallic objects (shotgun, switch blade) in Anders direction to get her point across. Check out the tension between the two masculine types during the dinner party. After a tender dance between Jessica and Josephine, the latter then dances with and tries to kiss Anders in the most wooden and awkward fashion ever seen. These ‘two guys’ don’t want each other, they both want the girl. Turns out Anders isn’t the only guy that has come between our two ladies before (‘You always told me terrible things about Simon you couldn’t prove’) and good ol’ Butch Josephine has scared off other men that Jessica has taken a fancy to in the past. But here’s Josephine’s downfall, psychotic girlfriends never last and sure enough Jessica wants to stop exploring the Bush and roam free to hunt man in the wild. Cue Jessica packing her bags to leave and having passionate, carnal sex with Anders (who makes her orgasm far stronger than Josephine if her moans are anything to go by…) who takes carnality to a whole new level by then ripping her throat out and eating it. Same sex heartbreak for Josephine, conquest for Anders. Because, you know, sometimes fresh meat just tastes that little bit better.

‘Rivelazioni di uno psichiatra sul mondo perverso del sesso’ (1973) review

24 Feb

I love recommendations, the chance to seek and hunt out films that you may never have found for yourself (although I’m still wondering why so many people thought I’d like Island of Death, blatantly the goat scene…). So when the lovely folk at VTSS sent me the present of an Italian film to watch, I was more than happy to give it a go. And with a title like Revelations of a Psychiatrist in the World of Sexual Perversion, I really could not wait…

So attempt number one came and then went rather abruptly. You see, Revelations… isn’t really a film with a plot but more of a chronicle of sexual perversions with a documentary feel. The overarching story is that the cases of sexual perversion are being discussed by a lecturer and his group of students. He reads off examples of each case and classmates discuss and debate, more in the tone that you are watching small filmic vignettes of Krafft-Ebing’s seminal piece of work ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’.

You can, then, imagine the type of stuff the film focuses on. Witness some bizarre scenes, like the man who likes to act and be treated like a dog, his face in a muzzle, nuzzling up to some pretty epic displays of 1970’s pubic topiary, or the woman who rubs a huge plush donkey up and down herself whilst masturbating. Yes, just like in Emanuelle in America there is a scene involving bestiality but that finishes almost as soon as it starts and if you can bear that for the sake of the rest of the film, you’re in for a treat (this is where attempt number one to watch the film stopped for me, when you’ve spent a week accidently stumbling upon things whilst doing research on a documentary on zoophiles, even this scene – which is rather tame I can bloody assure you – was enough…).

The rest of the film then explores other scenarios, perversions and fetishes. In your typical exploitation way you’ve got some glorified rape and a rather long but pretty good orgy sequence with a tonne of hardcore shots and lots of ejaculation. Add to that some slightly humorous escapades of individuals who like the thought of ironing out the female form (yes, a man, a prostitute and an iron…) and being a train. All of this, and more, interspaced between some genuine musings from the studies of Krafft-Ebing, Jung and Freud make for a rather interesting watch…

God, I love presents.

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.