Tag Archives: The Seven Minutes

‘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?

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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?”.

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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.

Buxom Bosoms Back On British Screens? – Showing Russ Meyer Films In The UK by James Flower

6 Nov

So, you’re a UK-based film club/film society/cinema and want to show a Russ Meyer film at your venue? Splendid! You truly haven’t seen all those big heaving bosoms until you’ve seen them on the big screen, where they belong.

Tracking down screening rights to cult films can often be quite a laborious process, especially films made independently; since, however, Meyer retained the copyright to most of his films, it is relatively cut-and-dry here. The issue of who can grant licenses to legally screen the films in the UK, however, is somewhat more thorny. I’ve written the below in a FAQ format that should be easy to follow for both new and experienced film programmers.

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If you’re new to film programming and the below text confuses you completely, I would highly recommend getting in touch with the Independent Cinema Office, who offer excellent advice to both cinemas and amateur programmers alike.

Can I license the Russ Meyer film I want from Arrow Films/Video, since they released it on DVD?

Until earlier this year, it was possible to put on a screening – as long as you didn’t mind showing from DVD in most cases – of basically any of Russ Meyer’s films in the UK (1964’s Fanny Hill, a German-financed director-for-hire job for Meyer, is an exception as its worldwide rights are much more complex. But who in their right mind wants to show that?!). As well as having released an essential, comprehensive DVD boxset of Meyer’s work, Arrow Films also held theatrical rights to many of these films, licenses for which would be granted via Park Circus. This enabled Meyer’s work to stay active on the repertory cinema circuit well into the 21st century, often 50 years after these films were produced.

Unfortunately, Arrow‘s rights to the Meyer films lapsed in early 2013, which means that most of Meyer’s films are now unavailable to screen (at least easily) in the UK.

I still really want to show the film.  Is there someone else who can grant me a screening license?

To clarify for those who don’t know much about copyright: the primary worldwide rights holder for most of Russ Meyer’s films is RM Films International, who sublicensed the UK rights to Arrow. Now that Arrow‘s rights have expired, RM Films are by default the UK copyright holder, at least until they sublicense the films to someone else. If you want to show one of the Meyer films previously distributed by Arrow, you will have to approach RM Films via the following contact details:

RM Films International

P.O. Box 3748 Hollywood, CA 90078 tel. (323) 466-7791 rmf@rmfilm.com

This writer contacted RM Films for a statement on UK rights availability, but a response from either Janice Cowart or Julio Dottavio was not forthcoming. If you do get a reply from them, it’s worth bearing in mind that their price would probably be considerable; think about your budgets, and whether the expense, time and effort to put on such a screening are factors you’re happy to incur. (Incidentally, Park Circus‘ site still lists a few Meyer films as being available for the UK; this is erroneous, and I would not recommend attempting to book the films through them.)

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Are there any Russ Meyer films not owned by RM Films International that I can screen instead?

There are two main exceptions, however, and it’s no coincidence they are both titles not included in Arrow‘s boxset. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and The Seven Minutes were both made for 20thCentury Fox, who own all rights to both films in perpetuity, including for the UK. You can organise single screenings of both films via Hollywood Classics, who handle theatrical and DVD rights on library titles from Fox, MGM and other studios.

Are 35mm prints available for either of these films?

No 35mm prints of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls are in active circulation in the UK, but one was shipped from Fox in LA specifically for a Somerset House screening in 2012; this may also be available should you want to pay for it. There are no materials available in the UK to screen of The Seven Minutes (not even a DVD or a DigiBeta tape), so unless you know where to find a print or you’re happy to screen one of the many fuzzy bootlegs of the latter, BVD is your easiest option for legal UK-based big-screen Meyer thrills. A license to screen either film from Hollywood Classics will usually cost you a £100 minimum guarantee (MG) and a 25% take from the box office, not including print hire or transport if this is applicable.

I want to screen BVD but in a pub/alternate screening space from DVD than a cinema. Does this require a different type of screening license?

If you are just screening BVD from DVD in a pub or similar venue and require a ‘non-theatrical’ screening license, you can also book it via Filmbank (which will normally cost around £100 inclusive of VAT), or it will be covered by an MPLC license.

I know where to find a 35mm print of one of the Meyer films previously released by Arrow. Can I screen it anyway, without a license?

Unfortunately not. Ownership of a film print is very different from ownership of the film’s copyright.; you will still need permission from RM Films to show the film, even if you own a print or have permission from someone who does.

If I don’t get a response from RM Films, can I just go ahead and screen the film anyway?

You can try, but it is at your own risk. If you are caught out by RM Films, there is nothing to stop them from demanding a penalty fee from you (even after the screening has taken place), or even threatening legal action. Having had a US-based rights holder do this to me in the past, I would strongly advise against it!

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One hopes that RM Films will eventually sublicense the rest of the Meyer oeuvre back to Arrow (or some other enterprising UK distributor) so classics like Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Supervixens can be put back on UK screens.

Links

RM Films International: http://www.rmfilms.com/

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls on Hollywood Classics: http://hollywoodclassics.com/Movie/Beyond_the_Valley_of_the_Dolls

The Seven Minutes on Hollywood Classics: http://hollywoodclassics.com/Movie/Seven_Minutes_the

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls on Filmbank: http://www.filmbank.co.uk/film_details.asp?id=50620

James Flower runs Savage Cinema, a London-based cult night that has shown films such as William Friedkin’s SORCERER, the UK premiere of Bill Gunn’s GANJA & HESS and a night devoted to British filmmaker Philip Ridley. By day he works for UK independent film distributor Soda Pictures, and by night he thinks about how to win the annual FrightFest quiz, after coming second place in 2013.

MEYER MONTH – Lavelle Roby Interview

28 Mar
I have always been intrigued by actress Lavelle Roby. Ever since watching Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the first time, I have often thought about her character Vanessa, the assistant to music producer extraordinaire Ronnie ‘Z-Man’ Barzell. In a film that is full of wonderful costumes, her black and gold dress has always stood out for me and I’ve wondered on more than one occasion, that if the film were real, what her job must have been like. I’m sure that Vanessa would have a story or two about Z-Man and his parties! After I watched Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers a few years later, I was captivated again by Roby’s performance. In another small-ish role, she managed to be the most captivating actress in the entire picture and certainly the film’s highlight. Her character Claire is one of the stronger female characters in Russ Meyer’s entire filmography. The girl is a total badass, running her own business, not afraid to treat men the way they treat women and ready to get stuck in whatever the situation. It really is a shame that Meyer never used Roby in a leading role, for after watching her as Claire it’s evident that she could quite easily have held her own against the likes of Tura Satana and Kitten Natividad. Personally, I would have loved to  have seen a venomous exchange of words between her and Alaina Capri. Two of Meyer’s savviest actresses going head to head in verbal battle? Sounds absolutely perfect. After a little investigating I was really happy to see that Lavelle is still acting and modelling and still looks as drop dead gorgeous as she did in the 1960s! She kindly agreed to answer some questions, see below, for which I am very grateful. As my friends and readers will know, I’ve been a huge Meyer fan since I was ten (fourteen years and counting) and a majority of this website is nothing but a labor of love for me. I am more than thrilled, excited and humbled that I’m finally playing host to my first Meyer girl, it’s been a dream come true! Many thanks to Lavelle and to everyone who reads this, enjoy! 
 
How did you get into acting?
I had studied Speech and Drama in college and had continued drama classes and modelling school while working full-time in sales. When I left the company I had worked for after five years, I decided to concentrate on modelling. I had begun my career in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1966 that I decided that modelling and acting should be my career path. Actually, it was an abusive breakup that helped me make the transition. I probably wouldn’t have left the job when I did had I not been forced to go into hiding when I broke up with an abusive lover who was a co-worker. So, I guess I owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing me to take the leap. I could have still been taking acting classes and not having the courage to go for it had I not been forced to. I was the highest paid woman in my job, I was the Assistant Sales Manager of a Food and Freezer Company. I worked in a sales office with about sixty salesmen. That office made the movie Glengary Glen Ross look like kindergarten. As a matter of fact, one of my one person shows is based on one of the characters from that period.  My e-mail address, egnapos (Every Girl Needs a Pair of Stockings, registered title ) is also from that period. Eventually my first acting role was the TV show Get Smart.
 
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Meyer gave you your first feature film acting role in Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, how did that come about?
It’s very interesting that my first film was with Russ Meyer. I don’t really remember how I first heard about the film, however, when I called my agent to ask him to submit me for the role of the madame, my agent laughed at me and told me that Russ would never hire me because Russ only hired big breasted girls. Since my breasts were only a small B cup, he didn’t want to submit me. I pleaded with him to give it a try, because if Russ would only let me come in to read for the part, I would surely convince him that I could handle the role. Indeed, I read for the role, Russ loved the reading and hired me. According to Russ himself, I was the first actress he had ever auditioned that had not had to show her breasts to audition for a role!
 
Talking of breasts, you show a fair amount of flesh in the film but it’s considerably less than the amount seen of co-star Anne Chapman. What was your stance on nudity and how comfortable did Meyer make you feel on set?
Russ had been famous for travelling the world over to find women with the biggest and best breasts. He was very careful in shooting me and not revealing too much flesh. And, while Anne was not a great actress, she did have a great set of tits! Working with Russ was a great pleasure. He was respectful, hard-working, and had a great sense of humour.
 
I think you were also the first Black actress that Meyer ever hired, how does that make you feel?
I never gave any thought to being the “first” other than the first woman Russ had hired who didn’t have big breasts. I was just proud that he had hired me for my acting ability rather than my body.
 
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As Claire you get to wield a gun and rock a great looking outfit made up of a mack and go-go boots. With Finders being such a small production, did you have much say in how Claire looked? I know that quite a few of Meyer’s actresses had to do their own hair and makeup…
The thing that almost drove me mad was that I wouldn’t let anyone do my makeup, however I gave in and allowed the makeup man to do it. Well, when he was putting on my false lashes he got glue in my eye. As a result, the eye ran the entire day and the eyelash glue wouldn’t stick. When it was time for my closeups, all I could think about was they everyone would be able to see this flapping false eyelash that had come unglued at the edge!

The cream outfit and the go-go boots were my own wardrobe.  I had a close friend, Tommy Roth, who designed for Little Richard,   and he designed that outfit.  Tommy was gay and a cross dresser.  He made new outfits for himself every time he went out.  He would only wear the outfit once.  Because we were the same size, I got a lot of new designs from him.  He would also borrow my things, but the skirts would be returned altered –  pencil thin where I could hardly walk! 
 
Do you have any fond on-set memories or stories from working on Finders Keepers?
The most memorable moment was the day I was on my way to the wardrobe designer. A few blocks from my house a policeman, whom I knew from the neighborhood, stopped me to flirt, as he usually did. I had a few minutes, so I didn’t mind. But, after a while, I was running out of time and was soon going to be late for my wardrobe fitting when the officer said “I must call in to see if I have  a warrant out for your arrest.” I said I need  to leave because I don’t have any more time. He was just stalling for time.  He didn’t really think I had a warrant, but since he had said that, he had to follow through.  Much to his surprise, indeed, there was a warrant for my arrest. I went ballistic!

This scene takes place at one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles.  I am dressed in a micro-mini (more like a short blouse).  I am out of control! Enraged! Practically foaming at the mouth! The officer doesn’t know what to do.  He has to call for backup because I am now this crazy woman in the middle of the street in a rage. The pages of the script were flying everywhere.  Finally the backup officers arrive. Now my neighborhood officer has to explain why he stopped me…  I wasn’t speeding.  My licence was in order. But he explains that my vehicle identification number looked like it had been changed. 

I finally calmed down and explained that they would have to somehow reach the producer (Russ) who  I am  meeting at the designer’s studio. When they found out I was an actress, they were very accommodating.  They did indeed locate the studio through a cross directory and let Russ know that they had arrested me, but it wasn’t serious.  It had been a parking ticket that my former boss’s son had received when he had borrowed my car and failed to let me know that he had gotten the ticket.  Fortunately, the ticket was only $10, which I paid and then they released me. 

You returned to work with Meyer again on 1970 release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, what was your experience working on this like compared to Finders Keepers?
Some of the people who worked on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had previously worked with Russ. Of course, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was with 20th Century Fox and the cast was very large. And orchestrating a large cast of people was very different from the small, intimate sets that he had been used to when he was making a Russ Meyer film. A studio film environment was very different and there were people there looking over his shoulders, publicity people. There were business voyeurs, photographers, extraneous people that wouldn’t have been present on a smaller Russ Meyer set.

 
Did Meyer specifically ask you to play Vanessa or did you have to again read for the part?
Russ hired me for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls specifically to play Vanessa.
 
What were your impressions of the film when you eventually watched it?
While the film may have seemed like an exaggeration or a little over the top, on the contrary, Russ captured the mood of the times. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, the bizarre; he captured it all. But Russ had a way of putting it in your face, up close and personal. Mainstream America wasn’t ready for that kind of honesty. Mainstream America had this puritanical morality.  It’s a deceptive morality, like the Catholic Clergy committing horrible crimes against children but hiding it, and at the same time pretending to be the moral conscience and leaders of the faith. I think that which makes Russ’ film such a cult classic is not just because of the nudity, but the great sense of humour. The people who love him and his work get it, they get the “explicit” humour in the excessiveness.
 
The ending very much echoes the, at the time, recent Tate-LaBianca Manson murders. I know some people on the set of Beyond knew Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and that some of the costumes used were Sharon’s actual costumes from the film Valley of the Dolls. Did you know any of the victims yourself from working in Hollywood?
I didn’t know any of the people personally, however, I have friends that were neighbours, relatives and friends of some of the victims. I knew the very first attorney that was on the Manson case.
 
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Given Hollywood’s fondness for remakes and re-imaginings, do you think Beyond could ever be remade?
Anything is possible in Hollywood.
 
They are both small-ish roles but Vanessa and Claire are both highly memorable. Which character is your favourite?
With both Claire and Vanessa there was something about both characters that I believe they shared, freedom and loyalty as friends.
 
Meyer was known for working multiple times with much of his cast and crew, how often did the two of you work together?
I had the fortune to work with Russ on Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Seven Minutes and I did the entire voice track for another actress who met the breast requirement, however, her voice was terrible and had to be dubbed. I’ve forgotten the movie title but the character was Junk Yard Sal (the film Roby is referring to is Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens, the actress is June Mack – Lydia). Russ called me in to dub the film. It was great fun! I was able to do all the sexual things without actually being seen. When Russ screened the film, as we were walking out of the screening, I overheard the actress talking to one of her friends excitedly, “I had no idea I sounded that good.” She never knew that it wasn’t her voice. I was very proud that I had captured her rhythm well enough that she didn’t even know that it wasn’t her voice! In real life she was an S&M professional (sadomasochist professional). She was murdered not long after the movie was made.  I’m not sure if the crime was committed by one of her clients or not (it is well-known, but also apparently proven wrong, that Mack was murdered by one of her clients – Lydia).
 
Did you keep in touch  with Meyer after working with him?
I always stayed in touch with Russ. As a matter of fact, many of us did, male actors as well. He was well liked and respected deeply. We had reunions and also, the people he worked with, including his crew, were his friends. Some of his crew were his old war buddies.
 
Are reunions still something that happens now that Russ has sadly passed?
The last time the Meyer girls got together was at Russ’s memorial service.  We all got together afterwards and shared stories. We said that we would continue to get together. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
 
Are you close to any other Meyer alumni?
The only person that I have remained in touch with is Harrison Page (Vixen!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).  As a matter of fact, Harrison and I are both members of the SGI, a worldwide Buddhist organization. I started practicing Buddhism 40 years ago, and as a new member, I introduced Harrison to the practice.
 
You also worked with Melvin Van Peebles on Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, what was that experience like?
Working with Melvin Van Peebles was totally different! First of all, for the role in Sweet Sweetbacks Baadasssss Song, I had no script. I created the dialogue myself. Melvin told me what he wanted and it was left up to me to create that. It was improvisational. We shot until he got what he wanted.
 
Did you notice any similarities/differences between Van Peebles and Meyer in their approach to filmmaking?
I found no similarities in Meyers style to Van Peebles. I worked with Van Peebles on Sweetback as a favour. It was my only experience working with him and it was a frustrating experience. I am proud of the role I created, but much of the anger and frustration came out of the moment. There was nothing comfortable about the experience. But perhaps that’s what it was supposed to be. Sweetback was “raw.”
 
Was improv something that came naturally to you?
Creating the improvisational role was very easy for me because in my acting training we did lots of improv work.  I trained in a form of the Method called Transpersonal and had studied with Ned Manderino who wrote several books, The Transpersonal Actor, All About Method Acting and others.
 
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What have been your favourite acting jobs?
All of my acting jobs are my favourite acting jobs. Every single one, from the smallest to the largest, I have enjoyed doing the work. But there are those that have a more memorable story, like for example working on The Formula with Marlon Brando. I had eleven days with just Brando, myself and George C. Scott. Watching Brando do his “Brando” thing was amazing. I really learned from that experience that you didn’t have to be sane to be a brilliant actor. I also learned that if you surrounded yourself with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t say no to you, that it’s impossible to remain in the world of reality.
 
Scott and Brando aside, you’ve worked with many veteran and talented actors. Was there anyone else you worked with, in either film or television, who was particularly memorable?
I was working on a TV show, I think it was Equal Justice, and the director gave the actor Joe Morgan the highest compliment I had ever heard a director give an actor.  He said to Joe, “You are never not on.” That had a profound impact on my life.  As a matter of fact, it changed how I approached my work.  Up to that time, as we were rehearsing a scene, I always held back just a little bit.  I would never give it my all until we were ready to shoot.  But after that, I never held back.  Each time, even when we are rehearsing, I gave it my all, and by doing so, I discover something new. So, thanks to Joe Morgan, I always try to,”never not be on.”
 
Meyer was known for keeping souvenirs from his films and had an extensive archive of publicity material. Have you ever kept anything from the projects you’ve worked on?
I haven’t ever kept anything from any film that I have done. I only have publicity photographs from a movie for tv, The $100,000 Opportunity, which won a Local Emmy for CBS Repertory Workshop. It was a three character script.
 
Do you get recognised much because of your work, be it acting or modelling? I know a few people who recognise you from your cameo in Rocky (Roby makes an appearance as Mary Anne Creed).
Because of the amount of modelling work that I do, I get recognized more for modelling. My face is literally seen everywhere!  And because its lifestyle, people see me in their doctor’s office, at their drug store, advertising their resort, and on and on… I am the queen of health care and medicine! I don’t believe there is any other African-American female in my age category that advertises more in print than I do. My dream was to become the African-American Carmen. She’s my inspiration.
 
With my acting, people are seeing a lot more of my earlier work in reruns. Now they are like, “Oh, I saw you in something last week.” For example, there was a marathon of the Planet of the Apes films. I did two of those. As I switching channels, I saw myself in one of them. Just a few minutes afterwards someone called me from another state to say that they had seen me in a Jim Brown film that I had done. There are so many cable channels so the need for material is beyond belief.
 
Were you ever asked to come back to play Mary Creed in the other Rocky films?
I was never asked to come back to play Mary Creed. I think Apollo Creed was based loosely on Ali.  Ali married several times. I knew the woman who played the second wife.  We often competed for the same roles, especially in commercials.  She passed away recently.
 
You did a biker movie in 1971 (The Peace Killers), another blaxploitation flick in 1972 (Black Gunn), a franchise (Planet of the Apes) and a comedy (Love at First Bite). Is there anything you havent done that you’d love to do?
I’ve yet to do a serious drama. I want to do that. I would like to do something serious enough that I can win an Academy Award.  I still have time.  Ruth Gordon was 80 when she won her award!  I’ve still got a few more years!
 
You’ve also worked in theatre and modelling, what are your working passions now?
I have modelled since 1963 and continue to do so because I love the work. What I love most is how many people I am able to encourage because they say “I see your face everywhere,” and they are encouraged by that. Or that a relative can see my face on some ad on their computer and they are inspired by it. It encourages me that I am still modelling after fifty years and am still kicking! I am now working towards perfecting my V.O. skills. I’m also rewriting some one woman shows that I created a couple of years ago that I want to make some changes to. And lastly, there are some novels that I started, but haven’t completed. I have still much to do! And so little time to do it all!
 
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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…

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.