Tag Archives: WWII

MEYER MONTH – ‘Heavenly Bodies’ (1963)

26 Mar

2012 saw another of Russ Meyer’s early films finally get a home viewing release for the first time, 1963’s Heavenly Bodies. This was one of the directors early films, alongside This Is My Body and Erotica, that had been out of circulation since its original 60s theatrical run. Like Meyer’s other early films, Heavenly Bodies is essentially a moving image pictorial, a brief glimpse at the life of a glamour photographer and the pin-up model at work. Opening with up close shots depicting the contours of the female body, or as Meyer has it in his narration ‘the component parts of a woman’, the picture eventually shows us the printing process of the glamour magazine before moving on to show different segments of various known photographers (Ken Parker, Fred Owens, Charles Schelling) conducting their own photo shoots. Shot over a long weekend to make Meyer some cash after having some time off for being in hospital, one gets the feeling that those involved didn’t really have to do an awful lot to make the whole picture come together.

hb 1

There isn’t a lot going on in the picture and it serves more as a nostalgic treat into how things were done in the past. With each segment, the narrator goes through the exact specifics of what camera and what lenses each photographer is using and what they change to during their session if light or their subject focus changes. As interesting as it is, it probably won’t mean anything to those watching who know little about photography, cinematography and cameras themselves. The way shoots are conducted however is quite interesting (the financial, mental and physical benefits of using two models at the same time for instance). For a film that sells itself as an expose on glamour photography there are, of course, some beautiful shots, namely the shoot with the two models at the start of the film which takes place in and around a home swimming pool. Another fun little segment shows how pin-up photography has changed over the years, with film stock turning black and white to play out a cute little scene in the days when models wore a lot more clothing and photographs took longer to capture (it stars the wonderful Princess Livingston in her first Meyer film cameo, which I had wrongly attributed to Wild Gals of the Naked West).

hb 2

Part of the charm of Heavenly Bodies is seeing the camaraderie of director Meyer and his war buddies who he frequently enlisted to help him over the years with his various film projects. There is one scene in particular where Russ takes his fellow 166th Signal Corps photographers on a photo field trip to the woods to shoot two buxom models (Althea Currier and Monica Liljistrand) amidst the lush scenery. Whilst the models are putting on their make-up and doing their hair, all of the director’s buddies are setting up and cleaning their cameras and lenses. Eventually they find a nice spot to shoot pictures of the two girls, all whilst fighting each other over taking turns and getting the best angles. It’s quite sweet to see them almost worshipping the pretty models knowing that they must have come across some really challenging stuff between them when working out in the field during World War II.

It’s not going to be to all Meyer fans taste, no doubt a large number of people will find it very boring, but for Meyer completists and photographers Heavenly Bodies is an interesting little snapshot into two different but very similar work practices that took over Russ Meyers life. If you’re going to bother watching his early films, you best include this in your viewing as its one of the more significant in the batch that have finally been released.

Todd Rosken’s ‘Up The Valley and Beyond’ (2012)

6 Mar

There’s a beautiful little film that’s spent the last year doing the festival rounds and if you’re a Russ Meyer or sexploitation film fan, it’s well worth seeking out. In fact, it’s well worth seeking out if you’re a film fan in general as this cinematic gem is well shot, well acted, well written and utterly full of charm. Up The Valley and Beyond is a short film, based on the book Russ Meyer, The Life and Films by David K. Frasier (itself one of the best books about the director), dramatically exploring the early stages of the marriage between the legendary filmmaker Russ Meyer and his model wife Eve Turner. Beginning with a great montage of black and white World War II footage highlighting where Meyer had come from (a great minute of editing in which editor Nickolas Perry really creates a sense of how the War was seen by the cameramen who filmed it), the film then bursts into gloriously bright 1950s pop colours and prints and shows how Meyer and Turner first met when he was looking for the ‘right built’ woman, eventually becoming a couple. Director Todd Rosken has struck casting gold with his two leads, Jim Parrack (True Blood, Sal, Battle Los Angeles) and Sarah Jones (Alcatraz, Big Love, Sons of Anarchy) who both pull off the real-life big characters. Parrack in particular is delightful as a younger Meyer, nailing the mannerisms and enthusiasm of the man himself and is a worthy candidate for the lead role in any future Meyer biopic. Equally good is Jones in the role of Eve, a tough woman to imitate and who Jones doesn’t quite nail completely in looks but certainly manages to bring across in fiery character.

The film has played at many major film festivals over the last year including the BFI London Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Shortfest. What makes it stand out is the way in which Rosken and his crew have interpreted Meyer’s sense of  style and substance, creating a playful fifteen minute dramatic homage that lives up to the infamous directors reputation without being too cliché. The one glaring out-of-place moment is the need for Meyer to validate his heterosexuality which no-one really need ever or have ever questioned. Aside from that, the pace of the piece flows extremely well, even if it does feel more like a promo for a feature than a short film.  Director Rosken kindly took some time out to answer a few questions about the film and his inspiration.

Have you always been a Meyer fan?
I remember watching a documentary on Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen said that the first time he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, it looked great but he didn’t really get it and didn’t give much thought to it.  Then a friend of his wanted to see it so he decided to see it again and after the second viewing, Mr. Allen realized how far ahead of everyone else Kubrick was and how it changed his perception of what can be done with film.  This is sort of the same thing that happen to me.  The difference being that it was the first time I saw Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. It was a moment of pure shock that jolted my perceptions of what the art of cinema was.  It was a giant leap forward!  From that point on I was a fan for life. It was after that that I did further research on his films and life.

Where did the original idea for the short come from?
The short film is just a snapshot from one of the many themes further explored in the feature length screenplay. The feature screenplay is based on more than twenty hours of video taped interviews with Russ’ closest friends, cast and crew members including Kitten Natividad, Tura Satana, Erica Gavin, Hugh Hefner and Roger Ebert. The screenplay is also based on a prodigious amount of periodical research (articles from the 1950’s-current) and a book titled Russ Meyer – The Life and Films by David K. Frasier. Making a short film can be just as complex as a feature film. There are no rules… but we wanted to have some type of conflict and resolution. So we decided to focus on the early part of russ’ life as a glamour photographer.

What was it about the period in time of his life that you chose for the shorts subject that interested you?
Being in the army during WWII was Meyer’s favourite time.  The late forties and early fifties was also a time of discovery and invention in America.  Disneyland opens, colour TV was introduced, first atomic submarine launched and the first Playboy magazine published.  It was the time when Russ Meyer met Eve Turner and decided to transition from glamour photographer to filmmaker. It was the beginning of love and his life as a filmmaker.

Is any of the footage during the War montage at the beginning attributed to Meyer at all?
I would love to be able to say that the archival war footage used in the opening montage was footage that Meyer shot, but due to time and budgetary constraints, we had to choose other WWII footage. Creating the opening montage was a huge task! Nazi music, narration and wintage titles… It was like making a movie within a movie. My editor Nickolas Perry, who is also a brilliant director, was able to construct the one minute montage from hours of archival footage that I selected from various sources. There are a couple of shots that bear an uncanny resemblance to Meyer himself. Maybe it’s him?

Love is certainly the word that springs to mind when discussing Russ and Eve specifically. How did you go about tackling their relationship to condense it down for the general feel of the short?
Based on interviews that me and my writing partner, Bobby D. Lux, conducted and periodical research, we were able to see that this was a true and meaningful love that was shared between Russ and Eve.  In the short film we show their love just starting to blossom.

What is it about the filmmaker for you personally that makes him so captivating?
Russ created his own cinematic language.  I think the highest level of achievement for any artist is to create their own aesthetic and Russ did so masterfully . Although he had brilliant and amazing people working with him such as Anthony-James Ryan and Richard Brummer, Russ directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited all of his films.  He was the personification of what it is to be an auteur (the author of his own work).  In an industry where decision by committee is the norm, Russ was the lightning rod for true independent film making.  Russ Meyer challenged perceptions, broke boundaries, and never failed to entertain!

After doing a bit of research, how did your impressions of him change?
After scouring over everything that has ever been written about the man, my impressions of him didn’t change.  I was able to perhaps understand how he developed his obsession (anyone familiar with Russ knows what that is!) and his style as a filmmaker. Russ’ film making technique was an amalgam of his prior experiences as a  cinematographer in WWII and as an industrial filmmaker. Russ was able to incorporate his experiences flawlessly which gave his films their unique style.

How did you get Parrack and Jones on board?
My casting agent sent the script to their agent who repped both of them at the time. He loved it and gave the script to Jim and Sarah. I met with each of them to discuss the film.  After we did a screen test there was no one else I wanted to audition.  They nailed it! They both brought so much to the filming process and inspired me the whole time. I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without them.

Did you give them any research materials or let them do their own interpretations?
I did give them research materials such as pictures and interviews. I think their performances were original and organic. 

Are you interested in further exploring a feature?
Yes.

How is progress with that coming along?
We have been focusing our attention on the festival circuit but will start contacting producers soon. You can see the trailer for the short film below and on the website www.upthevalleyandbeyond.com.

MEYER MONTH – Meyer, the Industrial Filmmaker.

5 Mar

Long before director Russ Meyer started making his own films, he had the opportunity to practice his editing and cinematography techniques in two key areas that would shape his later career. Firstly, Meyer enrolled as a combat photographer during World War II, travelling over Europe in the 166th Signal Photographic Company who were appointed to film General Patton’s Third Army. Upon his return, the photographer needed a job and to supplement his popular hobby of taking glamour photographs, Meyer managed to get a job at Gene K. Walker Films, the second place in which he would have the space to hone his filming skills.

Owned by a man called Gene Walker, Gene K. Walker Films were a San Francisco based company that produced 16mm promotional films for companies like Standard Oil and The Western Pine Association. Starting in 1946, Meyer worked there for roughly eight years as one of its chief cinematographers and it was here that the budding filmmaker learnt how to create a film; ‘Industrial films, that’s where I learnt my craft. You’d go out with three people and do everything’.  Through editing his own raw footage, adding soundtracks and creating a narrative story Meyer created a template that he’d continue to use for the rest of his cinematic endeavours. One only needs to think of the mundane, monotonous narrations, quick paced editing and picturesque landscapes (it’s impossible to watch This Is My Railroad, see below, and not think of the scenery in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Vixen! and Up!) and it’s easy to see the influences of this type of industrial filmmaking upon his work. The small crew ethic also stuck and fellow employees were recruited to help work on his later features (Charles G. Schelling and Bill Teas), whilst there can be no doubting that part of what Meyer learnt about marketing and publicity came from the company offices.

Eventually Meyer’s sideline in glamour photography caught up with him and it turned out that some of Walker’s clients didn’t like a skin photographer working on their films. Walker offered Meyer a financial incentive to quit the photography business but Russ turned him down and with his wife Eve‘s support he left the company. Not that he ever forgot this period in time. Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens pays more than a generous homage to this part of his career. Meyer is credited as having worked on quite a few industrial features but the only one I can find is This Is My Railroad which was made for Southern Pacific which I have posted below.

Maps – Russ Meyer’s ‘Europe In The Raw’ (1963)

2 May

Russ Meyer and sexploitation fans owe a lot to Arrow Films, the film distribution company known for putting out comprehensive DVD releases of cult and foreign films. Arrow have just re-released their Russ Meyer box set, well worth getting for two reasons. Firstly, these are the most detailed releases of Meyer’s back catalogue, complete with commentaries by the director and extras featuring his famous leading ladies. Secondly, the new re-release features Meyer’s 1963 picture Europe In The Raw, a film pretty much out of circulation since its initial theatrical run.

Filmed and released in 1963, Europe In The Raw was the first in Meyer’s ‘documentary’ trilogy (followed by Mondo Topless and Pandora Peaks, the latter more of a mockumentary…), shot as a reaction against what Meyer saw as anti US sentiment in the film Mondo Cane and the booming ‘mondo’ craze. His response was to go to Europe and shoot a sex shockumentary that showed up the continent as a sexually depraved, lust filled land. Shooting the footage himself and using both actual shots and faked scenes, Meyer had to limit himself to using cheap equipment and short film reels to pass off as a tourist and not a filmmaker to foreign officials. It shows. Whilst there are some fantastically framed compositions, the film isn’t as polished as his later efforts. All the hallmarks of his filmography are there but it feels significantly less accomplished in comparison to other features, especially Mondo Topless which successfully nailed the points that Meyer was trying to hammer when released three years later.

Travelling with wife and producer Eve Meyer, Russ managed to get some lovely shots of European burlesque dancers filmed on the cheap equipment, a lot of which later ended up being recycled into Mondo Topless. Certainly more teasing than tantalising, watching Europe In The Raw now is a slightly boring affair but it’s wonderful to see extended footage of dancers such as Veronique Gabriel, Gigi La Touche and Denise Duvall whose scenes appear in Mondo albeit slightly shorter and cut. Intercut amongst these performances are a few staged scenes which feel very out of place and stick out like a sort thumb; the faked nudist camp in Holland being the prime suspect. In an attempt to salvage the production, Russ hid a small camera in a bag with a cut out window and filmed reels of various red light districts across Europe. Needless to say, both he and Eve ran into a couple of bouts of trouble after a few prostitutes smelled a rat… After being chased out of one hookers apartment and failing to capture any noteworthy film, Meyer re-created walking up the flight of stairs to her room back in the comfort of the US with a well-stacked American model.

Completed with scenic images of Europe and footage shot by Meyer during the War, Europe In The Raw was withheld from public circulation as Meyer believed it wasn’t one of his best pieces of work. Honestly, I don’t blame him. It’s not his best but it certainly isn’t terrible and is in fact very interesting to watch to see the formations of his filmmaking techniques develop. The pompous narration is there, although not filled with as much innuendo as would later become staple. What is great is that Meyer’s career as a pin-up photographer is evident from the way the women are captured and framed. The dance routines of the burlesque performers play out like moving image Playboy pictorials, similar to the set-ups in Meyer’s first feature The Immoral Mr. Teas, with the editing fetishising their accessories and heightening the tease. It might not be Meyer’s best but for completest fans it’s a must.

MEYER MONTH – Russ Meyer, The Pin-Up Photographer.

16 Mar

Most of you will know Russ Meyer as the auteur of sleaze, the most successful and iconic filmmaker in the sexploitation genre. His films are love letters to hypersexual, highly empowered and incredibly curvaceous women. Meyer turned his breast fetish into a profitable career and, whether or not it floats your own boat (which becomes more debatable as his subjects get more exaggerated in his later films), he managed to capture on celluloid a bevy of lovelies in their unique beauty. One cannot deny that Meyer’s camera adored the women it was pointed at. Each of his shots were composed and lit with a knowledge and understanding of photographing the female form that many directors now struggle to achieve, even with good cinematographers behind them. Russ Meyer was so successful because of his extensive experience and career in photography which preceded his filmmaking. Not many people know that Meyer started out as a combat photographer during WWII before moving on to the world of glamour photography.

Evelyn ‘Treasure Chest’ West

Like many men returning from the War, Meyer found nothing but rejection when it came to finding work back home in America. After doing the rounds in Hollywood trying to find film work, Meyer eventually bought himself a Speed Graphic camera and set about photographing the women that he desired the most. The future director started out taking photographs of stripper Evelyn ‘Treasure Chest’ West, doing a deal with the Oakland night club she was appearing in which saw him supply them with free stills in exchange for time taking pictures of her. After continuing to photograph various strippers that came into town (developing his stills in the family bathtub, much to Mother Meyer’s delight), a fellow combat buddy of Meyer’s persuaded him to try to take advantage of the recent boom in girlie mags and become a pin-up photographer. Russ signed up with the Globe agency and found himself shooting pictorial’s for Gent, Fling, Frolic and Escapade amongst a number of other publications.

It was an encounter with one particular stripper that would kick-start the ambition in Meyer to become a filmmaker. Through photographing strippers, Russ met Tempest Storm who was performing at the El Rey Burlesk Theatre, owned by Pete DeCenzie. After doing some stills work which the two men would sell at the theatre, Meyer decided to shoot a short reel of film of Tempest doing her stuff. After smuggling the reel into Kodak to be developed, Meyer showed the it to DeCenzie who loved it and invited Russ to film a show at the El Rey. That reel of film became Meyer’s first short film, The French Peep Show (1950), which is now presumed lost.

Although bitten by the filmmaking bug, Meyer’s enthusiasm and talent for glamour photography never died. During the 1950s he shot numerous photographs of his second wife Eve Meyer, including her pictorial when she became June’s Playboy Playmate in 1955. Eve was probably the only woman to have lingered for any significant time in front of Meyer’s camera and his pictures of her are undeniably is best. All the women he shot look beautiful, well poised and immaculate. Eve just looks something else, stellar almost. The chemistry between her and Meyer is evident in every shot he took. It’s an understatement to say that they just don’t make women like that anymore. Alongside Eve’s Playboy gatefold, Meyer only shot another two; Marguerite Empey and Yvette Vickers.

Meyer would go on to shoot many famous models and actresses during the 50s establishing him as one of the prominent pin-up photographers of the decade. Throughout his life, Russ would snap away at his paramour’s, actresses and muses. Some would appear in publications like Playboy, for instance his pictorial of then-wife Edy Williams to publicise the never made Viva Foxy!, whilst others appear on every other page of his autobiography A Clean Breast like a catalogue of conquests. Clearly a huge influence on his filmmaking career, everything Meyer learnt about exposing and exhibiting the female form he learnt from his stills career and for those who haven’t seen much of it, it’s worth checking out. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

MEYER MONTH – Jimmy McDonough interview

9 Mar

Writer Jimmy McDonough is a big deal in the world of Russ Meyer. This is the man who wrote Meyer’s biography, a feat that probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Meyer hadn’t have been unwell. Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer is an illuminating portrait of the director with some great stories from all of those who were nearest and dearest to him. The book has been a bible for me since it’s release and I’m very grateful to Jimmy for taking some time out to answer some questions and talk about the great man. To say that this is a personal life-greatest-moment for me is an understatement and my sincerest thanks go out to the guy. His latest biography, Tragic Country Queen, on Tammy Wynette is out now and previous biographies include Neil Young and Andy Milligan. The film rights to Big Bosoms were bought last year and a biopic is currently in the works with director David O. Russell linked to the project.

How did you first become aware of Russ Meyer and his career?

At some point I spied an old girlie mag calendar with photos Meyer had snapped of Lorna Maitland and June Wilkinson. Kablam!  His photos were so much better than nearly all the competition.  There was an X factor present–a crazed euphoria, a palpable sense of whoopie…One felt it in the grinch, as RM would say.
 

What was the first thing of his that you saw and what were your first impressions of it?

I think it was Supervixens at an Indiana drive-in when I was a teen.  Seeing Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens during its theatrical run at at a decript old Jersey City movie palace is what really blew the back of my head off, though. The way the camera just locked onto Kitten Natividad and didn’t let go.  The barrage of closeups: lips, eyes, breasts, radios, pinatas, and the wiggling wheel beneath a bedframe.  An insane attention to the details, down  to the garish set painting.  Meyer appears in the end of the film, addressing the audience as he packs up his film equipment.  The guy came at you with the con-man confidence of a car salesman who has you in a bear-hug and won’t let you leave the lot until the deal is sealed.  It felt so personal, so maniacally single-minded. Once the lights came up I felt as if I’d hallucinated the whole thing. Everything about the film was wacko.  Yet it’s strangely heartfelt.  Beneath was a tribute of sorts–a love letter to Kitten.  
 
How have these impressions changed over the years (for better or worse) and did doing the research for the book radically change how you felt about his work (film or photography)?
 
Not that I can think of.  Doing the book only enhanced my appreciation of his work.  And underscored how undeniably cuckoo RM was.  Crazy family + combat photography + big bosoms + industrial photography + fear of insanity…it all made sense, really. 
 
Where did the idea for the biography come from?
 
It was in the back of my mind for years.  I had worked in the exploitation business for that other RM exploitation king on the opposite coast–Radley Metzger–and knew the lay of the land.  My first published book was on Andy Milligan, who was the grimy, gritty low-down opposite of Meyer in every way.  I wanted to go to the glossy end of the exploitation spectrum, say a few more things and get the fuck out.  Plus I knew the book would be a million laughs.
 

Was it something that you’d always had in mind after discovering Meyer?

Yes.  I spend a long time thinking about projects before I do them, because once I jump in I won’t quit until it’s done.
 
What was or is so special about Meyer that made you want to undertake the project?
 
I am attracted to people who are helpless in the face of an obsession. I can relate. Obsessions drove Meyer.  And in the end they did him in. For better or worse, I see certain things in the same way as RM.  Not everything, thank Christ, but…certain things. My wife Natalia could be a Meyer star. All the right curves…long, flaming red hair…the same bad attitude.  She could hold her own with any of the Faster, Pussycat gang, believe me.
 
During the project, did you at any time feel like you may have taken on too much, in terms of trying to contact those closest to him, going through his extensive archives, the fact that he was, at the time, ill?

No, I wish I had found more interviewees, actually.  I never went through RM’s archives, unfortunately.  This was a completely unauthorized project.

 
Did you have any real difficulties along the way, in terms of contacting people or getting permission from his estate?
 
It took a bit of time to convince some people of my sincerity.  A zillion nutcases have chased after these women.  I actually had a number for Uschi and when I left a message I got so carried away I probably sounded like perv #4,567.  I’m not 100% certain it was still her number but when I called back a few days later it was disconnected.  Needless to say I never got to speak to her.  A great loss for the book, unfortunately. I sought no permission from the estate nor was any granted.  
 
Was there anyone in particular who really needed to be persuaded or talked around into contributing? You mention in the book how difficult it was to try and arrange meeting with Erica Gavin and how Alaina Capri had abandoned the business all together and never really talked about her time with Russ.
 

I specialize in difficult characters.  Look at my books. Gavin is the Howard Hughes of the Meyer women, and the most psychedelic. She’s impossible to pin down on anything, even going to the Quickie Mart.  But once gotten Erica was fantastic.  She even flashed her cans at me, albeit in a brassiere.  That chick should write a book–she’s been a lot of weird and wondrous places. Alaina was nervous about talking after all these years.  She didn’t want to be laughed at.  I hope I did her justice. Capri’s tops in my book.

Do you think (without sounding incredibly cruel) that his illness worked in your favor at the time of compiling research? 

I had no idea what kind of shape RM was in when I started the research.  I thought about chucking it once I knew the extent of the situation.  His friends encouraged me to plow ahead, though, which was inspiring.  But I have to say if RM had been in cognizant of my project there is no doubt in my mind that after my third question he would’ve punched me in the nose and unleashed the lawyers.  Believe me, I would’ve loved to have picked that strange brain but Meyer wasn’t an introspective guy.  I think he would’ve find my approach to be an assault on the fantasy.  Needless to say I don’t see it that way.  The women are what interested me, anyway.  They hadn’t talked all that much. RM had ample opportunity to tell his story and spent three self-published volumes doing so–A Clean Breast.  What an achievement–over a thousand pages and nary an insight to be found.  Fantastic photos, though.

On ‘A Clean Breast’, do you think (if he’d completed it) his original idea of doing an autobiographical film would have been somewhat more insightful?

The bit of The Breast of Russ Meyer floating around is just fantastic.  That was the last Meyer project of any interest, in my opinion. Insightful?  I don’t know if Meyer was capable.

Did his illness or seeing him ill change your view or opinion on him in any way?

I felt for RM.  Again, in the end his obsessions were his undoing.  He’d become a feeble mark begging for mammary salvation, a pathetic john who’d empty his wallet to snuggle up to any big tit.  Curiously it was a position not all that far from the weak males he’d mocked in his films.  And then Meyer lost his mind–literally.  The details are in the book, and it really is like something out of one of his mid-period films.  His old screenwriter John Moran couldn’t have penned a more sordid tale. 

Do you have a favourite/s Meyer girl and did your opinion of her change after you met her (if you did)?

Tura and I really hit it off.  I mean really hit it off. Had circumstances been different…Kitten was absolutely fantastic.  I nearly proposed to her after six questions.  Unfortunately I was already married at the time.  Hanging out with Erica Gavin was a mind-bender.  They were all great and it was a thrill of a lifetime meeting them.  Is there a grifter in the bunch?  This is the world of Russ Meyer, what do you think?

What do you think it is about them that have made them so endearing amongst Meyer/film/sexploitation/cult film fans?

Their spirit.  Dare I say they seem almost pure and innocent these days.

Do you think that that’s part of the charm of Meyer’s work, that by today’s standards of explicitness there’s a great deal of innocence in some of his portrayal’s of sexuality and some of his characters themselves?

Yes. The humor, which doesn’t always work, is another big part.  Sex can be such a heavy, oppressive topic. Meyer lets you laugh at it.  

Did any of them disappoint you in any way in reality?

No.  If anything they were even more impressive.  Life hasn’t been easy for them and they’re not easy dames to live with. Forget the physical attributes, these women vibrate with an energy that could charge 1000 Teslas. There’s a blinding light behind the eyes. Never a dull moment!

What do you think it is about Meyer himself that has kept the girls so loyal and proud of their work and association with him?

However much an asshole Meyer could be, he immortalized these women.  How flattering is that?  Last time I checked nobody’s building me a shrine.

There are a number of instances documented where he has fallen out with his actresses or treated them badly at some point. Is there anyone you think he was particularly harsher on?

Oh, I don’t know, everybody got the short end of the stick sooner or later.  Meyer’s right-hand man George Costello was banished forever when Meyer discovered he’d been consoling Erica Gavin behind his back during the making of Vixen.  During the shoot RM had a secret stash of Treesweet orange juice and Costello was brazen enough to filch one can and slip it to Gavin behind the boss’s back.  RM took this as a great betrayal and never spoke to Costello again. Meyer made little plaques commemorating each film.  And what was on the Vixen plaque?  A can of Treesweet orange juice.  A symbol of Costello’s treasonous behavior.

Did any girl surprise you in any way in reality?

Tura was ultra-right wing, which didn’t exactly surprise me, but it did crack me up.  Very patriotic, loved Reagan and Bush, torture and kill the terrorists, etc. She was very loyal, very sweet and had a way of getting to you. She signed her letters “Always” and she meant it. Tura was just too big for the movies. Too bad.

Out of all the girls featured in his films, who you do think is or are the most memorable/most typically Meyer/most overrated or underrated? Are there any that you think he should have worked with more or less? 

I just wish there was more of all of ’em.  More Tura, more Lorna, more Uschi, more Kitten, more Alaina, more, more, more…I’m not a big Edy Williams fan but she certainly clawed out her place in the Meyer oeuvre.  RM wasn’t interested in helping his stars build a career.  He was always lusting after next year’s Cadillac. I really, really wish Eve had done more film work.  And I wished somebody had properly interviewed her.  What a dame.  

I’m sure some will consider this heresy, but Beyond the Valley of the Dolls isn’t my favorite, either.  I admire the achievement but it’s a little too chilly, a little too arch for me.  Give me Mondo Topless/Common Law Cabin/Faster, Pussycat…

RM’s last couple of films are just an embarrassment.  His taste was of course vulgar, but exuberantly so.  At the end it turned grotesque, tired, creepy.  The women seem factory-made, joyless. You feel embarrassed for the guy, cringe at his pathetic fetish.  This wasn’t the case previously, at least not for me.  He made it all seem fun.  And funny.

At what point do you think his career really peaked?

In 1968 Vixen made a pile of dough, so much so that a desperate 20th Century Fox came knocking on Meyer’s door to make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.  A Hollywood studio INVITED an exploitation filmmaker into the kingdom and let him run amok.  Unheard of!  The joke was definitely on them for once.  And the moolah was in the Bank of Meyer!  Fantastic.

Mentioning Eve Meyer, how important do you think she was in relation to Meyer’s early career? She seems to have played a big part on the finacial side of business, helping Russ out on a few occassions…

From what his friends told me, Eve really understood Russ.  And could stand up to him.  Eve was a very sharp dame and a fantastic businesswoman–she distributed his films.  I think RM’s life can be split into BE and AE.  Russ seemed increasingly rudderless After Eve.  But nobody was going to tell RM what to do.  Look where it got him.  Heaven.  And hell.  Had he been a little more humble…but who wants a humble Meyer anyway? His life was like his movies.  Absolutely nuts from beginning to end.

Women are the obvious topic to discuss when it comes to Meyer but he also had a lot of male friends and actors around him from his service during WW2 and the films he made. Which of them stand out as being the most memorable and loyal towards him?

Undoubtedly the most loyal was Anthony James Ryan AKA The Handyman.  He helped create the movies, appeared in them, and cleaned up many a Meyer mess.  He was loyal until the end.  He knew how crazy Russ but was loyal until the end.  A hell of a guy, Ryan.  I loved visiting his dusty old photography store to shoot the shit. Little bits of Meyeribilia were everywhere, like shots of Kitten Natividad appearing in a local parade.  I’d rather have a colonoscopy than attend such an event, but a parade with Kitten.  Now that’s exciting.  I hope she threw candy to the kids from the back of the Caddy.

How much of an impact do you feel Meyer had on cinema in terms of depicting sex and sexuality on screen?

He kicked down the door and did it with panache and wit.  However crude and bizarre the point of view may be, RM was there first.  He fought many an expensive battle in court defending his films.  Everybody who came after benefited from his ballsy and brazen approach.  To what end, one may ask.  Nowadays anything goes and how dull is that?

As an independent filmmaker, do you think he is successful in what he did?

Are you kidding me?!?  The guy saw his demented fantasies come to life on the silver screen, had incredible broads throwing themselves at his feet and he made a shitload of dough–the kind of loot that allows you to tell the world to take a fucking hike.  He circled the globe attending tributes to himself.  And outside of the films for 20th Century Fox RM owned everything he created and controlled how it was presented down to the minute details.  He got away with everything,  answered to nobody.  I don’t know about you but I’d trade places in a second.

The bulk of sexploitation is really tedious unwatchable crap.  Dave Friedman was a hell of a guy, but his posters and trailers were far better than most of actual movies. And that’s in keeping with the exploitation con.  Moviemaking was no laughing matter to Meyer.  He gave it his all.  Experiencing Meyer’s work is akin to listening to Little Richard belt out “Keep A-Knockin’.” A runaway train–you either get on board or get the hell out of the way! 

RM nearly killed himself getting shots as a combat photographer in WWII; he nearly killed his cast and crew making these films.  Nobody told me making these films was fun.  Raven De La Croix tore up her feet running like a maniac barefoot and naked through the woods.  You think Meyer cared?  Naaah. RM demanded take after take.  He just wanted it to look good.  So somebody dies, so what?  Filmmaking is war!

My one wish is that Meyer would’ve made a 3D movie.  But the medium wasn’t technically ready for somebody like Meyer.  Could you imagine if he were still around?  Scorsese made Hugo.  Meyer could’ve done Huge-O.

Do you think the content of his films has stopped him from being celebrated or his achievements in independent filmmaking from being recognised at all?

Not really. Love him or hate him, Meyer was recognized as his own genre.  Sure he was vilified by the conservative and the humorless, but RM demanded and got different consideration than most smut peddlers.  Meyer was also lucky–powerful critics like Roger Ebert (it must be said, a fellow tit man) championed him in the mainstream press.  And being hilarious and endlessly quotable made RM great copy and earned him endless ink. He was great at playing all the angles and knew controversy only enhanced box office.  He’s been fully absorbed into our culture–these days you can buy Faster Pussycat t-shirts and lunch boxes at the mall.  Unfortunately the films themselves have become harder and harder to show theatrically or buy in a store and that, I think, has been the worst thing for his longevity.  Nobody’s really promoting or taking care of his work, except for draining the last easy dollar to be made.  Go look at the website for RM Films.  Is it still 1982?

Is there anything about him personally and professionally that you think he isn’t but should be remembered for?

I just think he should be remembered, period.  Everybody agrees that the estate has missed the boat.  No Blu-Rays containing state-of-the-art transfers of his films?  Meyer would’ve been on top of that from the get-go.  Rumors that the negatives are rotting away?  It’s a disgrace.  I think RM would be appalled at the state of his archive.  This is a guy who turned his own home into a museum to himself–where are all his treasures?  Why can’t the world experience them?  There should be a Russ Meyer Museum.  How great would that be? You think people wouldn’t visit, write about it, put it on TV?

It does seem a real shame that for someone who embraced the VHS market so early on, his films haven’t been transferred to BD yet. Who is in charge of his estate? I know that Arrow had some difficulties when they released his films on DVD which seem to be the best and most definitive way of getting hold of them.

Meyer’s secretary and contractor joined forces to become the, ahem, finely-tuned machine that runs the empire.  Everything I have to say about the estate is in the book, specifically the “Janice and the Handyman” chapter.  I’d rather not give them any more attention, they’re a bit internet-excitable when it comes to me.

In regards to his house, the descriptions of it in the book are incredible. What was it like being in that environment where Meyer is literally coming at you from all directions?

I was never in the house, unfortunately.  All my knowledge comes from those who had been there.
 
What do you think of the homages and imitations of Meyer’s work that are raising his profile? Have you seen films like ‘Pervert!’ and ‘Bitch Slap!’? What, if you’ve seen them, do you think of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s references to his work in ‘Death Proof’ and ‘Planet Terror’?
 
Haven’t seen any of these and don’t feel compelled to catch up.  That whole referencing-films-past has become a little cliche, don’t you think?  The TV set on in the background showing Kiss of Death?  You’ve seen a few movies, we get it.  Go teach a class. If I need a jolt of Meyer I just turn on Mondo Topless for ten minutes. What’s that line from The In Crowd–“The original is still the greatest.”
 
In terms of his treatment of women (both on screen and off screen in his personal relationships and friendships), how much do you think he cared for/respected the opposite sex?
 
As great and fun a guy as RM was, he treated everybody like crap sooner or later. There was always suspicion, a plot, a betrayal. Women were certainly no exception.   And yet despite himself he recorded a certain greatness about them, however absurdly specific it is.  I think this talent was beyond his control.  Obviously he never got over dear old mother Lydia.  Interesting that a frequent Meyer POV is a low-angle, I’m-way-down-here-looking-way-up-there at these towering femme infernos.  A child’s eye view, perhaps? It should come as no surprise Meyer came from a demented family.  He was surrounded by a couple of crazy women; enemas were involved.  Need I say more? 

What do you think his honest opinions on male/female sexuality were? 

As Jane Hower–one his last paramours–told me RM was “very straightforward–hug, kiss, touch put it in.”  There’s a picture in the book of Meyer’s spartan bedroom  that says it all. Box of Kleenex on the nightstand, no-frills bed…It might as well be army barracks.  Sex to Meyer was like backing up a Mack truck, dumping a load and  heading straight back to headquarters to hang out with the fellas.  A very old-fashioned guy.  To him oral sex was a commie plot.  Just the word “sexuality” would’ve been met with derision from RM. He couldn’t have cared less about anybody’s needs except his own. “Making love”? “Sensuality”? That was for sissies, Yes-Dear men.  Meyer approached sex the way he tore into a steak: not a lot of finesse and blood dripping off the knife.

How do you think Meyer will be remembered in 50 years time? What do you think people will see as his legacy by that point?

He was a complete original.  How many filmmakers are?  Not many, if you ask me.  A minute or two of Meyer and you know you’ve fallen through a hole in the universe.  A little more interesting than another Spike Lee retrospective or the complete oeuvre of Jonathan Demme.

Lastly, I don’t know whether you can or can’t talk about the film? Not in terms of where it is in production or who is being considered for casting but your view on it. Did you ever think that this would be an opportunity that would happen to you and how deserving do you think Meyer is of a film biopic?

I can tell you that the actress attached to play Eve Meyer was my first choice–she’s a dead ringer for Eve and can convey the mountain of moxie required. Some very talented people are connected to the project.  But it’s Hollywood.  I’ve been through this before.  Of course I wish them the best.  How will they recreate those women, anyway?  CGI, or your dread porn cyborg types?  I hope not.  These were one-of-a kind women.  Hard cups to fill. 

MEYER MONTH – Russ Meyer and WWII

7 Mar

Most people will know director Russ Meyer because of his somewhat sleazy career as a sexploitation filmmaker. But what many don’t realise is that Meyer learnt his craft photographing scenes of World War II during combat and spend the rest of his life very proud of what he had achieved during this experience, references of this time in his life scattered throughout his work and the strong bond he developed with some of his combat buddies lasting until the very end.

Meyer applied to be a volunteer combat photographer after seeing an advertisement placed in Popular Photography magazine by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He became part of the Signal Corps Reserve and eventually in November 1944 was appointed staff sergeant with the 166th Signal Photographic Company, the official photo unit in General Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. The 166th Signal Photographic Company went on to become one of the most decorated outfits in European operations, with Meyer receiving one of the fifty-five Bronze Stars it garnered amongst a vast number of other accolades. To say that Russ may have found his calling during the War would be an understatement. He was very good at what he did and this was recognised not only by his fellow photographers but by the Captains who would have to critique each photographers work as and when it was sent in. Meyer frequently got ‘very good’ in his reports on his work in both film and still photos. Combat footage that he shot was used in the Oscar-winning short Eisenhower: True Glory (1945) and the 1970 releases The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Patton. Footage that the Company shot can be viewed on this website but it doesn’t attribute it to any certain individuals.

Newsreel Unit 1. Meyer is in the middle row, third from the right. Charlies Sumners is top left.

Now it’s not uncommon knowledge that Meyer liked to embellish the stories he told, fabricating facts and, in some instances, stories in their entirety. One only needs to read his autobiography A Clean Breast to realise he contradicts himself at least once or twice. But there seems to be some element of truth in the fact that the original story for the novel and film The Dirty Dozen comes from an experience Meyer had during the War. Whilst in England, Meyer and fellow combat buddy Charlie Sumners were sent to a remote area to photograph the inhabitants of a prison stockade. All were heavily guarded, not allowed to talk, their legs bound in chains and once Meyer and Sumners had finished shooting footage it was promptly confiscated by the colonel in charge. Meyer recounted this tale to E. M. Nathanson in the 1950s who was interested and both tried to factually investigate what had happened but to no avail. In 1965, Nathanson had his novel based on the idea published which eventually became a film. Meyer ended up with ten per cent of Nathanson’s film deal, apparently calling the inmates ‘the Dirty Dozen’ in the first place. According to Sumners who was also there at the time, there were considerably more than a dozen of them.

Another interesting story that appears in Jimmy McDonagh’s biography of Meyer, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, talks of an incident in which Meyer and Sumners were sent out to photograph a potential assassination attempt on Hitler and Goebbels. According to Sumners, this was another story fabricated by Meyer with no element of fact to it which is a real shame because what a story it was. Meyer would recall the time he was woken up in the middle of the night to go into a meeting headed by a Sixth Armored Division colonel and General Patton. Patton wanted Hitler and Goebbels assassinated and told Meyer he better be ‘damn careful about what he shot’. The following morning him and Sumners joined a team heading to Weimar where they found that Hitler and Goebbels had decided to return to Berlin instead and the mission was aborted. All, it would seem, a complete lie.

The Normandy Landing by Russ Meyer

World War II would also see Russ Meyer lose his virginity, largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway. One night Hemingway invited Meyer and a few of his buddies to the local whorehouse to have a night on him as he was friendly with the woman who ran it. It would seem that one girl there called Babette took a shine to Russ and gave him an experience that he never shut up about. Gloriously detailed and written in prose that a poet would blush at in A Clean Breast, Meyer illustrates the whole thing with a series of photographs showing a stiletto heel step on a cherry until it bursts. These ‘descriptive’ photographs aside, A Clean Breast also contains some terrific photos of a young Meyer in uniform and of his fellow Company men in action which are well worth a look at as it’s a whole side of the director that many people don’t know about. For us English there are also some beautiful shots of wartime Liverpool and Manchester which are great for historical value and some great sentimental shots of Meyer and his cohorts at the same places in the 1970s on one of their many reunion tours.

Meyer remained close friends with many of those he met during his time with the 166th Signal Photographic Company. Anthony James Ryan was a very close and faithful friend of Meyer’s until the very end, who ended up acting in, producing and writing some of Meyer’s films and almost became broke helping to finance some of the pictures. William ‘Bill’ Teas would wind up taking the lead in Meyer’s first feature-length effort The Immoral Mr. Teas, even lending his name to the now infamous titular character. Charlie Sumners and Meyer remained lifelong friends after their return to America, a picture of Sumners being the first image you see in Meyer’s ridiculously large autobiography. For all the reports of Meyer treating some of his friends badly, it would seem that he treated his fellow 166th buddies like the brothers he never had, organising reunions and dinners and even paying for some of them to attend when they didn’t have the funds themselves. It’s certainly a generosity that Meyer extended to very few people.

Charles ‘Charlie’ Sumners

During the 1960s, Meyer would express that he was ‘a rabid anti-communist’, probably in part due to the patriotism he developed during the War. This, and his distaste for the Nazi’s, would eventually run through his later work, with his 1968 picture Vixen! being a thinly disguised attack against communism which see’s the ‘all-American’ Vixen rise up against it and save the day (if you really want to believe that’s what the film is actually about under all the sex…). Meyer would frequently refer to Nazi’s in his work which some people have also put down to the fact that his absent father also happened to be German. ‘Martin Bormann’ pops up in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) and in full Nazi regalia in earlier flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) which see’s him get murdered in an assassination that I have no doubt Meyer wished actually happened during the War. Supervixens (1975) employs German marching music, Nazi references and a Martin Bormann character again. 1976 release Up! centres around the mysterious death of former Nazi Adolf Schwartz who is so obviously based on Hitler it doesn’t need further explanation. Whilst not about World War II specifically, Russ Meyer was one of the first directors to explore the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans, using Motorpsycho (1965) to depict a disturbed Vietnam vet.

Russ Meyer’s experiences during the war certainly contributed to his visual style, filmmaking technique and military-esque production schedules that ran like clockwork. Like other film producers, directors and photographers, it’s nice to read that Meyer acknowledged that this was where it all started for him. The skills that he learnt and the passion that he developed for filmmaking only increased and developed upon his return to the States once the War had finished. Who knows what Meyer would have gotten up to had he not decided to reply to that ad he saw all those years ago…