Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 08/10/2005.
Russ Meyer has not made any more films since 2005, because he is dead.
It's always the way, isn't it? You wait years for a Russ Meyer film on DVD, and then eighteen of them come at once. Although I suspect that wasn't always the plan. Originally, when Arrow Films announced their intention to release DVDs by the world's best-known softcore pornographer, there were only four on the slate: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the Vixen trilogy. But that was in Autumn 2004, and the plans to release those four were quickly scrapped when the director popped his clogs that September. I assumed they'd postponed the release for a cosmetic update to the packaging, perhaps a new cover featuring Meyer wearing angel wings and sitting in a paddling pool full of tits. Instead, they used the time to get hold of the rights to almost every feature he ever made: eighteen films, spread over 12 DVDs, and released at various points throughout 2005.
When the set consisted of four films, the plan to review the whole collection seemed reasonable: less so now there's a dozen and a half of them. A random approach seemed like the best one, so one Sunday in September 2005 - a year to the day after the director's demise - The Belated Birthday Girl and I threw the whole set into a gigantic bra and started plucking them out of it one by one. By the happiest of coincidences, the first one to emerge was Meyer's debut feature, The Immoral Mr Teas, which gives me the opportunity to provide some background information. Russ Meyer - director, writer, producer, cinematographer and editor of a canon of dirty movies that you don't have to be ashamed of liking - learned his trade from two sources. As an army cameraman during World War II, he learned how to shoot films quickly on the hoof, and how any footage you grab that way can be transformed in the cutting room. And as a centrefold photographer for Playboy in the fifties, he fed the fixation for large-breasted women that's made him famous the world over.
It's hard to imagine, looking at it now, how revolutionary The Immoral Mr Teas was when it was released in 1959. Context is all, of course: back then, there was a market for nudity in films, but it was primarily satisfied by endless documentaries about life in nudist colonies. Meyer's film had a plot, and characters, albeit paper-thin ones. Shot without dialogue, but with an achingly arch narrator blabbing throughout - a feature Meyer would refine brilliantly in later years - it's the story of Mr Teas (Bill Teas), a dental supplies delivery man, who discovers he has the ability to imagine what women look like with nothing on. And that's it. Remove the nipples (none of which appear in the first half of the film) and it's not much more than an extended Benny Hill sketch. But with those nipples it ran for two years at one American cinema, while freaking out the British Board of Film Censors so much they banned it till 1987.
It'd be a wild overexaggeration to say that Meyer's style was fully defined in his first movie, but certain key elements are already there, and not just in the female nudity. His approach to editing is aggressively narrative in nature - rather than just show you a long shot of Teas travelling to work, you get a sequence of rapid cuts showing individual details like his feet walking, a closeup of the bus stop, the bus pulling up, and so on. This applies to establishing sequences too - when Meyer wants to show you where you are, he'll do it in a series of quick detailed closeups in an almost Japanese style. And at any point, if it looks like a shot will drag on for more than a few seconds, he'll cut away to something else like an ADD-afflicted child thinking 'hey, what's this over here?' When Roger Ebert says that you can identify a Russ Meyer film just by looking at five seconds of it, he's talking about the cutting, not just about the bare boobies.
Not to deny that the bare boobies are an integral part of what people associate with Russ Meyer, though it has to be said that the examples on display in Mr Teas aren't of the gargantuan size we'd eventually come to expect. Similarly, the narration and humour are still at the development stage. Meyer's deflating of an erotic moment with a non-sequitur - peaking here with a nude swimming sequence being accompanied by a discussion of the density of water - is somewhat heavy handed, as are the nudge-nudge double entendres of the narrator. And the score is an irritating factor too: four minutes of accordion music stretched over more than an hour. Once we get into the final stretch of the film where it's pretty much all knockers, Meyer drops the ball a bit, preferring to just sit back and look at the view rather than do anything cinematically interesting with it.
Fast forward a couple of years. Having defined a winning formula and squeezed a few movies out of it, Meyer moved away from the so-called 'nudie cuties' and started working on films that would appeal to a wider audience than masturbating men. In the early sixties, he produced a series of four black and white melodramas: still involving his usual buxotic beauties, but putting them into a plot which generally involved men beating each other to death over them. The one exception to this formula was the last and most famous of the four, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! - which I won't cover in this review, except to agree with John Waters when he said it's "possibly better than any film that will be made in the future". That film's notorious for making its female characters the aggressive (and how) protagonists. In the earlier ones, including 1965's Mudhoney, the women take a back seat to the clash between the two male leads: Calif McKinney (John Furlong), the good-natured drifter trying to find work during the Depression, and Sidney Brenshaw (Hal Hopper), the wife-beating alcoholic scumbag who offers Cal a job on his farm. Sidney is married to the beautiful, hard-done-by Hannah (Antoinette Christiani): the story writes itself from there.
Mudhoney is solid, old-fashioned, melodramatic stuff: the sort of film that, say, your girlfriend could watch and enjoy without grumbling on about how it's basically porn, to take an example purely at random. At its centre is a barnstorming performance by Hal Hopper as Sidney, an all-drinkin', all-fightin', all-rapin' monster who's up there with Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet as a portrait of pure human unpleasantness. Hopper (er, Hal, not Dennis) is just one member of the rep company that you start to see popping up in Meyer films regularly from here on in, along with Furlong, Stuart Lancaster (as Hannah's dodgy-tickered father), Lorna Maitland (as kindly local slut Clara Belle) and a host of other background faces. The dialogue doesn't have the ripe zing of Pussycat, but it's fun to watch everyone yelling at each other in single entendres of ever-increasing complexity until they become virtually meaningless.
After this dalliance with black and white, Meyer reverted back to Technicolor smut in 1967, but still kept the melodrama relatively high. Common Law Cabin (although all the evidence points to it originally being called How Much Loving Does A Normal Couple Need?) is a prime example of this period, and there's no denying the colour stands out. It was the first of Meyer's films I ever saw, and I can remember being surprised at the high technical gloss - the photography and editing are way above the standard you'd expect for an exploitation flick. Set on the banks of the Colorado ('a river that takes like a WOMAN... but with a name like a MAN!'), its central character is Dewey Hoople (Jack Moran, who also co-wrote), making a living by fleecing tourists at his riverside bar with the aid of girlfriend Babette (Babette Bardot), and trying to avoid thinking unspeakable thoughts about his teenage daughter Coral (Adele Rein). His assistant Cracker (Frank Bolger) brings in a new party of suckers on his boat every so often, but this party is going to be a little more trouble than usual.
Aside from Cracker's name making him sound like an oppressed white man in a Spike Lee movie whenever anyone talks to him, there isn't really much of note in Common Law Cabin. Its characterisation is curiously random: people treat each other atrociously in one scene, and then in the next they're as nice as pie, driven solely by where the plot needs them to be at the time. The performances lack their usual energy, and Babette Bardot needs a good hard redubbing in order to make any sense at all. The one moment of violence is gloriously botched - an actor is replaced by a dummy in between two shots, and even though it's only visible for one frame, it's impossible to miss. All that's left is the sex, and this is one of those Meyer curiosities where there's none actually on screen - though presumably it's the hints of incestuous desire that made the British censor ban this one as well, again until its UK video release in 1987.
Two events conspire at this point to change the random nature of our viewing. Firstly, The Belated Birthday Girl starts getting bored and wonders out loud what I see in this guy: secondly, the next item out of the bra is Mondo Topless, which I know is literally nothing more than bare-breasted women dancing to bad music for an hour. We cheat by only watching the bonus feature on that disk, a 1988 edition of Channel 4's The Incredibly Strange Film Show dedicated entirely to Meyer - in which, among other things, he admits that Mondo Topless was a piece of crap made purely for some quick cash after Faster, Pussycat! flopped. (More DVDs should contain featurettes that slag off their main feature, I think.) Host Jonathan Ross - and my God, he appears to have only been a child back then - interviews Meyer in his Hollywood home, and presents a concise overview of his life and work, albeit one with some curious omissions along the way. There are copious clips, and interviews with some of the man's closest collaborators: in particular Roger Ebert, who explains the attractions of Meyer's mise en scene to The BBG better than I ever could. The documentary brings a lump to your throat in its final minutes, as Meyer excitedly shows a minute or so of cut-together footage from his autobiographical epic The Breast Of Russ Meyer - planned as an eight-hour mash-up of his entire life and work, but never completed, so I suspect this is all that remains of it.
Moving back to the random selection, our next item continues the chronological trend - Meyer's 1970 drama Cherry, Harry and Raquel! Coming as it does hot on the heels of Roger Ebert's eulogy to Meyer's editing skills, this has one hell of a story behind it. Meyer took his cast out into the desert, shot his movie, and sent it away to the lab to be developed, only for them to accidentally destroy a quarter of his footage. People often come away from Cherry vaguely unsure as to what it's all about, and why roughly a quarter of it consists of Uschi Digard running around half out of a Red Indian costume. Well, that's why: Meyer used the Digard footage to cover up for shots he didn't have any more, and trusted in sheer cinematic momentum to carry the film through. And, somehow, it works. Later Meyer films would have a similarly fractured feel and random attitude to plot, but without the excuse of destroyed footage to justify it.
In the midst of all this, Meyer and co-writer Tom "No, Not That Tom Wolfe" Wolfe whip up a rather slight story of bent cop Harry (Charles Napier) and his two girls Cherry and Raquel (Linda Ashton and Larissa Ely), and the punishment in store for them as they smuggle marijuana - "the mind-bending narcotic," as the typically overwrought narration has it. Meyer has the formula down to a tee by this stage in his career - as long as you get in sufficient amounts of 'pity the poor pothead'-type moralising at the start and end, you can get away with all manner of filth in the middle. The characterisation is a lot more convincing than that of Common Law Cabin, and the rock-solid presence of Charles Napier at the centre ("the man with seven more teeth than Burt Lancaster," says the director) helps Cherry along enormously, although he does have the dubious honour of being the first bloke to display his cock in a Meyer movie. Curiously, there's a scene in the middle of this film - Harry finding Cherry buried in sand, and slowly uncovering her body bit by bit - that ends up being the single most erotic thing we see all day.
With the perfectly chronological nature of the selections so far, I crack at this point and deliberately choose a final pair of films that will keep the dateline intact, and also give a feel for how the final decade of Meyer's filmmaking career went. The first of the two is Blacksnake, an independent 1973 production made after Meyer's brief period working with 20th Century Fox - an arrangement that led to wild success with Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, followed by abject failure with the straight drama of The Seven Minutes. Feeling like a Meyerised spoof of Mandingo, but curiously made two years before it, Blacksnake is named after the whip that Lady Susan Walker (Anouska Hempel) uses to rule over the slaves on her Caribbean plantation. Her husband Jonathan (Dave Prowse) has mysteriously vanished, and his brother Charles (David Warbeck) travels to the plantation undercover to find out what's happened to him, only to discover a number of grisly secrets.
It's curious to see a Meyer film with various recognisable British faces in it. Anouska Hempel was famous at the time for playing assorted Eurototty roles in TV shows. (She's subsequently married into high society - an amusing echo of Blacksnake's plot there - and has apparently tried to suppress the film's distribution ever since.) Meanwhile, Dave Prowse contributes another of those musclebound retard roles he used to specialise in in the seventies, until both George Lucas and the Green Cross Code people realised simultaneously that you could dub over his accent. But aside from the nostalgia value, there's not much to recommend here. In a similar mode to his sex and drugs melodramas, Meyer allows the white characters to utter all manner of racist filth, but having them horribly killed at the end doesn't really justify it. And it's interesting to note that although Blacksnake has more going on in front of the camera than most of Meyer's other films - a Cinemascope frame, lush tropical locations, and a cast of dozens - it isn't terribly interesting to look at. You start to realise that Meyer's style works best when he's taking minimal elements - a couple of people in a room talking trash or making out - and cinematically pumping them up to an unreasonable degree.
And there's no denying that's exactly what happens in his final film, Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens. (There was a showreel he made for a girlfriend of his in the nineties, Pandora Peaks, but we shall discreetly ignore that.) Co-written with his old mate Roger Ebert, Ultravixens is as comprehensive a capper to a career as a director could hope for - it takes all the themes, obsessions and riffs from Meyer's oeuvre, shoves them through a blender, and feeds them to us one more time. Sadly, that also includes the recycling of whole chunks of dialogue from previous films: but I can't complain when they're as good as Z-Man/Asa Lavender's threat "you will taste the black sperm of my vengeance," a line so good I try to use it at least once a day at work.
If we have to ask the old Art-Or-Porn? question of Ultravixens, then there's no question that the answer has to be Porn. But the first couple of reels are an extraordinary display of technique, with three full-throttle setpieces showing what Meyer does best. First, we watch Eufala Roop (Ann Marie) obessively playing Pong as her pal Martin Bormann prepares to have sex with her in a coffin, while old Nazi songs battle for soundtrack time with the repetitive beeps of the video game. Next up, another one of Meyer's legendary montages, as narrator Stuart Lancaster introduces us to the thirteen main characters in three minutes flat. And then we're into the meat of the story with another dialogue-free sequence, as Lamar Shedd (Ken Kerr) tries to work on his accountancy homework while girlfriend Lavonia (Kitten Natividad) is fiddling with herself in the room next door. Again, sound effects (more repetitive beeps, this time from Lamar's calculator) and rapid-fire editing make this a delight to watch. From here on in, though, the basic plot - Lavonia tries to wean Lamar off anal sex - is complicated with endless digressions and an increasingly hysterical tone, until a final half hour entirely devoted to people shagging. But it still looks unlike anything else you've ever seen, and has in Kitten Natividad the first Meyer girl who genuinely looks like she enjoys her work.
There's not much I can say I learned from watching six Russ Meyer films back to back, other than you need to have a better explanation ready if you want your girlfriend to join you. But you'll see things you've never seen before - the use of editing to create narrative out of almost nothing, sex scenes shot from under the bed through the bedsprings, and a man with a fourteen-inch penis being harrassed for not being able to get it up. Possibly buying all eighteen films like I did might be a mistake, but you're bound to find something of interest in the collection - be it in the black and white melodramas, the cutesy nudity of the early days or the full-on raunch of his later work. And anyone who doesn't will taste the black sperm of my vengeance. Being a monkey, and all.
RM Films International was, and still is, the official site of Russ Meyer. It's not particularly hi-tech - you can order DVDs and his massively overpriced autobiography, A Clean Breast, but only by printing out an order form and putting it in the post. The same applies for the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! lunchbox. (Well, that's my Very Small Niece sorted out for Christmas.)
Arrow Films have released all eighteen films in the Russ Meyer Collection on DVD in the UK, and have obligingly made the whole lot region-free for international convenience. Newcomers might want to experiment with the Vixen trilogy box set and see how they get on.
Daze Reader - "sometimes we even post dirty pictures where you can see everything," they say, so tread carefully - have a page dedicated to the work of Russ Meyer, including links to a hefty number of interviews.
Roger Ebert may have co-written three Russ Meyer pictures, but he was ashamed enough to use a pseudonym for two of them. He's still a well-established movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and his regular column includes entertaining features like Answer Man and The Movie Glossary. His personal tribute to Meyer is also on the site.
Charles Napier - the man, the legend, the actor who's cameoed in virtually every Jonathan Demme picture purely off the back of his association with Russ Meyer. His site just sells autographed photos and lists the hundred-odd films he's been in.
Anouska Hempel Design is what she does now that she's retired from the acting biz, and her handiwork can be seen at Blakes Hotel in London and Hotel Dylan in Amsterdam. If you ever see her around there, it's probably not a good idea to remind her there's a film out on the market in which she used stunt norks.