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“The first feminist American director,”- B. Ruby Rich on Russ Meyer.
From the late 1950s and up to the end of the 60s, a cinematic tradition arose in America. A genre built on the foundations of sexual innuendo, nudity and smut-laced comedy – these independently produced movies mixed a camp style of humor, satirical brilliance, and at times violence. The movement became known as the sexploitation genre. At times, subtle political statements were made. But this genre of cinematic delight came wrapped in the guise of stylish, and enjoyable B-movies, exhibited across America in urban ‘grindhouse’ theatres,
Spearheading the movement in the US was the late Russ Meyer. Russell Albion “Russ” Meyer was an American film director, producer, screenwriter and actor. Born in March 1922, Meyer came to prominence in the late 50s and early 60s for his over-the-top soft porn movies, which mixed sex and violence with an undercurrent of social commentary. In reflection, he was mistakenly cast as the Hugh Hefner of the movie industry, partially due to the nudity content of his films. However, there was at times a deeper context to be found in his output, one which was hidden by the flesh on display. And perhaps one which was created purely by accident, as Meyers himself never admitted to any direct female empowerment subliminally planted within his movies.
The fact he made strides forward for how women were depicted in movies was incidental and not intentional. Whatever his personal ideals were, he was the first American filmmaker to celebrate strong women as the dominant sex.
The man clearly worshiped females. In the same breath, his male characters were stricken with sexual-inadequacies, as in Lorna from 1964. This raises questions as to whether his movies were a reflection of his own fantasist and realistic worlds combined. The contradiction of course lies in the fact that he made movies for money, and male gratification, not with any feminist agenda or even ideology in mind.
Regardless of these facts, Meyers projected women as independent, demanding sexual gratification and capable of casting men aside at a whim, seen particularly in Vixen! The damsels were no longer in distress. As men fell foul to their detriment, this spell cast by the femme fatale on screen was game changing. The dynamics were challenged and reversed. Men were the actual weaker sex. His women characters were just too overwhelming in strength.
Rarely on screen since Meyer’s heyday has the female form been portrayed with so much vivacity and energy. The following five movies show the scope, and vision of Meyer’s subject matter. Up until his death in 2004 he made over 24 features. While his efforts towards the end of the 70s lost the initial impact of his original rise, he was still a director that could never make a boring movie.
1. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (1965)
This is Meyer’s true piece of cinematic art packaged in a gothic cloak of elegance. Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill! is unlike any other movie of that decade. In truth, he had already given audiences the first biker movie in Motorpsycho (1965 also). Whereas that movie followed the trail of an all-male, rampaging motorcycle gang, Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! switched genders and ditched the Harleys for a Porsche.
Given a respectful nod in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), Faster follows the tale of three, disillusioned go-go dancers who embark on a killing spree across the Californian desert. The movie, shot in black and white, is a noir nightmare of the graceful murderer. Even today it reeks a coolness that is hard to capture, galvanised by the intense performance of Tura Satana as Varla, the leader of the crew. Although it bombed at the box-office, it is regarded as a milestone of 60’s cinema and is perhaps the cornerstone of cult movies ever since.
2. Mudhoney (1965)
Although released prior to Faster Pussycat, Mudhoney lacked some of the energetic pace similar to the aforementioned. That said, it’s still a stunning showcase of cinematography. Based on the novel Streets Paved With Gold by Raymond Friday Locke, Mudhoney follows the fortunes of ex-con drifter Calif (John Furlong) in depression era America who manages to secure work through farm owner Lute (Stu Lancaster). This, in turn, leads Calif to becoming embroiled in the abusive relationship between Lute’s daughter Hannah (Antoinette Cristiani) and her violent husband Sidney (Hal Hopper). This has none of the hallmarks you would expect from a Russ Meyer flick. In fact, it is a no-holds-barred dive into toxic relationships. Often cited as Meyer’s masterpiece, it cuts close to the bone of domestic situations rarely spoken of at the time.
3. Vixen! (1968)
In Vixen!, Meyer pushed the barriers of taste and censorship to their breaking point. This was his political submergence into Vietnam and the war that divided America in the late 60s.
The lead role of the over-sexed Vixen is played convincingly by Erica Gavin (3 Stories About Evil), who balances a heightened portrayal of female empowerment with that of the stereotypical married woman who needs direction in her life and craves excitement. This is best illustrated in the scenes where Vixen seduces a visiting stranger, and then moves onto his wife! In a later twist, Vixen turns her attentions towards a black draft dodger named Niles who she berates with one racist remark after another.
Themes of racism within Vixen were reflections of the Civil Rights movement of the time. However, the movie also manages to be a political satire at points, changing direction dramatically as the story line switches focus to some communists who want to hijack a plane and fly it to Cuba! This was Meyer’s runaway success, and his first movie to be classified (understandably) as X-Rated.
4. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970)
The 60’s counterculture gets a grilling under the gaze of Meyer in this rock epic. The dangers of fame are highlighted, with the exploitation of artists the pulsating theme.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is a satirical look into the damaged heart of the music business. Set in LA at the close of the decade, touching on issues such as the Manson murders and the part drug culture was beginning to play in the entertainment industry, the movie follows the exploits of girl band The Carrie Nations who come to implode due to the overwhelming effects of the rock-and-roll lifestyle.
As the female outfit reach for stardom, each individual member becomes destroyed by Hollywood. Audiences are served a vicious, but honest telling tale of drugs, murder, suicide, and of course weird sexual adventures. Often seen as Meyer’s last great movie, a mixture of both its time and context makes this a classic. Not to mention the brilliant soundtrack that time capsules it all.
Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is Meyer reaching his peak creatively. From here it slowly started to roll towards the lows as the 70s continued.
5. The Seven Minutes (1971)
This was one of Meyer’s most misinterpreted or misunderstood movies. Perhaps a stretch too far for audiences, the film explored failures of censorship through the masquerade of a courtroom drama.
Again, the context of the movie is not the usual Meyer outing. Yet the message is something both he and many others struggled against. In The Seven Minutes, a controversial novel (also entitled The Seven Minutes) is put on trial. After a young man is accused of the rape of a college student, the prosecution tries to provide “living proof that a dirty book can destroy a clean boy.”
The context is the absurd idea that art has a direct effect on a mind and that certain works can create serial killers and rapists. Whatever public opinion is on the subject, the director was on the defensive. The Seven Minutes was the perfect vehicle for Meyers – a manifesto to fight criticism of his filmography. This is probably the reason for the movie’s twist. The rape defendant is vindicated at trial. This is on account of the stunning revelation that he could not have committed the crime as he was physically incapable of performing.