Thanks for the mammaries
At a time in which sex and violence in the movies is blamed for every conceivable social ill, talking to the man who made them both a legitimate entertainment experience feels like an audience with the devil.
During a four-decade career, 72-year-old filmmaker Russ Meyer has watched American gender issues shift from caste systems set in Moses-on-the-mountaintop stone to topsy-turvy contests between who's on top and who goes first. His movies have dramatized these contests in comic-epic battles between shrewd, wanton women and dumb, rock-jawed men on the plains and mountaintops of America (outdoor location shoots helped keep costs down).
He is and possibly always will be known as the sexploitation director with an obsessive taste for big-breasted women. The 23 films which have established his reputation--and made him a very rich man, despite the neglect of almost every major American film critic--are only now being looked at by the mainstream for their involved plots, fast-paced editing, and glossy production values achieved on tight budgets.
Meyer is a self-described "class pornographer," an unrepentant sexual hedonist who, in his last years, is determined to see his film legacy get the kind of respect it often didn't receive in regular distribution. He maintains rigorous personal control of most of his film library through RM International Video, operated from his home in Palm Springs. He negotiates with repertory houses, film festivals, and cable channels all over the world like, he says, "a mother hen protecting her brood."
He virtually created the so-called nudie market in 1959 with The Amoral Mr. Teas, his debut feature--after serving as a photographer during World War II and for Playboy and other skin mags in the 1950s--which brought to heterosexual male movie audiences one of their first unvarnished appreciations of the female hour-glass shape in all variety of nature settings.
"My films are fleshed-out cartoons," Meyer declares. "I want the audiences to be turned on, but also amused. I love the sound of laughter in a theater. As far as the viciousness (violence) in my movies, I can't imagine people taking it seriously, it's so overblown."
For any serious scholar of Meyer films, there's a dramatic shift between his early work (ending with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in 1966) and the moronic movies he'd create after the release of the major-studio assignment Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970. While refusing to branch out into the hard-core market, Meyer nonetheless had to produce movies which would compete with the explicit fare offered by his competitors. The films he made throughout the '70s are, in a sense, dishonest--dirty-minded sex romps with everything but the penetration and come shots, sermonizing about traditional masculine and feminine roles when it was obvious they offered nothing but titillation. And you don't have to be a hard-core feminist to find his frequent use of rape for laughs disturbing. In his defense, Meyer points out that his female characters always fight back and often win.
A frequent Meyer cohort during that period was Roger Ebert, the writer who'd later go on to win a Pulitzer as the Chicago Sun Times film critic. Although officially credited only on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), Ebert co-wrote numerous Meyer films.
"Back then, he (Ebert) was a drinker and enjoyed the company of the kind of women I knew," Meyer states. Someone once told me, 'You're the perfect host. Ebert's getting laid upstairs, and you're cooking for him downstairs.'"
As proud as Meyer is of his Little Annie Fanny-esque '70s soft-core, his immortality is assured by a quartet of mid-'60s classics--Lorna (1964), Mudhoney (1965), Motor Psycho (1965), and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)--which even today are startling in their crisp black and white photography, confident pace, and clever use of the double entendre in images both verbal and visual. These movies represented a break from Meyer's tits-for-tits'-sake in favor of the backwoods melodrama and teen-rebel showdown.
The latter genre is turned on its head by Faster, Pussycat!, in which a trio of thrill-seeking homicidal lesbians headed by the marvelous Tura Santana attempt to find a cache of money hidden somewhere on the farm of an evil old paraplegic (Stuart Lancaster).
John Waters has called Faster, Pussycat! the greatest movie ever made, and, irony aside, it is Meyer's single most entertaining work. The script was written in four days by former child star Jack Moran and uses Meyer's taste for well-endowed women to dramatize a Darwinian feminist fable. The ample cleavage displayed by the female cast is totemic testimony to their innate physical and mental superiority over the men who cross them.
The film climaxes with a terrific battle of wills between Santana and the evil farm-owners' child-like son (Dennis Busch), a musclebound blond identical to the kind of voiceless studs which would dominate gay pornography 10 years later. Indeed, Faster, Pussycat! enjoys a burgeoning cult among a new generation of homo film fanatics because it doesn't mind flaunting Busch's bare chest even while it keeps the female icons fully clothed (nary a woman's nipple is exposed so Meyer could be sure the film would reach its target audience, the drive-in moviegoers of America). This new legion of admirers is ironic when you consider how often Meyer (and co-writer Ebert) ridiculed gay men in his later films.
The movie is currently a huge success in Japan, where it's being screened without subtitles, and a fresh 35-mm. print is set to open in Los Angeles, Toronto, and New York. But Meyer in his senior years isn't content to rest on his lucrative laurels. Ever the workhorse, he's self-publishing a three-volume, 1,500-page autobiography (he promises this one's a "fuck-and-tell") and drafting the screenplay for a new feature, The Bra of God. Meyer promises the new film will be as sexploitative as the finest in his canon.
"For the longest time you couldn't show my X-rated movies in respectable houses," Meyer says, "but there's a whole new market for NC-17 fare in the art houses. And this project will be NC-17. I refuse to kiss the MPAA's ass just so I can get my movies played."
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is screened by the USA Film Festival Nov 3 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Meyer is in attendance for a question-and-answer session. Call 821-6300. A wide selection of Russ Meyer titles on video is available at Forbidden Books, 835 Exposition, 821-9554.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.