Sunday, March 26, 2006

THE SHAKESPEARE OF SKIN FLICKS

As promised, I’m switching things up a little bit now that the VHS closet is (mostly) cleaned by offering up a book review. Don’t worry, I haven’t gotten all literary on your collective asses. Moby Dick, this ain’t. Great Breast-pectations, perhaps.
  
I’m talking about Russ Meyer of course, king of the nudie cutie, the self-professed breast-obsessed auteur of such cult faves as Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, Supervixens, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. More specifically, I’m talking about the latest Meyer bio Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.
I first discovered Meyer where one discovers most things illicit-- in college, on the local Kim’s Underground Video “Sexplotiation” rack. I believe my first rental was Up!, not one of Meyer’s “better” films, the explanation of “better” being a sticky debate that could warrant a whole blog entry unto itself. But it contained all the Meyer basics…the insanely well-endowed women, the lascivious "redneck peckerwood" men, the rapid fire Eisenstein-on-Speed cutting style, and the ornately alliterative narration that only a community college English professor could love.

Let’s just say I became a cautious fan. Not cautious because of the stigma. Renting Meyer’s movies never felt like renting porn, though they are arguably the early pre-cursors of today’s hardcore. Maybe it had something to do with the playfully suggestive box-covers, which seemed innocent in comparison to spread-eagled crotch shots staring out from Kim’s not too well hidden or covertly-named “Pee Wee’s Room."

Renting a Meyer movie was more akin to picking up a copy of Playboy when a copy of Hustler or Screw was only feet away. You could still claim restraint -- the old “I’m in it for the articles” saw -- which for a film geek would probably come out as something like: “His use of montage intrigues me. Did I mention I never got laid in high school?”

Anyway, I was hooked. Rapid-fire viewing soon followed. The Immoral Mr. Teas, Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, Blacksnake, and even his big studio release Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Oddly enough, I never got around to Faster Pussycat, the film most people know. Perhaps by then I had suffered burn-out (or boob-out).

Well, this book re-stoked the Meyer fires for me. I picked it up at the local library expecting some decent toilet reading and found myself intrigued enough that I upgraded it to first class airplane reading for a spell. I expected there to be lots of stories of sexual conquest, tales of on-set cruelty, the early struggles of a young blue movie auteur, the high times of free-flowing studio money and, of course, the big comedown ala the end of Boogie Nights. And this book has all of those in spades. But the one thing I didn’t expect? That the Meyer story would be so Biblical in its arc.

You don’t go into anything Meyer-related expecting anything Biblical. Unless it has something to do with the proportions of a nubile cutie. But, as portrayed in this book, Meyer gets a sort of chauvinist’s comeuppance the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Old Testament. For a filmmaker who would profit so much on the backs (and fronts) of scantily clad women, it is curiously telling in a classic Greek tragedy kinda way that Meyer’s final days would involve him coming under the influence of two extremely abusive women -- one a stripper who basically beat him to the point that “elder abuse” charges were filed and the other a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan secretary who systemically stole his company out from under him while he devolved into dementia, often sitting for hours at a time in his own feces. Not exactly the fun-loving “tit man” Meyer fans know and love.

As presented here, Meyer comes across as curiously fecal-focused, perhaps even to the point of rivaling his breast-obsession. There are numerous anecdotes of Meyer’s love of farts and fascination with all things bowel. A sample quote: “Next to a good fuck, give me a good fart any day.” Or what about Meyer on the set of a video shoot for Faster Pussycat (the '80s hair band, not the movie) where he asks a producer eating pizza in utter seriousness: “You’re a pretty healthy guy, but you eat all this junk. What’s your stool like?” And then there’s the falling out with John Waters that resulted in Meyer plastering a picture of Water’s face on the inside cover of his guest bathroom toilet bowl for all to see. Of course, in Waters' case, that could be considered an homage.
Apart from the scat, there are other interesting tidbits. There are some amusing anecdotes from his days as WWII photographer, including a scene at French brothel where Meyer loses his virginity at the advanced age of 22 to a heavy-chested whore supposedly supplied by none other than Ernest Hemingway. There are numerous tales of wives and mistresses, including one named Miss Mattress who he bedded and filmed-while-bedding on and off again over the years. There’s the pre-requisite First Amendment fight with a Christian Right crusader looking to pull Meyer’s movies out of Southern picture houses in the late ‘60s. And there’s a good dose of Charles Napier, though not nearly enough for my money.
                                                                             
But the highlight has to be the Roger Ebert tales from when they worked together on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Ebert’s only credited screenwriting gig). Which brings us back to the first and foremost subject of all things Meyer…BREASTS. Apparently, Ebert had a fetish to match Meyer’s own. Between them, breasts were the subject of much debate and detailed conjecture. Whereas Meyer preferred his ubiquitous “up-thrusters,” a taste which Ebert dubbed as “the guns of the Navarone,” Ebert was supposedly partial to what Meyer termed “pendulouso,” or those of the more swinging-gunnysack variety. Seriously, those two guys should have made a sitcom together. Call it "The Real Bosom Buddies."

1 comment:

Matt Brooks said...

Watching 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' is like watching a train wreck. You just can't look away. Thankfully Roger Ebert never wrote another film.