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Flash Festival Review, 8-15: Throwing Curves
Exposed! Russ Meyer, Auteur

Promotional poster for Russ Meyer's "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

From just about any other art house cinema in the world, a Russ Meyer festival might seem like a cheap play at summer box office to help pay for the more obscure programming fare. But Jonas Mekas's Anthology Film Archives is one of the last cinematheques left standing which understands that its role is not just to show movies but to illuminate cinema (and to re-illuminate its icons), constantly teaching us new things about the form and its practitioners. Take me for instance. With film titles like "Vixen," "Super-Vixen," "Wild Gals of the Naked West," and of course that master mold for a whole generation of buxom babes in black, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," all on view in Anthology's Meyer series opening August 15 in New York, I was looking forward to a simple gland fest. Well, the pulchritude is there in the screeners I previewed, but so's a real gem of Southernish (it's actually set in Depression-era Missouri, but the dialogue is replete with "I reckoning"s and other Southernisms) gothic, "Mudhoney," cast right from the mold of "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter," except that here the ever-economic Meyer melds Alan Arkin's deaf mute and Sondra Locke's innocent teen from Robert Ellis Miller's film of the Carson McCullers novel into one character, Eula (the subdued pulchritudinous Rena Horten) to cap a morality play that could have been penned by Ibsen.

Written by Friday Locke and W.E. Sprague and based on Locke's novel "Streets Paved with Gold," the 1965 "Mudhoney" stars Hal Hopper as Sidney Brenshaw, a loud, laughing, lecherous, greedy, scheming drunk of a husband plotting against his wife Hannah (the softly searing Antoinette Cristiani), her Uncle Lute (Stu Lancaster, who also stars as the lecherous wheelchair-bound rancher in 'Pussycat'), and their hired hand, Calif McKinney (John Furlong), just released from prison after doing a manslaughter stretch for killing a strike-breaker. But the love triangle -- as Calif (short for California, his mother's dreamed of land of milk and honey) bonds with Hannah -- becomes secondary to the larger morality tale which interests Meyer, about (lynch) mob mentality, as a community frustrated by the Depression ("You remember how I once said when a man feels cheated a hate will grow in his belly?" Lute tells Calif. "Well this whole town feels cheated, cheated by the times.") first directs its rage towards Calif & Hannah, but judging the townspeople for crucifying good people would be too easy and no test at all of our own moral compasses; in the end the crowd turns on Brenshaw, and Calif is persuaded by his love for Hannah to try to save the despicable creature who's done his best to make their lives hell. What makes "Mudhoney" so vivid is the zeal with which the entire cast keeps it racing along (to Henri Price's jazzy score), notably the boisterous, scenery-chewing Princess Livingston as Maggie Marie, a madame - bootlegger with a gregarious laugh who keeps the party from ever slowing down.

Promotional poster for Russ Meyer's "Mudhoney." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

"Mudhoney" also reveals Meyer's attentive craft as a cinematographer (he's often credited as cinematographer, writer, producer, and director), not content to simply capture the wide-angle view of a given scene, but constantly shifting to close-ups on the different players, using their reactions as a way to really inject us into the action. He also likes close-ups of props and select body parts; for the first five minutes of the film, we see only Brenshaw's dark brown boots, as he's kicked out of a bar for drunkenness, tries at first in vain to get Hannah to let him in, then pushes pedal to the metal to almost break the door down (a motif repeated towards the end of the film, when we see the sheriff's bloody boot as a citizen shoots him through the motor to prevent him from saving Brenshaw).

The man who would later become known as a purveyor of pulchritude here shows he knows how to use the evocative small tender gesture as well; when Calif takes Eula's hand to lead her in a waltz, he helps her 'hear' the music by humming it and touching her other hand to his throat. And the telling observation: Revealing that he knows why Calif went to prison, Lute tells him, "A man like you don't back down like you did in that fight with Sydney (Brenshaw) cuz he's a coward; he backs down because he's afraid he might hurt or kill another human being."

"Mudhoney" plays August 16 at 9:30, 19 at 7:15, and 25 at 3:15.

Prey for Russ Meyer's "Motor Psycho." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

While the 1965 "Motor Psycho" is no "Mudhoney," it's also not the ready fodder for Mystery Science Theater that you might assume from the title. What if I told you that American film-makers were lambasting the war in Vietnam as early as 1965, and that Russ Meyer was the director doing it? While the violence perpetrated by the head 'psycho' of a gang of three, the returning soldier Brahmin (Alex Rocco), might be senseless, it's not incomprehensible, as is made clear by a last stand in which, lying in wait for the hero atop a mountain looking out over a desolate California landscape, Brahmin tells a cohort who wants to split, "We got orders to wait for the choppers. They'll be here soon, at 17:00 hours. We'll show those Commie bastards," then yells at the imagined yellow hordes, "You think you're safe out here, huh? You think you're safe out in those stinking rice paddies?" Later, he sings to his cornered real quarry, in a promise presciently anticipating the repeat tours of Afghanistan and Iraq of a later generation of soldiers, "When the war is over we will all enlist again."

Meyer even resists the urge to exploit the sumptuous and sultry Haji (she'll show up later as one of the terrible trio in 'Pussycat'), as the Cajun heroine Ruby Tipador, for her most obvious physical gifts. When she has to suck the poison out of the snake-bitten hero's legs, the act is ultimately more tender than titillating (unlike Woody Allen in a similar scene a few years later in "Bananas," no cheap thrills for Meyer), and when he gets the chills in the middle of the night, her crawling on top of him becomes more palliative than pornographic. (Ruby also gets the film's most telling line: When the hero, a local veterinarian, seems disappointed after she resumes her life story while they huddle around a fire as being "born in Lake Charles, big family, lots of kids, not enough bread, especially after our bread-winner jumped out on us," she tells him "What did you expect anyway -- Fanny Hill?" It could be Meyer scolding us for our own lude expectations of him.)

"Motor Psycho" plays August 15 at 8:45, 18 at 7:30, and 24 at 5:15.

Water fine, temperature rising: Promotional lobby photo for Russ Meyer's "Vixen." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Even the lusty "Vixen," made in 1968, manages to squeeze some healthy political engagement between the sheets in its spare 70 minutes, here in the character of a black American taking refuge from the draft in the bucolic Canadian setting, and a red-headed, nominally Irish mustachio'd and bearded wannabe revolutionary who tries to hijack the plane of the Bush pilot hero to Cuba. But the black man, initially convinced to join him, gets hip that the idealistic ideology just masks another racist, finally goading the supposed radical into screaming "Nigger!" at him. Unfortunately, what makes the heroine of the title (Erica Gavin) unsympathetic is not so much her galavanting and cheating on her husband -- including with her adult brother -- but the way she spews racial epithets at the black man, her brother's buddy, even if it may be a strategy for suppressing her lust for him.

"Vixen" shows August 17 at 5, 20 at 9:30, and 25 at 7.

By "Super-Vixens," released seven years later, the spewing of the first vixen victim doesn't make her any more sympathetic, even if it's directed at her husband and later at her eventual assassin. Still, her murder is gruesome and if you're as squeamish about graphic violence as I am, you might want to pass on this one, even though it does offer some redemption in the end, when the same actress who played the deceased if not lamented "Super-Angel" re-appears to play the gentler "Super-Vixen," as the blood-smeared ghost of the first watches over her and her widowed husband while splayed naked over a mountain peak while they're pursued by the same wicked cop who took her life.

(All the women in "Super-Vixens" have 'Super' affixed to their names; my favorite is "Super-Eula," a deaf and mute bikini-clad black innkeeper's daughter who communicates with her white father through sign language while dancing in front of his office window in her bikini to drive him crazy. Even the ever-divine Haji, resplendent in facial jewelry as a bartender, gets promoted to "Super-Haji.")

"Super-Vixens" plays August 17 at 9:15, 20 at 7:15, and 23 at 7.

"The sweetest pussy-cats have the sharpest claws." From left to right, Haji, Lori Williams, and Tura Satana in Russ Meyer's "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Yes, I can accept over-the-top violence in the context of an over-the-top scenario, and the 1966 "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" is the most successfully campy of the Meyer films showing here -- as well as a template for so much that followed and the fashion template for at least two eras -- from the moment the three anti-heroines appear on stage, viewed ringside from below at the club where they're go-go dancing, shimmying and gyrating to the Bostweeds Swinging '60s rendition of the title song. (This right after a groovy opening with squiggly vertical white lines on black straight out of Jack Smith, and an imprecatory voice-over introduction about a new generation of violent women: "This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your dentist's receptionist or a dancer in a go-go club.")

If some movies are no better than the sum of their parts, here it's the parts which are better than the sum of their whole. Linda (Susan Bernard), the perky lilliputian who later turns whiny after top dog Varla (Tura Satana) breaks her boyfriend's neck, still has the best line in my book. When Tommy (Ray Barlow) explains to the three go-go dancers, who he and his girlfriend have just run into while all are racing around the barren Mojave landscape, that he's "been running some timing trials," and Varla retorts, "We know how fast we can go; you could time that heap with an hourglass," Linda promptly pop out of the car in a bikini she's popping out of and asks, "Someone mention my figure?" The rest of the lines are better appreciated on screen than regurgitated in print, either adroitly delivered or not (the latter of which do finally help Meyer achieve the 'so bad it's good' plateau; the most embarrassing is how Haji, sublime in "Motor Psycho," is hampered by one of those old-school fake Italian accents in which every word ends with 'a' punctuated by the same gesticulation, mincing the fingers together). My favorite visual moment pits hot rod against hot hunk, as Dennis Busch's "Vegetable," the slow-thinking son of the dirty old man, goes abs to fender against Varla as she tries to crush him against a barn with her roadster, and manages to fight her to a draw.

Even if it were the worse movie in the world (John Waters calls it the best), "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" would still be worth seeing simply as an expression of one generation's fashion mode which went on to forecast another's. The first time I saw the film was at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-'80s, and the students took note; when they rolled out upon graduation in the late '80s to '90s, every woman on Haight Street was mimicking Varla's jet-black straight long hair, decolletage, and tight black pants tucked into knee-high boots.

"Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" plays August 16 at 7:30, 18 at 9:15, and 24 at 9:30.

Released in 1962, the Western spoof "Wild Gals of the Naked West" is more of a curio than a masterpiece, a view of the young artist exploring his tools and coming up with devices. There's the zooming in on body parts or props which would later become a Meyer trademark. Lots of naked or near-naked breasts and buttocks from a parade of full-some women we'd probably regard today as Rubenesque, as thin-ness has become etched into the modern beauty standard. There's also the home-made look that Meyer would always retain, and that would lend even his most ribald moments an air of innocent zest; here most of the interior cowboy decor is simply indicated by drawing, including a saloon piano with painted on keys. It's far from a perfect movie, but what I love about it is the quality that all of Meyer's films have, and that has become so rare in current popular cinema, where the plots usually follow a familiar plan: Unpredictability. With Russ Meyer -- as with the programming at Anthology Film Archives -- there's always a surprise waiting around the corner, often where you least expect it.

"Wild Gals of the Naked West" plays August 15 at 7:15, 22 at 9:15, and 25 at 5:15.

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