Russ Meyer, the Auteur of Superfluity

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls shows Meyer editing his films in the manner of a coked-up, horny 17-year-old with ADD and a perverse obsession with Sergei Eisenstein.

If the late ’60s had not been so disastrous for 20th Century Fox Studios, Russ Meyer probably would never have made it onto the premises. Actually the entire decade was something of a nadir for the company. It started, perhaps, with the Elizabeth Taylor vehicle, Cleopatra, which, owing to cost overruns and mismanagement of the filming process, wound up costing $44 million (including marketing), thus making the whopping $26 million it earned a financial loss. It was the highest-grossing film of 1963 and yet it nearly bankrupted Fox and forced the company to sell off its back lot to stay afloat.

There is beauty and taste, impeccable taste, in a Russ Meyer film.

The tragic loss of Marilyn Monroe, the financial debacle of Doctor Doolittle (1967), and a series of other flops led executives at Fox to reconsider their approach to the film industry. Many within the company believed that they needed to change their way of making movies. No more (or at least fewer) expensive epics, no more lavish spending, no more allowing films to fall behind schedule and break budgets. Most importantly, Fox believed it needed to find a way to attract younger, hipper audiences, to speak to youth culture, a culture characterized by a more open acceptance of drugs and sex. Fox wanted to create not simply films but happenings. Enter Russ Meyer.

Meyer had gained a reputation as an independent filmmaker who parlayed his obsession with the cinematic portrayal of nude, large-breasted (what he termed “cantilevered”) women into inexpensive but surprisingly profitable films. He learned his craft during World War II but returned to the US to find the studio doors of Hollywood closed to him. He first made industrial films and worked as a glamour photographer, most notably for the early issues of Playboy magazine. In 1959, just as Cleopatra was beginning its path to ruin, Meyer released his first nudie film, The Immoral Mr. Teas about a man who develops X-ray vision (by going to the dentist — who knew?) and can see through women’s clothing to reveal the supple flesh normally hidden from view. It cost a mere $24k and grossed a whopping $1.5 million.

In 1968 Meyer released Vixen!, which grossed $8 million (Meyer claimed it made over $22 million) with a production cost of $70k. Clearly this was a man that could turn a profit with precious little investment (comparatively speaking). Meyer had a reputation for coming in ahead of schedule and under budget while still being immensely profitable. Fox president Richard Zanuck saw an opportunity here to crawl some way out of the debt the company had incurred — provided Fox could stomach working with the auteur of sexploitation. It turned out Meyer was a bitter pill to swallow.

Zanuck offered Meyer Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, originally intended as a sequel to the critically lambasted but commercially successful Valley of the Dolls, the 1967 film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s novel involving the perils of Hollywood drug culture. Meyer contracted film critic Roger Ebert to write the screenplay. No one at the studio knew what to do with the script Ebert and Meyer produced. Susann was so appalled by what she saw as the crass destruction of her reputation that she sued Fox and, as a compromise, the film opens with a disclaimer, disavowing any actual connection to Susann’s work. The scant promotional material released for the film claimed, “This is not a sequel — there has never been anything like it.”

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released in 1970. It told the story of an all-female rock ‘n’ roll trio soon to be dubbed The Carrie Nations (Dolly Read, Cynthia Meyers, and Marcia McBroom) that moves to Hollywood and falls under the thrall of a megalomaniacal music producer known as “Z-man” (John LaZar). All three women become ensconced (in different ways) in a world of addiction, debauchery, and excess.

The plot, however, is almost entirely beside the point. The impact of the film derives from its nearly schizophrenic mélange of cinematic elements from sexploitation, film musicals, comic strips, horror flics, silent films, gothic tales, and melodrama, all combined with a satirical take on the Horatio Alger myth. The film was made for $900k (much of which went to Susann for two failed scripts according to Ebert) and made over $44 million upon its initial release. The film engaged a youthful audience, and radiated sexuality, violence and a bizarre but daring élan. It should have been exactly what Fox wanted. It wasn’t.

Before the film was even released Fox was deeply embarrassed by it. It wanted to put as little promotion behind it as possible. Although Meyer had a three-movie contract with Fox, he only made one more film for the studio, the lackluster The Seven Minutes, and returned to working as an independent. Fox more or less disavowed the film and for decades it was difficult to obtain on home video.

The central issue, one imagines, was taste. As far as the studio was concerned (and for that matter as far as many mainstream critics were concerned) Meyer had none. Yet this would seem to be a rather difficult line of criticism to maintain. As a director of cinematic visuals (and he often worked as his own cinematographer — even at times in this film despite the crew Fox made available to him), Meyer had exquisite taste.

Carefully examine nearly any still from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Each moment is immaculately framed and shot. Each film cell exudes the fussy perfectionism we are far more likely to associate with Wes Anderson. Look at the way Meyer populates the visual field with an exuberance of hyper-real color in the manner of Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 technicolor fantasy The Tales of Hoffmann. Every shot of the film (even the grotesque ones at the film’s conclusion) is a delightfully presented bauble — crisp and colorful and shot through with an irrepressible ebullience that is difficult to resist.

Meyer, doubtless owing to his early career as a glamour photog, constructs his films almost as though they could be a series of stills, each so perfectly rendered as to border on the cloying. The camera rarely moves, panning only out of seeming necessity and then in a perfunctory, nonchalant manner. There is beauty and taste, impeccable taste, in a Russ Meyer film.

But there’s something else as well, something that strikes one as rather tasteless. This is a tastelessness in the filmic approach itself — not simply his penchant for pneumatic pulchritude. I refer to Meyer’s nearly unique approach to editing. Meyer edits his films in the manner of a coked-up, horny 17-year-old with Attention Deficit Disorder and a perverse obsession with Sergei Eisenstein.

For Meyer a film is nearly all montage, all the time. The effect is dizzying, confusing, overwhelming, and decidedly not pleasant — thrilling perhaps, titillating at times, frustrating at others, but not pleasant. Imagine masterpiece paintings flashed at you in the manner of a strobe light and you have some notion of Meyer’s editing aesthetic.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the Meyer contradiction. Some claim that Meyer had a horror of seeing someone blink so he continually cuts away. Well, of course. Meyer is essentially a still photographer (visually, at least) and no good glamour photograph includes someone blinking. Whatever the reason, this combination of a refined photographic sensibility with a garish, hyperkinetic editing technique, this dialectic of elegance and vulgarity is what moves Meyer beyond a criticism of taste or tastelessness altogether.

It’s also what makes Meyer’s films, and this one in particular, so successful as satire. Satire as a genre is easily misrepresented, as anything involving irony is. Satire, at its best, confronts the collective imaginary of a society by emulating it in a ridiculous manner. By investing itself in the cultural norms of the society it criticizes, satire encourages viewers to recognize the ludicrous state of affairs that society puts forth as its uninterrogated underlying assumptions. Our amusement at the satire marks our derision of the society it lambastes.

Satire is ironic but it must be careful of how it signals that irony. Too much winking at the audience destroys the effect. Meyer clearly understood that. When preparing his actors he spoke very seriously of motivations and the depth of their characters. He believed if he allowed the actors to play up the lines as though they were funny, it would undermine the comedic effect. When LaZar delivers those doggerel imitations of Shakespearean high rhetoric, he’s absolutely committed to their seriousness and that is what makes those lines so memorable and so hilarious. Meyer allows the frenetic disjuncture of the sumptuous visuals to do the satiric work.

Of course, there’s one more element to the Meyer satire that ought to be mentioned: the soundtrack. The soundtrack might even seem to contradict the point I’m making here about the line satire must tread insofar as the soundtrack blatantly drives its punch lines home. When the guy in the Nazi suit gets killed we hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. Yes, we get it — about as subtle as intercutting a sex scene with shots of a demolition derby.

But there may be more cleverness to be found in the soundtrack as well. Take one of the most famous moments in the film. After all of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, a putative orgy is interrupted when Z-man begins to murder his guests in a troubling send-up of the Manson murders. Z-man kills his first victim by beheading him as another guest, one of the Carrie Nations, bears witness. At this gruesome moment, Meyer superimposes the 20th Century Fox fanfare that plays before one of their movies begins (including this film).

Ebert was once asked if this was meant to be a brash criticism of the Fox studio system and Ebert suggested it was designed to underplay the brutality of the moment. Leaving intention aside, this moment is worth reading for its aesthetic and semantic impact. In some ways this scene is the beginning of a different movie altogether. Up to this point it has been a story of excess but not murder. The turn is, in one sense, unexpected and thus the fanfare signals this sudden switch.

On the other hand, it shouldn’t be all that unexpected a turn. After all, the movie actually begins with the aftermath of this scene, by showing Z-man chase down the fellow dressed as a Nazi and run him through on the beach. At the beginning of the film this is all presented as a flash-forward — or at least we realize at this point that it was a flash-forward. Thus the initial murder, chronologically, would have taken place at the point that the fanfare was initially heard (that is, just prior to the opening scene of the film). Playing it here is an over-the-top, superfluous cue to the audience that we are back to where we began.

Superfluity seems to be the issue here as it was, etymologically, for satire itself. The word derives from the Latin satura, meaning “full”. Satire is brimming with detail, with moments to savor, with biting criticism of the status quo. Satire is the over-full, the more-than-enough. Satire is the superfluous, the overflowing abundance of an anti-social yet joyful vision of the world, a vision that recognizes the necessity of tearing down the structures of society but doing it with a smile — a smile that is at once accepting and derisive.

The word “superfluous” with its connections to the “superlative” and “fluid” even sounds vaguely dirty in a way that would appeal to Meyer. What more appropriate homage is there for a man who prided himself on filming beauties with bountiful breasts than to say of Russ Meyer that he was the auteur of the overflowing, the endless bounty, the superfluous?

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Criterion Collection has recently released the long-absent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on Blu ray. As is typical for Criterion, the disc comes loaded with extras including several interviews with various people associated with the film, a feature/interview with Russ Meyer, an appreciation by John Waters, two different commentaries (one by Roger Ebert and the other by various members of the cast), and several other items. The film certainly deserves this attention and hasn’t received it for the majority of its history. Now perhaps Criterion can look into arranging a decent print of Meyer’s most important film, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.

RATING 6 / 10