Saturday, December 17, 2016

#246: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

At this late date, I think Russ Meyer's reputation as a genuinely talented, unique filmmaker is as strong or stronger than his mostly unfair reputation as a purveyor of low-grade T&A schlock. Meyer's films are campy, and he is obsessed with the figures of voluptuous women, but there's so much more going on in these movies than just that. Meyer was one of the most original film stylists, creating a dizzying blend of live-action cartoon, comic-strip, pop-art montage that used elements of exploitation movies, classic Hollywood, burlesque shows, the aforementioned comics and cartoons, and a troupe of oddball actors that built their own personality-driven images onscreen, much like John Waters' group of Baltimore oddballs. And, also like Waters, Meyers celebrated bad taste, the wide world of sexuality and fetishism, letting your freak flag fly, and fabulousness on the cheap.
Meyer's films are full of contradictions, however. He can be an old-fashioned moralist doling out punishment for hedonism while also celebrating the epicurean lifestyle. His sensitive, troubled characters are likely to end up dead or broken, while the brasher, more confident ones succeed and thrive.
Both regressive and progressive, a Meyers film ogles the bodies of beautiful women but also loves these women as people and performers creating characters. The women in his films are sometimes close to superheroes or supervillains, fighting squares, sexists, and dullards, carving out a space for their own lives and personalities to exist and triumph. I don't want to get carried away making a case for Russ Meyer as a feminist because I don't think he was (you only see one kind of body type in his movies, for example), but put a Russ Meyer film up against the entire filmographies of most male Hollywood liberal directors (Oliver Stone, etc.), and you'll see who cares about creating lots of great parts for women and who doesn't.
Meyer got his biggest budget and widest distribution with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, probably his most well-known film to this day. A sequel in name only to the Jacqueline Susann adaptation, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was written by Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, from a story idea by Meyer and Ebert. It still blows my mind a little that Roger Ebert wrote this film. He had a lot of things going for him as a critic, but one of his major blind spots was the hard-to-describe category of exploitation/drive-in/psychotronic/cult/midnight movie/b-movie. He tended to dismiss or ignore these kinds of films, but he ended up writing one of the great ones. Weird. (He also co-wrote two other Meyer films, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, under the pseudonyms Reinhold Timme and R. Hyde because his bosses at the paper weren't so keen on him writing for Meyer.)
For his relatively mainstream crossover film, Meyer toned down the sex (by his standards, not Hollywood's -- the film is still full of sex) but kept the weirdness cranked to the maximum. For those of you unlucky enough to have never seen it (or lucky enough to have the chance to see it for the first time), I'll give a quick description. A trio of rock musicians, Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and the awesomely named Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), and their manager (and Kelly's boyfriend) Harris Allsworth (David Gurian), get sick of playing to squares at local dances and head to Los Angeles to try for rock stardom. Kelly has a fashion designer aunt she's never met, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis). Susan introduces the newcomers to rock impresario and Hollywood scenester Z-Man (John Lazar), a demented svengali famous for managing rock groups, throwing debauched parties, and speaking almost exclusively in Shakespearean language.
Z-Man takes a liking to the women's rock band, renames them The Carrie Nations (in ironic honor of pro-temperance activist Carrie Nation), and makes them stars while also introducing them to the sleaze, depravity, drugs, and cruelty of the Hollywood scene. Wild characters enter their orbit, including porn star Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams), fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin), perpetually shirtless heavyweight boxer Randy Black (James Iglehart), law student Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), unscrupulous lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod), and part-time actor Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Things get dark, darker, and finally, dark as fuck. Crazy shit happens, someone is beheaded with a sword, and hard lessons are learned. Sample dialogue: "This is my happening and it freaks me out!' and "You shall drink the black sperm of my vengeance!'
In the almost two hours of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the pacing never flags, despite the almost constant whirlwind of events, drama, and insanity. Moving to Hollywood and losing one's soul was a familiar trope even in 1970, but you've never seen it told like this. Meyer's strange sensibility and uniquely personal approach to editing, framing, and storytelling was not compromised by the Hollywood money backing this film. His actors all have that patented Meyer mixture of naivete and knowingness and give slightly stylized (or in Z-Man's case extremely stylized) performances that fit perfectly in the world Meyer creates. This is both a sublime and a ridiculous film, and I love it. 

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