By Ray Young



R U S S    M E Y E R

March 21, 1922—September 18, 2004


    Having been born in the late 1950’s, I wasn’t aware of Russ Meyer or his early films as they came out. By the time I had an inkling of who he was, Supervixens was in release (back when neighborhood theatres played such things) and it turned out to be both a disappointment and a revelation. Being a teenager, a very horny one at that, I thought I’d be seeing a porno movie, but Meyer kept cutting away from the ‘good stuff.’ Yet his cutting — fast, nonsensical, blinding, headache inducing, irreverent, grating — was twenty-five years ahead of its time. (Which may or may not be a compliment.) Its unexpected violence was as raw as a Road Runner cartoon.

    Little did I realize that he’d been doing the same schtick for over fifteen years. After photographing cheesecake in the 50’s, he revolutionized the stag film during the 60’s by adding wild plots and oddball characters, and stretched it all out to seventy minutes. Revisionists have given an awkward label to this kind of picture: the ‘nudie cutie.’ (A relatively recent moniker derived from a 50’s burlesque team called the Nudie Cuties.) At the time they were called adult, stag, art, dirty or blue movies. But no matter what the label, Meyer and the genre were an anachronism by the 70’s, innocent titillation in melodramatic satires shot down by Linda Lovelace and Marilyn Chambers who were screwing their brains out in hardcore movies aimed at ‘couples’ audiences. You never saw sexual penetration in a Meyer film — in fact, you rarely saw a good, lengthy sex scene at all. (There were exceptions: the painterly brother-sister tryst in Vixen still packs a wallop.) But Meyer was clearly out of his league next to the explicit Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, and most of his fans (the ones he called “the one-armed viewers”) packed up their raincoats and went elsewhere.



    When Up! came out in the late 70’s, Meyer had been interviewed and profiled by legit film magazines, feted as something of an auteur (he wrote, produced, directed, edited, and photographed most all of his pictures, and gave Hitchcock-style cameos in a few), and there was a chapter devoted to him in the book, Kings of the B’s. Auteur or no auteur, most all of Up! was (and is) excruciatingly bad, thumping along without purpose as the wall-to-wall narration jabbers incoherently. I remember seeing it with my father, an old fan of Meyer’s from the Lorna days, who sat there moaning as he wished the “damn bitch would shut up.” Yes, for a lot of people, the thrill was gone.

    But a younger generation zeroed in on the subversion of genre, his cult status grew and, with the release of Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens in 1979 (his best picture of the decade), revival theaters began booking his earlier movies. (Remember, this was still several years shy of home video, and Meyer’s films — with the exception of The Seven Minutes, which we’ll pretend doesn’t exist — never played on television.) I was fortunate to be living in San Francisco at the moment, and the Strand Theater had marathons devoted to Meyer, running three, four, sometimes five of his pictures in one day.
    There was a lot of junk, to be sure (Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers is the pits), but the man’s talent as both an entertainer and craftsman became quickly evident. The Immoral Mr. Teas — the picture that ‘made him’ — is a naughty variation on Pete Smith; his ‘John Steinbeck period’ of black-and-white backwater shenanigans is epitomized by Mudhoney, probably his best film (imagine Baby Doll without the poetry); and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (a title that once seemed impossible) was a gutsy eruption of violence. Cherry, Harry and Raquel, a quasi-prequel to Supervixens, was a ringing endorsement of the 60’s sexual revolution but its meat-and-potatoes aggression and hostility ran directly at odds with the peace-and-love generation. Meyer’s biggest production by far, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, was financed by Fox who were willing to let him milk Jacqueline Susann’s sacred cash cow. That comical portrait of Hollywood vice was co-written by a young Roger Ebert, who worked with Meyer on a couple of his later screenplays, and who was probably responsible for all that bad narration in Up!.


The Immoral Mr. Teas

    Meyer’s pet obsession(s) usually spilled out of a D cup, and there are no bigger boobs than the ones in Russ’s movies. I’m sure one of his regrets was not having shot something like the giant attacking breast of Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex before Woody Allen did — it would’ve made a great dream sequence — but that huge tit would have swallowed up three-quarters of his budget. A lot of the women in his pictures are astonishing, epic amazons, most of them strippers discovered while he and his old Army buddies were out quaffing down brews and doing ‘field research.’ Some of the names still ring a (distant) bell: Uschi Digard, Erica Gavin, Edy Williams (“in a . . . in a . . . Bentley!”), Kitten Natividad (“hotter than a Mexican’s lunch!”), Shari Eubank, Lorna Maitland . . .

    It was said that his pictures offended women’s groups, but I’ve never come across a document or report to substantiate the claim. (A lot of writers invent such probable accusations to beef up their limp prose.) I seriously doubt Meyer was singled out in the 60’s, because there was a ton of third-rate cheesecake and soft-core in circulation. And in the 70’s, Meyer’s last decade as a filmmaker, his brand of sexism and sexuality were relatively tame compared to the state of the American mainstream and the burgeoning hardcore industry.
    Nowadays it takes a staunch constitution and delusional perspective to schlep through most of his movies with any lasting enthusiasm. They’re antiquated products of an era long since past (has any decade dated as wretchedly as the 60’s?). Indeed, sitting here some twenty years after Russ Meyer cults were beaming over his arrival to VHS, merely watching his films today seems an act of defiance against the here and now. But he was an integral part of post-WWII American independent film, his pictures were the best cast and photographed of their kind, and Meyer’s relevance as an innovator, humorist and quintessential dirty old man is beyond doubt.