WARNING: ALTHOUGH WE DO OUR BEST TO STAY RELATIVELY FAMILY FRIENDLY ON THIS BLOG, THIS PARTICULAR REVIEW ISN’T ONE FOR THE KIDDIES.
ALSO, I APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE TO EVERY WOMAN IN THE WORLD.
“The world is full of them, the super-octane girls who are old at twenty. If they get to be twenty.”
Determined to find success by any means necessary, the all girl psychedelic soul trio The Kelly Affair heads off to Hollywood to make it big. Things go remarkably well at first as the group is taken under the wings of record producer extraordinaire Z-Man, who changes the band’s name to The Carrie Nations and helps them make a string of hit singles. However, it all begins to go sour as the friends become entangled in a drug, alcohol, and sex fueled soap opera of labyrinthine proportions. Kelly (lead vocals and guitar) develops an infatuation with Lance Rocke, a local gigolo whose real interest lies in Kelly’s forthcoming inheritance. This so disturbs Harris (band manager and Kelly’s ex-boyfriend) that he first takes up with predatory porn star Ashley St. Ives, with whom he ultimately can’t “perform”, and then has a one night stand with the emotionally fragile Casey (bass). Now pregnant with Harris’ child and determined never to be used by a man again, Casey falsely accuses Harris of rape, reluctantly agrees to get an abortion, and becomes a lesbian. No longer able to bear it all, Harris attempts to kill himself by jumping from the rafters during the taping of a television appearance by The Carrie Nations, but he fails and only manages to turn himself into a paraplegic. Distraught by all the misfortunes which have befallen her bandmates, Petronella (drums) seeks solace in the arms of heavyweight champion Randy Black. Unfortunately, Pet’s real boyfriend Emerson catches the two in bed and, in a foolhardy attempt to defend his manhood, is run over by a car driven by the half insane pugilist. Whew. At this point, the movie is only two-thirds of the way through, and we haven’t even covered the sub-plots involving Kelly’s fashion designing aunt Susan and her slimy accountant Porter. Let’s just say it all comes to a head at a private costume party thrown by Z-Man where hearts are broken, lives are lost, and seriously WTF secrets are revealed.
When the film adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls hit the big screen in 1967 it was universally panned by the critics (which in true Hollywood fashion didn’t stop it from raking in $50,000,000 at the box office, ten times its budget), none more scathing than a budding young columnist named Roger Ebert. In his review of the film Ebert wrote, “What we have here is a dirty soap opera. It is dirty because it intends to be, but it is a soap opera only by default. It tries to raise itself to the level of sophisticated pornography, but fails. And it is dirty, not because it has lots of sex in it, but because it firmly believes that sex is dirty. That makes sense. Most soap operas are aimed at audiences who are fascinated by the subject of sex, but who want it presented in a disapproving way… Some moments persist in the memory, however. The scene in which Sharon Tate does her bust exercises, and most particularly the dialog at the end of that scene, should be preserved in permanent form so future historians can see that Hollywood was not only capable of vulgarity, but was also capable of the most offensive and appalling vulgarity ever thrown up by any civilization. I can't believe that scene. I really can't.”
Having had such a vitriolic reaction to the first Valley Of The Dolls movie, you might think the last thing Mr. Ebert would ever want to see darken theater screens was a sequel. But lo and behold, when Twentieth Century Fox decided to produce a pseudo-follow up to the film in 1970, not only did Ebert agree to see it… he actually wrote the screenplay. So how in the world did that come about, you might ask? Well, in a 1998 interview with The Onion’s A.V. Club, the film’s director Russ Meyer related how he and Ebert had become friends after Ebert had written a complimentary letter regarding his work. So, after Meyer had been approached to helm the new Doll’s film, he and Ebert discussed the possibility of the film critic writing it. And when the Onion pressed Meyer on why Ebert would accept the assignment given the subject matter, Meyer responded in his typical candid fashion, “Tits. Plain and simple, [Roger] loves tits.”
Now, there’s a good reason for sharing that less than tasteful tidbit of information, but before we get to it, let’s go ahead and get something out of the way. This has always been one of the few B-Movie sites around that doesn’t rate the potential enjoyment of a motion picture based on the amount of gore it contains, the number of explosions it offers, and certainly not by how much gratuitous nudity it packs in to its runing time. Not that I’m necessarily disparaging guys like Joe Bob Briggs for their tongue-in-cheek blood, beasts, and breasts rating systems, mind you, it’s just not the way we do things around here. Who knows, maybe that’s one of the reasons this blog seems to have developed a sizable female readership. It’s probably nice for the ladies to have a place in geekdom where they don’t immediately have two targets painted on their chests every time they walk into the room. But be that as it may, the fact remains that we’re about to talk about a Russ Meyer movie, and that means we’re obliged to delve into some areas which might make some folks uncomfortable. However, since we’re all adults here, we should be able to discuss these things with at least a modicum of maturity. Agreed? Agreed.
Sorry, sorry ladies, but when you’re talking about Russ Meyer and the women who appear in his films, there’s simply no way to get around the subject. And I mean that literally. In confined quarters, there’s probably very little room to get around these girls. Watching some of the top heavy ladies in Russ Meyer movies get up and walk, one is reminded of that old canard about bumblebees taking flight, the physics say it shouldn’t be possible, but your eyes tell you otherwise. In fact, the proportions on some of Meyer’s starlets are so ludicrous that I’m willing to bet Barbie dolls see these women and develop harmful body images. Okay, okay, I’m done. I’m sure by now some of you might be inclined to think I’m saying all this just to get a few cheap laughs, but there’s actually a point to it all. (Although, in all honesty, I’ve never been one who’s too proud to take the cheap laughs when I can get’em.) It’s all meant to illustrate, as film critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, that “Meyer is an unregenerate sexist. Sexist the way another person is a Buddhist or foodist or nudist — for this is Meyer's profane religion, and he worships at the female breast as Paleolithic man venerated the Venus of Willendorf. And as he aged (but never, ever, matured), the breasts of his models and actresses enlarged, expanded until now, with the likes of Pandora Peaks and Eva ‘Tunde’ Howath, they look ready to explode.”
All of which probably makes Russ Meyer sound like nothing more than just some coarse vulgarian, but that isn’t entirely true (mostly true, sure, but not entirely). For one thing, he was not a pornographer in the strict sense of the word, refusing ever to film hardcore scenes because he considered them anti-erotic. And then there’s the simple fact that he was talented. “[Russ Meyer] is not the primitive or untutored artist he sometimes likes to appear to be.” claims his pal Roger Ebert. Discussing Meyer in a 1973 Film Comment essay, Ebert noted that “his method of work on a picture is all business, he is a consummate technical craftsman, he is obsessed by budgets and schedules, and his actors do not remember how 'turned on' a scene was, but how many times it was re-shot. In a genre overrun by sleazo cheapies, he is the best technician and the only artist." And, honestly, that’s not just Ebert talking up his good friend. Watching a Meyer movie, it becomes quickly evident that the man is a skilled cinematographer, having developed his chops first as a wartime photographer (some of Meyer’s impressive WWII newsreel footage is used in the film Patton), then honing them as a pin-up photographer and pioneer of underground nudie-cutie films (a term Meyer hated, preferring instead the nomenclature ‘titty-boom movies’). By the time he finally started churning out more mainstream cult movie classics such as Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill and Mudhoney in the 60s, it was evident to anyone paying attention that Meyer knew his business behind a camera. That’s why these days it’s not surprising to find his oeuvre being given retrospectives at prestigious art museums and being discussed in film schools (hey, nothing legitimizes your smut like having it taught in a classroom). “In times to come, and years to come, and into the next century” Roger Ebert would extol, “Russ Meyer's films will be seen as art in the same sense as Andy Warhol's work and Al Capp's work - popular art of a very particular and original and unique nature.”
Well, maybe. But whether that ends up being true or not, the point is that Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls had something of a pedigree (dubious as it was) going into production, boasting as it could the wordsmithing talents of one of the film industry’s soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize winning writers combined with the visual skills of its most talented not-quite-pornographer. And because of this, expectations were high that the film would deliver something other than just the typical titillation of topless shots so often tossed into B-Movies in order to get drive-in patrons all riled up. Oh, it would have those, of course, we are talking about Russ Meyer after all, but in general it was believed that the movie would provide something else as well, something along the lines of a biting social satire with comedic appeal to the masses. And if you’re to believe folks like movie critic Peter Sobczynski, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls delivered on all its promise. “The resulting film” Mr. Sobczynski wrote, “remains one of the damndest things ever made – a goofy, grisly, screw-loose combination of sex, drugs, psychedelic rock and lurid excess that still has the power to blow minds 35 years after it first appeared.”
Well, not really. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are things to enjoy in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, to be sure. For instance, it’s full of Meyer’s trademark style, a combination of brightly lit colorful shots, rapid fire editing, and overlapping dialogue which ensures that the movie never drags so much as a second during its brief running time. This technique works great during scenes such as the band’s relocation to California which is depicted through a quick cut montage of images from the movie yet to come playing underneath the voices of Kelly and Harris volleying back and forth the pros and cons of moving out west (“Gaudy, ugly.” “Gassy, classy.” “Cheap anyhow.” “Yeah, like wow!”). The sequence does much to set up the feel of the hyperkinetic forces that will soon propel the hapless band mates spiraling uncontrollably into disaster. Unfortunately, the technique begins to wear out its welcome a little bit during the near interminable number of party scenes in which the viewer is treated to quick shots of people dancing and/or coupling to the sounds of The Strawberry Alarm Clock while Z-Man blathers on in a faux Shakespearean dialect (John LaZar apparently modeled his character on Olivier’s Richard III), all of which is further intercut with Laugh-In style interchanges between the partygoers containing choice bits of dialog in which porn stars quote Sigmund Freud and transsexuals spout lines from Lewis Carroll. Yeah, the visuals keep the energy level up, but the overall impression these scenes leave is that Ebert really wanted you to know he paid attention during his literature classes in college.
Still, those who love the camp value of movies in the vein of Mommie Dearest will probably find lots to howl about in the overwrought performances given by the cast of Dolls. (At one point Z-Man warbles out, "You shall taste the black sperm of my vengeance!" with a completely straight face and a delivery that is almost right up there with Faye Dunaway’s “No wire hangers… everrrr!”) And fans of the weird will no doubt find much to savor, particularly in the use of music. Along with the many moments backed by a soap opera organ soundtrack, there’s also a scene in which a Nazi is impaled to the strains of Wagner (no matter what time period they’re set in, Meyer movies almost always find a way to kill at least one Nazi, he hates those guys) and another where one of the main characters has his head lopped off to the tune of the 20th Century Fox fanfare. Unfortunately, most of the really crazy stuff doesn’t happen until the last fifteen minutes of the movie (there be necessary spoilers ahead) during which the plot abandons all pretense of cohesion by having Z-Man rip open his ruffled shirt to reveal a pair of breasts, proving to one and all that he was a woman all along. This continuity destroying nonsense accomplished, Z-Man proceeds to massacre everyone in the house before being killed himself. Afterwards, the survivors participate in a triple wedding ceremony while a narrator opines about how everyone who lived learned a valuable lesson and everybody who died deserved it.
Now, you’d think the people who would appreciate one of the “damndest things ever made” would really go for the gonzo nuttiness of Dolls’ finale, but the ending of the movie is what usually comes under the most criticism from even the film’s most rabid defenders. And while Ebert’s writing is partly at fault, the blame for that lies mostly at Meyer’s feet. Or, to be more precise, his philosophy. You see, as David K. Frasier explains in Russ Meyer: The Life And Films, “It strikes Meyer as somehow heroic and funny to have couples making love in uncomfortably incongruous settings like trees, swamps, and deserts, as if their passion were so great that they would suffer any pain or indignity to consummate it… In Meyer’s cinema, “good” healthy sex is the operative moral imperative that ensures contentment and maintains cosmic order.” And it’s that particular viewpoint on sex which marks Russ Meyer as one of the progenitors of the period in the 1960s known as the sexual revolution. Dr. Michael Waldstein, in his introduction to Man and Woman He Created Them (a.k.a. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body) explains how “the Sexual Revolution was heralded by its advocates as a breakthrough for human development, for the freedom and happiness of the person. Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud who saw himself at the forefront of the revolution, believed that the free availability of sexual pleasure beyond the limits imposed by the patriarchal Christian family would lead to health and happiness. It would even prevent insanity, mysticism, and war. ‘Sexual energy is the constructive biological energy of the psychological apparatus that forms the structure of human feeling and thinking. ‘Sexuality’ (physiological vagus function) is the productive vital energy, simply speaking. Its suppression leads not only to medical damage, but also quite generally to damage in the basic functions of life. The essential social expression of this damage is purposeless (irrational) action by human beings: their insanity, their mysticism, their readiness for war, etc… The core of life’s happiness is sexual happiness.”
Uh huh. Still, Meyer seemed to more or less prescribe to Reich’s views on sex, so it’s obvious why he would appear to be the perfect choice to film Ebert’s screenplay, one which was meant to lampoon anyone who “believes that sex is dirty” or who was “fascinated by the subject of sex, but who want it presented in a disapproving way.” But the catch is that in the worlds Meyer created for his movies, the joys and benefits of the sexual freedom brought about by the revolution were not for everyone. As David K. Frasier explains, “As witnessed in numerous films like Lorna and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a rigid code of morality exists in the Meyer universe, and that code must be strictly observed if it is to function properly. ‘Normal’ heterosexual sex is the primary component of this universe. It guarantees it’s the harmony. In film after film any character who disrupts this harmony by breaking Meyer’s moral laws is punished.” And this is why many of those proponents of the sexual revolution who would otherwise praise Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls feel a little betrayed by the ending of the film. As Danny Peary, author of the much beloved Cult Movies series of books, derisively puts it, “Those people killed… are those Meyer’s considers deviants; so not only do a Nazi and a murderous transvestite die, but also a bisexual and two lesbians who haven’t really harmed anyone. Those characters who have repented their misdeeds and amoral behavior are the ones who survive. The world has been cleansed.” And as if to emphasize this very point, the final image Meyer provides us in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is a freeze frame on the three brides, each dressed respectively in red, white and blue in order to accentuate the conservative properly-married all-American girls their various trials have transformed them into. So, in effect, the last fifteen minutes of the film actually end up contradicting any satire of conservative mores Ebert had built into his screenplay.
Given Meyer’s stated objectives (as Ebert explained them anyway) to produce a movie that “would simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick, and a moralistic expose of what the opening drawl called the oft-times nightmarish world of show business”, I can think of only a few reasons Meyer allowed his movie to lose focus the way it did. One is that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t as talented as he’s made out to be. But, hey, the film schools couldn’t possibly be wrong about that, could they? (Ha!) Another is that Meyer could have just been a creature of habit. Back in the early days when he was trying to distribute his burlesque-style nudies, he used the same approach as the makers of such films as Sex Madness and Marihuana: Weed With Roots In Hell, which was to present the scandalous material cocooned within a faux-moralistic storyline that was “educating and warning audiences about an otherwise forbidden subject.” So, even though Fox gave him free reign to make any movie he wanted, perhaps Meyer was just lazily relying on his old bag of tricks. But the third possible reason which comes to mind is probably the most likely. You see, when it comes right down to it, the finished product isn’t the most important concern for Meyer. In the end, he cares most about one thing, and one thing only.
Now I’m not talking about the actual display of bare female chests, because for a Russ Meyer movie, there is a noticeable shortage of such things in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (though, to be fair, still probably twice as much as in any non-Meyer movie you’re likely to see). It’s a widely known fact that Meyer edited out a good portion of the nudity and simulated sex he filmed in a failed effort to appease the ratings board so, as David K. Frasier (again) points out, “While fleeting glimpses of bare breasts abound, the camera never ‘goes south’ to the pubic region, and sex scenes are edited in such a quick cut fashion that erotic tension is never permitted to build.” But despite the timidity of Dolls compared to the rest of Meyer’s oeuvre, and regardless of any artistic merit on the part of his camera work or any social critique to be found in Ebert’s screenplay, everything in the movie is ultimately subordinate to Meyer’s breast obsession. And he always admitted as such. When asked by journalist M. J. Simpson, “In terms of casting actresses, which is more important: acting ability or breast-size?”, Meyer responded candidly, “There's no question about the size of the breast. I'd be a fool to think in other terms.”
Basically, Meyer had a fetish, which in terms of sexuality Webster’s defines as “an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression.” And for the longest time, having such a condition was considered a psychological disorder. But times change, and groups like The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom are getting better at lobbying, so bowing to pressure, the American Psychiatric Association is now considering changes to their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to acknowledge that a person can be a fetishist, transvestite, sexual sadist or sexual masochist without necessarily having a disorder. Which is no surprise, really, as the intelligentsia have always been the most susceptible to enlightenment style movements such as the sexual revolution. But what is a bigger problem is that the same acquiescence to the sexual revolution has become firmly entrenched in our popular culture over the past half century. As Bradley Tuck, writing for the One To One Film Journal, points out, “[Meyer’s] archetypal well-endowed women have become a staple of magazines such as Nuts, Loaded, FHM and Bizarre. Female culture has gone in a similar direction, internalizing lap-dancing, pornography, breast implants and burlesque as sexual liberation and heralding Madonna, the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and the characters of Sex And The City as its empowered heroes… [and] female liberation has followed an equally Meyerian line. In this ‘post-feminist world’ women are to seek ‘liberation’ by becoming sex objects.” But Mr. Tuck rightly sees a problem with this. “By adopting the role of sex objects women can gain the power that comes from molding men’s desires, gaining power over men, but [also] perpetuating the oppression that keeps men and women from finding fulfillment. In one fell swoop a Midas touch is created, where all sexual subjects (both desirer and desired) are transformed into alienated subjects, dreaming of unrealistic partners and unattainable self-images.”
At first glance, that might seem like a big leap, going from a relatively small act such as Meyer’s ogling of a woman’s bra size to the mammoth effect of producing a society crippled by total human isolation, but Tuck never claims it happened overnight. Things always start small, sometimes even with nothing more than a single lingering gaze on another’s body. Such a tiny action may seem harmless, but when you get down to it, there is no unchaste act so miniscule that it doesn’t affect how we personally view and interact with others. And once you grasp that even a lustful look can be the beginnings of objectification, is it really such a leap to see how such attitudes multiplied by the number of humans on the planet can accumulate over a period of time and eventually affect the interactions of society as a whole. That’s why Pope Paul VI wrote in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, “Everything therefore in the modern means of social communication which arouses men's baser passions and encourages low moral standards, as well as every obscenity in the written word and every form of indecency on the stage and screen, should be condemned publicly and unanimously by all those who have at heart the advance of civilization and the safeguarding of the outstanding values of the human spirit.” Not because the Church disapproved of sex or found it dirty (sorry Roger), but because she realized the harm individual disordered sexualities can wreak on us all given enough time to escalate into a movement.
Which, as Pope Paul VI warned, it has, and the societal rot has begun to set in big time because of it. But the fix is underway as well. Between September 1979 and November 1984, Pope John Paul II delivered a series of 129 lectures which collectively have become known as the Theology Of The Body. In the most simplistic terms possible, the purpose of the Pope’s TOB was to counter the objectification of human beings inherent in the sexual revolution with the deeper understanding that creation reaches its perfection in the total and mutual self giving of persons between a man and a woman. There’s a lot more to it than that, it’s a very dense work (my Kindle says I’m already 10% through it, and yet I’m still just slogging through the introduction with its meticulous overview of the philosophies of Hume, Kant & Scheler), so it’ll probably take a few generations for everything it contains to sink into the collective consciousness of Christiandom (George Weigel describes the TOB as a "kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church”). Until then, us Christians in the trenches can fight the good fight the way we always have, one individual at time, safeguarding our own chastity and trying to set an example for the proper way to look at and interact with our fellow human beings. To do otherwise would make us all just a bunch of lazy irresponsible…
Oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?
Starts with a B.
“Your curving thighs like jewels, the product of skilled hands. Your valley, a round bowl that should never lack mixed wine. Your belly, a mound of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” So goes the Song of Songs, one of the books the Church recognizes as the inspired word of God. But don’t make the mistake that the turgid tones of this scripture implies the Lord endorses leering. The Catechism reminds us that “sexuality, in which man's belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.” And that’s why Song of Songs is not considered lustful because, even in its steamier parts, it never reduces love to mere sexual expression. Rather it presents sexuality in the context of love of the whole person as exemplified in the mutual giving of ones selves in holy matrimony. So, for all you fellas out there, don’t even think about slipping any of those racier Bible verses into your loved one’s Valentines Day card unless they’ve already got a ring on their finger. And even then you’d better be sure she knows you love the whole package, not just those two fawns.