Film Review

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: EROTICA (1961)

One of the drawbacks of the nudie-cutie film is that there are just so many interesting ways to show nudity for nudity’s sake for the sixty minutes that made up the average length of the movies. Most of the time, as was the case with The Immoral Mr. Teas and Eve and the Handyman, the films were a string of adult party jokes come to life in episodic fashion. In Erotica, Russ Meyer’s third feature, there is more emphasis on the episodic as the film is built out of what literally feels like a series of differing nude scenarios with Meyer and Jack Moran’s corny narration spot-welded to the images after the fact.

Beginning as an industrial film about the construction of a motion picture, Erotica jumps off the screen with Meyer’s strong visual flourishes that promises to unleash a more sophisticated nudie film than the two previous productions and one that hints that it may in fact act as a meta commentary on them; kind of like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Boin-n-g from 1964 but… you know… good. It jumps with a breathless narration that employs Russ Meyer’s trademark double entendres, equating the filmmaking process to masturbation in a cadence that makes you feel like you’re going to be asked to buy something by the time it’s all over.

However, once the film opens up, Erotica becomes a hugely hit or miss affair. Its segmented structure serves it well as if you find yourself stuck in the tedium of a segment, you can bet that it will likely end soon. However, that same structure is what causes the film to lurch forth in fits and starts which does not help the sixty minute running time move any quicker. Truth be told, Erotica truly feels like a Meyer sizzle reel that he may have carted around to living room parties with him; kind of like an animated portfolio to the discerning viewer, as it were. The filmmaker’s unsettled legs are apparent as he rocks back and forth between these well-staged pieces of breathing cheesecake and moments in which there seems to be an honest sexual expression that doesn’t feel like a wax put-on. Like putting Esquivel on the jukebox and looking at what once passed as your great-grandfather’s porn stash, Erotica has a kitschy charm that cannot be denied and, on a technical level, it’s quite good. But composition and color aren’t the film’s major problem as much as time is. The humor is a mixed bag of cornpone laffs for the hicks with some inspired moments that are reminiscent of a slower and bawdier Rocky and Bullwinkle episode. But hardly any of it works today which moves this further away from “entertainment” and into the arms of “museum piece.”

In watching the film, though, I began to wonder if the overwhelming feminine appeal for Meyer’s work rests not only in the agency and representation of the strong, independent, and dominate female characters but also in his gravitation to the Rubenesque, where dimples, rolls, and imperfections were all part of the package. Sure, they’re objectified, but they also seem more than exploited; they seem genuinely loved. That said, when compared to Eve and the Handyman, Erotica reflects a clear difference between women who Meyer directs and women who direct Meyer. Erotica is too much of the former and not enough of the latter and Meyer was at his best when his sexual drive and his creative energy were both motivated by a insatiable sense of wanting to be dominated by 50% hard-ass mom and 50% woman he wanted to sleep with. He could set up brilliant compositions of women in pools in his sleep. Creating something while completely obsessed with the central figure? Now THAT would be a real challenge.

Some of the framing in a few of the vignettes appear to be dry runs for much later work such as Supervixens and Cherry, Harry, Raquel!, further giving credence to the idea that Meyer used the nudie cutie to give the audiences what they wanted but also to employ trial and error in seeing what created the most aesthetic and sexual value on screen. By the time he got to his Gothic period three years later with the potent Lorna, he had an arsenal of shots, angles, and visual framing in his back pocket that allowed him to move through his productions like a hot knife though butter while creating something bold and artistic at the same time.

In the end, Erotica doesn’t add up to anything much but is still a fascinating addition to the evolution of Meyer from nudie huckster to narrative trickster. While that metamorphosis occurred in a herky-jerky manner, all points of interest are worth exploring given the incalculable amount of value Meyer gave to American film.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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