THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MONDO TOPLESS (1966)

If you track a filmmaker’s career, you’re likely to see things like Mondo Topless occur. No, I don’t mean that every auteur is going to crank out a quick-buck skin flick when they hit rough waters but, instead, there is a pattern of running back to material that’s bankable once experimentation bites them in the ass. Also gnawing at the filmmaker is the knowledge that only so many flops in a row can get you a one way ticket to director’s jail so the return to the familiar seems doubly enticing.

So it’s understandable that, after the box office failure of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ took a step back, bought some color stock, went into his own archives, and stitched together Mondo Topless, a fleet, cacophonous, and full-bast of adrenaline which is as much fun as it is utterly inconsequential. And though its particular structure (which is more or less the same as the one utilized in Europe in the Raw) would get aped in Pandora Peaks, Meyer’s sad and unfortunate final film from 2002, Mondo Topless is minor Meyer; more or less serves as something you’d throw on at a party while waiting for all the guests to arrive. Even in his own filmography, it doesn’t do much more than stand as a mark in time to separate his silky, black and white gothic films from his garishly colored soap operas. But, by god, it’s good fun and one hell of a time capsule.

One part San Francisco travelogue, one part documentary, one part shameless flesh parade, Mondo Topless is Meyer having some fun with the then-nascent glut of “mondo” documentaries that were successful simply by giving middle-class Americans the promise of seeing footage that felt exotic and taboo. The central idea of Mondo Topless is that the topless dance craze is completely devouring the globe and Meyer, through the barking, breathless narration delivered by John Furlong (narrator of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and appeared as Calif in Mudhoney) aims to get to the bottom of it; tracing its origins in San Francisco and then as it spreads to all points beyond.

As was the norm for any of his location photography, Meyer’s multi-Dutch angled views of San Francisco are beautiful and capture what looks to be the last days of a generation right on the cusp of the Summer of Love. And, once again, it’s an absolute joy to see all the trappings of the time, most especially in the colors, the fashions, the automobiles, the signage, and the numerous reel-to-reel recorders and transistor radios, generally used as foreground texture in shots that look almost as if they were shot with a split-diopter.

As stated before, all of this is a setup to be a look at topless dancing. But Mondo Topless isn’t at all an actual expose on the topless dancing craze sweeping the planet in 1966. In fact, it’s not even close. For just a cursory glance at the movie reveals something that has most definitely been Frankensteined together from other works, finished and unfinished, that were lying around Meyer’s editing room. Some of Mondo Topless is newly shot material. Pat Barrington (here working under the name Pat Barranger), Darlene Grey, Mrs. X, Sin Leneee, and most definitely Babette Bardot (“50/50 where it counts!”) are contemporary. But some of this (ie, the moments where we see a performer but only hear Furlong’s narration) feels suspiciously like the cheesecake footage that was shot for Erotica from 1961 or Heavenly Bodies from 1963. Likewise, all of the staged strip routines that are purported proof of the topless craze having jumped the Atlantic and spreading across the globe in 1966 are, in fact, reused from 1963’s Europe in the Raw. This double dip is just as well since nobody saw Europe in the Raw the first time around and the burlesque acts by Veronique Gabriel and Abundavita simply should not be missed. And Lorna Maitland’s bit, a crass but understandable way to get her corpus in the actual film and her name on the one-sheet, is just reused footage from production shoots for Lorna.

But none of this really matters as Meyer’s rapid fire editing and wall-to-wall women go a long way in making the 60 minutes that make up the running time of Mondo Topless go down a lot smoother than the 60 minutes that make up one of his nudie cuties. And, once again, Meyer accidentally stumbles onto some feminine truths while also giving the audience what they came for. While it’s almost a meta-concern that the women are being objectified given that objectification is the name of the game when one is a topless dancer, sex and body-positive messages drift over the soundtrack alongside some verbal deconstruction of the mechanics of the craft as the candid audio interviews with the performers are laid over images of them dancing alongside oil rigs in the California desert, climbing electrical poles, or writhing around in the mud, among other sundry things.

For Russ Meyer, Mondo Topless was his wouldn’t be the last time Meyer would go back to the tit (pun 15/10 intended) that supplied the mother’s milk as Supervixens would later prove to be a retreat of sorts after two back-to-back, less pneumatic projects would be met with crickets. And like Supervixens would prove to be, Mondo Topless isn’t quite a return to the type of film he used to make, here specifically the pre-Lorna, narrative-free nudie cuties that made him famous. Instead, Mondo Topless employs even more frenetic editing, louder music, more extreme camera angles, and more suggestive undulations to point outrageously toward the future.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965)

In the opening seconds of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Russ Meyer marries sex and violence by employing a stern narration that explicitly welds the two together over the visual of the ever multiplying, squiggly optical soundtrack that quickly fills the frame like a hostile takeover. The narration warns the audience that you’ll never know where that mix of pleasure and pain will turn up but that, among other locations, it COULD happen in a go-go club.

And that’s absolutely goddamn right because the go-go club in question is the place of vocation for Varla (Tura Santana), Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams), a group of pneumatic, ass-kicking thrill seekers who roam the edges of the California desert and look for kicks in a manner so cavalier that they might as well be going antiquing. If this sounds a little familiar it’s because it is as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is basically Motorpsycho! but with females in hot rods instead of dudes on bikes. But the question isn’t whether this is a copy job or not. Hell, even Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock explicitly remade their own pictures. The question is whether or not the formula is bettered by the update. And, like the celluloid equivalent of Ms. Pac Man, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a marked improvement on an already enjoyable foundation.

There’s a bit more to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! than there was to Motorpsycho! as Varla and company not only find lethal kicks in the California wasteland in the guise of Tommy (Ray Barlow) and Linda (Sue Bernard), two all-American kids who run afoul of the group. They also find a crippled degenerate (Stuart Lancaster) who lives on a piece of dusty property, lording over a hunk of money he received after a railroad accident. His heart twisted with misanthropy and misogyny, he is assisted by his hulking, simpleminded son known as The Vegetable (Dennis Busch) and Kirk (Paul Trinka), his more sophisticated, well-read, and saner progeny. All of these combustible elements explode in the final reel as the film tacks close to Meyer’s precedence of directing ultra violent climaxes, delivering on the promise in the opening narration and then some.

Though Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was a financial failure and ended Meyer’s gothic period (and, sadly, was also the last film he shot in black and white), saying time has been kind to it would be a grand understatement. While the financial success of Motorpsycho! was the impetus for making Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, who the hell even talks about Motorpsycho! these days except for Meyer fanatics? Conversely, the image of the trio of Varla, Rosie, and Billie emblazons the front of many a t-shirt and poster and their cinematic legacy seeps into the DNA characters running all the way up to and beyond Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof from 2007.

Wasp-waisted, Porsche-driving Tura Santana reigns supreme as the black souled Varla, an amoral animal who doesn’t much deliver her dialogue as she does whip it. She’s equal parts turn on and terror as a high-octane, hedonistic creature that swings every which way as long as it’s pushing the envelope of getting her rocks off. “Whatever you want,” she purrs to the man she’s seducing out of his fortune, “I’m your cup to fill.” Wielding dictatorial control of the group, Varla turns on everyone who displeases her whether they are friend or foe. When Billie breaks free of the caravan and decides to go for a swim all by her lonesome, she gets beaten for the infraction by Rosie at Varla’s command, the latter leering at the two of them as they wrestle in a wet and sandy tangle. She assets dominance in a dangerous and impromptu game of chicken with her two friends across the salt flats and when she is later in danger of losing a timed race against a mid-level square, she simply runs him off the track, beats him to death, and kidnaps his bubble-headed girlfriend. Varla is simply not to be fucked with. As she snarls “I never try anything. I just do it. I don’t beat clocks, just people,” she sounds more like the Jedi school teacher I’d rather have than that dull-ass Yoda.

By contrast, Rosie is tough as leather but still has something of a tender heart when it comes to her feelings for Varla evidenced by the sad jealousy that masks her face as Varla rolls in the hay with a mark showing a knowingly bitter and heart-sinking ring of truth to it. And Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! was, in fact, the first of Meyer’s films to introduce lesbian relationships into his ever-expanding encyclopedia of sexual progress that was as sociological as it was personal. And even though he didn’t craft the most positive role model on the planet, the bisexual Varla has since become a symbol of tough, feminine independence and her plain-spoken, unvarnished honesty is admirable even if it would be a total HR nightmare in any other world.

But even though she’s soft for Varla, Rosie is anything but everywhere else. As played by the amazing Haji, Rosie’s ersatz, overblown “shutta up your mouth” accent is 15/10 hilarious and she gets one of the greatest lines of the film when she speaks incredulously at the mention of a soft drink by ensuring Linda understands that Rosie and the gals “don’t like nothin’ a-soft.” The rest of the cast, most especially Lori Williams and Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster, deliver their performances with gusto, spitting each bit of astonishing dialogue with glee and slowly elevating everything until its fever pitch climax which earns its feminist praise by giving even its weakest character the most satisfying deliverance.

Russ directs, edits, co-produces, and gets story credit for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, but the absolutely incredible screenplay was written by Jack Moran, one-time child actor who popped up as the prospector/narrator in Meyer’s Wild Gals of the Naked West and would go on to appear in Common Law Cabin along with penning the deliciously quotable Good Morning and Goodbye and Finders Keepers…Lovers Weepers, ranking Moran only second to Roger Ebert as Meyer’s greatest third-party scribbler. And in keeping uniform with Meyer’s usual compositions, Walter Schenk’s amazing camerawork is kept at tits and ass level but always on the uptilt to exude the strength of the characters while putting a big bright spotlight on their physical attributes (especially in the case of Varla and Rosie). In a lot of ways, this is still a roughie but, quite unusually, the women are the ones to inflict almost all of the violence. And, like Motorpsycho!, this is the rare Meyer film that contains no nudity.

Capped off with the awesome title tune by the Bostweeds, Faster, Pussycat! Kill Kill! was a breakthrough for Meyer even if if didn’t seem like it at the time. This was mostly evident as he entered his soap opera phase with lead women who were still randy, ribald, and ready for action but a little more demur than the nihilistic Varla and who are trapped in worlds and circumstances she’d simply karate her way out of. Varla was the first of the Meyer heroines of whom it was asked if she were woman or animal and perhaps the public just wasn’t ready for it at the time. But Meyer would work his courage up to grace the screen with another in just three years time and, at that time, they’d be ready. Boy, would they EVER…

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: MOTORPSYCHO! (1965)

Far from the swampy sin bucket of Lorna and the dusty Peyton Place of Mudhoney roars Motorpsycho!, Russ Meyer’s boldest sketch yet of what would become the Meyer template. Yet despite being one of the earliest entries in the biker film craze that would roll through drive-ins for the remainder of the decade and becoming a financial hit, Motorpsycho! is one of Meyer’s most under-appreciated works of his entire career. This is no doubt due to the fact that it lurks in the giant shadow of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the film which was made as a distaff inverse of Motorpsycho! and released almost immediately afterwards. But by tinkering with the mix of sex and violence, Meyer finds a way to expand the boundaries of the roughie while introducing his prototype of ass-kicking females, embodied here by the fantastic Haji.

Metaphorically, Motorpsycho! is about wild animals scavenging about in the California desert. Cory Maddox (Alex Rocco) is a veterinarian who operates a mobile clinic with his wife, Gail, (Lane Carroll, the ill-fated heroine from George Romero’s The Crazies) servicing those who care to live in the outer reaches of nowhere. During a routine visit to a client, they innocently run afoul of Brahmin (Steve Oliver) and his micro-gang of ne’er-do-wells consisting of Slick (Timothy Scott) and Dante (Jospeh Cellini) who, in turn, beat and rape Gail while Corey is away on a call. Soon after, the gang stumbles across Harry Bonner (Coleman Francis) and his wife Ruby (Haji), a pair of bickering, Louisiana-bred souls broken down on the side of the rode en route to California. The Bonners are shot and left for dead but Ruby survives and is found by an enraged and vengeful Cory. The two then have to fight their way through the terrain to get their blood-soaked revenge on the gang what done them wrong!

Perhaps for the first time in his career, Russ, taking on cinematographer duties along with a co-writing story credit (along with Hal Hopper!), intermingles violence and sex in a more immediate way in Motorpsycho!. While his other films more or less stuck to the conventions of the roughie, violence in sex are more interchangeable here. Aside from the expertly lit, late-night bedroom moment in which Gail is waiting for Cory to get done with the books (a favorite scenario for Meyer), there is no respite from the violence that permeates the film and, quite interestingly, Motorpsycho! has its share of décolletage and thread-bursting cleavage, but no actual nudity. Sex, too, is mostly toned down as Cory does not stray from his traumatized wife and, instead, treats Ruby as a partner in vengeance and not as an object of his desire. Match cuts are dynamically utilized to produce the full impact of any onscreen action and hysterically physical double entendres are employed to get the scandalous point across. I mean, when you see it, you’re likely to agree that Meyer stumbled upon one hell of a way to hilariously fake a blowjob scene while losing very little sexual value in the bargain.

And, curiously, Meyer also takes a more sympathetic tone with sexual assault as he doesn’t sexualize the violence itself as he had in his previous films, opting not to have the victim’s blouses conveniently ripped open during unprovoked attacks. Furthermore, Meyer gives voice to assault survivors by appearing as an arch-pig of a police officer who takes a purposefully nasty tone that is both not intended to endear his character to the audience and to illustrate that Russ Meyer liked cops about as much as Alfred Hitchcock did.

And, as is the case with most of Meyer’s narrative films, his unique and surreal sense of space is also a delight. Intersections in the middle of the desert feel as familiar to the characters as if they were cruising around in a neighborhood. And as the film reaches its conclusion, the roads begin to give way to wild rocks and jagged paths, making Brahmin’s descent into violent madness play out against a backdrop that resembles something out of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer while also laying claim to being one of the very first films to actually address the mental health of the young men returning from Vietnam.

And with no hyperbole intended, I would posit that Russ Meyer could shoot the desert as well as Sergio Leone or John Ford. From his majestic master shots to his artful utilization of horizon lines, Meyer got so much visual gold out of such a barren landscape that it’s no wonder that a pop urban piece like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like a hyperactive child who can’t sit still. His eye for composition and visual propulsion may have even surpassed his love of tits, but only by a metric so minuscule that only Baby Jesus could discern it.

If I were to ascribe one word to this film, it would be “satisfying.” The violence is raw, the humor is abundant, the dialogue is delicious and delivered at a rapid pace, and the photography and tempo are both masterful. What it lacks in joyous sex, it more than makes up for with its action sequences and its elevation of Meyer’s shapely female protagonists into the tough, ass-kicking figures that would complete his prototype for 90% of his remaining work. Also, kudos to Meyer for conceiving and brilliantly pulling a war-inspired climax in which the lead motorcycle thug is blown to pieces by a bundle of dynamite. While Russ Meyer’s next effort would begin with an explicit voice-over welcoming the audience to violence, Motorpsycho! had already let most people into the party a little early and encouraged them to swing from the chandeliers and have a ball.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: LORNA (1964)

Where Russ Meyer’s previous features had generally begun with soft, laconic shots of nature that were coupled with a booming bowl full of earnest, corn-filled narration, Lorna’s mobile, ghost train opening shot promises to transport us to a place we’ve never been before. And, for sure, we eventually roll up to a man clad in black (credited as “The Man of God”) who stands in the middle of the road and immediately breaks the fourth wall, warning us of sin and judgement. The nudie cuties, it seems, were just the soft preliminaries. For when we’re eventually waved on by our ominous stranger and begin moving further down the road of iniquity, we’ve fully graduated into the real world of Russ Meyer. Welcome to Lorna, a film in which the titular character was promised as being “TOO MUCH FOR ONE MAN!” on its promotional one-sheet.

Envisioned and quickly written by Meyer and James Griffith (who also plays the ominous Man in Black), Lorna was Meyer’s first attempt at a true narrative where he would be calling all the shots. Fanny Hill, Meyer’s debut outside the confines of the nudie cutie, was such a miserable experience that he traded in that film’s costume-laden period decor for the starkness of Nowheresville, America. And where Fanny Hill had a mid-size cast that mostly had little to do, Meyer strips Lorna down to a world populated by ten people.

Lorna was the first in a long string of tongue-in-cheek morality plays constructed by Meyer in order so soft-peddle his cantilevered beauties. However, Lorna really plays it smart with those moral angles. The film begins as a standard roughie in the row houses of the backwater California town of Locke where Luther (Hal Hopper) and Jonah (Doc Scortt) stalk a drunken women named Ruthie (Althea Currier) to her house. There, their twisted sexuality is put on full display as Ruthie is beaten and raped by Luther while Jonah leers through a window. Down the river apiece, Lorna (Lorna Maitland) is a deadpan saint to her well-meaning but weak sauce husband, Jim (James Rucker) who is studying to becomes a CPA while working down at the salt mines with Luther and Jonah, the former forever chiding Jim about Lorna and her supposed infidelities which barely conceal his lustful coveting of her.

In truth, Lorna and Jim are fundamentally decent folks who, for no greater sin than being normal, flawed humans, get more misery heaped upon them than they probably deserve. Jim might be a wet mop whose cocksmanship isn’t anything to write home about, but he really isn’t a bad guy and he truly loves and cares for Lorna. And Lorna isn’t a bad woman, either. Treated like a thing on a pedestal, which she doesn’t necessarily object to, Lorna argues that perhaps this attitude can be taken a bit too far and that there is a decent-size chasm between being respected and being handled like a porcelain doll. And being stuck in a fishing shack with absolutely nothing to do all day and nobody around for miles, it’s not hard to fault Lorna when, after another disappointing night in bed with Jim, she goes out to onto the dock and more or less wishes upon a star to be whisked away toward a more exciting life, shown in a dazzling montage of neon burlesque over a much happier, undulating Lorna Maitland.

When an escaped convict stumbles his way through the marshes and eventually happens upon Lorna, he sexually assaults her which leads to a kind of physical deliverance for her. This is sort of a narrative blunder where the arcane convention of the “struggling woman who gives in to the passion” is taken to the outer limits of taste and decorum. While a certain contingency of more seasoned generations recognizes this kind of coded filmic language when they see it and mostly give it a pass, it’s hard to fault the reactions to those for whom the origins of this convention have been buried under layers and layers of film history, especially to those who aren’t familiar with the context of the roughie. But in Lorna, however ill-advised it seems in retrospect, I’m not totally convinced that this device isn’t executed for the benefit of Lorna’s character as she both takes control over the situation (thereby drawing a contrast to the earlier character of Ruthie), and achieves a long-needed sense of sexual release with the convict.

Whatever complications are apparent in the tact of sexualizing rape, Lorna mostly gets away with it due to the uncommon skill of Meyer as a filmmaker and his knack for throwing his characters into a blender and upending any preconceived notions about them. For like in a very sly play, everything in Lorna gets turned upside down in its second half, proving the liquidity inherent in quick-shifting morality. While it’s loaded to make it look like the ones who are punished are the ones who upend their marriage vows, Lorna actually dies for everyone’s sins. Would her relationship with the convict been different if Jim would have shown her the kind of care for her and their one year anniversary as he should have? And what does one make of Luther’s tearful breakdown at the end of the film as he finds some sort of redemption (if not complete absolution) when, not 70 minutes earlier, we watched him beat a woman senseless? As articulated in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, “It’s a strange world.”

But above all, Lorna was a way for Meyer to strut his stuff as director, producer, co-writer, editor, and photographer. Forever innovative, Meyer finds a clever way to reduce the strip teases of Europe in the Raw down to the restless Lorna, hot and bothered while her husband toils away at his studies in the another room, writhing around in their bed while bathed by chiaroscuro lighting. And Lorna, if nothing else, is economical. Lorna’s flashbacks are presented by heat waves over static shots of a running brook and Dutch angles of the church in which they’re married. Meyer also gets a lot of story by employing nothing more than a POV camera as a prison break is pulled off on a Saturday afternoon by grabbing a few pickup shots here and there and throwing an alarm sound effect over them. And if this were mere sexploitation, the beauty in the carefully designed and thought-out match cuts wouldn’t roll over the audience like a pleasant breeze. Nor would the hotted up climax, replete with axes and hooks, work like absolute gangbusters if not for Meyer’s skill as an editor.

In terms of casting, Lorna Maitland creates quite the mold as the first of Meyer’s superstars, defining the Meyer female outside of the nudie cuties as strong, highly libidinous, and yearning for her own identity. Special mention, too, should go to Hal Hopper who is just terrific as Luther and also co-wrote the film’s catchy theme song. If I were to find out that Hopper was a slobbering, high-wire nut job in real life (he wasn’t), I would not hesitate to believe it to be true as he literally embodies the kind of ghastly creep one spends most of their life avoiding.

Lorna was definitely a page-turner and game-changer for Meyer and laid a foundation upon which he could begin to build his very singular cinematic universe populated by decent people doing the best they can while toiling about in a judgmental, hostile, and unforgiving world littered with violence, betrayal, and poisoned passions. It also gave the world a heroine in whom a salacious promise of being too much for one man was entirely conditional on the broke-dick dude in question.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: FANNY HILL (1964)

It is by mere coincidence that, in another series of career overviews of filmmakers who have meant a great deal to me over the years, I recently watched and wrote about L.A. Takedown, Michael Mann’s 1989 made-for-television movie that was his first attempt to bring his screenplay for Heat to general audiences. In that piece, I opined how much of a bummer it was for Mann to have to compromise his beautifully written script into such a trifle of a film. It’s a fine thing on its own but once you see Heat, you see what he really wanted to do with the material and L.A. Takedown can’t help but look flaccid in comparison.

And so we come, quite fortuitously, to the point in Russ Meyer’s career that we should be discussing Fanny Hill, the Albert Zugsmith-produced adaptation of John Cleland’s erotic novel from 1748. While it’s much less a personal loss of content and vision than what Mann faced, the disparity between the Meyer film, the first attempt at bringing Fanny Hill to the screen, and the novel is so stark that it’s almost embarrassing that a rough-hewed man’s man like Meyer would create such a puffy piece of cute nonsense out of a book that would make even the most degenerate of high seas pirates blush. Little wonder that an artistically frustrated Meyer took to the streets and freeballed Europe in the Raw directly after production wrapped which allowed him some personal freedom that had all been constricted on Fanny Hill’s production, not unlike one of the 18th century corsets worn by the lasses in that film.

Dispensing with the book’s fuller and more rounded view of the titular character’s sexual maturation through experience, Meyer’s Fanny Hill is delivered as the slightest of farcical comedies with just enough peripheral décolletage and naughty double entendres to make it feel like adult fare. In it, our fresh-faced and virginal heroine (Leticia Roman) finds herself penniless on the streets of London and wanders into the clutches of Mrs. Maude Brown (Miriam Hopkins), a randy old madame of questionable moral character who runs a brothel in the city. Though her naïveté causes her to never quite understand where she’s working or what she’s doing, she nonetheless stumbles into love with a sailor in Her Majesty’s Navy (future hack director and Fassbinder protege, Ulli Lommel) whose sexual cluelessness matches hers and this union threatens to upend Mrs. Brown’s profitable find in Fanny.

This is all very cute and mildly saucy but it all feels more beholden to Zugsmith than it does to Meyer’s inner muse, which would no doubt lead to some more hot-blooded romping instead of perpetuating the elaborate cinematic cock tease presented here. There are a couple of Meyer gags like the fish in the cleavage bit, and during the more animated moments, the film has a slapstick style of frenetic editing that somewhat resembles Meyer but only if he were getting over the flu or some other ailment. For even when its trying, it feels a little slack compared to his other works. And unlike other outré movies in Meyer’s filmography like Blacksnake and The Seven Minutes, Fanny Hill doesn’t have a whole lot to say beyond the obvious and the usual themes found in his work get utterly muted in favor of the one joke Fanny Hill has at its disposal that it never tires of retelling during the duration of its unjustifiable 104 minute running time.

But where it goes really wrong is that, while Lommel’s Charles is a typical wet mop of a Meyer hero, the character of Fanny Hill is neither confident nor does she employ any agency whatsoever. Her madcap exploits in which she has no clue of the copious humping materializing around her grows tiresome and literally nobody that would have been familiar with the novel or with Meyer’s penchant for crafting bawdy cinema could have been pleased with the end result at the time.

Still, this film has undeniable charm thanks in large part due to Miriam Hopkins’s performance. As the wickedly amoral and conniving Mrs. Brown, Hopkins elevates the whole affair from anemic to astounding each and every time she’s occupying the screen. Sometimes the antics have the same kind of breezy fun found in a Benny Hill episode and count me as an admirer of the illustrated, woodcut-inspired wipes and the cheap-john sets that look like they were stolen from a soap opera. And Meyer DOES seem to ignite some kind of visual tension in putting Leticia Roman in the position of being the film’s innocent center that is always on the verge of being overwhelmed by the leering buxom women that are festooning the four corners of the frame.

Also causing a bit of actual frustration is simply how amazing the Blu ray from Vinegar Syndrome looks. Paired with Albert Zugsmith’s stupid The Phantom Gunslinger, Fanny Hill’s announcement was a pleasant surprise as it had become increasingly difficult to track down over the years. The release from Vinegar Syndrome reveals itself to be, like Fanny herself, an unwitting tease as we can witness just what incredible work they do which brings about a sadness in knowing that they will never be able to do with the rest of his non-studio catalogue as they have with Fanny Hill. It’s a weird film to use as a flex but thus is the paradox of the Russ Meyer filmography in the world of physical media.

In the end, Fanny Hill is a crisp, cheaply financed romp that illustrates how well Meyer could shoot in black and white and was simultaneously an unpleasant experience that would inform Meyer’s feelings about producers not named Russ Meyer for a good long while. While it’s far from Meyer’s best, it is still uniquely appealing. For when compared to the raw downers and the moralistic doom to come in the Gothic films, Fanny Hill is as light as a feather as the most airy of the nudie cuties; a truly transitional film that displays the sharp, high contrast photography that would reign supreme in his next set of pictures. Though Tinto Brass’s excellent 1991 film, Paprika, is arguably the most full-blooded and feminist-positive adaptation of Fanny Hill, Russ Meyer’s stab at the material is as charming as it is inconsequential.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: HEAVENLY BODIES (1963)

As Russ Meyer stumbled to the finish line of the nudie cutie craze, it was apparent that he was a filmmaker of commanding energy and imagination that had run through the proverbial store and exhausted it of its contents. 1963’s Heavenly Bodies, his last true nudie cutie, is indicative of both conceits. For Heavenly Bodies is quite literally a segmented movie in the spirit of Erotica that gives full-throated articulation, in numerous anecdotal ways, how the photography of beautiful women is the cornerstone to most commerce through advertising. Throughout each segment in the film, Meyer covers his models in every conceivable pose and situation in an attempt to justify the film’s reason for being. Unfortunately, the film is nothing more than a sixty-odd minute treatise on the not-controversial discovery that, if you already weren’t aware, sex sells.

Heavenly Bodies may not, in fact, even be a real nudie cutie. It’s sort of a combination between a nudie cutie and a pseudo-documentary on photography. This film is little more than Meyer shooting various cameramen shooting models in various states of undress; like a distilled Brian De Palma sexploitation picture in which the movie audience watches people within the movie watching. I might go so far as to say that this might be of equal interest for fans of Meyer’s parade of buxom women or those who have a raw enthusiasm for photography.

And just because the film is trite and silly and exhausted of anything that would make it work as entertainment, there is no denying Meyer’s skill for framing and composition. Some of the earliest images in the film wherein the camera is foregrounded aside Meyer’s models stunningly resemble the split-diopter shots that famously pepper the films of the aforementioned Brian De Palma. Additionally, the segment featuring Nancy Andre has a wild, unbridled energy that would later propel Mudhoney and Vixen showing once again that these nudie cuties were just wood shedding opportunities for Meyer. Just as the upshot view through the bed springs first made its storied appearance in Wild Gals of the Naked West, the utilization of the model in the spinning Danish chair looks suspiciously like a key moment in Cherry, Harry & Raquel.

Perhaps one of the film’s most interesting and revealing moments comes in the second segment as Russ Meyer leads his fellow buddies in the Army’s 166th Signal Photo Company out in the woods to photograph Althea Currier and Monica Strand. Less cheeky than some of the narration in this and the other films before it, Meyer almost deftly uses a photo field trip and all of its trappings to show a metaphoric group sex orgy in which almost every single line of narration could be taken as wry double-entendre. And it is only in this portion of the film that Meyer’s talent and wit collide to make something interesting. “Was your class reunion anything like this?” the narrator asks as Meyer’s buddies all snap away at the ladies as he stands behind them and directs them all. This is Meyer in a metaphoric nutshell. He was a tough, no-nonsense man who took his work very seriously but he was famously big-hearted and generous to friends and loved-ones. Meyer loved to work but he also liked to show people a good time and to be the ringmaster of such journeys. Here, the idea is made flesh and Meyer is showing his Army buddies, the closest friends he ever had, just how awesome his life is surrounded by tits and ass, encouraging them to indulge themselves.

But, honestly, that’s about all that can be said about Heavenly Bodies, the merciful end to Russ Meyer’s nudie cutie period. It’s a dull, mostly rote affair that, at 55 minutes, feels a little incomplete. But the fault in the film is more or less due to the depletion of the tank. For even after blazing the trail and exploring its outer limits, Meyer could still find ways to make the dullest of the sexploitation subgenres achieve a certain artistry in their visual execution.

That said, I sure am glad he only made a finite amount of them.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

THE RUSS MEYER FILES: WILD GALS OF THE NAKED WEST (1962)

Russ Meyer has a true ebb and flow when it came to his nudie cuties. For every advance forward, there was a trepidation followed by a slight retreat. Eve and the Handyman improved on The Immoral Mr. Teas in a fundamental way by ditching the multitude of women in favor of one central female character. Erotica, Eve and the Handyman’s follow-up, cycled backwards in terms of subject matter but found some fresh and creative photographic advances that would serve him well throughout the remainder of his career.

Wild Gals of the Naked West was Meyer’s next film in his nudie cutie cycle and his penultimate effort in the subgenre (excluding 1964’s Europe in the Raw, a film better classified as a nudie travelogue). Moving back towards the strengths of Eve and the Handyman while also beefing up the comedic bits strung along the length of the film, Wild Gals of the Naked West is probably Meyer’s most successful blend of his type of raucous comedy in the service of a mostly plotless phantasmagoria of tits and ass.

From the jump, one of the clearest differences between Wild Gals and the Naked West and the nudie cuties that came before it is the absolutely gorgeous photography that populates the opening narration. Beginning with a brew of stunning horizons and landscapes interspersed with quickly-cut dutch angles, Meyer shows the high level of his talent by taking us out of the muddy cricks and swimming pools of his previous work and expanding his visual world outward to capture some truly painterly compositions of the western vistas. Meyer cleverly maneuvers around the film’s microbudget by utilizing symbols and western iconography to stand in for the lack of action; the first-person perspective used in the ghost towns and broken down structures feel like the spirits of the past that are somehow still alive.

In fact, so beautiful is the opening to the film that it finally draws attention to one of the biggest elephants in the room when it comes to Meyer’s work; in short, this is the first film in his filmography where watching it creates a general sadness when you realize that, due to Meyer’s lack of care in the preservation of his own work either during his natural life or in a testamentary capacity, these movies will likely never get upgraded beyond their current full-frame video scans and will eventually be lost to time due to almost-certain deterioration of the original material. It seems unthinkable that this is truly the case but… well… there’s a reason Martin Scorsese fights so hard for film preservation.

Not quite a series of episodes as his previous three features, Wild Gals of the Naked West tries for something that resembles a plot. Sure, it’s simple and padded out by copious post-credit narration before the wraparound framing device involving a storyteller is introduced, but the bedrock of many of Meyer’s themes he’d take with him into his Gothic period begin to sprout and take form just as some of his more sophisticated framing devices began to pop up in the previous year’s Erotica. In Wild Gals of the Naked West, we are spun a tale by a fourth wall-demolishing old man (Jack Moran), still living among the ghosts of a dilapidated western town that fell into rack and ruin due to too much goodness. But it wasn’t always like that, according to our faithful raconteur. Hell, once upon a time, the town was so marinated in sin that they dared not even give the location a proper name.

And it is here is where the basic story comes into play as the film functions as a before and after, the tipping element being the introduction of a do-gooder Stranger (Sammy Gilbert) who descends on the town with designs on pulling a reverse High Plains Drifter by painting the town virginal white. Set up in the front half with wanton hedonism at a breakneck pace only to be knocked off in the back half as The Stranger executes his righteous morality, Wild Gals of the Naked West unwittingly figured a way for Meyer to indulge in as much bawdy sexuality as he wished as long as he laced it all with a light dose of trite morality. Given how much play both the dopey, square-jawed hero and the tongue-in-cheek pontifications on freedom, ethics, and what-have-you factored into so much of his later work, it’s not inappropriate to see Wild Gals of the Naked West as one of Meyer’s most substantially consequential nudie cuties; the yang to Eve and the Handyman’s yin.

The film is additionally blessed by being well-acted and the imagery is wildly modernistic in its approach, both of which cause the film to really pop. And even if the film’s numerous running gags seem limited and finally run out of gas, the film never drags and it makes a real effort to rise above its throwaway title and to try and wring something a little more creative out of the nudie cutie than what was the standard, mediocre fare at the time. There is a pure visual joy in juxtaposing the authentic exteriors with the Chuck Jones-adjacent interiors where painted backgrounds resembles the angular impossibilities in Jones’s background cel art. Again, this lays some early groundwork for Meyer to work with later during his “Bustoon” period of the seventies which would be chock full of Looney Tunes inspired action replete with fully animated buildings that rock and undulate to keep up with the action happening inside of them.

And there’s more in Wild Gals of the Naked West that speaks to Meyer’s actual thematic concerns that would continue to pop up throughout his work. The masculine hero being a sexual impotent, the celebration of just a splash of hedonism in a balanced life, and the dismissal of male authority figures such as members of law enforcement (Meyer’s old man, a cop, walked out on the family when he was a child) and religious leaders are all rolled out in this seemingly innocuous piece of fluff.

With just one more nudie cutie and a trip to Europe to go before he began his personal narrative films that made up the Gothic portion of his career, Russ Meyer was looking more and more like a talent ready to break away from the confines of his own creation and into something a little more substantial. Wild Gals of the Naked West was a pit stop to that goal but, in terms of Meyer’s cinematic education, it ended up being a more substantial one than anyone thought it would be.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

VIVA (2007): A Review by Ryan Marshall

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An homage, when executed with the most shallow of intentions (that is, to pay tribute without any sort of recognizable personal stamp), can potentially be a deeply disastrous affair. Truth be told, just about anyone can spread their fanaticism far and wide, but it takes a particularly gifted individual to balance immeasurable admiration with a more comprehensive understanding of his/her obsessions. Anna Biller’s VIVA belongs to a long line of exploitation throwbacks that have turned up in recent years – a candy colored excursion back to a time when the idea of corrupted innocence was genuinely invigorating – and immediately it looks to be the kind of extra-cutesy affair that you either love or hate depending on your own tolerance for the kind of material it seeks to evoke. In spite of whatever complicated feelings one might have, there’s an undeniable hook from the first frame onwards, which is that Biller’s at the very least got the “look” and “feel” down to a tee; unmistakably the result of countless years spent thrifting, crate digging, and existing almost entirely in her own world.

I’m the kind of guy who appreciates a true sense of craftsmanship when it comes to production design in film (and even more-so with an intended period piece), so Biller’s commitment to recreating the sleaze and cheese of 1960’s/70’s sexploitation is an immediately imposing quality. Every last aspect of sound and sight, from the pictures hanging on the walls to the occasional (and only slightly jarring) continuity error, exists for the sole purpose of total immersion. Taking a closer look at her filmography thus far, the writer/director (plus costume designer, editor, actress, producer, animator, musical contributor, etc.) seems to have a very unique (and so far successful) brand which seeks to revisit the kind of lucid technicolor dreamscapes that once graced the silver screen with their distinctive phantasmagoria, but with an added intellectual twist which allows the material to be studied under the microscopic lens of today’s comparatively tame social-political landscape.

“This is a story about a housewife during the sexual revolution. The time is 1972, the place is Los Angeles, and the people are ORDINARY.” The situation at large: Barbi (Biller) enjoys, or rather submits to a stay-at-home life with her husband in and out on various business trips and the neighbors, Mark and Sheila, serving as a constant reminder of the mundanity of her sexuality as of late. But one day, Barbi ventures far outside of her comfort zone, pursuing a career in modeling, which leads to an unlikely encounter with a vivacious hair stylist that prompts her man to walk out on her. Instead of confronting the crippling emptiness she experiences in light of his absence, Barbi goes out on the town with Sheila (whose husband has also left her) where they take up new lives as call girls. Nudist hippie camps, flamboyant art snobs, the allure of showbiz, and crazy drug-fueled orgies – there’s truly something for everyone out there.

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But of course, this exhilarating new world is not quite all it’s cracked up to be; the girls are of the belief that they are escaping the constricted roles of the household through all the glitter and glam, when in fact the men of this so-called “high life” are no less intolerant and negligent than their respective spouses. Where their husbands merely laughed until their faces were red or extended their skiing vacations an extra full month, these savage beasts are content to buy and sell them out or worse yet, take their abusive tendencies to more regrettably hands-on territory. Yet, Barbi proves time and time again that she is much stronger than she appears; the toxic cycle seems never-ending and the web of overbearing masculinity is a powerful obstacle, but what this tale ultimately suggests is that progress is not an all-together impossible dream.

Speaking strictly of surface-level pleasures, this covers just about anything that could be found on the unofficial sexploitation checklist, which is a modest achievement in its own right – but brewing beneath is something far more interesting and – ultimately – important. This is indubitably a feminist film, and one which is refreshingly fearless in how it pronounces itself as such; a simple but poignant story of a woman breaking free of both internal and external boundaries and learning to exist as her own separate entity. Aesthetically, Biller crafts a language that is entirely her own, in spite of her many prominent influences; if this can be compared to anything, it’s the early works of John Waters (FEMALE TROUBLE and DESPERATE LIVING, especially). Much of it is gleefully over-the-top, often hysterical, but whilst wallowing in the filth, Biller gracefully unearths honest, ugly truths when it comes to female representation both on and off the screen, though it’s her auteurist touch – her fetishistic attention to detail and supernatural gifts as a visual artist – that really allows the bigger, more progressive ideas to shine.

But most importantly, it’s just great entertainment. At two hours, there are brief moments when one feels the narrative meandering ever so slightly, although it’s safe to assume this is simply by design – either way, the film is never anything less than effortlessly engaging. Spectacular musical numbers, a vibrant color palette, the casual celebration of excess (a surplus of sex, drugs, and mood music can be found here for those inquiring) and even a mind-bending animated sequence (designed by Biller herself, to the surprise of, well, absolutely no one) ensure that it keeps finding new ways to surprise the viewer at every turn, and the cast deserves a special mention as well for keeping the material consistently amusing without overstepping into grotesque self-parody. The scene with the hair stylist, in particular, is of a (hilarious) nature that would make the aforementioned Waters green with envy; it’s positively absurd, and gleefully filthy, without abandoning the heart of the picture. Impressively, it’s one of many things that remains perfectly in-tact throughout.

VIVA is about as cool, collected and smart as feature debuts get – signifying all at once a compelling introduction to a singular obsessive cinematic conscience and a passionate call to action for those interested in the sexual politics of yesteryear and yesterday, and how from them we can derive lessons to be applied to contemporary values. It’s fresh, endearing and poetic in its artful trashiness – it’s very much the movie I needed at this particular time in my life. If ever there was further proof of the values inherent in actively searching for hidden gems within the grimiest and most effectively transgressive crevices of cinema, it can be found here, deep within the pulsating portal of pop-art progressiveness that is Anna Biller’s beautifully bat-shit psyche.