Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Big Bosoms and Square Jaws

"I don't pretend to be some kind of sensitive artist. Give me a movie where a car crashes into a building, and the driver gets stabbed by a bosomy blond, who gets carried away by a dwarf musician. Films should run like express trains!"

If you grew up sometime between the 1940's and the 1970's there were certain types of women you'd see in men's magazines. Women with curves like a mountain road. In the 40's they wore tight sweaters that strained against howitzer-shell protuberances. By the early 50's some of the buttons on those sweaters would be open and by the 60's there wouldn't be any sweaters. Men of that generation liked those women. They put them on billboards, in advertisements, in photographs, comics and in movies. Men like Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin, Hugh Hefner, Helmut Newton, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Federico Fellini and, yes, even Stanley Kubrick. Of all these men, the one who most single-mindedly, bombastically, obsessively and comically lavished attention on those women was Russ Meyer. Meyer's universe was a burlesque of an already parodic culture. He pushed his vision as far as he could go before the culture overran him. Unlike many of the sex comedies directed by his Hollywood contemporaries, his films hold up remarkably well. Unlike them, he didn't seek to reassure anyone's sexual longings with doses of humor. His characters aren't amiable dolts or ditzy women. They're mean, stupid, vicious, cynical, violent and just plain nasty. In other words, they're utterly refreshing.

Visually obsessive directors keep their fetishes on a leash, sublimating them to a narrative and yet, certain images keep popping up. Hitchcock had his icy blondes, Kubrick had his immaculate bathrooms and Tarantino has something going on with feet. With more unleashed filmmakers like Jean Rollin, Radley Metzger and, to some extent, Jess Franco, the narrative structures are often a mere pretext for airing fetishistic imagery. Meyer swung both ways, his films filling or collapsing narratives into four basic categories. Films about naked chicks; films about chicks who aren't naked, but are really violent; films about chicks who aren't violent, but are really naked and films about really violent, naked chicks. To see a Meyer film is to see someone who spent an unbelievable amount of talent and energy bringing to life the sorts of ideas most filmmakers would only entertain for brief moments of private reverie. They are brilliantly shot, blindingly edited, wildly adolescent and about as good for you as a bag of heroin. The truly remarkable thing about these movies is not that they were made, but that they were made as well as they were. The story of how Russ Meyer got away with it is told in Jimmy McDonough's book Big Bosoms and Square Jaws : The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film.

In Shakey McDonough did an amazing job chronicling the life of Neil Young. He got some heat for interjecting his own opinions but, more often than not, he was right and when he was wrong he was wrong in the way a fan would be who loved the artist as much as you, but didn't necessarily rank the albums in the same way [American Stars 'N Bars is way better than Zuma, Jimmy] In Big Bosoms McDonough has the same tendency to interject, but here he gets a little shakier in his assessment of how Meyer conducted his affairs. Nevertheless, McDonough did his research, interviewing the women and men who knew him best; though he never had the chance to interview the man himself. What ensues is a engaging portrait of a truly independent filmmaker. McDonough is on less sure footing when delineating Meyer's role within the culture and at his weakest when psychologizing his life and relationships.

McDonough lays well the foundations of Meyer's craft. I've sometimes wondered if his stint in WWII was anything like Samuel Fuller's and, indeed, the 166th Signal Photographic Company was like the Big Red One of combat photography, seeing action all over the European theater. Meyer didn't participate in battle, but he got the kind of shots generations of filmmakers would try to re-create. In fact, his footage was often re-used in war pictures of the 60's and 70's, Patton being the most notable. Ninety-five percent of the critiques Meyer received from the Office of Army Pictorial were good. Meyer often captured warfare with an eye towards a finished product. A cinematography instructor impressed upon him the importance of coverage and he followed this advice to the letter, shooting material that could be used as inserts and cutaways to make better montage sequences. He would always insist on optimal camera placement, even if it meant setting up in clear line of fire. Meyer was unflappable, loading his Eyemo as bullets whizzed past him. On more than one occasion, a shell exploded moments after he left a setup, leaving a smoking crater where he had just been. Werner Herzog should build a shrine to this man. Meyer wasn't a guts and glory type, but he did seem to be fascinated by the spectacle he was capturing and, in his own memoirs, A Clean Breast, he often reflects on the war as if it were a movie. The war was quite liberating for him. He loved the excitement and adventure of living his life in such a headlong manner and it was during this time that he lost his virginity. The two experiences became inextricably linked and he would forever pursue their thrills in his personal/professional life.

After the war Meyer made the rounds of Hollywood looking for work as a cameraman, but found it a closed shop. He moved back home with his mother and began doing free publicity photos of strippers for burlesque houses. In the 1940's nobody of any repute was interested in this work, so the bar of entry was low. Remarkably so. Meyer later told a journalist, "I went at it in a very precise manner. Not any broad, just specific broads. And I went through mountains of shit just trying to find those broads... nothing would stop me." Whatever impediments he encountered, McDonough indicates he had a ridiculously enjoyable time earning the trust and company of these women. In A Clean Breast Meyer recounts many an escapade with not only strippers, but the women he met while traveling for his job. In order to make a living, Meyer worked for an industrial film company and spent eight years acquiring a more comprehensive education on film production and post-production. He married his first wife in 1949 and moved to from Oakland to San Francisco.

On the advice of a friend, he got into the exploding girlie mag business and signed up with an agency, shooting layouts for Gent, Fling, Escapade and Frolic. He met the Queen of Strippers, Tempest Storm, in 1950 and shot a short film of her in addition to numerous stills. He got the film processed by having the negative delivered by a girl who personally persuaded the lab tech to develop it. The film traveled the burlesque circuit for years. He began spending more time with Tempest and ditched his wife to be with her, though it turned out to be an unfulfilled fling.

Soon after, Meyer met Eve Turner, a tall, blonde, Southern, raspy voiced, financially shrewd woman who, upon first laying eyes on him, told him to shave off his moustache. He complied. She was his first significant model and became his wife and business partner. He photographed her repeatedly from 1952-1958, her image appearing in many publications, most notably Playboy where she was one of the first playmates. In addition, he did 8mm films of her frolicking nude, which they sold through magazine advertisements. Though she would ultimately get tired of being a subject, it was a fiery association; photographer and model, artist and muse, husband and wife, business partners. He'd shoot her, they'd get all excited and go at it with wild abandon. By the mid-50's Meyer quit industrial films to concentrate fully on girlie photos, a craft at which he excelled. Along with Bunny Yeager, he was considered one of the best cheesecake photographers of the 50's and had a way of bringing out the fullest in his models. As he would pedagogically state, "I stress the bosom department in all of my photographs because I believe that this more than anything else says to me 'This is Woman.'" He also did straight glamour work, shooting portraits of Liz Taylor, Tina Louise, Joan Collins, Barbara Eden, Gina Lollobrigida, Jill St. John, Jayne Mansfield, Anita Ekberg and James Dean. His method was fierce and fast. No standing around waiting for the perfect moment. He'd shoot loads of film, cajoling the women into posing, moving and talking; keeping them engaged so as to keep a sense of spontaneity. In a word, he was directing. Even though he was in constant contact with all these models and actresses he remained focused on his wife and, by his own account, didn't cheat on her until eight years into the marriage.

By the late 50's he was hankering to get into motion pictures. The Meyers had moved to Hollywood and he got his first break in 1959 when a friend in the burlesque business agreed to put up half the budget for The Immoral Mr. Teas. Slightly more wicked than a Benny Hill episode it was initially considered too hot to handle in many cities, but the film's distribution would be saved by a friend who was a member of the Seattle censor board. He convened a special screening, complemented with lashings of wine and Italian cuisine and the board passed the film. Mr. Teas had it's first significant theatrical run at the Guild 45th where it played for nine months. One would like to think the theater was as appropriately seedy then as it is now.

Eve helped with the distribution of the picture, often doing a more conscientious job of obtaining returns than Meyer's business partner and the film flourished, doing outrageous business. Russ and Eve began producing pictures at a healthy clip and made a handsome living at it. However, by 1964, their marriage was on the rocks. A host of factors played into this, but as their professional lives developed their personal lives diverged. When Russ came back from shooting Fanny Hill in Europe with Rena Horten in tow, his marriage was effectively over. They didn't finalize the divorce until 1968 and Eve continued to work as his co-producer and distributor until 1971. She died in an air disaster in 1977.

The Sexual Revolution is usually described as something that was brought about by the youth of the 60's and 70's, but it's roots were with the generations that came of age in the 40's and 50's. You could hardly go through a depression, a world war and a whole lotta nuclear anxiety without feeling that maybe people should let you live your life as you please. The culture reflected this and responded to it. In a sense, the whole relation between what people did or wanted to do in their private lives and how the culture responded to it was a pushmepullyou of What You Could Get Away With. This game, of course, had been going on for some time. Since the Civil War, I believe. But in the 40's, aspects of it began creeping from the margins into the center. The subterranean, burlesque house, grindhouse, men's magazine, stag film, hootchie-koo, carnival culture was beginning to burgeon. As consumption increased so did acceptance. By the mid 1950's things were busting loose. It wasn't just teenagers swinging it to Elvis. It was 49 year-old Billy Wilder showing you Marilyn Monroe getting hot air blown up her dress in The Seven Year Itch and 29 year-old Hugh Hefner showing her without a dress in Playboy. A year later Jayne Mansfield was sashaying down the street with her milk bottles in The Girl Can't Help It and a whole era of lust and lechery followed. James Bond, Matt Helm, Honey Ryder and Lovey Kravezit. One need only look at films like A Guide for The Married Man, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or The Silencers (whose theme song proclaimed, "Oh, a gun can be a .22 or a .38 and it can silence you. Dear Sir, that is a silencer. But if you should see a lady who, that has the kind of waist that measures 22 and she's 38 where it's great to measure 38. Dear Sir, she is a silencer") to see how awash the culture was in the desire for heavenly bodies; the most cantilevered of which belonged to Kurtzman and Elder's cartoon cutie, Annie Fanny. If all this stuff seems ridiculous now, when teenagers act like spent Eurotrash, one must appreciate that all those middle-aged people bopping like teenagers were fumbling towards a new frontier. In a sense, the culture went backwards. Compared to those smart, stylish films of the 40's where everyone acted sharp and you knew what Bogie and Baby were about, even if they didn't spell it out, things boiled to the surface in ludicrous displays of horniness.

As the 60's progressed the sexual pushmepullyou grew more heads, each interacting with the other. Exploitation, Underground and Foreign films pushed the boundaries and Hollywood responded by opening its envelope a little further. McDonough alludes to this dynamic and celebrates Meyer as a boundary pusher of the first-rank, but he doesn't seem to recognize the extent to which Meyer fit into this system. He was as inspired by Exploitation, Foreign and Hollywood product as his own fantasies and, to a large extent, those pictures formed the road map of what he could pursue. Hollywood might show you Stella Stevens in a low-cut dress and Dino De Laurentiis might show you Sofia Loren in a bodice you could practically see through, but would they show you a topless blonde doing the Watusi on top of an oil rig? That's where Meyer fit in. In turn, by the late 60's, Meyer got so successful at this game that he was hired by an actual studio to direct a parody of one of their own pictures.

It was about this time, however, that the wave began breaking in front of him. The exploitation racket played it's trump card with Deep Throat and the mainstream film market was opening up to films like Last Tango In Paris. Meyer clearly felt the pressure from porn and from the new explicitness of Bertolucci's picture of which he said, "What is there left? I mean, the idea a few years back of Brando, an Oscar winner, putting butter up some broad's ass and jumping her... it's hard to compete with that."

Meyer was probably as well positioned as any to break into either the the mainstream or the hardcore scene, but he wasn't interested. Even though Beneath The Valley of the Dolls was made largely on his terms, he did have to clean it up a bit and his subsequent experience with Fox was far less enjoyable. He claimed not to be against porn per se, he just didn't find it cinematically engaging and after having spent years building his distribution network to a level of commercial respectability, he didn't want to go back to the shady underground of the adult theater circuit. His films increasingly wound up in a perceptual limbo. Because of his reputation, the MPAA began slapping his movies with an X, thus limiting their distribution, but they weren't explicit or violent enough to satisfy an audience demanding harder fare. By the late 70's his films were anachronisms.

Had it been made, his last great feature would have been Who Killed Bambi, a film about a decadent, Jaggeresque rock star who gets his kicks from shooting deer from his limo and having the carcasses dumped on the porches of unsuspecting families. The film was to star the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten was initially receptive to the idea, having liked Beyond The Valley of The Dolls because it was 'so true to life.' However, the romance between the snotty punk and the crusty war vet didn't last besides which, Malcolm McLaren was about as competent a film producer as he was a music impresario and the whole shebang fell apart after one day of photography.

By the 80's, largely due to John Waters and Re/Search Magazine, Meyer was once again riding high as an admired cultural icon; a cult director as lauded and feted as any auteur. However, none of this helped him to continue making films. Thanks to VHS, the consumption of porn went from a public embarrassment to a private indulgence and the adult entertainment industry flourished into a relatively accessible, semi-underground culture with all the efficiencies of any other sector of the entertainment industry. In this atmosphere the va-va-voom era became a nostalgia act, Meyer became a curiosity and Playboy published its last Annie Fanny strip. Indeed, the voluptuous ideal of yesteryear seemed again to be absorbed into the subculture of porno and hipster fandom.

One could argue that these changes could have allowed Meyer to remain an active player on his own terms and, indeed, he did make a nice chunk of change re"ssuing his films on video, but the man who had always been sui generis, felt truly at odds with the culture he helped create and, to the extent he continued working, did so largely on a private basis.

McDonough thinks Meyer's hard-headed self-sufficiency ultimately robbed him of greater opportunities. To some small extent this is true. He never really fit into the Hollywood game, but then, he didn't care to. However, near the end of his life, his insistence on handling all domestic distribution through his own, small company ensured that he would cheat himself of the profits that could have been gained through a good licensing deal.

More damagingly, McDonough thinks Meyer was case of arrested-development who was eaten alive by his obsessions. He points to three failed marriages and numerous affairs and relationships, the last few of which were quite bad. McDonough goes so far as speculate that Meyer was sexually compulsive, because he didn't know what real sexual satisfaction was and implies repeatedly that he was lousy in the hay. Raven De La Croix claims, "He doesn't know how to make love to a woman, from any woman I've ever talked to that's ever been with him." From his own account he apparently had little use for foreplay and no interest in any other form of sex other than two or three variations of what he tenderly referred to as 'pelvic to pelvic impactions'. De La Croix delivers the coup de grace to his carnality stating, "He has no clue of what to do with these breasts he's so fascinated with. None at all." McDonough presents this all with the hair-tearing exasperation of a oenophile witnessing a wealthy slob guzzling a bottle of priceless vintage. True, Meyer might not have enjoyed the women the way he or any reasonably sane man would have, but that was Meyer's privilege. Besides, not all the ladies cast such aspersions on his libido. Kitten Natividad claimed he was an insatiable sex maniac who kept her busy morning, noon and night and in A Clean Breast Meyer recounts a years-long affair with a woman of insatiable appetite.

McDonough makes the more substantial claim that he was needlessly hostile to many of the women who did bed him. Meyer claimed he liked complex women, but the way McDonough portrays him, the more they challenged him the more he resented them. One might assume that he had to be a bastard to deal with the types of fast-living dames he associated with, but when you read Big Bosoms you realize he was as well liked by the ladies as any lucky bastard could be. However, this too gives his story short shrift. From his mid-twenties on he spent his life in the company of beautiful women who knocked themselves out to satisfy him professionally and personally. However, they weren't the easiest creatures to deal with and neither was he. Indeed, Meyer wouldn't have it any other way. He felt most alive when pursuing his obsessions and considered the attendant difficulties as part of the game. Yes, he could be a shit, but he could also be terrifically generous when his friends and lovers needed him to be. His obsessions did tend to burn out his relationships. Ultimately nobody, no matter how tolerant, could deal with a guy so single minded. True, there have been equally kinked artists, who managed to maintain long-term relationships; Helmut Newton being an exemplary example. But despite his divorce with Eve they remained friends and business partners until her death and he maintained long-term friendships with Haji, Uschi, Kitten and many other women. Meyer often painted himself as a man's man, but as much as he loved his army buddies, women ran his company, co-produced his films, managed his distribution and accounting and, it is safe to say, spent a lot more quality time with him than any of the boys from the 166th.

As a director, though, he could be a motherfucker. When asked to be in Cherry, Harry and Raquel Charles Napier thought, "It sounded like fun, man - get a buncha chicks with big tits and run around the desert." But going to the locations Meyer preferred was anything but a holiday. The director preferred remote, inclement places and expected everyone to hunker down like they were liberating Europe. According to a crew member, "Meyer felt that if a shoot went well, without problems, the movie would not be a hit. But those movies that were ridden with strife, misery, and all sorts of disasters happening, those were the hits." Another crew member who later worked with Orson Welles found the two directors to be very similar in terms of their personality. "They both wanted to control absolutely everything and everyone around them."

McDonough wonders at the end if Meyer was truly a happy man. He makes a similar observation about Hugh Hefner, wondering if the semi-embalmed, soon to be octogenarian, hasn't misspent his life. Is Hef happy? I can see McDonough's point. Once you take away the media empire, the mansion and all the women what do you really have? Both men lost their virginity at 22 and one could argue they created their respective empires out of a need to compensate for their sexual anxieties. However, aside from a stack of old Playboys, Hefner doesn't have much of a legacy, whereas Meyer's films will be watched, studied, appreciated and emulated for quite some time. It's possible Meyer had his moments where he wondered if he should spent his life as a more legitimate lenser, but I'm sure that occurred to him about as often as Rocco Siffredi wondering whether he should have stayed in soap operas.

McDonough ultimately concedes that Meyer had the life he wanted. After all, the man made 23 feature films, nearly all of which were profitable and a few of which made him millions. At one point he had four films in Variety's 100 all-time top grossers. In the end, a lot of unpleasant things did happen to him. His last few relationships were with really unsavory characters, he lost his marbles, he lost his health and his caretakers began cutting him off from his friends. Basically, he wound up a senile, old man with little control over his bowels or social life. But there by the grace go lesser mortals. At least, the few brain cells he still had contained good memories. As Lux Interior so memorably sang in 'Bikini Girls With Machine Guns':

Now, they say virtue is it's own reward,
but when that surf comes in I'm gonna get my board.
Got my own ideas about the righteous kick.
You can keep the reward... I'd just as soon stay sick.

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