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Genius With a Hard-on

Photo by Getty Images 2004

Russ Meyer was a genius. In spite of the fact that for a few years in the ’80s it was considered hip to put forth this opinion, it never quite sank in. More recently, the forces of marginalization have rallied to reinforce Meyer’s footnote status, grudgingly according him credit as a financially successful purveyor of porno-lite. Which is true enough. A seminal stylistic influence on indie visionaries like John Waters and Quentin Tarantino, Meyer was also a smart businessman who managed to steer clear of both the mob-controlled hardcore market and the studios — except for the brief dalliance with 20th Century Fox that yielded the incandescent Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) and the rarely seen and highly underrated The Seven Minutes (1971).

Unlike other cult exploitation directors, whose aesthetic moments are the result of serendipity or transcendental incompetence, Meyer was a genuine cinema craftsman, having acquired his chops as a cameraman in the U.S. Signal Corps in World War II. Afterward he shot centerfolds for the first year of Playboy and invented soft porn as we know it. Before the enormous success of 1959’s The Immoral Mr. Teas, celluloid titillation had to be shrouded in trumped-up moralistic or educational pretexts. After Teas, the floodgates opened, unleashing a torrent of inferior copycats, followed by increasingly explicit porn with exponentially tinier amounts of attention paid to — well, anything but the money shot.

Meyer eventually found himself left behind by the hardcore tide, but not before he had produced one of the most coherent and idiosyncratic oeuvres in the annals of American cinema. From his breathtaking cinematography and editing to his saturated primary-palette art direction, Meyer’s filmmaking was at least as compelling (and, I would venture, equally erotic for its creator) on formal visual terms as it was for its fetishizing of primate mammalian mechanisms of epic proportions. Even his early “nudie-cutie” films like Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962) remain mesmerizing, in spite of their once-X, now PG-13, sexual anachronisms.

The writing in Meyer’s films was often brilliant. Chicago critic Roger Ebert’s celebrated contributions to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens (1975) and Up! (1976) took the already baroquely ironic voice-over of 1966’s Mondo Topless to giddy postmodern heights. But the virtuosic flamboyance and superficial humor of Meyer’s films obscured a deeper, considerably less frivolous literary vision. Meyer continually revisited characters and motifs from earlier films, developing a layered, self-referential, self-contained mythic universe populated by stripped-down archetypes acting out moral, psychological and even spiritual dramas.

 

After his quite successful crossover into the mainstream with Fox, Meyer the auteur decided he needed to retain meticulous control over his output. Although his last theatrically released film, Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens (1979), doesn’t measure up to his best work, most of his late work does, and was written, directed, produced and distributed by Meyer himself. Meyer was able to parlay the post-punk cult interest in his movies — fueled by his abortive involvement in a Sex Pistols feature and by the widely beloved, fashion-forward Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) — into a thriving video business dedicated exclusively to his work, then spent the rest of the century in hedonistic retreat.

After a couple of years of failing health, Russ Meyer died on September 18 at the age of 82. Hopefully the intermittent availability of his back catalog will be stabilized, and perhaps Fox will finally deem it opportune to release a DVD of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes. I remember the first time I saw BVD, with its over-the-top first half-hour of careening high-camp collage, I felt like I’d been hit by a truckful of grooviness. And it still gives me a rush to this day. There isn’t much filmmaking that comes close to Meyer’s avant-garde erotic vision, but given the ever-widening trickle-down availability of digital filmmaking resources, there’s cause to hope he was the first of his breed rather than the last.


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