When filmmaker/breast enthusiast Russ Meyer passed away in 2004, he left two simple statements on his gravestone: "King of the Nudies" and "I Was Glad to Do It." Indeed, Meyer infused such joy into the taboo world of exploitation films that every one of his titles seems less like work and more like filmed celebrations of sex, buxom women and the clumsy dopes who love them. His inspiration came from being raised by a bold, busty single mother, and that's reflected in his depiction of women not just as sex objects but as fully formed, bright characters deserving of their own pleasure in a cold, male world. For Meyer, making an exploitation film was not about producing porn -- an industry he hated and called "mechanical and joyless" -- but about creating a thrilling portrait of life without hangups, celebrating the female form and all of its dimensions.
Meyer parlayed an early career shooting photos and newsreel for the army into shooting "nature videos" of nude humans enjoying beaches and forests, and even centerfolds for such publications as Gent, Frolic and Hugh Hefner's hot-off-the-presses Playboy magazine. Starting in 1959, he began shooting a series of ribald movies; each one opened the curtain a little bit more on interesting and beautiful woman with personalities as big as their cup size.
An early cornucopia of Meyer's special vision is the over-the-top Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the tale of three wild and wooly go-go dancers racing their cars through the Mojave Desert and taking down scoundrels and doormat girls with karate chops and switchblades, leaving a pungent aroma of estrogen in their wake. The stark and vivid black-and-white cinematography is an added perk to the wild action, and gravity-defying bosoms featured in nearly every frame.
In honor of the film's fiftieth anniversary, the Sie FilmCenter is screening this thrilling classic, on 35mm film no less, on Friday, January 30. But if you've never skinny dipped in the pool of Russ Meyer, you may want to first dip your toe in these five films,most available to view in their entirety on YouTube -- so you don't have to worry about hiding the films in a brown paper bag in your sock drawer.5) The Immoral Mr. Teas
In 1959 the only way to see nudity in a film was to pick up an "under the counter" skin flick on 16 or 8mm film at a secret bookstore, or belong to a nudist colony where you could enjoy a film of other nudists frolicking in the sun. Meyer's simple first feature became the first "above the counter" nudie film to screen in theaters, and eventually grossed over $1.5 million (on a budget of $24,000). Meyers cast his army pal Bill Teas in this odd little tale of a shy, goofy dental-tool salesman who spends his time ogling and fantasizing about all of the woman he sees every day -- until a dental procedure's anesthetic leaves him with a bizarre side effect of being able to see through everyone's clothing. Whoopsie!
4) Lorna The success of Mr. Teas made Meyer the true "king of the nudies," and he barreled through a fine slate of films like his original. But ultimately, he wanted more than just jiggle scenes -- he wanted to make you think, too. Enter Lorna, a tight, black-and-white examination of a bored housewife who, after a terrible assault, becomes more open sexually and desires to spread her wings outside of her marriage. Meyer described it as "a brutal examination of the important realities of power, prophecy, freedom and justice in our society against a background of violence and lust, where simplicity is only a façade." Of course, the film's star is Lorna Maitland, who famously measured 42D-22-36 -- but don't let that distract from Meyer's serious motivations for the film.
Keep reading for three more thrilling Russ Meyer flicks.
3) Mudhoney Before the wild whimsy of Faster Pussycat!, Meyer continued his serious but sexy sweep with this adaptation of a novel by Raymond Friday Locke. Aiming for Tennessee Williams but coming up a little more as a hot-blooded version of Lil' Abner, Mudhoney is "hicksploitation" at its finest. Busty farmers' wives, moonshine and horny, toothless yokels abound -- but Meyers pushes the needle and finds inventive ways for the film to be about sex and women all wrapped in a dramatic, slack-jawed package.
2 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls Originally intended as a sequel to 1967's Valley of the Dolls, Beyond became Meyer's official entrée into the Hollywood system; it marked the beginning of a three-picture deal with 20th Century Fox for the filmmaker and the first collaboration with co-writer, and boob enthusiast, Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Ebert). The film ended up becoming a satire -- though a musical, melodramatic one -- of the original ham-fisted film about a large girl group that falls in and out of a million beds, drug use and overwrought emotions. Wrapped up in the climate of the times, including the terrifying Sharon Tate murders, Meyer said he wanted the film to,"simultaneously be a satire, a serious melodrama, a rock musical, a comedy, a violent exploitation picture, a skin flick and a moralistic of what the opening crawl called 'the oft-times nightmarish world of Show Business.'" Ebert would add a little panache to the film by reviewing it thusly: "I think of it as an essay on our generic expectations. It's an anthology of stock situations, characters, dialogue, clichés and stereotypes, set to music and manipulated to work as exposition and satire at the same time; it's cause and effect, a wind-up machine to generate emotions, pure movie without message."1) Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens
By the late 1970s, the hardcore porn business was booming and Meyer wanted no part of it. His films were to porn what burlesque was to prostitution, and he had such success with his visions that he was ready to take a break, perhaps permanently. So in an effort to go out with a bang, he teamed up again with Ebert and created the career-defining, and spoofing,Ultravixens
-- filling it with most top-heavy women, the goofiest comedy, the dumbest selection of randy gents, and sex scenes that bested porn, since they were made in innovative and crazy ways (famously, Meyer shot some scenes from the point of view of the bedsprings). The result is a candy-coated smoothie of sex, sin and satire in Smalltown, USA that salutes the strengths of the Meyer everyman view of the world and drops the mic on a career successfully spent untangling America's tingle.
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Dear Constant Reader, learn more about Keith Garcia on Twitter:@ConstantWatcher