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It's a Doll Revolution: Though Russ Meyer movies like 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' are cult favorites, Meyer's idea of marrying erotica with humor never really caught on.

Russ RIP

Eternal sunshine of the dirty mind

By Richard von Busack


"I'd take my time over her magnificent form
crawl the slopes of her enormous knees
and sometimes in the summer, when the cruel sun
Made her lay down, lazily across the countryside
I'd sleep without a care in the shadow of her breasts
Like a peaceful hamlet at the foot of a mountain."
—Baudelaire, "The Giantess"

Russ Meyer, who died last week, was a local. When I interviewed him in the early 1990s, the San Leandro-born director said one of his first memories was of how he and his mother rode the trolley up to Alum Rock Park; like many others, they traveled to take the waters at the since-closed mineral springs there. He wanted to film the scene, with actors; a mother holding her son up to the fountain to drink. It would be in one of his talked about but never completed autobiographical films.

This scene of early nurturing gives the armchair psychologist a free shot: a symbolic scene of breastfeeding, so that's how it all began! But the top-heavy women who raised such a commotion in Meyer's films weren't maternal. They were forces of nature. Director Frank Tashlin used the vast bosom of Jayne Mansfield as a joke in his movies, especially The Girl Can't Help It. Later, he explained to critic Peter Bogdanovich, "Imagine a statue with breasts like Mansfield's. Imagine that in marble. ... There's nothin' more hysterical to me than big-breasted women—like walking leaning towers." Meyer's 25 or so movies are in a different vein; he was there not to mock but to worship.

One could remember Meyer as his former writing partner Roger Ebert did, as "the inventor of the skin flick." Critics from B. Ruby Rich to Lesley Fielder praised his work; bands from Motorpsycho to Mudhoney copped their names from his movies. Feminist is the only word for 1966's Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, easily his best movie, with the black-and-white impact, raging women and misanthropic melodrama I find superior to the best of Sam Fuller.

Meyer's idea of marrying erotica with humor never truly caught on. Most directors prefer to denature their smut with suspense—hence the 1,000,000 "I slept with a serial killer" adult thrillers clogging cable TV. We can mourn the loss of a director with Meyer's independence of mind, particularly in something as delirious as 1979's Beyond the Valley of the Ultravixens, where he juxtaposes a blonde giantess chewing gum and playing Pong, while a lascivious Martin Bormann, relaxing to his favorite record "The Horst Wessel Song," waits for a coffin job.

When Meyer came to Cinequest one year, I introduced him with a typical moment of film-festival hyperbole. I was trying to connect the dots between his wartime fight against the Nazis and his own cinematic fight for sexual freedom. He corrected me from the stage: "Acutrally, you're wrong, the German soldiers always had the best porn photos in their pockets." The GIs helping themselves to the naked pictures—just as they lined up in droves for Meyer's movies when they got home—is something to remember the next time the Greatest Generation fanfares play.

One of the last times I saw Meyer, he was carrying his own cans of Faster Pussycat! to the trunk of his car parked on San Salvador Street. I still think what I thought it at the time: there goes a legend.


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Web extra to the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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