The Breast He Could Do

About ten years ago, intrigued by the rerelease of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and amused by Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I decided to explore the rest of Russ Meyer’s oeuvre. I figured that such a project was best tackled with the same voluptuous spirit in which Meyer made his movies, so I walked up to the counter of my neighborhood video store in San Francisco with a handful of films I found in the cult bin: Cherry, Harry, and Racquel!, The Seven Minutes, and Lorna. The Seven Minutes is a mediocre, thrill-free thriller that Meyer coughed up for Twentieth Century Fox in 1971, so the clerk rented it to me for free. The videotape they had was a crummy transfer, he explained—and besides, it wasn’t really a Russ Meyer film.

In other words, it wasn’t a film about tits. Nevertheless, after Meyer died last fall (at eighty-two, of complications from pneumonia after a long, sad decline into dementia), many obituaries strained to position him as more than a soft-core icon. Time argued that he “set the tone for late twentieth century pop culture at its most cheerfully leering.” Chuck Stephens, in Film Comment, compared Meyer to Sam Fuller and hailed him as “an American independent before anyone had thought of the term.” These assessments followed years of claims by many cineasts—not least Meyer’s early booster and occasional collaborator, Roger Ebert—that colorful, bosomy, and often baffling films like Up! and Supervixens were, in fact, essays on female empowerment.

But in a new biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film, author Jimmy McDonough points out that the director himself wasn’t much for this kind of sophisticated thinking. “I don’t care to comment about what might be inside a lady’s head,” Meyer once said. “Hopefully, it’s my dick.”

Sam Fuller, like hell. Meyer was exuberantly sui generis, but his impact on popular culture is modest at best. Even McDonough, who’s clearly a fan, has a hard time arguing that Meyer belongs anywhere but the cult bin. In the fifties, before moving into film, Meyer became known as a talented cheesecake photographer (a genre he referred to as “tittyboom”) and shot several Playboy centerfolds in the magazine’s early years. His first successful film, 1959’s The Immoral Mr. Teas, took its cue from Hef and helped propel soft-core porn out of grindhouse theaters and stag parties. With two exceptions—Pussycat and Dolls—the remainder of Meyer’s career amounts to nothing more than a persistent big-breast obsession, which became more dreary and perverse as time went on. Meyer spent his later years laboring over A Clean Breast, his massive memoir and photo collection, driving staffers mad with endless fussing over photo selection and even type kerning. He initially planned to title the book The Rural Fellini, until Ebert wisely suggested a change. To the extent that Meyer worked hard to find archetypal man-killers—“Meyer women” like Uschi Digard and Haji, who often appeared jiggling in the desert—he’s an auteur. But a man who learned the basics of movie-making by filming Patton’s march through France during World War II never produced anything that remotely resembled an Amarcord.
To its credit, Big Bosoms doesn’t over-sell Meyer’s accomplishments; McDonough presents his subject mainly as a snickering, grudge-bearing, I-got-mine tough guy who eagerly snookered the movie business. Teas, an hour-long bit of motion-picture “tittyboom” that looks almost comically tame today, made a million dollars when it came out—more than forty times its production cost. Indeed, throughout his bio, McDonough practically implores readers to think of Meyer as a moneymaker first and filmmaker second (the book’s section breaks are dollar signs).

Luckily for McDonough, there’s a quirky, intriguing, and sometimes baffling persona beneath the profiteering lech. “[Meyer films] without dames means TV-movie tedium,” he concedes, so Big Bosom’s most intriguing passages have little to do with the movies themselves. Instead, they’re the ones discussing Meyer’s tendency to “inspire” his actresses by either browbeating or sleeping with them; the extended obscenity battle over his 1968 film Vixen! (Charles Keating, later a notorious player in the 1980s savings and loan scandal, successfully prosecuted the case); and the ignominious meltdown that occurred around Who Killed Bambi? (aka The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle), the Sex Pistols film that Meyer was initially tapped to direct. Meyer and Pistols front man Johnny Rotten took an almost immediate dislike to each other—Rotten later called Meyer a “dirty old man” and “an overbearing, senile old git”—and Fox pulled out of the production after Grace Kelly, a stockholder, protested the choice of Meyer as director.

However, McDonough does champion Meyer artistically, as it were, by defending the likes of Mondo Topless and Common-Law Cabin, and here he’s on shakier ground. “When aliens excavate the ruins of planet Earth in 2525, would you rather they found a copy of some anemic, technically inept, politically-correct-to-the-point-of-boredom John Sayles film?” he writes. “They’d learn a lot more about us watching a top-heavy Lorna Maitland pulling a burro up a hill!” As if that scene from Mondo Topless shows anything more than Maitland’s remarkably cantilevered figure—and as if what the coal-mining-town tragedy depicted in Matewan really needed was more cleavage.

So why did Meyer eventually get the Sayles-like auteur treatment? And why are Meyer’s films still worth a glimpse? The answer is reflected in a comment from longtime Meyer booster John Waters: “He made industrials about tits.” Meyer’s plots are ridiculous, but the opening sequences of many of his films are skillfully constructed and sometimes utterly sublime. No matter what nonsense the ponderous voiceovers were spewing, his shots of breasts, cityscapes, cars, bars, whatever, all packed together, were brilliant, impressionistic visions of the sixties and seventies zeitgeist. It’s as if Meyer learned editing by speed-reading Eisenstein and a stack of Playboys, and McDonough captures the aesthetic perfectly: “Ass shaking! Cut! Chrome fender! Cut! Breasts quivering! Cut! Car radio! Cut! Tape recorder! Cut!”

After those sequences, though, Meyer’s films tend to run out of gas—your ability to enjoy them is mainly a function of your ability to appreciate the figures of Digard, Erica Gavin, or Kitten Natividad. It may be that what critics called “female empowerment” in Meyer’s films was really just their female stars’ unique capacity to render men immobile, both agape and agog. These women are not empowered, just overpowering. Pussycat stands out from the dross because it was with that film that Meyer developed his editing style; it also had a remarkably full-blooded and indomitable character in Tura Satana’s Varla. Brash, no-nonsense, and threatening, she’s the very definition of a man-killer: “She’s a murderous, evil villain, all right,” McDonough writes, “but you want to get into her pants.” (Interestingly, Meyer, despite some effort, couldn’t.)

What distinguished Dolls was a budget from Twentieth Century Fox, some semblance of plot, and Meyer’s ability to integrate his jump-cutting throughout the film. His editing underscored the comedy of this tale of the rise and fall of a stoner-girl rock band. The sex scene in a Bentley is more about the Bentley than the sex; and shortly after the youthful Edy Williams coos to a stud, “I’d like to strap you on sometime,” we cut to an elderly woman in ghastly makeup saying the same thing. Dolls may be the only time Meyer seemed willing to acknowledge the inherent ridiculousness in his career-long enterprise.

Because he seemed to be so willfully benighted about his obsession, it’s hard to make a case for Meyer as an enduring artist. Sexuality is an auteurist theme; tits aren’t. Discussing his 1963 film Lorna, he bristles at any suggestion of influence or aesthetics: “Did I shoot in black and white for the purpose of grittiness and to emulate the Italian masters? Horseshit! I didn’t have the money to do it in color.” If Meyer had something to say about sexuality, it’s hard to figure out what it might be. Lorna exploits a no-means-yes theme, Vixen advocates incest in a sidewise manner, and the opening of Up! is a button-pushing mess of S&M and Nazi themes. For Meyer, there was no continuity problem or philosophical bind that a shot of quivering cleavage couldn’t fix.

A defining style, it turns out, is not the same thing as enduring influence. It’s telling that Meyer’s clearest legacy isn’t in movies but in rock music: Poison Ivy, guitarist for the psychobilly band the Cramps, cribbed much of her brassy persona from Varla, and at least two bands take their name from Meyer films: the influential grunge act Mudhoney and the mediocre hair-metal group Faster Pussycat. And film? Well, nobody makes industrials about tits anymore. The classier “erotic” mainstream movies from the past few years—Swimming Pool, Y tu mama tambien, Romance, etc.—take their inspiration from randy stylists like soft-core pioneer Radley Metzger or gauzy erotica like Last Tango in Paris. And the rest? Well, earlier this year, actor-turned-director Elizabeth Starr resurrected the career of Kitten Natividad for a remake of Pussycat that was billed as “a titanic tribute to the late great Russ Meyer.” It’s a straight-to-video hardcore porno, costarring Ron Jeremy, titled Faster Pussycat F—well, you get the idea.