This is the one question we wanted to ask Russ Meyer: Why is the violence in some of your movies handled either morally (Mudhoney) or relatively amusingly (Up!) but in others (Lorna) rather revoltingly? How could the man who made the brilliantly subversive Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! turn around and make Supervixons, one of the most depressingly violent movies of the era?
"That's easy," comes Meyer's friendly bark over the phone from LA. "Supervixens made $17 million when tickets were $2. Lorna made seven times as much money as Mudhoney. Violence is entertaining; there are a lot of people out there who want to see bathtub stomping."
Meyer is referring to the infamous bathroom-murder set piece, one of two extended scenes of carnage that bookend Supervixens. (The other involves the bathroom murderer torturing the reincarnation of his original victim with a stick of dynamite between her legs.) But expecting the 70-year-old Meyer--producer, director, editor, and cinematographer of two-dozen movies about studs, dolts, wimps, and amazingly large-breasted women--to say anything else is unrealistic. Along with Hugh Hefner, Meyer is the most prominent purveyor of the big-busted postwar porn that helped keep the sexual psyche of the late-20th-century American male safely adolescent, and 30 years on, his fortune is made and his lines are polished. ("You know what made Lorna successful, don't you? Two reasons. Miss Maitland's bosom. Got that? Two reasons: her bosom.") He remains an accomplished raconteur, and will share stories in a personal appearance Sunday night at Facets in conjunction with the theater's week-long retrospective of his films.
Meyer's legend is one that's often told: he got a camera as a kid, shot combat footage in World War II, worked in Hollywood afterward, and finally found a profitable calling in 1959 with the seminal nudie pic The Immoral Mr. Teas. (In it, a schlemiel on bike delivery rounds suddenly starts seeing topless women everywhere he goes.) After several years of similar fare he launched his classic black-and-white period with the brutal and uneven Lorna, then followed it with two classics. Mudhoney spoofs rural inbreeding, farmer's-daughter tales, and small-town religion in the format of a searing morality play. The immortally named Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a formula pic about a trio of outlaws who terrorize a rich farmer and his children--except the outlaws are amazons, led by the astonishing Tura Satana, and the children all males. (Mudhoney plays at 7 and 9 Wednesday night and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at 7 and 8:30 Thursday.)
Similar themes worked out in color (Common Law Cabin, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers) don't hold much interest 25 years later, but in the late 1960s Meyer got back on track by concentrating on sex for sex's sake and sacrificing narrative for the sheen of nonsensical camp. In Vixen, for example, a rural housewife neglected by her bush-pilot husband gets it on with everyone within reach--be it man, woman, even her own brother. (Vixen shows Monday at 7 PM, on a double bill with Cherry, Harry and Raquel.) He eventually found his prime latter-day groove: The grotesque Supervixens (tonight at 7 and 9) is from this period, but better films--Up! and most notably Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens--combine oodles of sex (much of it nontraditional) and lots of violence (most of it cartoony) in a blithe and dopey way that somehow affirms life rather than denies it. (Up! plays Tuesday at 7 and 8:30 PM, Ultravixens Saturday at 7 and 9.)
Meyer's body of work is tantalizing and challenging and erratic. Any filmmaker could envy the way he coaxes often bravura performances from amateurs. His inability to edit must be somewhat less coveted. (Truth be told, the unpleasantness of some of his most disreputable scenes was probably accidental.) His use of hokey, deep-voiced narration--a tic left over from his Army-film days--is simultaneously dumb and brilliant. Still he created a world, populated it as he would, and apologizes to no one.
Is Meyer an antique in this feminist world? Not quite. "More and more women find my films very appealing," he says. "The men are all klutzes, and the women are smart, all very sharp individuals." He has a point: with the exceptions noted above, camp and fun have always been Meyer's first two concerns. (Er, third and fourth concerns.)
How's life otherwise?
"Great m' boy. The most recent thing I did--I never say 'the last one'--is a very ambitious autobiography, a very ambitious affair that took me four years and destroyed three outrageously buxom relationships. It's called A Clean Breast: The Life and Loves of Russ Meyer. It's a fuck-and-tell book. Not a kiss-and-tell book, a fuck-and-tell book. It tells the story of everyone I've been with of any significance, not including one-night stands. And for the rest, well, I've got my eye on another girl with big tits."
Is that a professional or personal interest?
"Both, m' boy, both."
Russ Meyer will talk and answer questions on Sunday after the 5:30 PM screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, the 1970 movie he wrote with Roger Ebert. The pair are still close, but the Ebert nuptials this weekend make a joint appearance doubtful. Facets is at 1517 W. Fullerton; admission is $5, $8 for double features, less for members. Call 281-9075 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Taylor.