The day Frank Sinatra died, I was working as an office P.A. on a Disney film about crime-solving pets. The job involved a lot of driving around picking up packages in a rental car – and so there I was, bombing around town at absurd speeds, listening to Wally D’s Jazz World on CKLN, tearing up. That’s the first time I heard Watertown.
Watertown is Sinatra against the grain – Sinatra with electric guitar, Sinatra doing a rock-pop concept album, Sinatra playing the part of the broken small-town man whose wife has left him for the big city. Written and produced in part by Bob Gaudio, of Four Seasons fame and incidentally the composer of “Short Shorts,” all of the songs excel as songs, but also form like Voltron into a perfect tale of unrequited love – they come to the same plate from different angles, each chewing off a different chunk. (Here’s a few quotes from Gaudio and co-composer Jake Holmes about the album.)
The eponymous first song sets the stage. “Goodbye” deals with the non-drama of the wife’s departure:
There is no great big ending
no sunset in the sky
there is no string ensemle
and she doesn’t even cry
In “For a while” the husband tries to get back to his life:
people say to me, you need company
when you have some time to spend
drop around and meet a friend
they forget that I’m not over you
for a while
they forget that I’m not over you
for a while
There’s something perfect about that song, and if you’ve ever had that almost self-righteous feeling after a breakup – “you peons don’t know what I’ve been through” – you’ll feel it too. Then, possibly the best song on the album, “Michael & Peter,” which is framed as a letter to the wife, ostensibly about their two children:
Michael is you, he has your face
he still has your eyes, remember
It contains lots of casual updating, and works as a letter:
I think the house could use some paint
you know your mother’s such a saint
Yet since Sinatra sings to the subtext and not to the surface meaning, it captures that feeling, so fabulous in life, where the words said have little to no meaning, yet something powerful is being communicated – the sort of feeling that leads someone to break down crying while talking about the score of the baseball game. After that song comes “I would be in love (anyway)”, a song of the no regrets variety, which of course is the only way to go.
if I knew then
what I know now
I don’t believe I’d ever change
And thus ends only the first part of Watertown. I’ve just revisited it, clearly; I understand it a little more now than the last time I heard it. It’s one of those albums. Maybe in 20 years I’ll know it even better.
Now that I’ve watched 19 Russ Meyer films I figured it was time to share some knowledge, or rather opinion masked as knowledge. Herewith, d/blog’s guide to Russ Meyer film watching. After some initial notes, I’ll list these films in the order I think you should approach his oeuvre (damn! what a word, yo), and append delightful comments along the way.
- Meyer as auteur
- the canon
- the films:
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,
Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!,
The Seven Minutes,
Cherry, Harry & Racquel,
Good Morning and Goodbye,
Common Law Cabin,
Wild Gals of the Naked West,
Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens,
The Immoral Mr. Teas,
Eve and the Handyman,
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers
- This Reporter’s Opinon
- books about Meyer
- some good links
a good start is <a
this page. Something left out: after WWII, Meyer tried to join the
ASC (American Society of Cinematographers) but was continually rebuffed.
So he did still photography, but he also made industrial films of
various sorts. One can only imagine how different his career (and
attitude towards Hollywood) might have been had he been allowed to join.
As things turned out, Meyer became a staunch independent who mistrusted
Hollywood greatly. Most of his friends were old army buddies and not
film industry types.
I may add a better bio at some point. But I’m waaay too lazy right
now – let’s get on with it.
Meyer as auteur
Meyer is god’s own auteur. He frequently produced, distributed,
directed, wrote, edited and shot his films – up until recently, if you
called his office looking to license one of his pictures, you talked to
Russ. Subsequently, if any director is approachable via auteur theory,
So, what makes a Russ Meyer film? In general, look for a
large-breasted, powerful woman as the central character. Furious
editing. Sex, obviously. Beautiful photography, courtesy RM himself.
Don’t expect high caliber acting, although there are surprises here and
there (Charles Napier in Supervixens). A great deal of the films are
tongue-in-cheek. He likes to open his films with a voiceover, and
experiments with this form of storytelling repeatedly, from the
meaningless VO in Teas to the opening text scroll of Cherry, Harry &
Racquel to the “Greek Chorus” of Up! You see the same locations over and
over again, as he liked to shoot on the cheap around his home. In a way,
all of the films are Westerns. Many of them are cartoons. You’ll also
see repeat characters – the cruel old patriarch who can’t get it up, the
obedient young stud, the old crone.
Note: many will argue that any higher meaning detected in Meyer’s
films was inserted in order to get by the censors and should be
disregarded. Dismiss this out of hand. It is true Meyer practiced such a
technique, as social commentary in an otherwise smutty film lent weight
to the argument that the film had a societal benefit outweighing its
appeal to prurient interests, which gave it a better chance of skirting
the censors. Furthermore Meyer often dismisses any deeper meaning as
such, a red herring. But always take directors’ opinions on their own
work with a grain of salt. Meyer is a complex artist, and there’s plenty
going on in these films.
the Meyer canon
Canon, ouevre, auteur… will the pretension ever stop? But anyway – A good way of approaching Meyer’s work is to divide his films into four
2. Black & white sadist dramas
technicolour relationship dramas
Meyer invented the nudie-cutie with The Immoral Mr.
Teas, and went on to make Eve and the Handyman, Erotica!, Wild Gals of
the Naked West, Heavenly Bodies, and Europe in the Raw. The later Mondo
Topless fits into this group. Basically, film nudity before this point
had to be couched in either documentary form (real live footage from a
nudist camp!) or accusatory rhetoric (these horrible sluts are ruining
society!) Meyer changed all that and made it okay to scope gorgeous
broads. These films are characterized by simplistic plotlines, no synch
sound, heavy voiceover, tons of breasts and no sex.
2. B&W sadist dramas
The B&W period kicks off with Lorna. Films of this
period, including Motorpsycho, Mudhoney, and Faster Pussycat, feature
violent storylines with little sex and nudity. In all except
Motorpsycho, a woman is the central character.
3. technicolour relationship dramas
Good Morning and Goodbye, Commonlaw
Cabin, Finders Keepers, Vixen, and Cherry Harry & Raquel comprise the
technicolour period. Besides the obvious colour treatment, the films
tend to concern themselves with relationships – often two or more
couples per film. There’s less emphasis on violence, and much more
nudity, sex, and technical experimentation.
Although the parody phase starts with BVD, it’s interrupted by
two films that don’t fit into any category: The Seven Minutes and
Blacksnake. After the romp through Hollywood that was BVD, Meyer was
offered a serious script, a courtroom drama, which he took and which
subsequently bombed (The Seven Minutes). He then returned to independent
production, although he took one last stab at serious subject matter,
Blacksnake, which concerned itself with racism and slavery (although it
retained plenty of exploitation elements). This also bombed, and Meyer,
who always placed a lot of stock in box office gross, concluded that his
audience wanted a specific type of product from him: the Russ Meyer
movie. With Supervixens, Up, and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens,
Meyer gave the audience what it wanted, although having grown out of his
own style he parodied it constantly in the process. This period is also
marked by a great increase in sexual content – Meyer felt the need to
compete with the new mainstream porns (Deep Throat et al), yet always
stopped just short of hardcore – as he notes, he was selling “the
sizzle, not the steak.”
I’m putting these in an order you might want to follow, were
you a first-time RM would-be viewer. High up the list means must-see,
low down means for fanatics only. Note also that I haven’t seen all his films – there are three early ones I haven’t
seen, and who really knows about this Pandora Peaks thing? So I’ve only
written about the film’s I’ve seen, which I think makes all sorts of sense.
For a chronological list, see the IMDB’s Russ Meyer page.
A camp masterpiece of epic proportions. It’s more a parody of The Valley
of the Dolls than a sequel – part soap, part sex romp, part musical,
part slasher flick. Script by Roger Ebert. Great 60s slang and shlock
rock throughout. Meyer makes use of a giant Hollywood crew for the first
time. Watch this first.
Be sure to read Ebert’s ownthoughts
about the film.
2. Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!
This has become the cult favourite of the cult favourites, and with good
reason: it’s a tight, well-paced semi-thriller that features standout
performances by Tura Satana, Haji and Lori Williams as the murderous
racer chicks. As usual, a great opening. Perfect example of the B&W
Easily his most controversial film for its scenes of interracial sex,
lesbian sex and incest, Vixen was banned in Cleveland and elsewhere,
cost only $46,000, yet grossed over $35-million. This is the best of the
technicolour period. Classic Meyer story of a woman’s voracious sexual
appetite, the likes of which no man, woman, or combination thereof can
satisfy. Also features bitchin’ montage in which a Communist’s rants are
crosscut with – what else – a sex scene. Also contains the exquisite
fish dance scene.
4. The Seven Minutes
This film is insane. It’s very hard to find, but if you can get
your hands on it you have to watch it, as it explains a lot about Russ
Meyer. Basically, the issue it covers is close to his heart
(censorship), and the genre is a total anomaly for him (courtroom
drama). It’s the fastest paced courtroom drama I’ve ever seen. There are
many other technical accomplishments but … enough of my yakkin’, go
5. Cherry, Harry & Racquel
Even if you only watch the first minute and a half, watch this. The
opening is a screed on the topic of sexual freedom and the societal
repression thereof, apparently written by Tom Wolfe, which scrolls up
the screen over a montage of airplanes, office buildings, and topless
babes bouncing on beds. In typical Meyer fashion, the prologue is
followed by an intro, with prudish VO over footage over a woman living
it up on a yacht. The first part is heartfelt, the second is there to
get the film past censors.
The ending is also fascinating. The female members of the love triangle
finally have sex, while Harry fights to the death with his arch-nemesis,
the indian. Makes it seem that, paradoxically, in the ideal Meyer world,
there are no men at all.
Another well-made B&W picture, with a great turn by Hal Hopper as the
maniac drunk who implodes as the film progresses. Like the Seven
Minutes, Mudhoney’s adapted from a book, which gives it a different feel
than many RM pictures. Set during the depression.
This is one of the tougher films to deal with in many ways. It’s another
issue picture, this time dealing with slavery (Meyer hates racists).
However, the film’s exploitation elements are so exaggerated that he was in fact
lambasted for being a racist. Although this wasn’t the case, many
scenes still may be too extreme for many (crucifixion, rape), and in
many ways the exploitation elements undermine the film’s serious
As a historical drama, it doesn’t fit in to any of the above RM
periods, other than being a catalyst for Meyer’s ultimate move to
parody. The photography is stunning. Sex, although present, is minimal
and usually problematized by violence. Anouska Hempel does a great job
as the sadist plantation owner – although after the film bombed, Meyer
swore he’d never again prioritize acting ability over cup size in the
casting of his lead actresses.
8. Good Morning and Goodbye
This picture’s script is impressive – lots of zingers. It was written by
Jack Moran, who wrote a number of other Meyer pics, frequently recorded
sound on the films, and even acts in Common Law Cabin. In general, the
acting is tighter than usual. The “Soul” character, played by Pussycat’s
Haji, is a hint of the Meyer metaphysics to come in later films.
As far as I can tell this is Meyer’s own favourite. It’s an excellent
film, but it refers extensively to RM’s other films, so it’s better to
watch it after having seen a few others. It’s a great example of the
parody period, but it’s also oddly meta-: not only in self-referential
ways, but also metaphysical (the nasty SuperAngel, violently murdered by
Napier’s sherrif in the first act, is reincarnated as SuperVixen toward
the end). All the female roles are Super- something or other; most of
the roles are pilfered from earlier films. There are explicit cartoon
elements. It’s an oddly picaresque narrative, with Clint Ramsey drifting
from situation to situation, each dominated by a buxom superbabe. Ebert
worked on the script, but didn’t take a credit.
10. Mondo Topless
Okay – there’s no plot, no characters, just shots of topless dancers,
well, dancing topless. Recordings of their interviews are played over
dancing montages (“I couldn’t help but develop muscles in my chest”).
The editing is really stunning, and formally, this picture is something
to behold. The voiceover is fabulous – one dancer is described as
“perfectly configured for the art of the topless.” Also, the intro with
its double entendres about San Fransisco – “thrusts itself into the
bosom of the Pacific”…. If you love breasts, watch this film – it’s
full of life, full of love for the female form, and full of love for
Up! is messed. It’s late period parody Meyer, designed around shock
value. In the opening scene, a Hitler lookalike is whipped and then
assfucked by a man dressed as a pilgrim. There are two things that
Tarantino referenced (or stole, depending on how you want to look at it)
in Pulp Fiction: the leather-masked gimp, and the choosing of
ever-nastier weapons – bat, axe, chainsaw… Features a “Greek Chorus”,
played by always-naked Kitten Natividad, and written by Ebert. It’s
absolutely outrageous in terms of story construction, but that’s part of
the fun. Also contains one of my favourite Meyer shots: to shoot a woman
opening a man’s fly, Meyer put the zipper over the camera, and reveals
the grinning soon-to-be fellatress as she unzips it.
12. Common Law Cabin
CLC is a gorgeous technicolour picture, with the tight plot-based story
of the B&W films. Features writer Jack Moran as a dad who struggles with
his desire for his teenage daughter. Nothing happens, although
review mentions this tension “hangs over the film like a thundercloud.”
Like Gilligan’s Island on viagra.
13. Wild Gals of the Naked West
What a title! This is probably the most cartoonish of Meyer films – only
the narration has sync sound, the rest of the film being tiny vignettes
of life in a wild western town. The vignettes recur and rarely change – scene of whores literally fishing for men, scene of man chasing topless
“Indian” babe, scene of someone cavorting in gorilla suit, then back to
the whores, etc. That, and the fact that many scenes are shot against
bare primary colour backdrops, makes this a borderline surrealist film.
Easily the best of the nudie cuties for the modern-day viewer.
14. Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens
There’s nothing that stunning in BVU that you won’t see in better parody
films like Up! or Supervixens, but if you like those films you may want
to take a look. There’s an interesting theory, mentioned in
this book, that in BVU Meyer was
paying homage to his time spent as an industrial filmmaker. The last
Meyer pic other than the mysterious Pandora Peaks… does that film
15. The Immoral Mr. Teas
While this picture was groundbreaking at the time, it has little to
recommend it these days. The surreal sequences are done much better in
Wild Gals, and there’s funnier narration in Mondo Topless. Stars Bill
Teas, a Meyer army buddy (yes, that’s his real name).
16. Eve and the Handyman
Once again, today’s viewer will find little of interest here. However,
it’s Meyer’s first wife Eve Meyer in the title role, and as far as I
know it’s the only film of his that she appeared in, although she
produced a great number of them.
The rape-turns-into-love storyline is enough to turn off any viewer
these days. Historically significant as the first B&W picture, the first
to have a woman as the central character and her sexual desire the
story’s fuel. Hal Hopper does another good job as a lecherous drunk,
Lorna Maitland is something to behold, and the preacher-in-the-highway
opening seems to have influenced Lynch (Lost Highway), but it’s not
actually that enjoyable to watch.
A tale of marauding sleazeball biker punks. On Eve Meyer’s suggestion,
RM made a female car-driving version of this film, and the result was
the much better Faster Pussycat. There are many identical plot elements.
The lead biker’s psychotic breakdown may be the first instance of a
Vietnam vet losing his shit on film. Nice soundtrack.
19. Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers
Sort of a crime picture crossed with a relationship drama. Has a few
good lines, but it’s nothing to write home about.
This Reporter’s Opinion
Alright, fine – this whole thing is opinion. Nonetheless I felt the need to
make some further remarks. RM’s films, which I consumed over a period of three months, have
changed things in me, and stirred up old passions. When I had been getting rather bored with
film in general, these films have reminded me just how fabulous well-made films can be.
They’ve made me hate sexual prudishness and any form of censorship. They’ve made me want to
go out and experiment. And they have reminded me that the best films are those that entertain as
well as enlighten – fuck off, four-hour brooding family dramas! Say it fast, loud,
bright, smart, and big – or just shut up.
Put differently: carry a big stick, and as you hit them over the head, wink.
books on RM
There could stand to be a hell of a lot more written about this fella. As it is, there’s this
bibliography, which has a great intro
and would be your ticket to further research in the periodical world. There’s
The Very Breast of Russ Meyer,
that should’ve been published a year ago but keeps being pushed back. There’s an out-of-print German book.
And the motherlode is A Clean Breast,
Meyer’s three-volume, $200 autobiography, which would be great, if anyone could afford it. shakes fist Damn
your keen business sense, Meyer!
- Here’s his RM Films
and a review
of Faster Pussycat from the superior
href=”http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/”>Bright Lights Film
- A good
href=”http://www.mondo-digital.com/russpics.html”>page two with
- Another brief
- A page about the