Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

by Cameron “Losing His Laundry” Ashley

It's 1969. You're a massive film company with a long lineage, an iconic logo and a library of classics. Times are, however, a bit lean. You hear about this cat named Russ Meyer who's making dough hand over fist with some smutty flick called Vixen that he produced for peanuts and pretty much by his lonesome. It stars one hot tamale with titanic ta-tas and a fuck-me smile like you never seen before. Her name's Erica Gavin and her incredible arching eyebrows, like swooshes of comic book ink, aren't raised so high these days. Freaked out by how gigantic she appears on-screen, Erica's descending into eating disorders and drug abuse and, by the time 20th Century Fox comes knocking on Russ' door, she's physically a different specimen. It's cool though, 'cause RM--forgetting his proclivities, his militaristic directing style, his general tendency to be an asshole--is a loyal, tit-loving motherfucker.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, raised into cult-movie godhood in recent times, is the greatest sexploitation movie of all time. Famous for its bizarre collaborating partners--Fox, RM and film critic Roger Ebert who concocted its slew of catchphrases--it leaves ever other pseudo-fuck film face down in each others' laps. You can argue that Meyer's own Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! is more influential (and I'd agree), you could argue that Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS is more controversial (we could chat about that, but you could possibly sway me), you could list two dozen or more films with more tits and more fuck scenes (indisputable), but Beyond, crafted with typical obsession and care by Meyer, is to this day mind-blowing in its scope, its schizophrenic tone, its outrageousness and its simultaneous piss-take and celebration of the Hollywood system, its party scene, its denizens. It is also stacked with more dames than The Wild Bunch has Mexicans and a twist that makes the reveal in Orphan look tame and sane.

Initially concocted to cash in on Valley of the Dolls, Beyond was hastily re-envisioned by Meyer and Ebert, hence the disclaimer at the film’s opening, disavowing any link to the original. Fox gave RM pretty much carte blanche to do whatever the fuck he wanted to do (as was his style) and, as a result, Meyer and Ebert gleefully cooked up the tale of an all-girl rock group, desperate for the big-time, and their journey into the decadent Hollywood otherworld of porn stars, actors, fashion designers, boxing champions, record producers, drugs and sexual experimentation.

Dolly Read, Cynthia Meyers (no relation to RM) and Marcia MacBroom are Kelly, Casey and Petronella, the all-girl group named The Kelly Affair (kind of like Josie and the Pussycats with boobage and a lyrical bent for a mix of both hippy mysticism and apocalyptic foreboding), who crack it big-time under the watch of music wunderkind Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (played with absolute Shakespeare-on-acid glee by John Lazar). Z-Man renames the group The Carrie Nations and they soon become a fixture at his place, rocking out with The Strawberry Alarm Clock, as the degenerates who flock to Z-Man's bashes either walk around naked (Meyer fans will recognise Haji body-painted in black), do drugs or fuck. The plot very quickly kicks into soap-overdrive. Harris, the soppy Carrie Nations original manager and love-interest of Carrie herself, isn't really cool with either Z-Man's scene or the fact that he seems to be stealing Carrie, and the group, away from him. He deals with his problems as all grown men do--by hooking up with porn-star, Ashley St. Ives (played by the future Mrs. RM, Edy Williams). Ashley's more succubus than porn star, and Williams is suitably hideous in her role (intended or not, armed to the teeth with quips like: “You're a groovy boy. I'd like to strap you on sometime.” Pet hooks up with Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), a law student who pays his way by helping out at Z-Man's parties, which leaves poor lonely Casey, who becomes close to fashion designer Roxanne (played by the still-lovely Erica Gavin--fuck what RM thought.) To say too much more about the plot would be a disservice, but suffice it to say there is the eleventh hour twist of twists, a sex scene between Erica Gavin and Cynthia Meyers (dressed in superhero outfits) and bloody carnage at the end, foreshadowed by a pretty off-colour opening scene.

It's a strange choice of opening sequence. Perhaps RM thought he better foreshadow the bat-shit insanity to come, perhaps he was worried his audience wouldn't be down with the comparable lack of flesh in his latest effort and slow, soap opera build. Whatever the reason, Beyond opens with a sleeping Erica Gavin being force-fed a hand gun. It's pretty messed-up stuff, and Gavin has quite the take on it, seeing a quite obvious symbolism in the sequence as she related to Jimmy McDonough for his must-read Meyer biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: “I was Russ' favourite child until Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and his new Hollywood clique. Then I was an adopted Cinderella, a left-over that didn't quite cut it. I wasn't his star anymore, I wasn't his important girl.”

A perhaps overly dramatic statement, as Gavin's role of Roxanne is fairly substantial, considering the sheer number of supporting characters and the fact that RM himself admitted that it was Erica who helped get him to where he was at that point. There is perhaps some validation to it, however, particularly as it seems as though Russ was quite displeased with his former leading-actress' dramatic weight drop.

Those expecting a full-on Meyer fleshfest will probably be disappointed – most of the nudity was cut and subsequently lost (Nooooooooooooooooooo!) in order for Fox to avoid an “X” rating (which does kind of seem contradictory to the hiring of RM--a man who made his fortune with the “X” pasted onto Vixen). However, the aforementioned Gavin/Meyers hook-up should suffice and the smattering of boobs throughout will not be ignored. From a slightly more technical standpoint, Meyer's breakneck editing is on full display, as is his love of lush sumptuous colours and his utter delight at, and skill with, photographing the female form. For every act of misogyny in an RM film, there are numerous that make his actresses look like absolute demigods--a complicated cat, that RM.

For all its Ebert-crafted zingers and flat-out howlers, the lurid, pop Hollywood on display in the film is--essentially--a universe filled with scumbags and a humanity on the skids. Despite the tacked-on feel-good conclusion and the standard RM movie end narration, heavy with the moral implications of what we have just witnessed, it’s hard to just forget that we've just seen two hours of people manipulating, fucking and murdering one another against a psychedelic comic book backdrop and cleavage you could bury a fist in. Coming from a long time fantasy peddler, it should be pretty obvious that the 'Insider Scene' cooked up by outsiders Meyer and Ebert was done so purely from their own tit-filled collective hivemind. Given all the hollowness and insanity on display, Beyond was, perhaps unsurprisingly, an embarrassment to the studio that produced it. It was, also unsurprisingly, a cash-grabber.

The undoubted apex of RM's career, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is must-see shit. Forget the camp factor, forget the bullshit Rocky Horror-type mentality the film is saddled with these days. Watch it for what it is--a fucking gem of cinematic oddity. Tits, murder, fame, drugs and sex--it's a familiar cocktail, but filtered through the obsessions, fetishes and hands-on movie-making of Russ Meyer, it's one of the most deranged, black-humoured and unpredictable films ever produced by a major studio.

Russ followed Beyond with The Seven Minutes, the only RM film unseen by your humble, Erica Gavin-crushing reviewer. It was a disaster and by most accounts: a dull, pompous courtroom affair, an attempt by RM to take his social flirtations away from his rough, bawdy, buxotic morality plays and into the mainstream proper. The film’s failure ensured his return to independent, do-it-yourself, get-em-out Russ, who went on to produce some further hyper-mad gems that we will discuss at a later point. Still, for what it’s worth, despite his eventual decline and the utter wretchedness of his final ever effort, Pandora Peaks, we have in Beyond a fine example of a true cinematic maverick who demanded virtual autonomy from the system and got it, and a classic piece of soft-core titillation.

One final note to genre fans: it has long been rumoured that Pam Grier, in her first role, can be seen wandering through Z-Man's parties. I've never spotted her. Do let me know if you do.