Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
109 min, color, English
Review © 2007 Branislav L. Slantchev
What a delightful little gem of a movie! Honestly, I can't remember the last time I watched something that was pure fun to experience, an outing whose only purpose is to entertain the viewer by being totally outrageous, as over the top as one can possibly make it and still show it in theaters, but also humorous with clever one-liners, catchy music, and the occasional erotic slice of heaven. A spoof of an entire generation. I always thought Ebert was a smart guy, but this film is as clear proof as one is ever likely to get. And those who claim Russ Meyer is a bad director, with all due (lack of) respect, up yours, Ratso!
|The predator and the dreamy lesbian||Forget the ferns! How about them couple conjugating in the foam?|
Almost every review I've seen of this film (or any Russ Meyer film for that matter) begins with an obligatory mea culpa designed to excuse the reviewer for watching such reprehensible stuff that demeans women, men, and anyone who dares waste his time seeing it. The reviewer then professes to be in the know about the total lack of any socially redeeming qualities of such a film. He then concludes the first paragraph by also dumping on Meyer and comparing him (unfavorably) to "real" directors who make "art" films. Of course, there will also be the obligatory multiple referencing of Meyer's obsession with big tits. And it's all fucking wrong. It's so totally unbelievably wrong that one must wonder about what these guys were actually watching. So this review is going to have none of that. I loved the film. I loved it without any qualifications. I actually think it's cinematic art of very high quality, both in terms of workmanship and because it achieves its purpose with anyone who's willing to take it on its own terms. I think anyone who feels guilty after watching (and liking) this film should really think hard about the self-imposed constraints he's operating under. That's why, by the way, I hate the expression "guilty pleasure": if I like it, I don't feel any guilt whatsoever. Honestly, if you got any more uptight in that pious bourgeois conventionality, you'd qualify to be president of some "Concerned Citizens" group that would happily burn people at the stake for daring show a nipple.
|Harris is no match for Ashley||Actually non-existent rivalry over Kelly|
There's absolutely no point in rehearsing the story for it matters very little. The film can be treated as one huge party, with people coming, going, doing stuff for no discernible reason whatsoever, getting high, getting laid, and basically being totally 1960s in the way I am sure conservatives imagined the 1960s to be. All that one needs to know that there's all-girl band that sounds like a more aggressive version of Jefferson Airplane (did I say the music was excellent?) The singer, Kelly (Dolly Read) is also a couple with the manager good-boy Harris (David Gurian). The drummer Petronella (Marcia McBroom) looks a bit more stable than the third femme Casey (Cynthia Myers) who seems perennially unhappy. So these four make their way to L.A. to meet the fabulously rich aunt of Kelly's Susan (played by the stunning Phyllis Davis). Once there, the "innocents" quickly get elevated to fame with the help of producer Z-Man (John Lazar), and then get caught in the vortex of sex, drugs, and all sorts of sleazy goings-on.
|Gratuitous shot of Edy Williams||He is still screwing on faith|
As I said, the story is unimportant. What matters are the characters, what they do, but mostly what they say. The dialogues are quite funny and it's astounding that the actors managed to deliver their lines with straight faces. Want a sample?
Harris: I want it, I need it, I love it when a beautiful woman licks between my toes.
Ashley: People who wear sandals must not get very many requests.
And no, it's not the funniest one. The situation, of course, is what makes it so damn good. Ashley St. Ives (played by Mrs Meyer # whatever, Edy Williams) is the ultimate man-eater. She's played in "those porno movies" and enjoys a good roll in the sand, in the back of a Rolls Royce, or even in bathtub full of mayonnaise... everywhere except a bed. She sets her sights on the wide-eyed Harris and then pursues him relentlessly despite his rude responses. As the typical Meyer female, she knows she will get what she wants, so she lets his sarcasm roll off her without a trace, and then she presses on. Of course, Harris will succumb.
|The fun way to negotiate legal settlements||Obligatory gratuitous shot of Phyllis Davis|
This is probably as good a point as any to bring up the fact that Meyer knows how to shoot women. He can take any moderately attractive species of that gender and turn her into a dreamy female that is the precise embodiment of all crazy male fantasies, from the curvy figure to the insatiable lust to the destructiveness she brings with her everywhere she goes. Yes, the women probably tote racks that are a couple of sizes above the national mean (although here in Southern California's plastic surgery heaven, I'd say they are about average) but that's not Meyer's secret. You may have heard a lot about the "nudies" and how his films are filled with naked flesh. Well, this one is an exception for there's very little of that on display but the following point actually holds in general: Meyer's secret is that he reveals just enough to let one's imagination do the wild rest.
|The deflated, useless, possibly gay, male||Yo! Stop tickling him and bitch-slap him like a man!|
That's right, no (or precious little) frontal nudity; that's the secret of success. Meyer puts women in highly suggestive clothes and reveals some curves but compared to the racy Eurotrash I am accustomed to, he is positively demure. Unlike sleaze-maestro Jess Franco, for example, Meyer will never focus his camera on an off-putting closeup of genitalia. He won't shove the camera in a girl's face either. What he will do is arrange for excellent lighting and then photograph the women in a way that makes them look impossibly sexy. This is exploitation at its best because unlike aforementioned garbage that is really just an excuse for the one-armed audience members who are too ashamed to go see a real porn film, this one is erotic in the best sense of the word. (By the way, have you ever wondered why the old master painters never accented genitalia? You think it was the Church? Think again. It just does not look good, as they must have realized.)
|What I see... is beyond your dreaming||Excuse that doesn't work #34: You said you were going to study!|
By modern standards, this film is quite tame and astonishingly good-humored. Yes, despite the massacre at the end, it really is a horror-sex-comedy-musical-exploitation flick without the horror. As far as I can tell, there's no discernible purpose in this film beyond purveying wholesome entertainment for the entire family. The acting is excellent but it was Meyer's directing skills that made this film look like serious Hollywood fare. In fact, I think that's why it works so well: filming this with a straight face was a stroke of genius. Had Meyer attempted to use any of the trademark B-movie tricks (such as cheap zooms or excessive wide-angle shots), the film would have degenerated very quickly into the undifferentiated mass of its own imitations. Meyer's camera work, creative editing, and his good eye for composition enable the performances to shine and pulls one so thoroughly into the crazy world of "the valley" that I even forgot to suspend disbelief.
|Roxanne advises Casey on Roe v Wade||No fake closed-lips rubbing either|
Ebert & Meyer exaggerate with such abandon that one's expectations get twisted into a pretzel that seems to end exactly where it begins, and as an ant trudging along a Moebius strip, the viewer slips in and out of alternate reality ever wondering and never knowing just which side of the strip he's on. Should we take the goings on seriously? If not, would the drama suffer? If yes, then would we have so much fun? So I ended up somewhere in the middle: I was just sympathetic enough to care about the characters but not lost enough to remember what I was watching. Like eating a medium-sized Peyote. As evidence of my deep introspection, I offer the above screenshot of the lesbian scene (observe full open mouth kissing). Ok, so it is just to piss off those self-righteous prudes who "bogart the joint" everywhere they go (usually uninvited). Honestly, though, I was quite partial to the fake social commentary at the end that ostensibly tries to redeem the film by interpreting the events for the benefit of the audience as if they could impart some deep lessons to their lives. But it's so tongue-in-cheek, I was splitting my sides by the time the credits rolled.
|Does this look like a wild swinging party?||Z-Man about to go bonkers as Superwoman|
The one thing that I found mildly annoying is Ebert & Meyer chickening out on the homosexual angle when it came to men. Lesbian scenes had become de rigeur for any self-respecting purveyor of trash cinema (and these days we can't seem to get rid of them, anyone see the irony?). However, the authors apparently decided that having two men engage in the sinful would just be too much, so after showing Z-Man coming onto the Greek-God-perfect Lance (Michael Blodgett), they made Z-man a woman (transsexual or whatever, I don't really care). Thusly redeeming the hanky-panky between the two men as actually having been nothing more than an entirely normal heterosexual groping, they proceed to have Z-Man/Superwoman indulge in atrocities worthy of the attention of the Court at The Hague. Incidentally, Z-Man's fake mini-tits were quite off-putting, and I really did not like seeing him prancing around with them in full view. I would much rather have had some more of Casey or, failing that, I would have settled for Roxanne (Erica Gavin). The bedroom scene with these two is so delightfully tender, one almost tends to forget Z-Man sticking the pistol into Erica's mouth and blowing her brains out.
|Meyer knows his moody scenes||There is no Z-Man, varlet. And indeed, it's not a game we play. I am Superwoman!|
Everything in this film just cries for repeat viewing. As I said, the music was great in itself but it is probably the free-wheeling dialogue that did it for me. It's also easy to miss some really nice touches if you are not paying attention. Like Z-Man dismissing his butler Otto (who is supposedly Martin Bormann and is decked out in full Nazi uniform for the costume party) with the words "Be sure to turn off the ovens." I may have to watch it again with the subtitles on, just to make sure I don't miss out on some other neat wordplay. At any rate, the film is actually a lot more demanding than its subject matter or indeed genre would suggest. At the very least, it demands that you let yourself be transposed into its reality. It then all makes sense. Yes, even the bug-eyed party-goer in toga and Cat Woman (Haji).
|The infamous (phallic) pistol in the mouth murder scene||Gratuitous shot of Cynthia Myers|
The 20th Century Fox DVD is excellent. The film is pristine and presented in its OAR of 2.35:1, in all its anamorphic glory. I listened to the DD 2.0 English track, and it was very nice, with dialogue quite audible. There's an audio commentary by Ebert that I still need to get around to listening, and a separate one with Read, Myers, Gavin, Lazar, and Harrison Page. Included are a making-of featurette, as well as short documentaries about the music (I loved it so much, I ordered a separate CD), the "sign of the times" (sex, drugs, and murder... this was shortly after the Manson Family massacre but before they were caught), a special on the lesbian love scene, screen tests, and photo galleries. A great release even if it remains the only affordable one in the US (I, on the other hand, also have the 18-film boxed set from UK's Arrow. Hehehehe.) Definitely worth owning. Now, go order it or else "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"
January 19, 2007