Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)

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I don't just love this movie. I want to fuck this movie. Seriously, stick my dick in the DVD player and...OK, let's dial this back a few notches.

The one small complaint I have about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the way it begins, with a dark, murky in medias res montage of teasing glimpses of the climactic scene. It doesn't really grab the viewer, and doesn't seem to tell you much about what's coming, but at least it always gives people the chance to settle in before things get going. This scene climaxes with a man entering a bedroom, where a woman lies asleep. He is holding a pistol. He creeps up on her, and inserts the pistol in her mouth. In the sickest bit of humor in the film, she begins to felate the gun in her sleep, as if this were simply a natural reflex for women. Then she begins to wake up. Her eyes open, and she screams.
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This shot is immediately replaced by a closeup of a female singer screaming on stage in the middle of a rock song. In that moment, as the film passes from the murky darkness of the credit sequence into the day-glow, psychedelic candyland in which most of the movie takes place, is like sex, violence and rock-n-roll reduced to a singularity (you'll have to wait about 30 seconds before drugs show up), and that is what this movie is all about.
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The next scene, a little bit of expository dialogue between the band and their manager (and lead singer's boyfriend) over a joint in the van, introduces the idea of heading out to L.A. to get some money from lead singer Kelly MacNamara's rich aunt. The whole scene goes by in a blink, and we are catapulted by an outrageous montage into another musical number and a roadtrip across the country. The economy of storytelling here is remarkable, and the lightening cuts of scenic shots of Los Angeles and quick glimpses of the movie we are about to see, along with incongruous images like a boot stepping on an egg, a beer bottle overflowing with suds, a nearly-naked woman running through the desert in slo-mo, leave our eyes confused until we arrive at the next scene, Kelly's meeting with Aunt Susan. This is mostly exposition, but Meyer keeps our eyes too busy to notice that we're absorbing information, as half-naked women prance around the fashion designer's studio. And the next thing we know, we're at a wild Hollywood party at record mogul Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell's groovy pad. Again, we are given a lot of expository dialogue, but we're so thrilled with what we're seeing--beautiful people wearing groovy mod fashions, dancing to a live performance by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, throwing ridiculous one-liners about--that we hardly notice the medicine in the spoonful of sugar. Screenwriter Roger Ebert, on his commentary track and interviews, spends a good deal of time talking about how little resemblence any of this has to the "real" music industry, the "real" Hollywood scene, the "real" 60's, but that's beside the point. This is what we want to believe Hollywood is like. This is the Hollywood that Leonardo DiCapprio fantasizes about.
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I first read about this movie in high school. A local punk zine, Suburban Relapse, had an interview with Russ Meyer, and I became immediately intrigued with the idea of seeing his films, especially BVD, which the writer named as his favorite movie. I didn't get a chance to see it until a year or two after I left college. Usually, this is a bad situation. Expectations build up to the point where they are impossible to fulfill. Even Faster Pussycat, which I managed to see somewhere in my college years, disapointed me the first time I saw it (compared to the film I had been imagining in my head--for the record, I loved it on the second viewing). So it's really quite amazing that the first time I saw BVD, after years of thinking about it, fully expecting it to be the greatest movie I had ever seen, I was completely satisfied. More than that, I was blown away. BVD is exactly the movie I wanted it to be, the movie I had always wanted to see.
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There are so many things to praise about the movie. I suppose the most obvious thing is the impossibly beautiful cast of actresses. Front and center are the three girls that form The Carrie Nations, the all-girl rock-n-roll band at the center of the story. There's Cynthia Myers, who may be the most beautiful, voluptuous centerfold in the history of Playboy Magazine (Miss December, 1968). Look at those beautiful, soft, round features.
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Then there's Dolly Read (Miss May, 1966). Equally beautiful body, her big round eyes in an expression of constant startle. I maintain that this film inspired the cartoon Josie & the Pussycats, and that those eyes were the inspiration for how they were drawn.
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And Marcia McBroom, she of the velvety, chocolate skin, impossibly high cheekbones, and devilishly sly grin.
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Then there's Erica Gavin, star of Meyer's previous film, Vixen, wherein she embodied the Meyer ideal of women as dominant sexual predators. Her characterization here reveals some rather nasty notions about sexuality, but I can't help being turned on by the idea of a predatory lesbian seducing innocent starlets.
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Rebecca homage?
I can't say I find Edy Williams quite as attractive as the others--she pours it on a little thick, even compared to Gavin's Vixen performance--but she's definitely hot, and she gives a great, over-the-top performance. She seems to be wildly overacting, but on the cast commentary, her costars maintain that she was barely acting at all--that's just how she was!
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My favorite Russ Meyer girl, Haji, is creeping around too, and the credits say that the queen of 70's genre flicks, Pam Grier, is somewhere in there, although Ebert admits that he's never been any more successful than I have at finding her.
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I'll even admit to having a bit of a crush on John LaZar, who plays Z-Man. Again, Ebert talks about having based Z-Man on Phil Spector without really knowing anything about Phil Spector other than that he was a record producer. But the depiction did turn out to be earily prescient, even if it took 30 years to happen.
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The five Carrie Nations songs are all pretty great, although obviously I like the three rockers better than the flower power anthem "Come With The Gentle People" or even the very good ballad "In The Long Run." I heard Redd Kross' cover of "Look On Up At The Bottom" years before seeing the movie. When my friend Dan got a chance to see BVD at college, the first thing he told me about it was "I don't understand why Redd Kross picked that song. 'Sweet Talkin' Candy Man' is so much better." Steve and Jeff McDonald, who both show up all-too-briefly on disc two (seriously, they get about four sentences out between them, and reveal themselves to be the most learned scholars on the film and it's music available, the only ones who seem able to do a compare-and-contrast of the versions of the songs in the movie versus the versions that appeared on the soundtrack album), concede that the song was pretty ambitious to take on. Turns out the gay punk band Pansy Division (I love that name) have covered "Candy Man." Both songs rock, and so does "Find It."
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What I find most interesting about this is that in 1970, the idea of an all-girl rock-n-roll band was pretty fuckin' radical. There were female vocal groups, but a group of girls not only singing but playing their own instruments was unheard of. I suppose there was The Shaggs, and maybe The Pleasure Seekers, but until The Runaways' first album some 6 years later, there were certainly no girl bands making the charts.
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So I wonder whether BVD is responsible for the existence of all-girl bands. I wonder if, in the same way that scientists get inspired by reading scifi, or police began adopting Sherlock Holmes' detective techniques after reading Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, the idea of female rock bands came into existence as the result of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
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The Runaways' manager, Kim Fowley, was a similar svengali to Malcolm McLaren, who claimed to have invented The Sex Pistols. I could see Fowley getting the idea to put together an all-girl rock band after seeing BVD--he seems like that kind of guy--but on their history page, the band claims to have been starting to form before they met Fowley, and I tend to side with the bands in these stories. Still, it's not hard to imagine a young Joan Jett, Sandy West and Kary Krome emerging from a theater after seeing BVD, all having experienced a mutual epiphany that they should start a band, much like The Byrds say happened after they saw A Hard Day's Night.
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All-girl and majority-girl rock bands wouldn't become common until the early 90's Riot Grrrl scene, but they did start popping up occasionally in the punk days of the late 70's (The Slits, for instance). It was the Go-Go's and The Bangles who first brought the girl band to the top of the charts. The Bangles used to play secret shows in L.A. as The Carrie Nations, and The Go-Go's titled their anthology CD Beyond the Valley of the Go-Go's, so the evidence is strong for my hypothesis. Artistic visions of a better world lead to real-life implementations of those visions.
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So finally, the film has arrived on DVD, and it's a nice'n. Ebert's commentary is essential, with stories about Meyer's field filming in WWII, and the aborted movie Ebert and Meyer were hired to create around the Sex Pistols (although he curiously never mentions Julian Temple's The Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle), and fun trivia facts like that the set for Z-Man's pad was an unused set built for Myra Breckenridge. He also spends a lot of time wondering just how the hell they got away with all they did. The cast commentary sounds like exactly what it is--a group of old buddies getting together to reminisce about old times. The worst part of it is that John LaZar seems to think he's much funnier than he is, and monopolizes far too much of the conversation.
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The second disc is packed with interviews from Ebert, the cast, critics and fans. Michael Blodgett actually has the best story, a tale about his run-in with a freaked-out fan. The footage is edited together in a rather campy way that got on my nerves at first (this certainly isn't how Criterion would have done it!), but as I settled in I realized that it was really done in a pretty good homage to Meyer's style. There's an extensive still gallery, and even the menus on the first disc are well done. And there's an envelope full of postcard-sized reproductions of lobby cards. There are big, hit movies out there that don't have this kind of royal DVD treatment.
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Of course, no DVD set can be complete enough to satisfy a hardcore fan, so I do have my nitpicks. Chief among them is that they waited until Meyer was too dead to participate in the interviews and commentary track. I would have loved it if they could have recovered the extra sex and nudity that Meyer had shot but left out in fruitless pursuit of an R-rating. And if Paramount can get John Waters to do a commentary track on Mommie Dearest, why can't Fox get some input from Waters? But I guess my biggest disapointment is that everyone who worked on the film is so positive. Didn't John LaZar accuse Meyer of ruining his career back in the 70's? And what about Erica Gavin's snearing assessment of Meyer (from an interview with Danny Peary, in Peary's book Cult Films): "Russ Meyer's not a director. He's a cameraman. He's great at shooting that slick look, having colors very good, the light very bright, with no muted tones and everything looking sharp. As a director, I don't think he really knows what he's doing when he does it."? I was looking forward to hearing her rag on Meyer, but she has nothing but fond memories as far as this disc is concerned. Well, time heals all wounds, I suppose, and the actors know which side of their bread is buttered. For everyone involved save Charles Napier, Roger Ebert and (despite Ebert's opinion) The Strawberry Alarm Clock, BVD is the biggest item on the resume. Best not to bite the hand that feeds.
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Blogger Anne C Purcell said...

Can I just say,
THANK YOU SO MUCH for these high-quality screengrabs!
I'm doing a poster mock-up for my research paper and don't have access to my own copy of BVD.

How would you like me to credit you?

3/23/2010 10:13 AM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

Thanks. You don't really have to credit me, but if you want to, my name is Chris Oliver. If your research paper is on this film or Russ Meyer, I would be interested in reading it.

3/23/2010 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Rudolph said...

I absolutely tie in with anything you've presented us.
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2/27/2012 4:21 PM  
Blogger lise silva said...

Thanks for these stills! I love this movie.

"This is my happening and it freaks me out!"

3/08/2012 10:42 AM  

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