Tag Archives: Roger Ebert

RUSS MEYER’S BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA VIXENS (1979)

Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens (1979) is the last authentic Russ Meyer film (he returned only to produce 2001‘s rarely-seen Pandora Peaks, which is, as to be expected, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the documentary genre). Co-written by (under his “R. Hyde” pseudonym), Meyer’s swan song is film as one additional cup size enhancement. It has charmed moments of Meyerisms, including his trademark spry editing, but adds erratic eroticism. Meyer once claimed it was the favorite of his own works (although he said the same of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). This may be an echo of Paul Gauguin’s claim that the artistic process was more satisfying than the finished work. Coloring Meyer’s sense of nostalgia for the film was his admission that he constantly engaged in sex with star between takes. According to Meyer, the actress introduced him to multifarious taboos and was even more oversexed than he was.

As in Up! (1976), the plot is emaciated Surrealism. The relationship (so to speak) between Surrealism and pornography has been complex since the movement’s inception (works by Georges Bataille, Susan Sontag, and Theodor Adorno are among essential writings on the subject). Meyer’s brand of Surrealism is strictly visceral, which renders him closer to authentic Surrealism than to soft-core porn. For the Surrealists, porn’s lack of social acceptability amounted to an endorsement. However, its totalitarian simple-mindedness prevented a complete embrace, or mimicry. Rather, elements of pornography proved influential to the aesthetics and tenets of Surrealism.

Of course, Meyer did not associate himself with any –ism, and it’s doubtful that he gave much thought to categorizing his work. He simply stayed true to his sense of craftsmanship, making films that he would want to see. He voluntarily returned to the limits of independent budgets as opposed to compromising with Twentieth Century Fox, who any other indie filmmaker would have killed to work for. That anti-bourgeoisie, stubbornly rebellious streak invites a comparison to Surrealist bad boys such as Andre Breton, , or George Antheil. However, as much as Meyer was obsessed with breasts, he was equally preoccupied with cartoonish slapstick; another surrealist plane of identification. His films, especially his last two, are akin to a visualization of a Carl Stalling collage.

Still from Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-vixens (1979)The gossamer narrative revolves around Lavonia (Natividad) who is sexually unsatisfied with hubby Lamar (Ken Kerr). As the “Small Town USA Narrator” (Stuart Lancaster in a pickup truck) informs us, “Lamar, with a 37 IQ, is strictly a rear window man[1].” Lamar’s fetish gets him fired from his job (no perverts allowed here), and drives Lavonia into the sheets with her vibrator. She follows this by having affairs with Mr. Peterbuilt (Pat Wright), teen meat Rhett (Steve Tracy) and lingerie salesman Semper Fidelis (Michael Finn). Oddly, wifey’s bonding with the battery powered machine drives Lamar into a far greater frenzy than her extramarital rendezvous.

With a slinky dress and gaudy wig from Semper, Lavonia hits the strip clubs under the stage name of Lola. Borrowing a plot from countless opera librettos, the husband comes across his disguised wife and does not recognize her. Lavonia’s ruse to trick her husband into good old fashioned vaginal intercourse utterly fails, driving Lamar to seek gay counselor Asa Lavender (Robert Pearson) and female Benny Hinn type-Eufaula Roop (Anne Marie) for conversion therapy.

Meyer’s camera work and editing is at it most -like, fixating on inanimate objects, most of which are utilized as phallic and vaginal symbols (such as a record player). He also employs extreme close-ups of Natividad’s sex parts paralleled, per the norm, with vivacious sound effects.

While much of Meyer’s work intersects sex and violence, there is virtually none of the latter here and, with no real antagonist, Beneath deliriously celebrates the joy of sex. Meyer had once planned a film titled The Bra Of God, which for various reasons did not come to fruition. However, in that planned title and this film we locate the pulse of Meyer’s inseparable art and life. Existential questions are banished. Like the birds, bees, ants, and fish, the relevance of life pertains primarily to pleasure found in sexual union. We share that with the beasts and primitives. The sole difference is we do not, or should not, divorce love (and appreciation of beauty) from sex. For Meyer, pursuit of power, acquisition of dyed green paper, and the quest to find an invisible deity are pursuits for the unenlightened.

  1. One might speculate as well how much of this plotline was semi-autobiographical. Meyer claimed that Natividad introduced him to anal sex, which she was apparently preoccupied with []

RUSS MEYER’S BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)

Purportedly, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970) was the film felt was his most successful work. It was certainly his most profitable movie, and has the most extensive cult following.

Its origin is well known. Upon learning that Meyer’s Vixen (1968) brought in six million dollars on a budget of seventy-five thousand, Fox Studios signed the director to a three-picture deal, with each budgeted at one million. The studio desperately needed a profitable venture, after the expensive flops Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly (1969). Meyer was assigned scriptwriter to make a spoof of the studio’s Valley Of The Dolls (1967). After Mark Robson’s adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trash novel had proven to be a surprise hit, Fox was taking no chances, counting on the Dolls name to bring in audiences.

 Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is only loosely related to its original source, and it was hated by both studio and Susann (who unsuccessfully sued to stop its release, fearing it would harm even her reputation). Fox insisted that Meyer insert a disclaimer, informing viewers that BTVOTD was not related to the Susann original. In hindsight, the studio’s misgivings are puzzling, since the movie is exactly what they ordered: a big budget Russ Meyer flick that became an instant cult phenomenon. While best viewed as a time capsule, BTVOTD is better than the pedestrian film it parodies. Valley Of The Dolls was directed on cruise control. Comparatively,  BTVOTD has the vigor of a tawdry cartoon, supplied by its twenty-seven-year-old scriptwriter and a middle-aged perverted artisan.

Still from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)Kelly Mac Namara (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom) are “The Kelly Affair,” a trio of buxom rockers who, in their “Josie and the Pussycats” van, travel from sleepy Texas to the wild and wooly Los Angeles in hopes of success.  At a party, thrown by a bell-bottomed Caligula, the hexagon of singing mammary glands are discovered by the androgynous Z -Man (John Lazar, channeling Phil Spector), who redubs them “The Carrie Nations.”  With their rapid success comes drug addiction, avarice, harlotry, lesbianism, abortion, alcoholism, transsexualism, porn stars, and Nazi orgies.

Visually, the film is a 1970 smorgasbord of primary colors, beautifully captured by cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. Accompanying the eye-popping visuals is catchy musical kitsch. The editing, like the plot, is episodic. As in the best of Meyer, the appeal of BTVOTD lies not in its narrative, but in its self-conscious camp. Comparisons to Chuck Jones cartoons are apt (as he would do again in 1975’s Supervixens, Meyer throws in Wile E. Coyote sound effects). BTVOTD hurls the viewer into an unexpected psychedelic, psychotic comic strip of a finale, which still divides the film’s fan base. It is unlike everything that precedes it. The ill-fated Sharon Tate was among Valley of the Dolls’ leads, which makes the nihilistic Charles Manson-styled massacre of BTVOTD a shrewdly tasteless finale worthy of John Waters.

BTVOTD is a celebration of counter culture trash. Despite its excesses, garishness, and plethora of broken taboos, its appeal will be dependent on the audience’s receptiveness to drug-induced soap opera pacing. For some, this is the director at his most accessible. Undoubtedly, BTVOTD is an essential entry in the Russ Meyer oeuvre, but it is debatable as a good starting point.

ROGER EBERT’S (UNAUTHORIZED, CONJECTURAL) TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

This site loves nothing more than to collect top 10 weird movie lists from directors and critics, but I chickened out of soliciting one from Roger Ebert, until it was too late. Perhaps it was the certain knowledge that he wouldn’t return my calls or e-mails. Perhaps I had read this quote—“Despite the entreaties of countless editors, authors and websites, I decline to make lists of the best comedies, horror films, Christmas films, family films, Westerns, musicals, political films, silent films, films about dogs, and so on. That way madness lies”—and taken it to heart. Whatever. Never mind. Roger Ebert is beyond madness now. I’ll leave it to others to compile his posthumous lists of best comedies, horror films, and so on. By way of tribute to one of the great proselytizers of the movies, we’re going to reconstruct a list of ten films that, based on available evidence, very well might have comprised Roger Ebert’s Top 10 Weird Movie List, had he deigned to compose one for us.

Some may assume that an overstuffed shirt like Ebert could never appreciate a truly weird movie. In cult movie circles Ebert is notorious for his one-star review of ‘s Blue Velvet, which he almost admire but complained was irredeemably “marred by sophomoric satire and cheap shots.” Nearly every hip movigoer throws that one back in Ebert’s face at one time or another; that embarassing slam of a beloved classic confirms the stereotype of movie critics as nerdy old white guys with no sense of humor when it comes to gratuitous nudity, violence and general transgressiveness.

People forget that, as a Russ Meyer screenwriter, this same Roger Ebert was the creator of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘ Z-Man, the acid-tripping, broadsword wielding hermaphrodite manager of the big boob babe band The Carrie Nations. The man knew his weird. And although he necessarily covered the mainstream movie beat, he constantly challenged his readers to seek out new cinematic experiences, recommending they see black and white movies, silent movies, campy movies, foreign movies, surreal movies… anything different, and anything bizarre. “We are put on this planet only once, and to limit ourselves to the familiar is a crime against our minds” Ebert said in answer to the question of who would possibly want to see the sadomasochistic Korean fishing story The Isle.

Pan's LabyrinthConstructing a ten weird movie list that Roger Ebert would probably sign off on is a tall order, but not an impossible one. First off, we have access to Ebert’s ten votes in Sight & Sounds’ greatest movie poll. Strikingly, two of the movies he considers the greatest of all time also fall under the general heading of “weird movies” (and cases could even be made for some of his other choices like Aguirre: Wrath of God, La Dolce Vita, Vertigo and Apocalypse Now, although I wont make them). If they’re among his top ten movies of all time regardless of genre, we’ll assume they would also make his top ten weird movies of all time. Ebert also reveals a runner-up film for the poll which is substantially weirder than all of the others that made his list—so there’s a third entry right off the bat. We also have access to Ebert’s year-by-year top ten lists for the decades he reviewed films, from 1967 to 2012; whenever he considered a weird film to be the best movie of the year—which happened a remarkable four times—I presumed it would make his all-time weird film list.

That procedure left us needing only three movies to fill out his quota, which (besides the difficulty of ordering the selections) is where the trouble comes in. Ebert created a canonized list of over 300 films he considered “Great Movies.” Obviously his remaining three favorite weird films would be found there—but which ones? I eliminated any movies that came from his reviewing career of 1967 on, assuming that if a movie was one of his favorite weird films, it would have topped his overall movie list for that particular year. That methodology eliminated a number of perfectly honorable weird films, including Mulholland Drive (2001), two  efforts (1970’s El Topo and 1989’s Santa Sangre—never say anyone who includes two Jodorowsky movies in their top films of all time doesn’t appreciate his weird movies), and Persona (1966) (one of his very first reviewing assignments which, I suspect, he might have reassessed more glowingly if he had redone his yearly lists).

That left me with only a handful of remaining movies that were both weird, and unranked by Ebert in other venues, to consider. Here is where the arbitrary element of the process creeps in. I tried to select from these movies the ones that seemed most important, the ones about which Ebert was most effusive, and the ones that actually incorporated the word “weird” in a complimentary way somewhere in the body of the review. That procedure meant overlooking a good number of movies that Ebert might very well have honored if he’d had the chance to compose the list himself. I’ll mention the five most important of those omissions here as Ebert’s unofficial honorable mentions: Un Chien Andalou, Orpheus, The Exterminating Angel, Last Year at Marienbad, and Belle de Jour.

Although this project may seem like a self-serving act of public necrophilia to steal clicks away from more deserving and original pieces of film criticism, I honestly intend this hypothetical compilation as a tribute to a great movie lover whose advocacy of the offbeat has been under-appreciated. Spending time with his writing, trying to put myself inside the mind of Roger Ebert, has been an honor and a gift.

Without further ado, here is Roger Ebert’s unauthorized, conjectural Top 10 Weird Movies:

10. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, d. ). Ebert’s top movie of 2006. I have placed it in the tenth position because, although it’s as good Continue reading ROGER EBERT’S (UNAUTHORIZED, CONJECTURAL) TOP 10 WEIRD MOVIES

R.I.P. ROGER EBERT

Film critic Roger Ebert passed away yesterday at the age of 70.

Owner of one of the world’s two most renowned thumbs, Ebert will probably be the last person who is famous for saying what he thinks about movies.

Besides being the first person to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, Ebert should also be remembered as the screenwriter for three Russ Meyer movies: the camp hit Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), Up! (1976), and the slightly insane boob festival Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979).

Although he was known for his scathing putdowns (he authored a book of all negative reviews entitled “I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie” and said of the now-forgotten 1996 comedy Mad Dog Time, “It should be cut up to provide free ukulele picks for the poor”), he was every bit as brashly eloquent when he loved a film. My favorite Roger Ebert quote came from his four-star review of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979): “…you may be asking, how can I defend this depraved trash? I do not defend it. I praise it.

Ebert had two overwhelming strengths as a critic. First, he could write intelligently about film without ever being the slightest bit academic or obscure. Second, he clearly delineated the reasons why he liked or disliked a movie so that, agree or disagree with his ultimate judgement, you had the information necessary to decide for yourself.

Two thumbs down for death. Two thumbs up for Roger Ebert.