Magnificent Boobsession

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Russ Meyer with actress Angel Ray on the set of 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'

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Here is Eve, times seven. Her garish red lipstick, freckled skin and scornful pout make her a slimmer blond retread of the surly young Jane Russell in "Outlaw." In a 1955 photo titled "Eve in front of fireplace," she wears a sheer negligee, the fabric a soft wind caressing and artfully concealing, her right nipple; before her stand two glasses of red wine — one for you. Over here is Barbara Joy (better known as Lorna Maitland from Meyer's 1964 "Lorna"), baring aureoles the size of an ordinary woman's breast. Joy is more attractively rendered in "Lorna Holding Towel" (1964), the shadow of a piece of toast suggesting the nipple that can't be seen, and in "Lorna and gold lamp," where her pubis is covered by a striped blanket. (The '50s had to play peek-a-boo with men's libidos.) And here is the luscious Raven DeLaCroix — an actual woman!, her dark hair lightly streaked with gray — in a black gown cut nearly to the navel.

What you're about to hear could be the sapped voice of a middle-age man abashedly revisited the flaming follies of his youth. Anyway, to me, the women, except for Raven and perhaps Lorna, have an allure more zoological than priapic. Outfitted in, say, a pink fur and green toreador pants (yow! also ugh!); or casually displaying thigh bruises; or sporting a string of pearls that compliments the veins in her breasts; or with gravity creping the skin on her huge chest; or with another string of beads lost in the Carlsbad Caverns of her cleavage . . the Meyer goddess acquires a carnival tinge, and not from the girlie tent but from the freak-show. By highlighting the imperfections of these women — which is to say, their humanity — Meyer reveals himself as an inadvertent realist, closer to Weegee than to Vargas.


Back in the '50s, Meyer couldn't imagine that his photos would be exhibited in an art gallery a half-century later. Meyer's obsession — mammography — was now his profession. What more could he ask? Plenty. He rankled at his status as "a crass 'tittyboom' girlie magazine photographer" and yearned to break out.

Peter DeCenzie, entrepreneur of the old El Rey Burlesque, had an idea for a movie. In the mid-'50s, the grind houses had been making money with nudist films ("Garden of Eden" and its ilk), whose documentary snapshots of unclothed ladies has been deemed non-pornographic by the courts. No wonder: it was an aseptic genre — a National Geographic photo essay, but with white women — that had no drama or danger to give narrative shape to the female forms. (As Ebert wrote in his long Meyer essay: "One of the most distracting enemies of film eroticism is a lack of context.") Why not add some humor and a wee story line? Meyer had recently shot a Playboy spread of a man imagining women naked. A brisk feature-length movie version would give RM a chance to do "what he does best . . satire and tits / like big ones."

He did it well enough, and marketed it smartly enough, to turn a $24,000, four-day shoot into a movie phenomenon that grossed $1 million (or more, or less — in the sexploitation biz, books were occasionally cooked). It replaced the nudist trend with the "nudie" trend, spawned dozens of pallid imitations (some of them Russ's) and created a nationwide chain of "art" theaters that made U.S. and imported soft-core sex films a thriving genre. All because an ordinary fellow — Meyer's deadpan Army buddy Bill Teas — was surrounded by topless femmes in an American movie. A movie with no dialogue, just a man wandering around, bemused by the strange things he sees. "Teas" is basically a Pete Smith Sexual Specialty. Or a "M. Hulot's Horny Holiday" — Tati with titties.

Today, "Teas" is of mainly archaeological interest. It's full of '50s artifacts and attitudes, from hula hoops to a psychiatrist reading Jules Feiffer's "Sick Sick Sick." The models wear tight blond coiffs that are not so much teased as taunted. There's also a nonstop music score that tells you This Is A COMEDY; the reed section ("wah-wah") does the viewers' smirking for them. The magniloquent narration, delivered in a starched mid-Atlantic accent by Irving Blum, is a salad of encyclopedia browsings ("The density of water is 64.4 lbs. per cubic ft.") and long-fused gags ("The guitar is a very sensitive instrument, with G being the third string, and it is played over a system of frets ... sensitive men have been fretting over G strings for years").

Meyer's cinematography in "Teas," like his glamour photography in Playboy, is also very '50s. Cartoon-like in its bright colors and clean surfaces, it has the blinding, Death-Valley-at-noon clarity of an industrial film or a Kodachrome mug shot. In his later films, Meyer did acknowledge the need for shadows, if only under his stars' bosoms. But he never realized (as the films directed or imported by Radley Metzger were suave enough to) that chiaroscuro is a sensitive sculptor of a woman's curves. Russ was no artful deceiver; his motto was Truth in Advertising. Big boobs — see 'em up close, close enough to get a vicarious mouthful, like baby from mama. His erotic dream was of the bimbo as wet nurse. He was a sucker for suckling.

Yet the prototype Meyer film, "Teas." is a tease. It languishes for 28 mins. before a single breast (all right, a double breast) is shown — and that as if exhibited on a wall, Magritte-style. It's 32 mins. before the first fully topless woman appears. Finally (the film is only 62 mins. long), a trio of lovelies take a sunbath, as in every nudist film that had preceded it. The shock of "Teas" was how unshocking the content was. But in context, the movie delivered more than had been seen in an American movie, and without moralizing. The film ends with a philosophical shrug, as Teas visits a shrink and finds her naked too. "On the other hand," the narrator intones, "some men just like being sick."

Next time: Russ Meyer, Beyond and Beneath

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