Thanks for the Mammaries

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A few minutes ago, I received an unsolicited e-mail with the header "Bigger breasts — Men Will Look." This bit of mam-spam promised a pill or pulley (can't be sure: I didn't click on the link) that was "Guaranteed to increase, lift and firm your breasts in 60 days or your money back!! 100% herbal and natural. Proven formula since 1996. Increase your bust by 1 to 3 sizes within 30-60 days and be all natural. Absolutely no side effects! Be more self confident! Be more comfortable in bed! No more need for a lift or support bra! 100% GUARANTEED AND FROM A NAME YOU KNOW AND TRUST!" Let me guess: it's the Enron Enlarger?

While I was impressed by the "100% herbal" part, I must admit: My breasts are every bit as big as they have to be. But the ad did have a therapeutic side effect. It helped remind me of Russ Meyer's crucial spot on the American spectrum. The filmmaker who uncaged Bosomania as a movie genre is part, and partial progenitor, of a breast-worshipping subculture (or bust-culture) that demands women carry treasure chests, whether real or artificially augmented. Bigger breasts: Men will look. Available from a plastic surgeon near you. Ladies, don't be satisfied with nature's meager bounty. Be all that you can buy.

From "The Immoral Mr. Teas," his first nudie in 1959, to "Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens," his last sex comedy 20 years later, virtually every Meyer movie was a tale of two titties (or four, six, eight, as many as Russ could get his hands on) — a celebration of women who were bulbous of breast. His actresses toted breastwork so gargantuan they nearly ceased to be human; they were critters of another species, perhaps not animal but mineral, their topography of sexual interest only to size freaks. The unleashing of what Meyer would call a woman's "oh-so-mammiferous buxotic bare bongers" suggests less the Return of the Repressed than the Attack of the 50 Ft. Bosom. The gigantic breast that chased Woody Allen in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" might have been the logo for Russ's production company.

Being a gifted populist artist as well as (his word) a "tittenfilmer," Meyer didn't simply display acres of swollen flesh; he vigorously tilled that fertile field. His top-heavy starlets grunted and hove in aerobicized ecstasy, exhorting their pale male swains to "Strap me on!" Meyer's oeuvre was all about sex: getting it, revering it, suffering for it, joking about it and, mostly, staring at it. He achieved what, John Berger has written, is the essence of cinema: Men looking at women. Women with pontoon protuberances.

And he did it first — three times. As Roger Ebert notes in his 1973 essay on Meyer (reprinted in the excellent anthology "Kings of the Bs"), "each of his three largest-grossing independent films was the first of its type. 'Teas' was the first uninhibited American nudie; 'Lorna' (1964) was the first fully scripted sex-violence-and-nudity movie to attempt to escape the limited booking of the skin-flick genre; and 'Vixen' (1968) was the first American skin flick intended to appeal to women as well as to men, and aimed at bookings in respectable first-run situations."

Beyond Teasing

"The Immoral Mr. Teas," which earned something like 80 times its production cost, earned Meyer his notoriety, and his first fortune. But the no-dialogue, bright-colored nudie comedy was a limited format, and it took a while for him to think of something else. Meanwhile, he ground out more pallid imitations of "Teas." In "Wild Gals of the Naked West" — starring, as "Teas" had, a veteran of Meyer's World War II unit, the 166th Signal Corps (this time Sammy Gilbert) — the girls wore bejeweled pasties, "covering the money," as his producer Pete deCenzie grumbled. Even Meyer wasn't crazy about some of these efforts. In his rampaging autobiography "A clean BREAST! The Life and Loves of Russ Meyer," he writes of the 1962 "Erotica" that "the film made more than a couple of bucks" and adds, in a note of despondency rare to this buoyant memoir, "There's no accounting for taste."

As sexploitation began maturing, Meyer faced some serious competition. Radley Metzger's Audubon Films was importing relatively sophisticated French films with a soupçon of sexual decadence. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David F. Friedman had reaped a bonanza with the ghouly-gory-nudie-roughie "Blood Feast." (Friedman, who oddly gets no mention in "A clean BREAST!", was a mirror Meyer: an inspired huckster with a gift for literary bombast. His memoir "A Youth in Babylon: Confessions of a Trash-Film King" is a marvel of evocative high-comic writing. And stay tuned for the sequel!) So Meyer, deciding it was "time to bust out of the industrial film format," concocted a black-and-white Bible-bustin' tract called "Lorna."

He says it had been suggested by the 1949 Italian neo-realist near-classic "Bitter Rice" — or, more precisely, by the sultry, skirt-hiking image of Silvana Mangano, who made the movie an international hit. "Lorna" had closer affinities to "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre," Erskine Caldwell's novels of the dirt-poor, lubricious South, where the men are mean and the women are willin', where everyone quotes the Bible and nobody follows its Commandments. There isn't much skin in the movie, just a midnight bath in the old crick, but what's there is cherce; for Meyer's leading lady, Barbara Joy (whom he rechristened Lorna Maitland, after her character), possessed a pretty, persuasively sullen face — and, more to the points, a hefty bosom that flouted all known laws of thermodynamics.

The movie is, I suppose, an exposé of religious fanaticism — a strange agenda to set before his mostly rural, most Southern audiences. Didn't matter: Meyer always poured so much kinetic Kickapoo Joy Juice into his social parodies that few but the prudish could take offense. "Lorna" was not only big at "the ticket wickets," it pleased the rubes, not to mention the movie exhibitors who made money from them. "What a joy to see on a warm romantic Kansas City night," Bev Winter, a Kansas City film broker, wrote to Meyer — "a full drive-in with all those cars shakin' and breakin'."

"Lorna" launched Meyer into a second, artistically abundant mid-'60s phase: black-and-white backwoods melodramas. The films' plot variations on cupidity and stupidity were nearly as inspired as their titles. "Mudhoney"! (A familiarly lurid tale of the drifter, the town bully and the yearning babe, with a supporting role for Maitland.) "Motorpsycho"! (A low-budget "Wild One" — the motorcycle crazies ride mopeds — with many worthy extras: a nice debut turn by Alex Rocco as a man whose wife the gang raped; a cameo by Meyer as the sexist sheriff who snaps, as regards Rocco's wife, "Nothin' happened to her a woman's not built for!"; and the legendary snake-venom scene where Rocco instructs leading lady Haji to "Suck it! Suck it out!") Finally, "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!", which doesn't need my exclamation points, since it comes with three of its own, and which film director and cultural garbalogist John Waters proclaimed "the best movie ever made."

This loose remake of "The Desperate Hours," or possibly "The Virgin Spring" — three snarling strippers take a young couple hostage — got its grit from the actress Meyer calls "the demanding / mind-bludgeoning Tura Satana." A spiked cocktail of Amer-Asian genes, Satana had been stripping since she was 13 (the year she was married, according to one source) and played Suzette Wong in Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce." At 30, she looked millennia older, not wiser but wizened, relying on reptilian instincts of survival and predation. Her Varla is the most honest, maybe the one honest, portrayal in the Meyer canon. Certainly the scariest.

By the mid-'60s, Meyer had assembled his own tight little gang. Among them: Anthony James Ryan, a 166th vet who helped write "Vixen!" and toiled in many production capacities; Jack Moran, writer on "Pussycat" and four other films and all-round guy Friday; editor and soundman Richard Brummer; sound editor Don Minkler; music director Igo Kantor; actor Franklin Bolger, the put-upon older husband in six Meyers; and, performing in two films, all-time-worst director also-ran (he was tops at nothing) and "Mystery Science Theater" favorite Coleman Francis.

Note that all are men. Meyer's company was named Eve Productions, after his wife and former glamour model. To earn her producer credit on 11 films, she ran the office, negotiated with buyers and simmered while Russ kept her home while he had fun — what kind of fun? — on location. Their relationship, professionally symbiotic, was personally strained. After an operation, she told Russ: "I hope you're satisfied: I can never have a baby now." They divorced in 1970, and Meyer married Edy Williams, the starlet-visaged, harlot-configured ornament to his first studio film, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Edy had a glamour-babe ego ("I wake up every morning and just start kissing myself") without the acting goods to back it up. By the time she become a fixture of fun at the Cannes Film Festival, Edy had skipped Famous and gone directly to Notorious.

Beyond the Valley

Meyer, Phase Three: "Vixen" and his other color comedies "Good Morning...and Goodbye," "Common Law Cabin," "Finder Keepers, Lovers Weepers," "Cherry, Harry & Raquel!" These films took the narrative excess and exuberance of the "Lorna"-period movies and lead-footedly revved up the pace, until they were little frenzies of lust and frustration. The playing of the actresses was even more aggressive, of the actors even more perplexed. The humor was foregrounded; now the world could say, for sure, "Oh — he's kidding," allowing uncomplicated enjoyment of the bustling and the busts. "Vixen," the snazziest of this crowd, was Meyer's all-time top-grossing film. "Unquestionably, without 'Vixen,' " he writes, "Russ would have been an also-ran."

Russ was also getting some serious critical attention. Yale University hosted a retrospective of his films. Richard Schickel attended the event and wrote a long Meyer appreciation for Life, then a weekly picture magazine. In France, critic Jean-Pierre Jackson reviewed "Common Law Cabin" and reverently called it "the most implausible film ever made." The Village Voice put its sassiest junior movie critic (me) on the Meyer beat, opening the sluice gate to torrents of mannered enthusiasm. I'd followed Meyer since around 1960, when I saw "Teas" at an "art" theater in Philadelphia, but I didn't strap him on till the color comedies. Later I was vagrantly known as the guy who had named "Beyond the Valley" one of the ten best films of the '60s. (I don't have the clipping, but it's entirely plausible — I quite liked the movie.)

"BVD" (in its affectionate acronym) marked the most tonic collaboration-collision of an indie filmmaker and a major studio. 20th Century Fox, which owned the rights to a sequel of the Jacqueline Susann book and hit film "Valley of the Dolls," hired Meyer for the job; and Meyer hired Ebert to write the script. It was just at the time — call it the "Easy Rider" era — when studio bosses briefly convinced themselves they knew nothing about the huge new youth audience and were ready to hand the keys over to dopers, arty types and the occasional tittenfilmer.

The marriage of Fox's desperation and Meyer's methodical madness should have showed evidence of vitiating compromise. Instead, "BVD" blared its elan and vulgarity in color by DeLuxe. The story — of the Carrie Nations, a girl rock group (a nice novelty idea) on the rise in the L.A. music world — made "BVD" the first major movie drenched in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. It parodies Susann, Hollywood big-shots, sex-star hangers-on (Edy as Ashley St. Ives) and record producer Phil Spector (a weird man ultimately outed as a homicidal woman). At the end, the movie slices its own jugular and spurts crimson violence before doubling over in a mock-inspirational coda that somehow blends "Bride and Groom" with the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

Fox released it, with an X rating, a month after another, more prominent X-er, "Myra Breckinridge," had ignominiously tanked. "BVD" earned a healthy return on investment and a sheaf of favorable notices — though not every critic loved the film. The Chicago Tribune's reviewer sniped at the movie and its tyro scripter: "Boredom aplenty is provided by a screenplay which, for some reason, has been turned over to a screenwriting neophyte." (This was young Gene Siskel, twitting his rival, later partner-rival, Ebert. Here's thumb in your eye.)

Meyer could never have felt snug in the lavish, high-overhead, take-six-meetings-and-never-make-a-movie atmosphere of the big studios. After one more Fox film ("The Seven Minutes"), he escaped back to indie filmmaking with a meager, loyal crew and the freedom to do whatever he wanted. And what he wanted was sex. It was the '70s; sex was free for the taking; Meyer's marriage to Williams was now in the past tense. And his new obsession, Francesca "Kitten" Natividad, was just too tempting. So the old pro eventually broke his old rule of not having sex with the help.

Studio bosses had exploited the favors of starlets for decades, but they had a front office with a back bedroom. Russ was on location. With his crew of guy pals. And few nooks to nuzzle in. But his lust would not be dammed. During a break on the set of "Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens," he had a quick, volcanic dose of Kitten. They returned to the set, with, as Russ relates, "Miss Natividad out of concern, choosing to quiz the filmmaker: ?Do you think anyone knew what we were doing?' 'Sure,' RM replying blithely: 'When you came back to the set, much of your makeup had been eaten off.'"

Beyond and Beneath

Critical and studio recognition can be a bane to an indie filmmaker. When a termite artist sticks his head above ground, he can be blinded by the welcoming light. He starts believing his press clippings, calcifying his style, trying to give the public and his doting critics what he thinks they want. It's a dispiriting devolution.

Meyer didn't quite go that route. His '70s indie work is like the late period of any personal filmmaker, from Fellini to Bergman: the same, but more-so; apotheosis merging with self-parody. Some vaunted directors, like Hitchcock, run out of steam as they pass retirement age. Meyer didn't wind down; he got more wound up. Cartoons of cartoons. Ballistic bazooms. Giganta-goddesses like Ushi Digard spurred the poet in his loins ("her large, burnished melons deeply cleaved").

So did Meyer's need simply to live up to the legend created around him. Ebert, in his 1973 essay, had written admiringly of the director's stripped-down means of production: "It isn't so much that he operated his own camera as that he also carried it." And what do we see in "Beneath the Valley"? A shot of Russ, carrying his camera up a mountain. Actually, since this is one of the last shots in Meyer's last feature film, it has in retrospect the tone of a distant wave goodbye from a grizzled old friend.

"A clean BREAST!" documents the whole obsessive odyssey, in 1213 pages of rumination and rant. It's all here. Way too much is here, Meyer believing with William Blake that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. He must, for it is his nature, document his preoccupation with protuberances: the meditation comparing English bosoms to Italian abbondanzas, the tribute to "Anita Ekberg's gravity-defying / conically capacious dairying facilities." But he is as generous to other, minor bards as he is to himself, including long excerpts of movie critiques from the likes of the Kankakee Clarion, the Chico News and Review.

At times, Meyer's fervid prose gets a case of blue balls, with indecipherable similes ("fast as a Sioux going to take a dump") or a juice-blend of three languages in five words, as in one inebriated axiom for living: "Camaraderie .. honest Arbeit* .. profane Vögeln.** Nothing beats it!" (This is translated in a footnote, or, as Russ insists, an "editor's titnote": "* Work. ** Fucking.") His Berlin affair with German hottie Renate Hütte (later known, in Russ's "Mudhoney," as Rena Horton) is recalled as an evening of "succulent schlemmers and Gatling-gun Gesundheits!" Limning an energetic tryst with one Mrs. Janet Buxton, he apostrophizes: "Oh, what hath headboards and Hemingway wrought!" (I give up: what hath pine and Papa wrought?) And in a reverie on his double hernia, Meyer writes: "Cause: hunkeringly / horizontal / hyper-activity about / atop ?Castle on Mulholland's' slick-sick sheets (lacking tooth)." Translation into English — anyone? Anyone?

And yet the reader can never become exasperated with a writer who refers to sex as "a pelvis-to-pelvic impaction" or "root and canal work"; who acts as his own randy Roget, gleefully riffing on synonyms for roundness of breast ("rotundity, globularity, orbicularity and globosity") or anthropomorphizing his favorite female body part as "pouting, bulging, arching, ballooning, gravity-defying, ... surging, quivering, heaving, swaying, intoxicating, tantalizing, bouncing, suffocating, yes, even overwhelming!"

Russ roams into antiquity for some of his metaphors, characterizing Babette Bardot (featured player in Meyer's "Mondo Topless" and "Common Law Cabin") as "a blonde-tressed voluptua with dimensions not unlike Etruscan sculpture." And then, still not flagging 1163 pages into the opus, he unfurls this description of cheesecake model Letha Weapons and her 36H bra: "Big boobs bolstered by a breast hammock based on the principle that made the Sydney Opera House feasible."

How can you not give such a man — such a mind — a big bear hug?

Beyond Soft Core

Sex sex sex. Still, I wonder: Did anyone ever get aroused watching a Russ Meyer movie? Purely aside from the erotic challenge of appreciating gals with chests like Mark McGwire's biceps (an important consideration for lonely fellows with their hands in their pants), there was the very industry of Russ's style. I mean, his movies moved, with all that churning action, the fast cutting, the piling of deadpan comic narration upon preposterous, nay, delirious plot twists. For sure, this technique kept the men in the audience on the cinematic alert. But Meyer paid little attention to satisfying the voyeur's essential need: to gaze uninterrupted at a beautiful woman who know she's being watched. Eroticism in movies demands a man with a slow hand — behind the camera as well as in the audience.

For these reasons, in the long-ago days of my soft-core connoisseurship, I preferred Metzger's films. As director, he made such money-making dramas as "Camille 2000," "Therese and Isabelle" and "The Lickerish Quartet." As a distributor, he imported and meticulously re-edited (sometimes re-shot) movies by soft-core masters Max Pecas ("Erotic Touch of Hot Skin"), José Bénazéraf ("Sexus") and Mac Ahlberg ("I, a Woman").

In some ways, Meyer and Metzger had much in common. Both were meticulous artists and canny businessmen, adept at anticipating audience trends. Metzger saw that sex could sell if it spoke in a foreign accent; Meyer saw it could sell if it offered an unbuttoned version of steamy Hollywood melodrama. Working opposite sides of the sexploitation street, the two men elevated the genre from the grindhouse to the art house and the drive-in. Eventually, as noted, Meyer's films graduated from the agricultural school frat house to the Yale film society. Metzger's films, which were thoughtfully reviewed by Vincent Canby in the New York Times and Schickel in Life, never quite acquired the Meyer cachet — perhaps because his pictures needed to be viewed in seriousness and solitude, while Meyer's vigorous farce-melodramas could simultaneously be laughed at and cheered.

In film style and personal temperament, the two men formed perfect bookends for '60s sex. Metzger was the European sophisticate to Meyer's canny version of the all-American yahoo rube. Metzger's films were caresses, Meyer's were comic assaults. Metzger's languid tracking shots of fabulously decadent femmes suggested a heated-up Max Ophuls; Meyer, with his brisk shearing of every shot to milliseconds, was the redneck Resnais. Metzger was the elegant gent on a leisurely prowl of the haut monde, as fascinated by the décor of a bedroom as by the woman on the silk sheets; Meyer was the combat photographer getting snapshots of the carnal carnage that thrilled and amused him.

The two directors' views of what makes a woman desirable also couldn't be more different. Nearly 30 years ago (Jan.-Feb. 1973), I put together an issue of Film Comment devoted to cinema sex. One of the attractions was Ebert's essay on Meyer, which examined the director's adherence to the principles of Eisensteinian montage and all-round breast fetishism. Another was a long interview I conducted with Metzger, who proved himself the most engaging and articulate of auteurs. In the interview Metzger recalled that, in his 1967 film "Carmen, Baby," "There was a very famous sex star, Barbara Valentine, who had just had a baby, and her breasts were so out of proportion to the rest of her that I felt they were better dressed than undressed." Imagine Meyer's response to Valentine's post-partum porch — his eyes would've Slinky'd out like a Tex Avery wolf's.

It happened that the Film Comment sextravaganza appeared just as erotic movies had evolved from soft- to hard-core. (The issue also included a Brendan Gill essay, in which the New Yorker theater critic proposed the superiority of fellation to cunnilingus as a visual trope in porn films.) "Deep Throat," which had opened the previous summer, was the "Immoral Mr. Teas" of hard-core: a gimmick comedy photographed in cheery primary colors and rendered harmless (and popular) by the amiable mugging of star Harry Reems, the Groucho of sex films.

With that engulfing wave of porno chic, the soft-core genre that had been so smartly personified by the Janus face of Meyer-Metzger became instantly obsolete. Metzger, in his interview, declared that "the soft-core arousal film, the turn-on movie, has always been with us, and will always be with us." Yet two years later he was directing, under the pseudonym Henry Paris, classy hard-core features like "The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann" and his porno "Pygmalion," "The Opening of Misty Beethoven."

Meyer suffered a similar crise de coeur. In "A clean BREAST!" he acknowledges that his "independent 'limber' X-rated productions seemingly suffered from the increasing threat of hard-core sex, a genre that personally turned the man off." And yet he would not surrender; he would keep making Russ Meyer movies, whether they were trend-setters or reminder items on the nostalgia counter. As he puts it: "the coruscating carnal pile in RM's scrotum refused to be placated . . the continuing need to achieve remaining number one."

For 20 years Meyer made movies. For 20 more years he toiled on this autobiography. Together they represent the twin peaks of his career. And he would have you believe that his fetishizing of the "female form divine" is an act of veneration. Throughout "A clean BREAST!" are dozens of photos of topless gals, their heads encased in plain paper bags. The most brazen sexism, eh? No, insists the author. "These shrouded women are a tented testament to the mystery that veils all womanhood and it is that mystery that Meyer has spent a lifetime trying to uncover."

Mysterious, seductive, sometimes beautiful, worth a lifetime of scholarship — they are all that, Russ. They're also big-bosomed women with bags over their heads.