Movies – The Russ Meyer Project – Part 1

I was a young pup in my mid-twenties when I happened upon the carnal trip-to-the-circus that is ‘Beneath The Valley of the Ultravixens.’ It was a shamelessly cartoonish, yet obviously intelligent send-up of sexual politics, small-town Americana, and earnest sixties cinematic ‘explorations’ of our deepest and darkest impulses and secrets. It’s also hilarious, not so much for particular scenes or jokes – the satire can be pretty clumsy and obvious – but for the joyful audacity of the film overall. Retired Nazis lurk in menial jobs in Small Town USA; an impossibly voluptuous young blonde (Ann Marie) does old-time-religion revival radio; an impossibly voluptuous frustrated housewife (Kitten Natividad) moonlights as a stripper beneath her husband’s nose; garbagemen, junkmen (and junkwomen) and dental assistants lead sex lives that would shame Harold Robbins. All crisply and vividly lit and shot by a tremendous cinematographer and editor, my new hero, Russ Meyer. A year or two later the long lamented Parkway Theater had a double feature of ‘Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers’ and ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’, and I was giddy. Later I worked at the Chicago International Film Festival, and was lucky to be around for their Salute to Russ Meyer – a lengthy, jocular interview between Russ and Roger Ebert, followed by an almost three hour evening of highlights and greatest-hit scenes. I emerged dazed, glazed and amazed.

I find Russ Meyer admirable for his ability to indulge his own deeply personal fetishistic interests (working with an astonishing array of large-breasted women who, in most cases, actually can act) while retaining an aggressively positive enthusiasm for pleasing the average-Joe American moviegoer. And he’s got a huge heart – he’s hip to the ironies and follies of human nature, but has a slap-you-on-the-shoulder sense of humor about it that he’s genuinely sharing, not just parading for his own self-aggrandizement. All the movies are about Speed, Sex and Violence, but he prefers his protagonists be Thrilled, Satisfied and Fearless rather than Competitive, Manipulative and Cruel – those types, and his movies are rife with them, almost always get their comeuppance. When the endings are sad, it’s their own damned tragic fault. When they end happily, all’s right in the world, and there’s almost always a narrator reassuring us that This Is How It’s Supposed To Go. Russ rails against earnest certitude, humorlessness, and the selfish misuse of the male prerogative.

So, before we continue, a few caveats. In Russ Meyer movies, Women Are Objectified. The presentation of voluptuous women, as naked as they can be as often as they can be, and his hope that we’ll enjoy it as much as he does, is the raison d’être for his picking up a camera in the first place. Russ likes women with huge breasts, the bigger the better. But healthy, athletic women, who have gotten more than their fair share of genetic physical femininity and wear it well. Once you’ve seen a few of these, you understand that Russ worships and adores these women, not in a slathering, ogling, ‘jeez, I’d like to do her!’ sense, but in a ‘Why don’t we just put them in charge of everything!’ sense. (It was instructive to learn that Russ despised hard-core pornography, and resented that his films would inevitably have to compete with it.) His women are always strong-willed and Sex-Positive, or end up that way in the course of things, and are continually angry, baffled, frustrated and amused by how disproportionately clueless, impotent and dispassionate average men have allowed themselves to become. I suspect Russ would bristle at the idea of his characters as feminist models, but there’s a lot here for feminists to applaud if they’re inclined to pay any attention.

Especially in the late sixties and early seventies, His Movies Can Be Very Violent. We’ll talk about this more when we hit those specific films, but like Sam Peckinpah, like George Romero, like Quentin Tarantino, like Craig Brewer, like Joe Carnahan, etc., etc., Meyer pushed the envelope of taste to make pretty serious moral points about how well or how badly humans can treat each other, and why. His Chuck Jones-ian, ‘Hey, get a load o’ this!’ stylistic flourishes tend to obscure the bigger moral points. But they’re there, trust me.

Each film review will conclude with how Recommended it is, or isn’t, and my estimation of it’s 2008 MPAA rating. I think you’ll be surprised at how little actual nudity is involved in most of these films, but, of course, in the sixties, they were marketed as Triple X Shockers!!

OK, here we go…!

Russ Meyer’s directing career essentially starts with The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959). Most nudie films up until here were either compilation ‘documentaries’ of particular strippers’ routines or ‘travelogues’ from nudist colonies. It’s impossible to say how many other people were working on ideas similar to Meyer’s under low-budget, low-distribution circumstances, but Meyer was the one who broke through the bachelor party, ‘smoker’ stag movie markets and created something that was a real live Go To The Movie Theater experience.

‘The Immoral Mr. Teas’ follows a likeable prole who is employed as a bike messenger. As he delivers items to various corporate buildings and doctor’s offices, or stops at the diner for lunch, he’s constantly distracted by the many beautiful women he encounters at each place he finds himself in. His days off, spent downtown, at the beach, or fishing in the country, are always invaded, as it were, by more beautiful women.

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What’s characteristic about Meyer’s treatment of this simple scenario is the inherent untouchability of the women Mr. Teas encounters. He worships from afar, and must create daydream scenarios in order to interact with the subjects of his longing. When sensual or intimate potential arises in the actual course of his day, he watches it furtively from a distance and is genuinely terrified when it comes too close. When he encounters a friendly hooker, and, for once, seems receptive to her, it turns out that all she wants to do is iron his clothes. Neither The Mother or The Whore of standard male fantasy is anywhere in sight. None of the women are remotely interested in actively ‘making a man out of him’ or passively providing for his needs. They, in fact, hardly ever notice him. Meyer knew that if his audience was all about the naked chicks – and, clearly, Russ had no problem indulging that side of himself as well – he’d be able to experiment for himself with some pretty critical ideas about who men really are, and the big contradictions inherent in their views about women. And he knew he could insinuate those ideas through a sympathetic, regular-guy protagonist you liked enough to follow along with.

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Meyer, like most budding filmmakers, created novel solutions on a low budget. Immoral Mr. Teas is essentially a silent film with music and narration, as low-budget as it gets. But Meyer is a superb still and film photographer, and creates a simple and naturally recognizable world that nonetheless mixes in a great deal of subtle stylization – clever, evocative colors, vaudevillian music and wardrobe, graphic lighting effects, and complex camera angles and compositions. And the narration is a sternly hilarious take on travelogues, educational training films, news documentaries and political speeches. Are we watching a naked girl sunbathing on the beach? Sure, but “doctors have stated for years that sunshine, in measured quantities, has a very beneficial effect on the human body. Sunshine also is important to photosynthesis, and evaporating, which eventually leads to rainfall.” Off the beach and frolicking in the water? “Bathing, a custom that we all accept today, was frowned upon, strangely enough, by our early forbears. They thought it was vain and sinful. Now we all take pleasure in this pleasant pastime.” Naked girl in a boat? Sea exploration. Naked girl in the shower? A history of soap. Naked girl singing and strumming? History of the guitar. Meyer has a lot of fun knowing that the more obviously he tries to disguise the voyeurism, the more vicariously tempting it will become.

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Mildly, agreeably recommended. 2008 rating: PG-13. Nudity, but very light on sexual situations.

Eve and the Handyman (1961), however, isn’t nearly as successful at juggling humorous ironies. Its essential purpose seems to be putting Russ’ wife in a movie. Eve Meyer is an undeniable knockout – a blonde, curvier Julie London – but the film is a hasty patchwork of half-assed Ernie Kovacs-like sketches. It’s tied together by the flimsiest of strings – Eve’s in a trenchcoat, scarf and beret, in ostensible surveillance of The Handyman, another hardworking honest joe who is alternately oblivious to, mystified by and frightened of Wimmin. Her voiceover narration combines the hard-boiled philosophizing of a detective story with fawning admiration for the nobility of The Handyman’s work ethic and common-man demeanor. Yet most episodes end, visually, with Eve affectionately yet derisively laughing at him. She plays most of the other female roles as well – secretary, nurse, waitress, hitchhiker, a stripper playing an animated round of pinball, and a tennis player. And why is he under her undercover, note-taking, picture-snapping scrutiny? It turns out she wants him as a customer – she’s a Fuller Brush Saleswoman! But now she’s in love with him, too! She’ll save him from his nebbishness – after all, he’s an industrious nice guy. And the strong woman saving the weaker man from himself, like a skin-flick ‘Honeymooners’, begins its tenure as a major theme in Meyer’s work.

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It’s good Russ got this one out of his system early on. Not even the lovely San Francisco locations can save this well-intentioned misfire.

For completists only. Not recommended. 2008 rating: PG. Very brief nudity, and it’s not even Eve. You’ll miss it if you blink.

An early work even the completists may pass on is Wild Gals of the Naked West (1962), which is a painfully amateurish low-budget bore, saved from utter irrelevance by Meyer’s aggressively whimsical visuals. He obviously spent the lion’s share of his small budget on film stock, and left the rest of the mise en scène up to the lets-put-on-a-show community theater whims of his cast and crew. Russ’ contributions seem to have been a vast array of solid background walls and floors in every cartoon color imaginable – fire-engine red, orange, ochre, raw sienna, raw umber, lime green, English racing green, light blue, dark blue, pink, lavender, and one short tableau in black – I think it’s the entire Muralo casein scene paint line from 1962. He sets up establishing shots in horrendously childish magic-markered, empty-framework soundstage ‘rooms’, and then follows the random collection of costumed showgirls, models and strippers, beefcakes, ornery louts and losers with an array of two-shots and close ups whose backgrounds and floors switch back and forth with absolutely no relation to where they were before. It’s a purely animated, advertising-poster-graphics approach, like Depatie-Freleng Saturday morning cartoons.

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Like ‘Eve and the Handyman’, the action of the film is a series of pseudo-vaudevillian and burlesque skits and running jokes, only not in service to central characters. It’s a true variety show, for better or worse – mostly worse. The “old timer” 80-year-old narrator, in jawdroppingly phony white mustache and eyebrows, is clearly not a day over twenty-six. Russ throws in a guy in a gorilla suit. He throws in ‘geek’ Halloween masks. Every six-shooter fires forty-seven bullets in a row. His ‘Indian’ comedy makes Joey Bishop look like a postmodern genius. Once again, except for the ‘narrator’, he’s overlaid sound and music over an essentially silent movie, but a lot of it’s a curious and mildly disturbing mix of crunchy, ripping, tearing noises, random gunfire, whiskey-glugging that could be mistaken for a malfunctioning hydroelectric plant, and semi-psychotic caterwauling. But, hey, the women are, like, WOW…! Or, at least, what wow was for Russ, and I have no doubt that, for the typical American male drive-in and grindhouse moviegoer, that was all that needed to be interesting for Russ to cover his costs.

Not recommended. 2008 rating: PG-13. The va-va-voom nudity is intermittent but frequent.

Lorna (1964) was Meyer’s first foray into legitimate narrative feature filmmaking. He did a series of melodramatic black-and-white small-town potboilers in 1964 and 1965 (IMDB.com admirably calls this his ‘Gothic period’!); among them, one of his masterpieces, ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’

‘Lorna’ is a dark and tawdry Tobacco Road ‘Hedda Gabler’. Ya got your crazy preacher narrator. Ya got your long tall predatory someone’s-nasty-uncle (Luther) and his short, chubby, giggly, balding sidekick (Jonah). And ya got the smoldering disappointment of Lorna, trapped in yer routine, boring marriage to Jim, who appears to otherwise be The Nicest Guy In The World. Jim promised he would work his way out of the salt mines (no, really, literally, he works all day in the sun shoveling salt with Luther and Jonah) and go on to bigger and better things, bringing her uptown with him. But a year later, as Tom Waits might say, they still know the tune but they lost the ‘Sheet music. Lorna’s early voiceover soliloquy relates her past romance and current despair:

“On that day he was different. His kisses were bold and hungry. There was suddenly a new and thrilling kind of ache inside of me. Oh, how I wanted him. Then suddenly he confessed that he’d never touched anyone like this before, but I said ‘you have my permission!’ But he stopped his teasing, put the statue back on its pedestal, and remembered that his intentions were honorable.”

Imagine, if you will, her disappointment. Not to mention the fact that It’s Their Anniversary, and he seems to not remember. To assuage herself, she goes skinny-dipping out the crick in the woods, only to happen upon A Tall Handsome Stranger. She surrenders to his…umm… charms, which is problematic since we know…He’s An Escaped Convict! Quel horreur! But she thinks he’s just what the doctor ordered for a long hot summer day, and, knowing her husband won’t be back ‘til late, she invites him up to the house, picks up some vittles and whiskey, and, deservedly, she thinks, indulges herself.

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Jim, at work, explains to Luther and Jonah that Lorna thinks he’s forgotten their anniversary, but he’s a-foolin’ her. He’s gonna take her out to dinner tonight and even buy her a new dress. Unimpressed, Luther croaks on and on about what he’d be doing with Lorna if he didn’t have to be at work, heh, heh, and how he bets Lorna’s already got herself someone to keep her company every day while Jim’s slaving away. This goes on most of the morning and throughout their lunch break. After Jim returns from a trip to the office after lunchtime to pick up their checks, Luther goes too far and sets off Jim to a’fightin’. After beating hell out of each other, with Jim getting the upper hand, Jim reveals the three of them have been given the afternoon off on account o’ Jim’s anniversary.

So they’re headin’ home early! Lorna and the convict will be en flagrante delicto! The boys are sore and surly after dukin’ it out. What’s gonna happen? I won’t give it away, but, delightfully, it’s not a happy ending. How could there be? With no instructive tragedy, what would the crazy preacher talk about?

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Obviously, this stuff isn’t Flaubert, to say the least. But for a low budget mid-sixties drive-in soap opera, it’s fairly dark stuff. Luther and Jonah’s early ‘social’ episode is pretty nasty, the fight at the salt factory is meaner and messier than your usual sixties-movie fisticuffs, and Lorna isn’t a particularly sympathetic character – if the convict had shown up a week after the wedding, you get the feeling the same thing would have probably happened.

Ultimately Meyer’s more interested in what the men tend to reduce themselves to, and why. Lorna’s a pretty elemental why – Meyer’s penchant for voluptuously large-breasted women is well served by his star, Lorna Maitland, although, as usual for Russ, her carnal attitude is displayed more prominently than her actual nakedness. Meyer puts the men of the world into two camps – the nice guys who serve their hungry busty masters slavishly, (and God bless those guys) and the other hard-case losers who stoop to conquer by force, or outright thievery, what they’ll never be man enough to earn. In later films, he’ll have a lot of fun at the expense of the good guys, and push the envelope on what evil the others are capable of. ‘Supervixens’, in particular, cost Russ a lot of fans in his exploration of some ‘Clockwork Orange’-style ultraviolence. But we’ll get to that.

Mildly recommended. A middling backwoods soap opera, but as mentioned, Meyer’s own singular aesthetic is slowly but surely finding its way through. 2008 rating: PG-13. The nudity, again, is a few short glimpses, artfully staged, but the sexual situations are pretty frank.

As Hannibal Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” I suspect working in black-and-white was a budgetary decision overall, but Russ was smart enough as a photographer to understand that it would just be different, not necessarily detrimental. ‘Lorna’ isn’t a smashing success, but the doing of it led to a film that, I think, is. And how.

Mudhoney (1965) is an exciting, dark, anti-heroic American pseudo-noir good time at the movies. A lot of familiar elements are here, but they’re expressionistically exaggerated to superb melodramatic effect.

Hannah Brenshaw (Antoinette Christiani) runs a small farm, in the teeth of 1930’s Depression despair, with her aging Uncle Lute Wade. Hannah’s also saddled with the definitive low-down, greedy, no-good, drinking–fighting–and-whoring husband, the white-suited Sidney Brenshaw. Sidney’s played by Hal Hopper, who was also Luther in ‘Lorna’, and the asshole practice he was afforded in that film pays nasty dividends in this one. As the film opens, Sidney’s on his way home after a whorehouse bender. Russ pares down our introduction to Sidney to the sounds we hear, from him and around him, the back of his head, and his feet. When we finally see his weather-beaten, alcohol-glazed face, just before he sets upon the disgusted and helpless Hannah, Meyer has convinced us that this is a human shipwreck, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

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We’re then introduced to affable drifter Calif McKinney (John Furlong), who happens upon Maggie Marie’s place while passing through. He’s befriended by the angelic (yet, of course, stacked) deaf-mute waif Eula (Rena Horten), and soon meets Maggie, the bawdy, howling, friendly whorehouse madam (Princess Livingston, bearing a disturbing resemblance to Walter Brennan in ‘Rio Bravo’), and Maggie’s other daughter-for-hire, Clarabelle (Lorna Maitland). Maggie Marie’s is where, it turns out, Sidney carouses in his leisure hours, and Maggie’s hired hand, Injoys, hears tell that Uncle Lute and Hannah are looking for some help for the harvest. Having to deal with Sidney makes it miserable work, but Calif needs the gig, and makes his way to the Wade Farm.

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Uncle Lute (Meyer regular Stuart Lancaster) turns out to be a pleasant and straightforward guy whose better health is a few years behind him. He’s a good guy to work for, and he can use all the help he can get, but Sidney won’t leave the workers alone, and he inevitably chases all of Lute’s help away. Calif settles in to a consistent working schedule, but gets the usual dose of Sidney’s drunken derisiveness as well, and bears up stoically. He’s fond of Lute, and, understandably, fonder still of the fetching Hannah. He’s a gentleman towards her, which she warms to, but she’s doggedly loyal to her abusive husband as well, whom she insists, used to be a different person.

Sidney, meanwhile is schemingly (I hereby declare that to be a real word) looking forward to Uncle Lute’s inevitable demise, when he’ll inherit half of Hannah’s stake and be set up for life. And he’s surreptitiously turning the town against Calif, with the help of (Thank you, Russ) Another Crazy Preacher. He figures Calif’s got designs on his wife, and doesn’t like the competition. Which, of course, has no effect on Sidney’s own designs on the crazy preacher’s good-looking sister.

The movie seems very plot heavy, but Meyer keeps things rollicking from scene to scene, artfully balancing the Douglas Sirkian, Faulkner-like realism of Hannah, Lute and Calif, the carny abandon and indulgence of Maggie Marie’s world, and the Flannery O’Connor nastiness of Sidney, the Preacher, and the accompanying parade of mean-spirited dolts that inhabit the small town. The last twenty minutes, where it all comes careening to a conclusion, is genuinely brilliant. Everything you think should happen does, but it’s all off, somehow, all of it reminding us to be careful what we wish for when we make our own judgments towards seemingly irredeemable people, or even people we think deserve redemption.

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Russ made a number of these fevered pseudo-soap operas. This and Finders Keepers Lovers Weepers are the best of that work, and Mudhoney is also one of the best of the mid-sixties black-and-white ‘gothics.’

Highly recommended. The wild shifts from sweaty melodrama to easy sensuousness to bitter take-you-down-with-me psychosis almost inexplicably hold together. Even if it all feels a bit too tawdry overall, I guarantee you won’t be bored. No no no no no no…

2008 rating: PG-13. The plot, oddly enough, doesn’t leave a lot of openings for gratuitous-yet-in-context nudity. I actually think he added a Lorna Maitland skinny-dipping scene for the sole purpose of upping the skin quotient. The overall feel is definitely Adult, though. If you’re going to work that steamy southern drive-in mentality, Russ has written the textbook.

And then Russ decided it’s all about the chicks. What if the chicks ruled the world? What if you took all that righteous feminist anger and opportunism, all those estrogen-driven histrionics, and created a hot rod gang of chicks wreaking havoc on the belittled-but-still-game world of men? What if objectification could really be empowerment? Well…what you’d get is one of the most richly satisfying, gratifyingly trashy masterpieces of twentieth-century filmmaking, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).

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Like most of Russ’ movies, there’s an introductory narration:

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence. The word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains… Sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy, it creates and molds as well. Let’s examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female, the surface shiny and silken, the body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level, any time, anywhere, and with anybody…”

And just who are these insatiable, omnivorous women? The narrator tells us it could be…anyone. But in this case, they’re Go-Go Girls! It’s Varla, Rosie and Billie! Billie’s a brassy blond with perhaps the cinema’s most impressive wasp waist (Lori Williams). Rosie’s a sultry, almond-eyed brunette of either southeast-European or Mediterranean, or Central or South American extraction, or even Turkish, or, maybe…who the hell knows? (IMDB.com notes that the impressive Haji, who plays Rosie, was born in Quebec, so that’s no damn help either.) And Varla’s the brunette, buxom, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners ringleader of this travelling triumvirate of small-potatoes crime and hot-tomato sex. (I know, I know, but the shamelessness is contagious, gimme a break here.) They go-go dance with fearless abandon, while their audience of working-class schmoes egg them on with equal unbridled enthusiasm. Then suddenly they’re in their cars, laughing maniacally, ripping down desert highways, each with their own personality-matching hot rod. Varla (Tura Satana – wow!) drives a black Porsche 356, an enveloping little dark pillbox of speed and spontaneity. Billie drives a white MG-A, compact and darting. Rosie drives a white Triumph TR-3 with low cutaway roadster doors. Guess who the truly dangerous one is? (I have to pause to acknowledge the admirable ‘Not Coming To A Theater Near You’ blog, and their own terrific reviews of these films. God bless their gearhead acumen! Please check ‘em out!)

http://www.notcoming.com/

Three years before ‘Bullitt’s Mustang, six years before ‘Vanishing Point’s Challenger, or any other movie or TV show ride where The Car = The Person, Russ understood how important following this idea would be for his own film.

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The girls happen upon a young couple in the desert, Tommy and Linda (more on The Desert later; Russ loves The Desert as a background) – he’s diligently putting his MG-B through its time-trial paces, and can’t help but be sucked in to Varla’s competitive invitations to race. And the perky Linda (Susan Bernard) is squealingly delighted that Her Man has taken up the challenge. But Varla’s too greedy – faced with being nosed at the finish line, she jumps the course, cutting him off, and he fishtails to a demasculating stop while she crosses the finish line. Humiliated, infuriated, and a couple of other –iateds, he goes toe-to-toe with Varla. A bad idea, as Varla chews him up and spits him out with some only-in-the-movies-and-Avengers-reruns judo chops and wrasslin’ moves, eventually killing him by the time-honored yank-his-arms-back-and-snap-his-spine maneuver.

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Needing gas and some time to think, the girls, saddled with the shell-shocked Linda, stop at a service station. Billie gets a load of a handsome young farmhand loading up his pick-up with barrels of fuel oil (“What a hunka stuff!!”). Varla gets his story from the pump jockey – he’s one of two sons living in the middle of nowhere with their tragically crippled, but filthy rich old father. Varla’s convinced they’re easy pickings, and the cars roar off to the farm.

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The girls ingratiate themselves as best they can, making up a flimsy but effective story to explain Linda’s presence, and get themselves invited to stay for lunch. Varla knows the old man is a letch, and decides to ingratiate herself with the other son, Kirk, to try to circumvent the protection afforded the Old Man by The Vegetable. (Yup, that’s what the studly other son goes by – The Vegetable.) The girls start to make their move, Linda throws a wrench or two in the works, and the battle of wits, gender and greedy violence escalates. Billie’s free spirits get her in some trouble, Rosie is revealed to be more than just Varla’s cohort in crime, and the conclusion is a war of attrition you can’t pull your eyes away from.

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There’s a reason this film’s in the permanent film library at the Museum of Modern Art. And there’s a reason there’s a rumored Quentin Tarantino remake in the works (although Tarantino paid liberal homage to this film in ‘Death Proof’). Hollywood studios have always cranked out star-powered, effects-laden, multi-million-dollar blockbuster loaves of Wonder bread, in the sixties as well as now. This film turned out to be one of the first serious independent salvos from the resistance. Low budgets, hard-boiled values and cannily-marketed auteurism were finally getting a cultural foothold in America. Russ would have to wait until 1968 to see genuinely big box-office success (with ‘Vixen’), but this film has grown, since then, to be a perennial cultists’, intellectuals’, and ‘B’ aficionados’ favorite.

Highly recommended. A must-see. 2008 rating: PG. I was leaning towards the –13, but there’s no ratings criteria here you won’t see flaunted on Lifetime or USA Network any given weeknight. For one of the most carnally-driven movies ever made, there’s no nudity besides bare shoulder-blades in the shower. Amazing.

In Part 2, we’ll check out the alter-ego of ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’, Motor Psycho. Then it’s back to glorious Technicolor for Mondo Topless, Common-Law Cabin, Good Morning and Goodbye, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers, Vixen, and Beyond The Valley of the Dolls.

Politics

Whew!! What a relief!! It’s only going to cost you and I SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS!! For a day or two there, I thought we were talking real money. But, hey, ya know what? WE ARE!! THAT’S REAL MONEY!! James Cramer insists that, over the long run, this taxpayer investment will, surprisingly, turn a profit, (and, oddly enough, as he spells it out, and if Paulson actually follows through, I don’t disagree) but I’m compelled to make one other point:

If anyone in the Western Hemisphere still thinks the deregulating, tax-cutting McCain-Palin team, or any members thereof, will make anything, …A…N…Y…T…H…I…N…G, ANYTHING, better, economically, for this FORMER leader-of-the-free-world country, then, (to rip off a number of journalists) I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you.

Cramer’s case – rest assured or recoil in horror:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/26793410

Economics

Another out-of-the-park interview from Charlie Rose with Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin. If you’re even remotely interested in our economy these days, and where it may go after the election, this is a must-watch.

http://www.charlierose.com/shows/2008/9/10/1/a-discussion-about-the-economy-with-robert-rubin-and-larry-summers

Be sure to check out some of the comments on the web page as well. A sample:

“Perhaps the most important thing Summers brought up and none of you who have commented here have acknowledged is that it has been one bailout/financial crisis after another – a pattern of them every two or three years – during the past 25 years. I don’t care who was in office; these have been happening under every administration, and I believe the reason they are happening is specifically because of the adoption of unfettered free market policies that allow the epidemic and endemic avarice and corruption and greed. Derivatives? Easy money? These are serious symptoms of a system that is great in theory but doesn’t work. The free market economy and trickle down economics are not working. They serve only to grow economies at the top of the economic pyramid; there is no system for any kind of logical distribution of that wealth that would enable those who are the victims of these policies to save money. And saving money, holding down deficits, and helping to build a stronger middle and lower class is the only thing that is going to save this country economically. Keep giving the gluttons at the top all the money, and we get what we have now – taxpayer bailout after taxpayer bailout.”

Books – Houdini Girl

The Houdini Girl is Rosa Kelly, an earthy, cynical, smart, funny and carnal Irishwoman who enters Fletcher (‘Red’) Brandon’s life for a year and abruptly disappears, under dark and devastating circumstances. The circumstances of her ‘disappearance’, the ‘how did she do that,’ ‘how did it really work,’ and ‘who is she really’ questions that normally surround events like this are especially germane to Red. He’s a professional magician, and an avid student of contrived scenarios, misdirection, creating false expectations, playing human nature and making his audiences very happy that That Just Happened To Them.

The standard set-up of knocking off the victim early, then having the protagonist reconstruct the path to her demise, has been done and done and done. But it’s a reliably rich structure for writer Martyn Bedford to work within, and most successful when our reconstructor is as compelling as his or her subject. And Bedford’s Red is a unique, yet identifiably comfortable character to spend the novel’s length with. His narrative voice is chummy and conversational – he takes justifiable pride in his own intelligence and guards his professional secrets well. But he’s also very self-deprecating, and has a real respect and affection for the fallibility of his fellow man. It’s why he’s a good magician – he has a terrific work ethic, and understands that gracious presentation is far more important than the mechanics of the trick. Nonetheless, he constantly reminds us Not To Ask – he won’t tell.

Bedford is especially smart in the first third of the book. Having set up the obvious mystery to be pursued, he nonetheless spends an enormous amount of care and time on the nature of Red’s initial grief. We witness how his life is changed by it day-to-day, how he now relates to Rosa’s friends and acquaintances, how his family reacts to him, what he contributes to and what he omits from the police investigation. All of these objective circumstances acquaint us with Red’s values – what he chooses to share, his boundaries and his shortcomings. It’s easy for us to construct a complete picture of who he is and why we care about him. Our learning so much about Red lays the perfect foundation for our following Red’s own personal investigation of Rosa.

Red enters an unfamiliar world that has it’s own ideas about manipulating human nature and creating misdirection, both for evil purposes and good. And he must employ his own resources of charm and fearlessness, and learn the limitations of each. But Bedford never goes for the easy thrill or the big twist. No one is cartoonish, no one becomes bigger than life. Red encounters real, believable people in real, believable circumstances. There’s an especially interesting point in the story when Red feels close to the truth of who Rosa was, and describes a particularly conflicted episode from his life and their relationship that involves his explaining how a particular trick is done – information he’s insisted all along he’ll never volunteer to us. And I suspect individual readers will react to it in a variety of ways – What’s The Big Deal?, or I Knew He Was A Shit!, or Who Can Blame Him? It’s all part of Bedford’s own investigation into who we all are, what we present to the people we love, and what responsibility each of us takes for the choices, calculated or otherwise, that we make that affect other people.

Recommended.