Film Studies: Big bosoms, square jaws - the tale of a red-blooded American

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The Independent Culture

There are people who take Russ Meyer seriously. There are even those who argue that everything Meyer did to make his name famous was in fact to get money to make those small, personal movies, the ones that no one has ever actually seen. No, there's one way to take Meyer seriously - as a huckster, a promoter, and a genius who saw that 44-inch busts might be squeezed into the narrow eye-holes of the Puritan imagination. Now he is dead, aged 82, after at least six wives, and classic titles like The Immoral West and How It Was Lost, Mondo Topless and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

For some time now, Russ Meyer has been out of fashion. We live in a world in which so many actresses - endowed or not - will take off their clothes for the sake of a movie opportunity. Gross sexual language is a staple of cable television. And your local video store has hours and years of adult entertainment. Nearly any sexual situation you can think of is available on a screen - and maybe the human interest in sex, as well as the erotic excitement of mainstream movies, are in decline because of that openness. But that's getting too serious, too early. Save something for the big finish.

Russ Meyer was born in Oakland, California in 1922, the son of a policeman and a nurse. I have to think that those twin impulses stood him in good stead: for Russ Meyer was deeply law-abiding and even conservative in his own way; just as he took delight in the attitude that bodies are just bodies, aren't they - it's just that some are more bodacious than others. As a kid, he made home movies: again, one wonders how early it was he started using girlfriends for models. But he really became a skilled cameraman during the war when he was on newsreel coverage of combat situations.

As a red-blooded American and a guy who mixed with the troops, Meyer was impressed by the iconographic value of pin-up photographs. And in those days, no matter that many spent their last nights dreaming over much handled stills, the women were invariably garbed in exotic lingerie and the safety of poses from Greek statuary. Russ wanted more. And in the years after the war, he began to get a reputation as a filthy photographer - stills, nude and more athletic than the Greeks stood for. As such, he was an early star at Playboy (founded in 1953), and one of his wives was actually a Playmate.

But suppose the ladies moved? Old-time devotees of London's Windmill Theatre (a gallery of nudes) may recall that the law said nakedness was allowed so long as the girls didn't wobble - even if a mouse ran across the stage. In America, from about the mid-Fifties onwards, Russ Meyer exploited and defined a new age, one in which the girls were far more naked, far more active and far bigger busted than those in mainstream pictures. To think of the classic Hollywood screen of the Fifties is to think of the last battle between our libidos and the system's censorship - it is an era of people like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, sighing, and breathing in deeply, as if that might explode their flimsy protective clothing so that the American male could see what was sometimes put up in neon outside the sleazy venues: TITZ THAT MOVE!

Meyer's films were self-financed and self-promoted, and they played in the red-light districts where they were usually safe from legal intervention. They were very cheap, because Meyer worked on the principle that there were thousands of girls with happy chests ready to take their tops off. The stories and the dialogue were not demanding - they were not nearly as well thought-out as the titles - but the films were lustrously photographed (guess who had his eye glued to the viewfinder?). And they made a fortune. The Immoral Mr Teas (1959), one of the first soft-core films offered by Meyer (and he was usually a soft sentimentalist at heart - he loved his girls and did not encourage violence or the "unnatural") made a million dollars back on an investment of $24,000. If you really want to wonder where the economic rationale of American independent picture-making began, look at the history of what was called porn - as if anyone in the human realm of fantasy has ever been able to define "pornography", or be candid about the healthy, social uses of arousal.

I don't mean to say that the pornographic film business was not often vicious and dehumanising. This is America, the land of organised crime, misogyny and never giving a sucker an even break. But no one ever nailed Russ Meyer on any of these charges. In his way he was an honest hedonist, a connoisseur of the female form and a guy engaged in the straight deal - that he could make a fortune if we could get our rocks off. In the Seventies there were some who claimed that Russ Meyer was thus degrading the true nature of women. Maybe. But maybe he was simply the logical conclusion to the notion oft expressed by learned theorists - that little boys sit in the dark of the movies hoping to see men killed while women take off their clothes.

In which case, think of Russ Meyer as a public servant, frequently made fun of in the serious press, often used as a synonym for tastelessness and as a warning light in the degradation of American values. Thirty years later, it's easier to see that those hucksters who wave "values" in your face are the ones to beware of. Those who give you a glimpse of skin are amiable uncles.

In time, Hollywood came around and in 1970 Twentieth Century Fox put up the money for a real Russ Meyer feature film - Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, scripted by the critic Roger Ebert (an early enthusiast for Meyer) and a kind of parody of the Jacqueline Susann novel, Valley of the Dolls. The film was a touch more restrained than earlier Meyer efforts, but it was a big hit and when Ms Susann complained her work had been spoiled, the New York Times admitted "Any movie Jacqueline Susann thinks would damage her reputation as a writer cannot be all bad."

Big finish? Well, just suppose that in the long story, the movies were a machine to carry us from pre-Freudian repression to fulfilment. Just suppose that sex (being a delicate and awkward affair) needed the loosening of many mental restraints and the limbering up of several under-employed muscles, maybe the blue movie (a nostalgic phrase) was the pill that freed fantasy and brought slack muscles to life. Maybe Russ Meyer deserved a medal. His biography is announced for next year - Big Bosoms and Square Jaws. It could be the subtitle to a history of America.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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