Wednesday 28 November 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence

Russ Meyer is well known as the king of sixties sexploitation. And by 'well known', I mean that until a week ago I'd never heard of the man. That isn't the sort of thing we bloggers are supposed to admit, especially of a figure with Meyer's cult clout, but there you go. For me, 1965's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! served as an introduction both to Meyer's work and a particular strand of exploitation cinema in general.

Faster, Pussycat! is a pitch-perfect showcase for Meyer's idiosyncratic obsession with large-breasted women driving around the Mojave Desert. The film accounts for much of his lasting influence on creators from glam metal bands to Quentin Tarantino. But in some ways it's atypical, too. For one, it isn't sexploitation: it aims to titillate, to be sure, but it's no more explicit in that respect than a Michael Bay film. Neither is it crypto-feminist, pace what Wikipedia claims Jimmy McDonough writes in a book I can't afford.

But it is hilarious. Look no further than the spoof of titillation in the guise of public service that is the gloriously purple prose of the opening monologue. An uncredited John Furlong, clearly in on the joke, chews the scenery like there's no tomorrow:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence - the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora [good word, unlikely to show up in film today] of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn't only destroy, it creates and moulds as well. Let's examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained in the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakeable 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, at any time, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor's receptionist or a dancer in a go-go club!
Here, women defined by their direct subordination to male authority (receptionists, secretaries, go-go dancers) hide a wilder side that both entices and frightens the presumed-male audience of exploitation films. The plot proper begins as the go-go dancing trio of oversexed Billie (Lori Williams), vaguely Italian Rosie (Haji) and their violent, domineering leader Varla (Tura Satana) are out in the Mojave Desert. Racing their sports cars against clueless suburbanite Tommy (Ray Barlow) turns to violence in which Varla kills Tommy with her bare hands.

The girls kidnap the man's girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard), but their plans change when they observe a wheelchair-bound old man (Stuart Lancaster) at a local petrol station. Informed by the station attendant that the old man and his sons, faithful Kirk (Paul Trinka) and hench but dimwitted The Vegetable (Dennis Busch), are fabulously wealthy but live by themselves in the middle of nowhere. Varla and her minions immediately decide to drive down to the old man's farm, using Linda as their cover, and get their hands on the cash by any means necessary. But it turns out the old man is less harmless - and a great deal less sane - than he appears.

Crazy murderers versus crazy murderers is a fantastic exploitation premise, and it helps that everyone involved gives it their all. B-movie stalwart Lancaster in particular gives an absurdly fun over-the-top performance, making an unhinged, misogynistic rapist and seriously abusive parent the most compelling character in sight. But the actresses who portray the girls aren't far off. Santana's black-gloved evil and propensity for gleeful violence is portrayed in such an entertaining fashion that we go along with her being both protagonist and villain. But she doesn't upstage her companions, particularly the ditzy, playful Billie, who in Varla's eyes is overly distracted from crime by her fawning over every man she sees.

Only the most curmudgeonly reviewer of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! could avoid consulting his thesaurus for synonyms of 'fun'. It's a brilliant project that concedes not an inch to reason, taste or reality. Meyer directs with an enthusiasm and panache - see left for a typical heightened contrast in size between two characters, something Sergio Leone would develop into his stylistic signature. At the same time, Meyer is more restrained here than he was in his earlier 'nudies' or post-Hays Code sexploitation flicks. While gratuitous shower and wrestling scenes abound, there is no outright nudity. Faster, Pussycat! does quite well without it.

That leads us to the question of Meyer's portrayal of his central trio, for here we have three active, physically strong women. But that is not at all the same as asserting they are strong female characters. For one, they're fantasies, obviously conceived as different but equally buxom types to cater to various tastes in a presumed-male audience. (Meyer famously preferred buxom women to the petite build characteristic of sixties icons like Mia Farrow and Faye Dunaway, but the fact that we can discuss the man's muses in the same terms we might a prize racehorse tells us everything about the male gaze in his films - never more than a funhouse mirror of patriarchal society, grotesquely exaggerated but springing from the same fount.)

They're also shockingly one-note: designed not to appear as full human beings but as dangerous and exotic circus animals, as the prologue's use of zoological language all but announces. The real characters are men. Kirk and the Vegetable actually develop over the course of the film. So any claim for Meyer as a feminist, inadvertent or otherwise, is pretty much bogus. That doesn't diminish the film's achievements, but it helps us subject Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! to critical appreciation, not fanboyish whitewashing.

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