FilmJuice have my review of Arrow’s re-release of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The film revolves around a group of female rock musicians who decide to leave home and try their luck on the LA music scene. What they find is a scene replete with sex and drugs where fame is just as likely an outcome as death. Initially wowed by the glamour and raw sexuality of their new friends and hangers on, the band lose sight of the music and each other before re-discovering themselves and asserting their basic moral character. In other words… it’s the cinematic version of Josie and the Pussycats only without the tunes and satirical edge:
The problem with Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is that while Meyer had been working in Hollywood for a few years, neither he nor his screen-writer the film critic Roger Ebert had any idea as to what LA’s sinister underbelly was actually like. Meyer was 48 when Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was released and so the image of Hollywood he wound up ‘satirising’ was one with little or no basis in reality. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is not so much humorous as embarrassing in that characters wander around spouting 60s-inspired gibberish like “don’t bogart that joint” and “I’d love to strap you on”. It’s funny enough the first few times but the well is shallow and Ebert’s script keeps digging long after the audience is being served refreshing glasses of dirt. Moving beyond the thin attempts at satire are juvenile attempts at transgression that usually boil down to footage of enormous bouncing breasts and moments of gay panic.
Some critics describe Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a satire of the LA scene but the satire rarely rises above the level achieved by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, which I assume provided the bulk of Ebert and Meyer’s ‘research’ into 60s counter-culture.
Meyer is a director who reminds me a lot of Roger Corman in so far as his fame seems to be a reflection of financial realities rather than genuine authorial vision. Both directors arrived on the scene after the collapse of the studio system and TV’s wholesale annexation of cinema audiences. Corman and Meyer made money and brought in younger audiences by filling cinema screens with sex and violence and so have come to be hailed as pioneers but the directors of the American New Wave did much the same and yet produced art rather than the grubby, stupid and lacklustre nonsense that we have come to associate with Corman and Meyer. As I say in my review, Meyer deserves credit for developing a vision that was uniquely his own but there really are much better Meyer films than Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This film is unfunny, unsexy, unexciting and egregiously reactionary. Ugh.
The good folk at FilmJuice have my review of Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World.
Corman is an interesting figure in the history of American film as he appeared at a time when the American film industry was very slow to react to the cultural needs of the post-War generation. By remaining attuned to the desires of the babyboom generation, Corman managed to bootstrap himself first into commercial success and then into a certain degree of artistic respectability:
One of the most poignant moments in Corman’s World sees Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda reminiscing about Corman’s willingness to fund films such as The Trip and The Wild Angels. Filled with psychotropic imagery and language lifted from Vietnam War demonstrations, these films not only gave younger people a voice, they also laid the foundations for such ground-breaking films as Easy Rider. As people who rose to prominence on the back of the 1960s, both Fonda and Scorsese seem perplexed as to why Corman never followed them out of the drive-in and into the academy but this is because both men seem to have mistaken Corman for an idealistic filmmaker. Despite trying his arm at politically engaged filmmaking, Corman was never an idealist… he was a democrat and a capitalist who gave his audience idealism because that is what they wanted to pay for. The unease we feel about Corman’s willingness to pander to his audience is the same unease we feel about Hollywood as a whole: are they making art or are they making money? The answer suggested by Stapleton is that they are doing both because both activities involve telling people what it is that they want and need to hear.
Stapleton’s documentary is probably best understood as a companion piece to Peter Biskind’s book about the post-War movie brat generation Easy Rider, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-‘n’-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (2008). I say companion piece as Stapleton’s documentary leans quite heavily upon Biskind’s vision of a generation that stormed the barricades of Hollywood and launched successful careers before either collapsing into narcissistic self-indulgence or devoting themselves to selling toys. However, while Biskind’s book provides a deliciously unflattering portrait of that ‘golden’ generation of post-War filmmakers, Stapleton provides a far more enthusiastic picture of one of that generation’s most noted losers. Indeed, as I suggest in the above quote, Corman stood poised to become a ‘serious filmmaker’ but he somehow never made that transition and by the time he was in a position to capitalise on his success the likes of Lucas and Spielberg had pipped him to the post and convinced Hollywood that the future lay in pandering to audiences with multimillion-dollar B movies like Jaws and Star Wars.