Thursday, July 18, 2019

Without A Sense Of Guilt

“Roger died,” said the text. I knew this already. I just hadn’t wanted to be the one to tell her. This was the day, several years ago now, a lifetime ago now, that Roger Ebert died. We still remember him as a great writer and critic as well as someone who bravely fought cancer in his final years after his voice was taken away but often in the dead of night it’s going to be about his screenplay for the legendary BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. The film’s director Russ Meyer continues to be celebrated for it as well and though he’s also known for the likes of VIXEN and FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! it’s BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS that I return to, often in the dead of night, always trying to figure out just what this film is that’s unlike any other. Originally released in 1970 with an X rating (changed to an NC-17 years later), the film is known these days partly due to pop culture references in places like AUSTIN POWERS but all on its own is about as compulsively entertaining as any movie ever made and rewatchable as few others have ever been, making multiple viewings almost mandatory, the more the better. There is nothing like it. That’s even on the poster: This is not a sequel. There has never been anything like it.

There has still never been anything like it in every possible way and there are few films that bring the same exuberant rush of dangerously pure cinematic crack to every single shot, every single manic cut. You can’t say that about many films made these days and you certainly can’t say it about the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS but no sane person would ever write about that film anyway (full disclosure: I’ve seen VALLEY OF THE DOLLS exactly twice but have seen BEYOND exactly 5,643 times). The thing about BEYOND is that, as extreme as it is, as much as it gleefully dispenses with anything resembling actual life in the real world, there’s something about it which is impossible to resist that somehow lets you identify with its madness. It’s the perfect film for L.A., making you think of those people in this town who fall into your world, the ones who keep you up until all hours of the night and what tears that connection apart in the end. For a long time I used to say that one of the reasons you keep going to parties in L.A. is the hope one night you’ll end up at Z-Man’s—for the first party, obviously, not the last. Since I don’t go out to parties as much anymore that dream isn’t as strong, but we all need to hold out a sliver of hope for these possibilities.

Kelly MacNamara, lead singer of the rock group The Kelly Affair along with guitarist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Meyers) and drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), suggests to manager/boyfriend Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) that they give L.A. a try which will give an excuse to look up her long-lost aunt Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), the heir to the family fortune. When they are reunited, Kelly’s presence causes suspicion in Susan’s lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) but she wastes no time inviting everyone to a party thrown by teen rock tycoon Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar) who after hearing them perform immediately announces that he can take the band which he renames The Carrie Nations and make them the biggest rock group around. As they rise on the charts with everyone getting sucked into the fast rock lifestyle, Harris is left behind and as Kelly squabbles over the family fortune that Porter Hall insists she won’t get a penny of, each of the girls begin to lose sight over what they really care about as they tumble further into that hard living land known as the valley of the dolls.

Sure, I could have made that synopsis longer adding a few more characters and incidents but we’ve got places to be. To accurately describe BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is to fully understand it and I’ve never made that claim. To say the film is simply exhilarating isn’t quite enough, because to only specify what it achieves in one way is selling it short. It’s a glorious piece of exploitation, it’s a rock movie, a melodrama, a spoof, maybe even a little bit of a feminist film as well as a commentary on the nature of movies itself. Roger Ebert’s hand in the script (official credits: story by Ebert and Meyer, screenplay by Meyer) is a reminder of how while providing the expected melodramatic tropes it also plays as a compendium of maybe just about everything he had ever bemusedly noticed about movies up to this point, the sort of details he later compiled in his various glossaries of movie terms and clich├ęs.

Along with how utterly quotable it is, said the spider, et cetera, it’s all filtered through the Russ Meyer prism of extreme sexuality, hell extreme sense of everything within the frame, of manly men and, more importantly, as many well-endowed women in a shot as is ever possible. The combination of the writer and director’s viewpoints explode in an array of madness which creates an immensely colorful and cluttered widescreen image that rapidly shoots from one type of film to another. It leaves no time to catch your breath as if daring you to scream uncle in the first ten minutes but once you get adjusted to the rhythms there’s also a joy to its arch playfulness as well as a strange familiarity as if a remake of a film we’ve watched in dreams but can’t quite remember.

Right from the start the sheer density of what Meyer brings as a filmmaker is undeniable, beginning with the kaleidoscopic way of structuring the film and how the baffling sequence of events under the opening credits make no sense but of course it all will eventually. What gets teased at the start is inevitable, just like much of what happens in inevitable, just as Z-Man seems to understand it always is. The perfect ideal for a Russ Meyer shot is a packed widescreen frame, possibly at a canted angle, one that cuts as fast as possible to the next before we’ve fully registered what’s in it, but as intense as the pacing is even during a brief scene filmed from every conceivable angle it always feels focused, none of it is ever random. The early frenzied montage used to illustrate everything we need to know about the people and places of Los Angeles (“Rich Aunt Susan?” “Bitch Aunt Susan.”) works now as part time capsule and part something else entirely but also on a smaller scale is the manic intensity of the fashion studio introduction to Susan Lake that shortly follows which is just as dizzying, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath. From early on the film always seems to be looking for bits of footage to insert in other places as part of that approach to make its point, the series of edits in rapid succession whether what’s coming between Casey and fashion designer Roxanne (Erica Gavin of VIXEN) who takes an immediate interest in her or a simple reminder of the joys of what Edy Williams’ lecherous Ashley St. Ives does in a Rolls versus a Bentley.

The first Z-Man party introduces us to seemingly a hundred people, some of whom we’ll get to know and others we’ll never see again, with snatches of pseudo-hipster cool dialogue that never make complete sense spoken by the most eccentric bit players imaginable and who the hell are all these people anyway. “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” Z-Man famously exclaims while showing Kelly around his pad, introducing her to what will be all the supporting characters in the film, nothing subtle about all that exposition but fitting for this rock tycoon who has taken control of everyone in this city he knows inside and out. Z-Man says they’ll be superstars and, poof, The Carrie Nations are superstars, the band’s rise to success depicted in a tableau of the girls performing bracketed by what they think of as the two men in their lives on each side, repeated later almost in a mirror image as the darkness of that success takes hold. It’s the strong, decisive women of Meyer’s films at the center of it all and whatever mistakes they fall into still have power that the men, almost all weak in their own ways, are never able to handle.

For Russ Meyer, the maverick approach of his independent films combined with the studio aesthetic seems perfect for the Hollywood collapse of 1969-70 in the wake of EASY RIDER and all the events of the time. I can never explain what it is about movies circa 1970 for me that feel a little nightmarish as if there was something about the film stock or lenses used but maybe I’m just thinking about this film in particular which always seems to come from somewhere unexplainable or maybe it’s just the unreal fashions and all that hair on the women, playing as both an exaggeration of the time and a total representation of it, or at least what I think it was. There’s no point getting caught up in the unending debate over what exactly camp is but there’s too much style found in the way BEYOND is staged and shot to ever consider it a bad movie, let alone an intentionally bad one, it’s just a style that is almost impossible to pin down. Everything about it is calculated in a pre-fab way, every second has just a little more intensity to it than you’d expect, the characterizations too vivid and when compared to the likes of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE which happens to be the other X-rated 20th Century Fox film of 1970 (they came out a mere week apart and what a time that must have been) it’s a reminder of how much that film is an unfunny chore to sit through once you take away the holy-shit vibe, no discipline to its offensiveness.

BEYOND constantly veers close to the cliff of total anarchy but never falls over, reveling in each heightened “Since the last time I saw you, you won the heavyweight championship! Congratulations!” moment. The music has some of that blatant manufactured pop style to fit the fake groovy vibe but it also has an unexpected power, whether that never-ending scream that kicks off the anthem “Find It”, the cheery hippie vibe of “Come with the Gentle People” or how well the later “Look On Up At The Bottom” goes with the darkness that’s falling over everything. All throughout, the music correctly highlights the specific tone of the moment whether for wacky Russ Meyer sex antics, the soap opera organ that invades the most histrionic moments or the title track by The Sandpipers presented totally poker-faced as if meant to be the theme for the normal version of this movie and no one said anything to stop them.

Plotted in the immediate wake of Tate-LaBianca and released the following summer after arrests had been made, part of where the story leads may be done in extreme tastelessness at least partly because of who one of the stars of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was, after all, but on the other hand if an exploitation movie doesn’t exploit anything then what would be the point. The excessive nature of how even the most basic scene is staged almost manages to disguise how much of a modestly scaled film it is with almost the entirety of the main unit footage shot on either the Fox lot or presumably out at the Fox ranch in Malibu, but there’s always something within the clutter to disguise it (that said, a few night shots of Edy Williams driving, maybe on Wilshire Blvd, have a dangerous kick to them and I wish there was more of this sort of thing).

The film isn’t perfect, granted, since a few characters fall away when the film doesn’t have anything left to do with them and it does dwell too long on Porter Hall’s financial machinations in the middle section, dragging things with more literal plot than it really needs. This is a film about emotions, after all, and it never has to make any more sense than the fury of those emotions (the way Sam Fuller describes Cinema in PIERROT LE FOU comes to mind), the excess of the second hour’s rising fervor and the bloodshed of the climax which seems to come out of nowhere, coinciding with a use of the famous Fox fanfare to provide a joke late in the film if you’re listening for it during just about the grisliest moment. It’s all an exaggeration of what movies usually are as well as real life. But in Hollywood very little ever has to do with real life anyway.

BEYOND was almost going to serve as an actual sequel to VALLEY at one point and the draft I’ve read even has the names of the two characters from the first film before they were changed, presumably after threat of litigation from the author of the original novel but as Vincent Canby said in his New York Times review, “Any movie that Jacqueline Susann thinks would damage her reputation as a writer cannot be all bad.” Released in late 1967, the original VALLEY OF THE DOLLS was a huge hit at the time, presumably meant to be serious but since then has always been a so-bad-it’s-good joke. Coming several years later, BEYOND was meant by Meyer & Ebert to be a joke in the first place but is heightened to the point that gives every scene an unexpected intensity, never holding back on each overly emphasized emotion which manages to make it all the more strangely real, that cruel showbiz feeling of standing on the outside looking in.

Even now I still kind of hope for the best for some of the characters after the credits roll and also feel bad for a few who didn’t make it that far and don’t quite get redemption via the epic closing narration which in its benediction offers sympathy to only some through its skewering of conservative morality. In some ways the entire film is a joke, a borderline offensive joke down to the perverse dark humor of at least one particular sound effect, daring us to actually care about some of these people but it’s also a film about what films are in the first place and it lets us make up our own minds. The mayhem of the climactic party lives up to its nightmarish aims and while the most surprising revelation is the most problematic in this day and age it still plays out as a perfect joke about those last-minute revelations that come out of nowhere, answering everything and nothing all at once. Whatever new thing the film becomes on each viewing it’s always a combination of the L.A. we want to find and the one we’re afraid might still be out there, maybe even when we answer our phone in the dead of night. Maybe there is no code to crack when it comes to BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, merely simple acceptance of how in its own way this movie is really every movie.

All of this goes perfectly with the unrelenting energy of Dolly Read as Kelly who commands the film and seems ready to devour the world in every scene, no matter how much she loses sight of the people around her, no matter how many times her English accent slips in. It’s charming, just as Marcia McBroom also has a bubbly charm as Pet and she’s the one who seems to have the most fun with some of the over-enunciated dialogue she’s given to say and her scenes with Harrison Page as law student/love interest Emerson Thorne are just about the most relaxed of anyone. Cynthia Myers as Casey gives what is maybe the rawest performance in the film, her nervous energy bubbling under until it explodes without a hint of irony and is one of the strongest elements to really challenge whatever we might think this film is supposed to be. It comes through in her scenes with Erica Gavin, who herself is part of what is probably the film’s most notorious image and as much as it sometimes feels like the movie cuts around her, Gavin still gives her part more soul than it feels like was on the page.

John LaZar is extraordinary as the unforgettable Z-Man, fearlessly belting out every piece of pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue he has, becoming one with the film in his sheer display of intensity while David Guarian as Harris almost seems to be mentally wrestling with whatever intricate instructions Meyer has given him while saying the words, as if he’s struggling to stay afloat in all this as much as his character is. Michael Blodgett oozes sleaze as gigolo Lance Rocke who Kelly gets mixed up with while Charles Napier (all these years later, maybe the most recognizable person in the film) and his chiseled matinee idol looks play like he’s walked right out of an unseen Douglas Sirk film so he fits right in when reunited opposite the charming but slightly underused Phyllis Davis as Aunt Susan. Everyone here gets moments that will never be forgotten and it’s safe to say that for even some of the bit players here, this film is their immortality. When Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives leans in close to David Guarian and says, “You’re a groovy boy, I’d like to strap you on sometime,” there’s nothing else to call it. Among the extended cast of bit players, Pam Grier is credited in the end crawl as “Fourth Woman” and is almost totally invisible but existing stills prove she was there for Z-Man’s party and I’ve actually spotted her, I swear!

And Roger did die on that day in 2013, sadly, but all things considered he made it longer than expected although still not as long as we wanted. Many years ago he gladly signed my copy of the script for this film, adding “Another BVD fan!” on the cover page. Russ Meyer passed away in 2004 and only made one other studio film after this, also for Twentieth Century-Fox, the considerably more normal and mostly forgotten THE SEVEN MINUTES which I haven’t seen in decades. Also in my own history, one day long ago I was wearing my BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS t-shirt while working on a low budget film when the cinematographer, the legendary Gary Graver, walked up to me and said, “I used to go out with…that one” pointing at one of the girls on the shirt (Erica Gavin, for the record). And through the years from my first viewing at SUNY Purchase in glorious 16mm Scope then to 35mm, the old Magnetic Video VHS, laserdisc, DVD and now that stunning Criterion Blu-ray, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS continues to fascinate. Plus if you’ve ever seen it with a packed house you know that it just about destroys the place but even watching it by myself it still makes me want to examine each cut and figure out what’s going on there as if I’ll ever really get an answer. I’ll also remember how, in writing this film, Roger Ebert passed along a twisted reminder of what you sometimes need to expect from movies in the first place which is one of the reasons why they matter so much. And all that will be part of what I think of when I remember the text I received on the day he died, even if it is one of those pieces of the past you should decide to finally forget. But the film will continue, those words that Roger Ebert gave it will continue and the film in all its sleazy glory will be there to trust and count on, as the Carrie Nations once sang, come a rainy day.