The system's limits tested

Busty blockbuster set in beautiful B.C.

Published: Mar 21 2015, 01:01:am

Saturday, May 6, 1972.
VIXEN! Written by Robert Rudelson. Music by Igo Kantor. Produced, directed and photographed by Russ Meyer. Running time: 70 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: completely concerned with sex.
FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! Written by Jack Moran. Music direction by Igo Kantor. Produced, directed and edited by Russ Meyer. Running time: 83 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: excessive brutality.

WITH THE RECENT SPRING blossoming of Canadian content on Vancouver's Theatre Row, it comes as no surprise to see a current film open with a proud snap of national colours followed by a picture postcard view of Victoria's Empress Hotel.
    What is surprising is that this film, so carefully set in B.C., was for the most part shot in Northern California. Russ Meyer's Vixen!, made at approximately the same time that provincial propagandists were lensing The Good Life [the short film that accompanied Premier W.A.C. Bennett on his 1969 summer tour], and after a stormy career in at least 20 U.S. and Canadian courts, has finally made it to B.C.
    Locally, audiences are being treated to a virtually new, mostly uncut print of the film, perhaps the best of the controversial independent producer's product.
    Vixen! stars Erica Gavin as Vixen Palmer, dark-haired passion flower of the North Woods. The camera first glimpses her running through the pine forest in a tiny yellow bikini, a well-muscled male (Peter Carpenter) in red shorts in hot pursuit.
    It is not a long chase. When he catches her, their bits of colourful fabric are quickly discarded. Meyer's camera stays with them until they collect their clothes again, and Vixen's friendly woodsman is shown pulling on his scarlet RCM Police tunic.
    "I'm using the Mounted Policeman shacking up with the heroine for satire," Meyer said in an interview during the filming. "This may be the first time this has ever been done . . . Who's ever seen a Mountie making it in a picture, or anywhere?"
    Meyer has a lot of firsts to his credit. A combat photographer during the Second World War, he served in the same Signal Corps unit as Hollywood director Stanley Kramer. When Meyer mustered out, his driving ambition was to get into motion picture production, but he found the doors of the major studios closed.
    For a while, he worked as a glamour photographer. Then, in 1959, he took his first fling at independent film production with the epidermal epic The Immoral Mr. Teas. Made on a budget of $24,000, Teas teased out more than $1 million, and established the fact that well-made exploitation films could attract major audience attention.
    For a decade, Meyer's pictures set the standard and pace for other independents. At the same time, the major production studios turned their own Thou-Shalt-Not code into a classification system in order to produce their own exploitation products.
    Meyer was the first of the independents to make the breakthrough to a big studio contract when 20th Century Fox hired him to produce and direct his own pictures. He gave them 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Seven Minutes (1971), two of the more interesting Hollywood films of recent years.
    Because of Meyer's background, his total lack of pretence (and, perhaps, because he's never penned an article for Cahiers du Cinema), many critics have felt safe in either dismissing him or savagely attacking his work. Meyer, often called "King Leer," is one of the architects of the New Hollywood. He deserves better.
    And, indeed, in some quarters he gets better. Festivals of his films have already turned up on college campuses. A number of articles have recently been written about his masterful screen parodies.
    Opposition is usually directed at his subject matter — sex, and attitudes toward sex — rather than his cinematic style. No matter how well done, many will not accept sexual relations as a fit subject for the motion picture medium.
    Films designed to excite suspense, pity, fear, horror, laughter or political passion are usually granted a viewing on their own merits. Films designed to excite sexual reveries get short shrift. Like medicine bottles, they are sniffed at, shelved and labelled with loose pejoratives like "skin flick" or "sexploiter."
    For years, such backdoor treatment has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meyer, a victim of the system, recognized from the beginning how ludicrous it all was. He tested the system's limits and extended them, while at the same time turning out films that laughed at it. A Meyer  film —any Meyer  film — is a put-on.
    Vixen! is not high art. It is a glossy, tongue-in-cheek sex film, one that operates on two levels. On the first, it stylishly offers what Meyer himself calls "the pant-and-drool crowd" the not-unpleasant sight of beautiful bodies joined in various (simulated) acts of love.
    On another, it deliberately parodies familiar film technique. At one point, for example, Vixen is beginning a bit of lesbian love-making with Janet (Vincene Wallace), her generously-built house guest.
    "Your skin is so soft," she says, caressing her partner's nude torso. Then, with all the concern of a housewife in a TV commercial, she asks "How do you keep it so soft?"
    "I don't use anything special," her friend says, leading into a an intense discussion of cosmetics and complexions that is in comedic counterpoint to their actions on the screen.
    Throughout his career, Meyer has delighted in teasing his pant-and-drool crowd, while mocking the conventions and techniques of the big film studios. Vixen!'s companion feature, 1965's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, catches Meyer in another mood.
    While Vixen! is in full colour and (in the words of the B.C. Classifier's warning) "completely concerned with sex," Pussycat! is in black and white, with "excessive brutality." Made three years earlier than Vixen!, Pussycat! focuses its attention on a trio of liberated ladies, a group not unlike underground comic artist Robert Crumb's Lenore Goldberg and Her Girl Commandos.
    Roaring about in sports cars, Meyer's girl gangsters are Eurasian Varla (Turi Satana, in the Porsche), Latina Rosie (Haji, in a Triumph) and all-American Billie (Lori Williams, in an MG). A shapely trio, they are decked out in high boots, wide belts and tight pants. Varla opens the action by picking a fight with a male, then murdering him with her bare hands.
    In general, followers of the sexplicit film genre know what to expect from their favourite filmmakers. Meyer, with his florid, self-mocking movies, gives them an optional extra. While making fun of the sins of the flesh, he has his own fun exposing the flesh peddlers.   

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: During its original release (some three years before it arrived in Vancouver), Vixen! found a champion in a 27-year-old Chicago film critic named Roger Ebert. In May, 1968, Ebert penned a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, commenting on an article the financial paper had run on the filmmaker's work. According author Jimmy McDonough (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film; 2005): "Eagle-eyed Meyer took notice of the dispatch and wrote Ebert an appreciative note, suggesting they meet." They did meet, and they hit it off. Following the impressive financial success of Meyer's independently-produced Vixen!, 20th Century Fox hired the filmmaker to create a sequel to its 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls. According to another Myer biographer, David K. Frasier (Russ Meyer —The Life and Films; 1990): "One of the first and one of the best decisions Meyer made was to hire a young Chicago Sun-Times film critic to help him write the screenplay . . . Roger Ebert took a leave of absence from his paper. He moved to Hollywood where he and Meyer cranked out the screenplay to (1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) in six weeks of 10 hour days." A bright guy, Ebert did not give up his day job. Though he collaborated with Meyer on two more screenplays (for 1976's Up!, using the pseudonym Reinhold Timme, and 1979's Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens, as R.Hyde), he preferred the celebrity of an important critic to the invisibility of a studio scribe. The friendship that the two shared is the subject of Russ & Roger Go Beyond, a biopic currently scheduled for release in 2016. The story of the making of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it will feature Will Farrell and Josh Gad in the Russ and Roger roles.