Sunday, September 17, 2006

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

I really love the 60s mod aesthetic, so much so that if a movie is set in this time period, I can forgive a lot more than I would with the same movie set in the present day. If Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was made about a hip hop girl group in 2006, I probably wouldn't particularly like it, but the combination of period style and Russ Meyer's excess make Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a thoroughly entertaining film.

This is a film that establishes right from the start the schizophrenic, over the top drive that will drive it forward. The opening disclaimer is just weird, and the subsequent images from Z-Man's house don't mean too much on the first viewing, except for the obviously laden image of a man shoving a gun into a topless woman's mouth. It's in the electrifying cut from her scream to Kelly singing that the film grabbed me. A moment that pop gives the film a lot of leeway, and the driving 60s rock in a goofy prom works really well.

This is a film that works in a mode where there's not a clear line between what's serious and what's comedic. The actors play everything totally straight and you can choose to either accept it or laugh at it. I think it's very effective here, and doesn't really distance you from the characters. From a present day perspective, the sheer 60sness of their behavior is endearing. I feel like there's a naivete in their behavior, the thought that what they're doing really could change the world, and that's been crushed out of society following the collapse of everything in the 70s.

The only Russ Meyer film I'd seen previously was Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill. The title alone establishes that as a piece of excessive pop filmmaking and it lived up to that billing. I think Dolls surpasses Faster Pussycat, more successfully navigating the line between satire and sincerity. The increased resouces of Fox allow him to make a film that feels entirely chosen, whereas Faster seemed to suffer from his lack of budget.

That this film was ever made at a major studio to begin with is quite an achievement. There's some really odd moments in here, one of the most notable being the trip to L.A. montage. This is practically abstract filmmaking, throwing a bunch of barely related images together that become increasingly schizophrenic as time goes by. The oddest moment of the film was the "Bentley, Rolls" sequence, where Ashley is shouting out car manufacturer names while having sex with Harris. It's a moment that transcends reality to become pure cinema. It makes no sense from a human behavior point of view, but in the movie that Meyer created, it wors.

The film is at least partially a musical, and the greatness of the songs really helps the film out. I love 60s pop rock, and all these songs were really catchy. "Sweet Talkin' Candy Man" was a particular highlight, but pretty much every song was enjoyable. I particularly like the editing in the montage sequences, which lays out the characters' emotional conflicts via those dissolves, pitting Harris and Z-Man in conflict. The stark black background of those sequences was striking.

The one plot that dragged a bit was the stuff with Porter Hall. He was likely meant as a satire of the 'square' community, but the stuff with him and Kelly was a bit obvious. That said, the scene with the two of them in bed was pretty funny.

There's a lot of quotable lines in the film, the best being "This is my happening and it's freaking me out!" The whole opening tour of Z-Man's house is full of stuff that's so 60s and so Russ Meyer. I think there's something endearing about the vision of this sexually liberated utopia presented in the party, there's something innocent about that compared to today's club or frat party scene, which is so focused on predatory behavior.

As things wind on, we build up to the predictable reconciliation with Harris. I didn't find Harris a particularly likable character, I think his conservatism doesn't fit with the general embrace of Z-Man's world. I suppose his rejection of Ashley for Kelly could be read as a satire of the values conventionally undermining this sort of story, but you have to do a bit more to be a satire, now it was just indistinguishable from those films. That said, I think the moment where they're all set to go rescue Casey and have to take the time to load his wheelchair into the car is absoulutely brilliant.

Casey herself becomes part of the really bizarre ritual that ends the film. The film just keeps building and this final bit definitely feels like they were making it up as they were going along. That's not necessarily bad, you can appreciate this as a bizarre moment all its own. Before that, we get the surprisingly underplayed abortion scene with Casey. You wouldn't see that today, another indication of the turn towards conservatism in our society.

At Z-Man's, Casey and Roxanne dress up as Batman and Robin and go through a series of visually crazy rituals. This leads up to the two parallel homosexual scenes and ultimately Z-Man's madness. I was surprised to see a generally progressive view of homosexuality in the film, at least until Z-Man is revealed as a crazy transvestite, nothing too progressive about that. The ending has such crazy energy you can forgive the logical inconsistencies. One of the best moments is Z-Man cutting off Lance's head with the 20th Century Fox fanfare in the background. I was surprised by the fact that he ended up killing Roxanne and Casey, the really brutal violence intruded on this otherwise cartoonish world.

Eventually Z-Man is defeated and we get a really odd narration to wrap things up. Likely put in to appease the studio it winds up as a mockery of the sort of moral closure it was intended to provide. Lines like "Roxanne and Casey's love wasn't evil, but evil came about because of it" are just impossible to take seriously. The final moments, where Kelly helping Harris over a river bed are equally ridiculous. I'm not a huge fan of the triple wedding final scene, which is either hopelesslly saccharine or way too over the top to even be funny.

But the bizarreness of that closing narration is what lingers, summing up the odd worldview of the film. This is a movie that's so full of energy, you can watch any moment and enjoy it as a piece of fine 60s pop art. I love the music, I love the visuals, this is a thoroughly entertaining film that I would highly reccomend checking out.


antonio romero said...

Personally, I have never "gotten" this movie. I recently caught part of it again on IFC, and was inspired to write the following... well, I won't call it an "appreciation" because, well, I didn't appreciate it much. Let's just say... "comment".

The critic as writer: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

I can't get through it, I can't stomach the confused tone (parody? self-parody? dunno) or the bad acting or... much of anything. Except the curvaceous women. And that's not enough incentive.

Patrick said...

I checked out your post, and I think this sentence is the critical thing:

"It’s hard to take as either parody or “the real thing” "

But that's the whole point, it's not either one, it's both. The band they're in is kind of ridiculous, but the songs are also good. The storylines are so over the top they're funny, but at the same time there's some real emotional moments in there. I love the fact that the film is just totally commited to whatever it's doing at the moment.

And, unlike most of Meyer's other films, I don't think it's meant as porn. Certainly there's some softcore elements, but it's not like Vixen, this one is a bit more ambitious. I love the film for a whole bunch of reasons, but the music alone makes it worth watching.

Bryce Digdug said...

" related images together that become increasingly schizophrenic as time goes by. " Yes. And when I saw the set design for the fashion designer's office Kelly visits I almost lost contact with reality. I'm watching it's available to "Watch now" on Netflix!

Helen said...

It can't have effect in fact, that is exactly what I suppose.