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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Director: Russ Meyer
Star: Tura Satana

What a difference two years can make. In 1963, Tura Satana was working in Hollywood. She had a few lines as a Parisian prostitute in a Billy Wilder picture, then, as an uncredited stripper, served as the exotic backdrop for a Tijuana scene in a Dean Martin vehicle. In 1965, she was back on the big screen but this time playing the lead in a black and white indie flick for renegade filmmaker Russ Meyer. Not only is she the focus of the film rather than a distraction, the tone is utterly different. Irma la Douce may have been written around salacious subject matter, but so far around it that it assiduously avoids the sex that drives its characters. Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? was notably misogynistic, a sad product of its time. Yet this is something of a manifesto for feminine power, so much so that with hindsight, we might be excused for thinking that Satana should have been snapped up by Hollywood as the next big thing. In reality they were scared stiff of her.

Back in the sixties, American cinema was dominated by men and there were few good roles for women on or off the camera, talents like Bette Davis struggling to find material of substance and only Ida Lupino able to represent the fairer sex in the director's chair. Of course, it hasn't changed much today (just compare Hollywood's current output to that of modern French cinema) but it's better than it was. At least there's a strong indie scene, with a low cost of entry and a number of options for distribution. When this film came out, there were few indie filmmakers and they were mostly crooks. Meyer was a rarity, an auteur with a strong vision, the ability to make movies and the contacts to get them seen. He was a glamour photographer with early Playboy centrefolds to his name, he shot production stills for Hollywood movies and he filmed combat footage for the US Army during World War II. Many colleagues from those worlds also worked on his films.

It's something of an irony that it took Russ Meyer to champion the power of women, as he's hardly the epitome of the feminist. His first films, like The Immoral Mr Teas, Eve and the Handyman and Wild Gals of the Naked West fall into the nudie cutie genre, while his later ones, like Supervixens, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens are unmistakable for their plentiful use of topless or naked women with impossibly large breasts. He's an exploitation filmmaker frequently described as sexist and there's much in his pictures that precludes him from being identified as a feminist. Yet, with a few of his mid-period black and white films and especially with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he was the brightest beacon of light, not for the equality of women but for the superiority of them, in the whole of American cinema. He equates sex with violence from the outset, putting that power firmly with 'this new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman'.

Meyer had a type, certainly, but it went beyond huge breasts to a more buxom version of the old pinup standard, which is exemplified here by three otherwise different leading ladies: Tura Satana as Varla, an exotic Amazon with make up that enhances her cat like eyes; Haji, a continental vixen with a strong accent as Rosie; and Lori Williams as Billie, an all-American blonde. All three know how to move, being supple and flexible dancers even in tight jeans that emphasise hips and waists as well as breasts. Perhaps most importantly, all three possess a wild and strong spirit apparent whether dancing in a go-go bar or racing sports cars in the Mojave desert, both of which they do in the opening scenes. It's far from accidental that one is a traditionally female role while the other is traditionally male, as this film is all about obliterating those boundaries. Meyer's women are as powerful as they choose to be, as dominant as Varla, as submissive as Rosie or as free as Billie.
The first twenty minutes are a cinematic textbook worthy of exploration. The introduction is avant garde, featuring a growing number of spectographs of the narrator's voice, before exploding into life in a go-go bar. Meyer's camera literally looks up to these three powerful leads, except when they're wrestling in the water or sand. He places them into traditionally exploitative settings like exotic dances and catfights while demonstrating that they're not being exploited, in command of their own destinies. They're above the world at large, whose pecking order is mirrored within the trio. Meyer quickly establishes their respective places: Varla clearly dominant, Rosie submissive to her and Billie wild enough to question but not tough enough to challenge. Compare them to Linda, a bouncy Gidget­ clone who doesn't get out of her boyfriend's car until after him. She's as weak as the others are strong, but she can't comprehend their threat, not just to her but her way of life.

Watching Linda and Tommy interact with Varla and the others is almost surreal; it's easy to read it in a much wider cinematic context than it was ever intended. Linda and Tommy are happy, polite and asexual, even with Linda in a bikini, only able to function within the confines of a strict set of rules, like the Production Code under which mainstream American film had been restricted since 1934. Yet Varla and her girls ooze defiance and sexuality with every word, move and action, reminiscent of the precodes or, more prophetically, the films that would kill the Production Code only a couple of years later and lead to the temporary creative freedom of the early seventies. Like the Code was doing at the time, Linda and Tommy are fighting a battle they can't win as don't understand what they're fighting. 'Would you like a soft drink?' asks Linda, almost mindlessly happy. 'We don't like nothing soft,' replies Rosie. 'Everything we do is hard.' They're speaking a different language.

The most obvious new ground is set here too, namely Varla's murder of Tommy. Clean cut, with a cute girlfriend and an obsession with his car, which he tunes to perfection and races against the clock, Tommy is the epitome of the American boy. We don't need to be told that he was his high school's quarterback or he was voted King of the Prom, we just know. Yet he's just as unable to deal with these strange new girls as Linda. 'What's it mean if you don't beat anyone?' asks Varla and he actually tries to answer. His only defense is to not play her game, to retreat to his car and wait for reality to follow him. Unfortunately Linda presses him to race. Temporarily in his element again, he succeeds, but then Varla changes the rules and runs him off the track. He's lost again, unable to even leave his car until his damsel is in distress. Even then, Varla proves tougher than him. She leaves him dead on the sand and traditional American masculinity with him.
To be honest, the film could have ended there, with Varla snapping Tommy's neck, less than twenty minutes in, and critics like me would still have as much to say about it, but there's a story still to be told, sparked by a talkative gas station attendant. Out in the desert is a crippled old man, with a fortune stashed away on his property because he doesn't believe in banks, and Varla wants it all. What she finds isn't quite what she expects. The old man is a twisted character with a whole slew of secrets beyond the location of the money. He lives with two sons, one a brain damaged muscle man, tastefully known as The Vegetable, and another who seems to be fighting his own battles in the household. The ambiguity of the characters is appreciated: not one of the good guys is entirely good and not one of the bad girls is entirely bad, so we have to find our own moral ground in the maelstrom of motivations that the story rolls on through like the trains that are so frequently referenced.

There are about a million reasons why this film shouldn't work. It's a broadly painted big picture with a few little portraits within it. The acting is far from accomplished, with Satana shouting most of her lines, Williams whispering most of hers and Haji's accent proving as elusive as it is wild. For all the new ground it breaks, it chooses not to explore other taboos, such as the obvious lesbian relationship between Varla and Rosie or the proclivities of the old man. Yet it ably succeeds where greater films have failed, as it never loses the tension, danger and threat of violence that it starts with. Most of this is generated by Satana, who dominates effortlessly throughout. Rosie describes Varla as 'a velvet glove cast in iron' and it's a fair description; as tough as she is, and Satana did all her own stunts and fight scenes, she's unmistakably female. The old man's description is 'more stallion than man,' again highlighting grace and power without masculinity.

This is perhaps Russ Meyer's greatest film and certainly his most remembered. It has all the great composition of frame that he's known for, given his background in still photography, and the same sort of dynamic editing which creates much of the motion in most of his films. One rare departure from the norm here is the use of a cinematographer, Walter Schenk, who also shot Mudhoney, as Meyer tended to shoot his own films, in addition to writing, editing, producing, directing and, once home video became his biggest market, even answering the phone to take orders. Yet, unsurprisingly, it isn't Meyer people remember most about this film, it's Tura Satana. While Meyer was able to move on to more films, finding new, ever more buxom, stars to showcase in ever more outlandish plots, Satana found it harder. Of course, film wasn't her primary medium to begin with, being a hugely successful exotic dancer, but Meyer isn't the only one to regret that he never cast her again.

Her role here wasn't restricted to the character she played on screen. She designed her own make up and costume; wrote or improvised some of her dialogue, including a few of the choicest lines in the film; and added real martial arts knowledge to her fight scenes. She began to learn aikido and karate after she was gang raped at the age of nine by five men, then spent fifteen years exacting her revenge. No wonder she was so believable and so relentlessly tough as Varla; she really was as relentlessly tough as Varla. Whatever the provenance of the character, how much was written by Meyer and how much brought to the table by Satana, how much it's fictional and how much it's real, Varla is certainly one of the most abiding icons of exploitation cinema, so abiding that her influence has spread far beyond it. For a black and white 1965 indie film that cost a mere $45,000, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! continues to resonate today, as relevant as it ever was.

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