Monday, May 5, 2014

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970): Using camp to dissect the woman's picture

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
dir: Russ Meyer


I think every review of a Russ Meyer film should begin with a word about breasts. Tits, mammaries, gazongas, huge tracts of land. Because, if there is one thing that Russ Meyer is obsessed with, it's breasts. Ok, well, two things because they do frequently travel in pairs.

However, to say Russ Meyer is obsessed with breasts is not to admonish him, nor to diminish his work as purely misogynistic exploitation. Far from it. Russ Meyer frequently enhances his love of the large chest with an equal love of the strong woman. His movies simultaneously exploit women in order to lust over their bodies and hold up women as stronger than life human beings who are very capable of surviving life without a man.

After the commercial success of Valley of the Dolls in 1967, 20th Century Fox commissioned Jacqueline Susann to write a sequel to the film, and she titled it Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. She had written the original novel, but had not written the screenplay...and both of her scripts failed to get published. Then, Fox looked to Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert to develop the film.

Ebert and Meyer didn't set out to make a straight-up drama like Valley of the Dolls was. Instead, they used the concept of camp in order to deconstruct Hollywood tropes that existed and would continue to exist in some fashion throughout. They're not subtle either. Making a sexy horror comedy musical drama that is also a satire, they just threw it all in and stirred.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a film about a female rock group from the sticks who go out to Hollywood in order to find success. As they become successful, they succumb to the various trappings of Hollywood, and everything crumbles and turns to shit.

That description is simultaneously an exact overview of the film and a vast oversimplification. All of the trappings of Hollywood they succumb to are generic stock scenarios that usually come with the woman's pictures.

The central rock band is initially called The Kelly Affair, named after the lead singer. The film opens with them playing at a prom, then taking a break to smoke some grass in their van in the parking lot. They come up with the idea to go to Hollywood to find Kelly's estranged Aunt Susan. Well, really, we find out that Kelly's mother was actually the black sheep of the family and was written out of her mother's will, leaving Aunt Susan to inherit the family fortune.

Aunt Susan is actually the editor of some high profile fashion magazine, and is into a really wild party scene. She invites the Kelly Affair to a party at Ronny "Z-Man" Bartell's pad. Z-Man is a rock producer, and takes the Kelly Affair under his wing, renaming them The Carrie Nations, and makes them famous.

Kelly ditches her boyfriend for the love of a muscled surf actor. Aunt Susan tries to give Kelly half of the fortune, but her lawyer really wants the money and tries to stop that from happening. One bandmate falls in love with a law student, cheats on him with a boxer who then beats up the law student. Kelly's boyfriend is seduced by a porn star, gets heavily into drugs and tries to kill himself but becomes a paraplegic. Another bandmate, sleeps with Kelly's first boyfriend, gets pregnant, an abortion, succumbs to drugs, and becomes a depressed lesbian.

The specifics could really have been filled any number of ways, but the result would be the same. The Carrie Nations all succumb to the horrors of their new locale and lose themselves before figuring out that true happiness isn't found in drugs or materialism, but in love. The details are only significant in how they take specific tropes and turn them on their head.

Roger Ebert was, at the time, a relatively new film critic out of Chicago. He had only been working for a couple of years, and seemed a strange choice for a million dollar sequel. But, there had been a shift brewing in Hollywood at the time.

From the 1930s through the 1960s, Hollywood had been working under the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code, which monitored what content it deemed appropriate for wide release. Depictions of out-of-wedlock sexuality, any homosexuality, cursing, violence, and a whole litany of questionable moral judgments were not allowed by the Hays Code. But, by the late 1960s, the code was getting more and more lax in its enforcement to the point where Hollywood came up with a new system entirely.

In 1968, the MPAA ratings system was born with G, M (which would become GP and then PG), R, and X. 20th Century Fox was eager to test the system, as the public was demanding more and more mature offerings, and hired the breast-obsessed Russ Meyer and the film critic Roger Ebert. At the time, Fox was losing money, and trying out some experimental films. In 1970, it released M*A*S*H*, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and Myra Breckenridge. All experimental films, especially for studio product. BVD and Myra were Fox's June releases, even.

With Fox being embroiled in bitter power struggles, Ebert and Meyer were able to do whatever the hell they wanted. In essence, Ebert and Meyer made the ultimate movie to close out one era of film history and usher in the next. They smashed together the psychedelic genre of the 1960s with the woman's soap opera of the 1950s and the fame picture of all the time, and then added in sex, drugs, violence, alcohol, and even queer sexualities...all amped up to 11. The movie opens with a scene from the finale where a girl is woken up by a gun being thrust into her mouth by an unknown assailant. And, the smash cut to the beginning is from the trigger being pulled.

Ebert and Meyer were satirizing what had come before, and ushering the new cynical genre that would come in the 1970s, as also shown by the X-rated Myra Breckenridge, which would come out the week after. The darkness of the media conglomerates selling false truths were to be explored and openly mocked, through the use of camp.

There is a direct contrast to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with Mahogany, as both of them use the same formula to different ends, but both ending up in camp. Mahogany doesn't realize it is going through camp, but ends up there due to the Sirkian subtexts that Berry Gordy consciously, or unconsciously, added in. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls actively subverts and mocks the formula with an intentionally campy tone inviting the viewer to actively dissect what they're watching as they're watching it.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls makes little sense to most people who don't actively have a sense of its origins. Those who haven't witnessed the tropes, nor seen the formulas, may think that BVD is just a bad movie without realizing it is intentionally over-the-top. However, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls persists to this day as an deep track for those who stumble across its titillating content.

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