Monday, February 07, 2011

Comes in Colors: BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1970)


When discussing the change from repressive 1950's-early 60's to late 60's-70's permissive hedonism (and then back again, post-1980) one should always be aware of what social studies classes don't want you to know: the elements directly responsible for mass social change aren't education and activism, they are: sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  You want to see how deep the wormhole goes? In the 1980's I had to look very hard before I could get my hands on 'doses' - it was dangerous and my freshmen coterie were scared to death of me once I'd 'broken through.' But in 1967 you could get dosed just by accepting a handful of free samples from Owsley's bucket brigade at the entrance of the latest love-in. It's so typically human--American even--that what was once casual, cool and even sanctioned by the middle class one decade (smoking around children, dosing) is considered a punishable offense a few years later, and the masses are way too hypnotized to think twice about it. (1)

Sex and music are well chronicled in our cultural history, but drugs, too, change with the times: LSD (60s) begets Valium (70s), because you need to come down, and then cocaine (80s) because you're sluggish from the Valium and then coke makes you depressed the next day so you need to cheer up for the 90s (ecstasy). And Then, in the 00s, glorious AA because none of that shit works anymore. And the 10's, because God thinks you're ready: Salvia Divinorum: harsh green reptilian gatekeepers debating whether to eat you alive or admit you to their tender garden. But salvia's gatekeepers wont keep the gate unlocked for long; even now attention-seeking senators who know nothing whatsoever about the plant are striving to make it illegal, solely based on a video with Miley Cyrus.

But, let's backtrack and add the music to the equation: Jimi Hendrix defined the 60s.. and acid. But in the 1970s, was there 'Valium music' the way there was acid rock?

Yes, the Carpenters. In the 1970s it could be found on something called 'variety shows' - day-glo family-friendly mixtures of ghastly Vaudeville, powder-blue leisure suits and bland musical numbers. The stars/hosts were generally a boy and a girl together, sometimes married (Shields and Yarnell, The Captain and TenilleSonny and Cher; Tony Orlando and Dawn) sometimes siblings (Donnie and Marie Osmond), sometimes both (Pink Lady and Jeff!). It was a time when kids shows were druggy and drug shows kiddy. Thanks to Rosie Greer and Marlo Thomas in a little thing called Free to Be You and Me, it was all right to cry,  and even boys could have dolls. I'd love a doll right now, in fact.

Dolls of course is a drug double entendre meaning Valium and/or whatever benzo/diazapam derivations--roofies, downers, yellowjackets, blues, Xanax---and anything you happen to have in your purse and may I have one? The other half of the entendre is that these are babes we're talking about, dolls on dolls, and like all good things, they come in packs of three (See also: Charlie's Angels and THREE ON A MATCH), and, lastly, dolls calm you down, like teddy bears for grown-ups.

An unofficial 'sequel' to THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (left), the adaptation of Jacqueline Suzanne's inexplicably popular junk novel, BEYOND is redeemed by three things - 1) the naive squarete' of the two guys behind the script and camera: Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert (!!), 2) the absolute gonzo coolness of the actors, particularly Z-Man (John Lazar) and Lance Rock (the late Michael Blodgett, a favorite of this blog), and 3) the hotness and deadpan comic delivery of the girls in the band--especially Cynthia Meyers, Dolly Read, and Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives. There's also a segregated but nonetheless present subplot with black band member Marcia McBroom, as well as Charles "That's Jim Pembrey, Goddamnit" Napier, lesbians, drag kings, and a Nazi butler/bartender: "We could have used you at the Russian Front!" he exclaims in admiration of a punch-drunk flower child. Put it all together and you have something bound to offend everyone, sooner or later. It's like one of those "Funny or Die" videos where the rantings of a drunk child are lip-synced and acted out by an all-star adult cast. In this case it's cool, hip beautiful young actors mouthing dialogue written by ugly, lecherous squares.

All it's missing is any sense of restraint or human decency. Indeed there's a lot I don't like about this film, such as the template misogyny of the finale, wherein the lesbians are slaughtered without a shred of thought - "Theirs wasn't an evil love, but evil did come from it" - What the fuck is that about, Roger? How did evil come from being gay? One 'hopes' that Ebert is making fun of misogyny but it's still a little too much to have the lesbian get a gun in her mouth for daring to deign the cock. Considering how judgmental and alarmed he got about I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (see my Ebert-GRAVE piece here), it's odd that he should have written such a strangely homophobic film. Yet there are redemptive moments: Lance Rock pausing in his fight with the icky band manager Harris (David Gurian) to greet a cool black athlete named Randy (James Iglhart) and realizing they're the only two cool, real people in the room, and though they're both encroaching on the girls of the 'sweet, sensitive guys' like Emerson (Harrison Page) and Harris, it's okay. Harris and Emerson are so totally square even Ebert seems cool by comparison.

The original VALLEY's highlight was Patty Duke screaming for "dolls" in a back alley as the camera panned slowly up and away on an elaborate crane shot, like her guardian angel had finally had enough and was heading home --and while some bitchy drag queens may think that's hilarious stuff (which is fine), drug-addled divas on their way down are awfully easy targets for lampooning. Even with overacting and tone-deaf emotional registration you feel bad about sneering at VALLEY... the eerie echoes of meta self-reflexiveness are all over the film: gorgeous Sharon Tate killing herself in the film to escape her controlling mom and then dying at the hands of the Mansons shortly after; drug-addicted former child star Patty Duke playing a drug-addicted child star too fucked up to even play herself anymore. The sad Andre and Dory Previn theme song was supposed to have been sung by poor Judy Garland but for reasons likely mirrored in Duke's doll-loving arc, wasn't. Dionne Warwick took over and does a fine job, but she can't capture the mood like Judy, and the result is like being at your wit's end and visiting a new prison therapist who smiles but has no insight into your woes and makes you feel even more lonely than if you were alone.

BEYOND comes in after this meta-horror and plays up the venom underlying the 'reality' of the actresses in the film much more than its prequel even dared. Aside from taking place in 'the Valley' where Valley-yum runs wild and free, there's not a whit to compare them. But BEYOND has Russ Meyer's short attention span direction, it has LAUGH-IN style dancers who trade Wildean quips as they frug and countless situations where the degenerates are more moral than their breadhead equivalents.

Laugh-In ("One Ringy Dingy!")
Yet even as far as cult items go, DOLLS is an 'outside looking in' film, showing the relative lack of LA decadence-experience for screenwriters Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert. The pair are much better at revealing the hypocrisy of the rural gas station squares and winky-dink tourist trap sex than the groovy craziness of the LA elite --which makes sense since neither did any drugs nor likely got laid (Meyer did, naturally - not Ebert). Without the amazingness of Z-man and Lance, the film would be adrift in Brady Bunch denial, but Blodgett and Lazar do such a fine job, even when forced to manically utter whole pages of nonsensical Ebertsian madness written with no attention for how people really speak they bring it through the veil into 'high' art.

But the 1970s wasn't just about acid, coke, downers and free love, it was about innocence. We in Middle America didn't know the Village People were gay or what was making Karen Carpenter so skinny. We were clueless but free, ignorant in our bliss, bonded by a lack of options on aerial-antennae television. In the theaters, R-rated movies meant serious business, and the no-kids-admitted-without-parent thing was strictly enforced the way cigarette age restrictions are now.The R films of the 1970s were about tawdry NYC nightlife or Italian slashers -- or both. NYC in the 1970s was a cesspool with an oasis of Broadway shows surrounded by grimy XXX-rated deathtraps. But on TV, the innocent variety show ruled by default - appealing to no demographic in particular and therefore suitable for all - with the FM radio crooning love songs by guys who were tough and tender, like Bob Seger, or Dan Fogherty or couples out of love like Fleetwood Mac. Either they kept their drugs hidden from the kids. TV shows had a Zen quality wherein old timers from 30s B-movies could find homes as neighbors or square-swingers, while teen idols re-enacted 50s teen delinquent plot lines in hip hugger flares and wild afros.

In other words, it was a time before niche demarcations. The stoner had to lie down with the square; you could be weird but you couldn't curse. So we had Greg Brady donning a fringe jacket and hanging a mobile in the attic only to learn such things don't make him cool. You had film nerd Roger Ebert writing faux hipster LA dialogue for a bunch of authentic L.A. hipsters and filmed by a war correspondent softcore Brüstemann. Add those elements together to make a film that was rated X but seems almost suitable for children today, and you have something that's stood the test of time: a stoner film for your grandparents, a misogynist homophobic countercultural f-you to the man and to the hep cat.

While today, our copious late night cable channels demonstrate endlessly how painful it is watching normal people try to be weird. BEYOND THE VALLEY gives you weird people trying to be 'faux' weird --and you can feel the deranged energy spilling forth in the first or thousandth viewing. BEYOND never had a time of its own so it's never grown dated. It was too square for 1969 and too wild for 1970. It was too violent for the free love crowd and too free love for the violent crowd. It may not be art, but it's cult. I may not know cult but I know what I love and hate, and in BEYOND everything I love and hate is rolled into one dark, twisted snapshot of the whole goddamned whizzbang red white and blue hooplah frenzy that is Tinseltown.  BANG! BANG!

1. other evidences of drug hysteria having no correlation whatever to actual danger: At the turn of the century cocaine was in Coca-Cola, heroin was OTC, but aspirin was prescription only, and planes had smoking sections.What was all-pervasive and legal yesterday can become demonized as hell tomorrow, and no one thinks twice about it! Soylent Green is people! And YOU'RE NEXT!

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