Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Monday, February 07, 2011

Can I please have a doll now? BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

America swings, baby. Like a pendulum rocking between extremes of repressive conservative 'decency' and louche Dionysian abandon. When discussing these cultural changes (repressive 1950s to swinger 1970s and back again), one should always be aware of what academic social studies classes don't want you to know: mass social change isn't brought about by education and activism but by drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. You want to see how deep the wormhole goes?

LSD changed the face of the world, or at least left it looking melted in the mirror. By the 1980s, I had to look very hard before I could get my hands on 'doses' -at least outside of a Dead show. It was a dangerous mission and my freshmen coterie were scared to death of me once I'd 'broken through.' But back in 1967 (I hear) 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 year is considered a monstrous crime a few years later, and the masses are way too hypnotized to think twice about it. Even the kids you thought were cool might run when the ultimate tab flips their way.  (1)

PhotobucketSex and music are well chronicled in our cultural history, but drugs, too often, become demonized rather than eulogized and enshrined as they're expanded and replaced in an ever tightening gyre of vertical integration. Thus the hangover-comedown of LSD (60s) begets Valium (70s), 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 --it's the 90s (ecstasy). And then, in the 00s, you sober up and get high on God and fellowship via AA because none of that other shit works anymore. And then! IN 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, 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, we've covered that already, man. But in the 1970s, was there 'Valium music' the way there was acid rock?

Yes, it was called the Carpenters. In the 1970s, Valium music could be found on something called 'variety shows' - day-glo family-friendly mixtures of corny old Vaudeville jokes and the old soft shoe, powder-blue leisure suits and bland musical numbers done in crazy feathered costumes. 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). If these options were all too extreme, there was Lawrence Welk. 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. In all three meanings of the word.

In case you think it's just a name for actual dolls like Raggedy Ann, or babes in mini-skirts, let me hep you that a doll is whatever benzo/diazapam derivations--roofies, downers, yellowjackets, blues, Xanax---you happen to have in your purse, and now that the subject has been broached, may I have one? A half if you can't spare a whole? Free to be's William ain't the only bitch wants a doll. The other half of the entendre is that these are babes we're talking about and, like all good things, they come in packs of three (See also: Charlie's Angels and Three on a Match). In all three definitions--women, pills, children's toys, dolls calm us down the way the presence of our giant mom calmed us down after the terrifying gulf of her nightly absence.

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 (Ebert and Meyer) and camera who clearly have no inkling of the life they're depicting, which rocks, 2) the absolute gonzo coolness of the actors, particularly Z-Man (John Lazar) and Lance Rock (the late, great, and beloved Michael Blodgett), and 3) the hotness and deadpan comic delivery of the girls, both in the band and without--especially Cynthia Meyers, Dolly Read, and--most importantly--Edy Williams as Ashley St. Ives. There's also a segregated but nonetheless present triangle with black band member Marcia McBroom (2), and a romance with Charles "That's Jim Pembrey, Goddamnit" Napier as one of the 'good ones.' There's budding lesbian outing, drag kings, and a Nazi butler/bartender: "We could have used you at the Russian Front!" he exclaims after Blodgett punches out snotty punter Harris (David Gurian). Put it all together and you have something bound to offend everyone, sooner or later, even strung-out critics like myself. 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 that'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 boilerplate misogyny of the finale, wherein the lesbians are slaughtered without a shred of concern for justice - "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 and homophobia, but it's still a little too much to have the lesbian get a gun in her mouth and it's somehow brought upon her 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 Ebert should have written such a strangely misogynist and sexophobic film (far more misogynist than SPIT in my opinion). Yet there are redemptive moments: Lance Rock pausing in his fight with horrible Harris (David Gurian) to greet a cool black athlete named Randy (James Iglhart), 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, buxom beauties best be served by real men, not wusses. You heard me! Let's just time Lancelot as he comes charging to the rescue!

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 of her whining and was heading home right as she was finally realizing it was there the whole time--and while some bitchy drag queens may think that's hilarious (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, greedy stage mom and then dying in real-time at the hands of the Mansons shortly after; drug-addicted former child actor Patty Duke playing a drug-addicted adult actor too fucked up to even play herself in a Broadway show; the sad Andre and Dory Previn theme song, which 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 rainbow at-the-end-of-the-Kansas crucifixion cruise like Judy, and the result is like being at your wit's end and visiting a new psychiatrist who smiles but has no insight into your woes and makes you feel even more lonely than if you were just plain alone, and what's worse, refuses to refill your prescription, the only reason you went in to see her in the first place!

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS comes in after all this meta-horror and plays up the intentional comedy underlying the venomous 'reality' of Hollywood in the swinging sixties much more than the original ever dared, so overly concerned was it with soapy gloss, the men all perfect specimens of the sort that look flawless in the showroom and then fall apart and dissolve your bank accounts within a few years or months of marriage and/or abortions. Aside from taking place in 'the Valley' where Valley-yum runs wild and free, and the overall 'three professional girls living together and being romanced up the ladder' structure, there's not a whit to compare them. But what BEYOND has that leaves Robson's film in the dust, is Russ Meyer's short attention span direction and the LAUGH-IN style dancers who trade Wildean quips as they frug; and there's countless situations where the degenerates prove to have more integrity than their square suit-tie job equivalents, but just barely.

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 ever did any drugs nor got invited to Cyro's, or wherever the jet-set and young trippers danced and screwed. Without the amazingness of Z-man and Lance, in fact, the film would be adrift in Greg Brady's attic bedroom hippie love den denial, but Blodgett and Lazar do such a fine job--even when forced to manically utter whole pages of nonsensical 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 and cool guys with happenings that freaked them out. It was about innocence living comfortably next to decadence via pop culture and a unified love field that included sex but then flooded past its tawdry borders so that genuine brotherly cross-generational non-sex love proffered to, right there unabashed in the popular culture. We in Middle America may not have known, or wanted to know, that the Village People were gay or that disco was synonymous with cocaine, or what was making Karen Carpenter so skinny. But we could love them all. We were clueless but free, ignorant in our bliss, bonded by the 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--more usually-- 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. Stocked with FM radio crooning love songs by guys who were tough and tender, like Bob Seger, or Dan Fogherty ("You Light Up My Life" was such a huge hit people were weeping in cars all across the country as it played on every radio station at least twice an hour for months), TV shows had a Zen quality wherein old timers from 30s B-movies could find a whole second life as sitcom neighbors or Hollywood Square swingers, while teen idols re-enacted 50s teen delinquent plot lines in hip hugger flares and wild afros. It didn't matter the shit was corny- no one was paying attention anyway, they were talking and eating popcorn and bouncing off the walls.

In other words, it was a time before niche demarcations. The stoner had to lie down with the clueless duffer; you could be weird but you couldn't curse. So you had Greg Brady (left) donning a fringe vest and headband, and hanging a mobile in the attic only to learn such things still didn't make him cool, not even a lava lamp; and 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 BrĂ¼stemann. Add those elements together to make a film that was rated-X at the time 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 how painful it is watching normal people try to be weird. BEYOND THE VALLEY gives you weird people trying to be normal people playing at being 'faux' weird --and you can feel the deranged energy spilling forth from their gonzo refractions. Whether in the first or thousandth viewing you're bound to both love and hate it, why? Maybe because BEYOND never had a time of its own so it's never grown dated. It was too square for late 60s and then it was too wild for the early 70s. It was too violent for the free love crowd and too free love for the violent crowd. Well, it may not be high or even low art, but it's damn well cult. I may not know what cult actually means, but I know what I love, and I know what I 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! What is that sound I hear? Father dear father, come home with me now, and bring either this or CANDY (1968) or MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1971) to your next gay or straight movie night, so that you might never be invited again.

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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