Monday, February 07, 2011

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

Like a pendulum rocking between extremes of repressive conservative 'decency' and louche Dionysian abandon, America swings, baby, from the repressive 1950s and swinger 1970s, then back into the slasher repression of AIDS 80s. Knowing this, 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? Take this pill, man. Five dollars.

LSD changed the face of the world, or at least left it looking melted in the mirror through dilating pupils. Back in 1986, 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 is casual, cool and even sanctioned by the middle class one year is considered a monstrous crime the next, and the masses are way too hypnotized to think twice about it. Before it was cool, now it's evil, end of discussion. And soon even the kids you thought were cool might run when the ultimate tab flips their way.  (1)

Sex 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 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 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 may I have one? 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 the morning 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 (Roger Ebert and Russ Meyer) who clearly have no inkling of the life they're depicting; 2) the absolute gonzo coolness of the actors, particularly Z-Man (John Lazar) and Lance Rock (the late, great 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 triangle with black band member Marcia McBroom (always present, but segregated, partner-wise), 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). 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 naive 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 homophobe 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 shoved in her mouth and to suggest it's somehow brought upon her for daring to deign the cock. Considering how judgmental and alarmed Meyer 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 (DOLLS is far more misogynist than SPIT in my opinion). Yet there are redemptive moments: Lance Rock, pausing in his thrashing of dopey Harris (David Gurian) to greet a cool black athlete named Randy (James Iglhart). 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! G'head on Rock 'n Randy.

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 God was there the whole time. Some bitchy drag queens may think that's hilarious (which is fine) but 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 the original VALLEY... the eerie echoes of meta self-reflexiveness are all over the film: gorgeous Sharon Tate killing herself 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, which was the only reason you went in to see her in the first place! She's worried you're becoming addicted. Hah! "Becoming"...that's a laugh.

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, its 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. That's all gone with BEYOND: 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 dancers who trade Wildean quips as they frug (the kind of thing that was all the rage at the time because of LAUGH-IN, seen also in THE STUD, etc), and the countless situations where the degenerates prove to have more integrity than their square suit-tie job equivalents, but just barely.

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. Meyer was a desert rat: much better at salt flat timing trials, rural gas station squares, and horny super-vixens who drive up wanting more than their tank filled. And Meyer was a Chicago movie critics. The groovy craziness of the LA elite is way beyond their ken. It's clear that 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--two fine study actors who breathe the rarefied air of the genuinely cool--the film would be adrift in Greg Brady's attic bedroom hippie love den denial. 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 too, right there 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 for what we saw and heard. 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. So they kept adult things from us more easily. The R-rated films of the 1970s were about tawdry NYC nightlife or Italian (or Italian-American) 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. 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 --we were talking and eating popcorn and bouncing off the walls. It was grand.

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 getting a lava lamp, only to learn such things didn't make him cool; and you had ultra-square film nerd Roger Ebert writing faux hipster LA dialogue for a bunch of actual L.A. hipsters because he once wrote nice things about a war correspondent-cum-softcore brĂ¼stemann. Nothing made sense. The result--which kicked Russ Meyer back to the minors--was rated-X at the time but seems almost suitable for children today, it's a stoner film for your grandparents, a misogynist homophobic countercultural f-you to the man and to the hep cat. Like those variety shows gone very wrong, BEYOND has the frilly glitz but then deep trouble right below, it offends everybody, sooner or later, but not enough to make it not a classic of its sort.

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 measure up to a square's idea of 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 find new reasons to both love and hate it. Maybe that's because BEYOND never had a time of its own so it's never grown dated. It was too square for late 60s but too wild for the early 70s. It was too violent for the free-love crowd and too free-love for the violent crowd. It's too high for low art and too low for an art high. In short, it's 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 that is a Chicago film nerd's idea of 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, and 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!


  1. Useless trivia: John Lazar (Z Man) bear a striking resemblance to Issac Guillory from The Cryan Shames!
    few recall that band but when I first saw BTVOTD I thought,"The guy from Cryan Shames went Russ Myer!

  2. I have Valley,Beyond,Candy,and Myra Breckinridge,so I guess I wouldn't be invited back.

  3. Me too - The first hour of Candy, the middle swath of Myra, the first 6/7 of Valley and the last hour of Valley = are all worth the price of admission regardless of the rest.

  4. also - rewatched Beyond and loved it. Not sure why I got on my high horse about that whole lesbian gun thing - it's problematic only in a larger context (i.e. that it's somehow 'asking for it' for women to reject their role in straight pair bonding) - but it's not its fault - I think it's the first to do that anyway...


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