Whenever the perennial debate on Can Pornography Be Art? takes place, the films of Russ Meyer, who has died aged 82, are raised as positive exemplars. Considered part cinema visionary and part dirty old man, Meyer proudly proclaimed himself a pornographer, but a first-class one. John Waters, a gay disciple, didn't consider him a pornographer at all. "He has way too much style to be just that," declared Waters.
Whatever one calls the films - sexploitation (the female nude is shown purely for sexual or commercial reasons), softcore (no erections or ejaculations), kitsch (bad taste), camp ("its essence being its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration", in Susan Sontag's definition) - there is one word that could sum them up: breasts.
Most of Meyer's films revolve around the large cleavages of his leading ladies, such as Tura Satana, Lori Williams, Kitten Natividad, Uschi Digard and Haji. "I love big-breasted women with wasp waists," he told interviewers on every occasion, as if it were a revelation. His self-published, three-volume autobiography was called A Clean Breast: The Life And Loves Of Russ Meyer.
Meyer's "nudie-cutie" films gained him a cult following in the 1960s, widened when he made a rare excursion into big-budget cinema with Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (1970), which was described by Alexander Walker as "a film whose total idiotic, monstrous badness raises it to the pitch of near-irresistible entertainment".
Russell Albion Meyer was born in Oakland, California, the son of a police officer and a nurse. With money borrowed from his mother, he bought an 8mm Univex "picture-taking machine" when he was 12 and began making amateur films. He became a combat photographer and newsreel cameraman for the Army Signal Corps during the second world war, shooting under dangerous conditions in France and Germany.
After the war, Meyer started photographing nude models for magazines, shooting some of the first centrefolds for Hugh Hefner's newly launched Playboy. He married his second wife, Eve Turner, who became one of the first Playmates, and after whom he named his first company, Eve Productions.
Meyer's debut film was The Immoral Mr Teas (1959), which told of a delivery man (played by Bill Teas, an army friend of Meyer's) with the ability to see fully clothed women naked. The film was a breakthrough in the US because previous nudie films were either naturist romps or hypocritical moral tracts preaching the dangers of unbridled sex. It cost Meyer £24,000 to make but earned him £1m.
He now led the skin-flick market with garish, grotesque and gruesome comic strip erotica, lasciviously coupling dumb hunks with busty broads, such as Eve And The Handyman (1961), Wild Gals Of The Naked West (1962) and Fanny Hill: Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure (1964). In a sense, Meyer was a true auteur as he produced, directed, wrote, photographed and edited the films himself - and became very wealthy in the process.
Most of the cast of the cultists' favourite, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), which was succinctly described as "Three dominatrixes with huge tits and tiny sports cars sought in murder", were culled from LA strip clubs and Playboy magazine. The plot - three belted, buckle-booted, buxom go-go dancers on a crime spree - demonstrates, according to the pompous male narrator, the horrors of the "predatory female". Both hetero and homo male audiences, as well as revisionist feminists, revelled in it, from different viewpoints.
There followed the sloppily made and unpleasant Vixen (1968), in which the eponymous heroine (Erica Gavin) lives in a Canadian mountain resort and lusts after her biker brother. She is openly racist, rejecting her brother's black friend by remarking that she would not "make it with monkeys". Meyer even throws in a discussion about Cuban communism. Unaccountably, Vixen earned £6m on a £76,000 investment.
In 1970, 20th Century Fox hired him for two "mainstream" studio projects, the melodrama Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and The Seven Minutes (i.e. the time it takes for a woman to have an orgasm). The former was written by critic Roger Ebert. It was Meyer's favourite. "Roger and I embraced that one to our bosoms, or co-bosoms," he explained.
The film is a self-styled morality tale, in which each character represents a vice or a virtue. The diaphanous plot concerns an all-girl rock group, the Carry Nations, handled by Z-man Barzell (John Lazar), which reaches the dizzy heights of fame and then falls into decadence, with a lot of perverted sex, drugs and backstabbing.
The Seven Minutes, Meyer's only "straight" movie, was a less happy affair. About a pornography trial, it featured a bunch of has-been Hollywood actors, including Yvonne de Carlo and John Carradine, and Meyer's then wife, Edy Williams.
Meyer then returned to independent shoestring productions with Supervixens (1975) - psycho cop, Nazis and nymphomaniacs - and Beneath The Valley Of The Ultravixens (1979), about a randy housewife who changes from Lovonia to stripper Lola Langusta. As usual, there are tight close-ups of breasts, but there is more full-frontal nudity than before.
Much to Meyer's surprise, after his retirement, his films were given the seal of aesthetic approval with seasons at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood and the NFT in London.
Meyer married and divorced a few times and lived with a series of models, Playmates, strippers and actresses. According to a forthcoming TV documentary soon to be aired on Channel Five and a soon-to-be-published biography by Jimmy McDonough, Meyer has left an unknown son and heir.
Russ (Russell Abion) Meyer, film-maker, born March 21 1922; died September 18 2004
Copyright Ronald Bergan, The Guardian
Thursday September 23, 2004