It might have something to do with its origins in French film theory, but people tend to only toss around the word “auteur” when it comes to highbrow directors, your Kubricks and Kurosawas, but the term is by no means an indicator of commonly accepted notions of quality cinema, having more to do with the structure and consistency of vision evident in a filmmaker’s body of work than the perceived cultural or artistic importance of that output. When considered without the bogus cinephile pretension, the term could arguably be applied to everyone’s favorite directorial whipping boy, Ed Wood, and is certainly apt, as David K. Frasier points out in his book-length examination of the accomplished sleaze purveyor, for Russ Meyer. Meyer’s films weren’t of the sort to garner nods from the Academy, in fact they were more likely to get him thrown in jail, but there’s no denying that over the course of his infamous career, lasting over a quarter of a century, the filmmaker established and expanded upon his own unique aesthetic, using it to explore subject matter both personal and political. The fact that that aesthetic revolves almost exclusively around scantily clad women with enormous tits is totally irrelevant.
Born March 21, 1922, Meyer grew up more or less destitute in Oakland, California, a somewhat isolated boy who developed a strong resentment towards his absentee father, a gruff policeman with a nasty gambling habit, and an even more passionate devotion to his protective but troubled mother, Lydia, who pawned her engagement ring to buy him his first camera at age 14. She instilled a strong work ethic in young Russell, and he soon set about honing his photographic skills, which he employed to dramatic effect as a battlefield photographer during World War II, but, depending on how Freudian you want to get, the full-figured Lydia likely also had a profound effect on the specific sexual proclivities of her son, whom she breast-fed until he was three years old. Thanks to his technical proficiency and endless enthusiasm for busty ladies, Meyer found success in his post-war career as a pin-up photographer, even shooting some of Playboy Magazine’s first pictorials, but always looking to pick up more work, he moved into directing industrial and educational films as well. His unique resume eventually led to the “documentary” short, The French Peep Show, but even for a soft-core pornographer it was an inauspicious beginning.
Unhappy with his lack of control over the production, Meyer wrote the film off, and looked for projects he could oversee from beginning to end. He finally found an agreeable producer five years later, and the result, 1959’s The Immoral Mr. Teas, was a breakthrough, for better or for worse, depending on your sensibilities. Previous to this comic romp, filmic nudity was a down and dirty affair, straight-up porn seen only in private homes and the smoky backrooms of seedy bars, but Meyer brought bare breasts and bottoms back to the silver screen for the first time since the restrictive Hays Code was enacted in 1930, inspiring a whole genre of “nudie cuties”. Meyer continued in that vein for a while but grew tired of its simplicity, and his sudden competition, and moved on to darker, edgier thrillers like Mudhoney, whence the seminal Seattle grunge outfit took its name, and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which tackled themes like sadomasochism and religious repression without skimping on the smut. Just a few short years before, nudity had been a prosecutable taboo, but not satisfied with simply having returned skin to the cinema, he was now provocatively mixing it with good old American violence.
1965’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! deserves special attention here, not just because it’s his most well-known and influential picture (devotee John Waters declared it not only the best film ever made, but “possibly better than any film that will be made in the future"), but because it encapsulates all the main tenets of Meyer’s signature approach to filmmaking. There are, of course, some stacked leading ladies, in this case playing a trio of hot-rodding, homicidal go-go dancers, chosen more for their measurements than their acting ability, but you can also see his effective editing, his flair using cheap, out-of-the-way locations to great effect and the sly sense of humor running just underneath all the exaggerated exploitation and uneasy themes. There’s no shortage of sleaze, the gang’s ruthless leader, played by cult icon Tura Satana, tries to fuck or kill everything in sight, but, ironically, the one way in which it doesn’t resemble Meyer’s other films is that there’s no actual nudity, a concession he made in attempt to get the film shown in drive-ins, a then vital market for the trashier side of cinema. It almost doesn’t matter, since, covered or not, his stars’ considerable cleavage is always front and center.
Meyers more than made up for the film’s relative chasteness by packing ever more boobs into the increasingly cartoonish skin flicks he made during the 1970s, like Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, co-written by his friend Roger Ebert, but in the end, there’s more to Russ Meyer movies than titillation (if you’ll pardon the pun). Since he always insisted he was merely committing his own private fantasies to celluloid, you get a direct window into the director’s psyche, his breast-obsessed Oedipal Complex complete with an ingrained hatred of his father, whom he often satirized as a bumbling cop or Nazi officer. As ludicrous as his films are, they’re incredibly revealing, almost to the point of being brave, and there’s plenty lain bare beyond his actresses, showing Meyers to be more than a run-of-the-mill pervert, arguably even a feminist filmmaker. There may be some who see any sexualized image of womanhood as misogynistic, but Meyer’s super-vixens rarely take shit from anybody and, usually, are the ones calling the shots, prevailing over men who are not only dumb and malicious, but also physically inadequate. He may not be the most subtle or respectable auteur, but the word certainly suits him.