Review by David Carter
Posted on 10 September 2008
Source DVDY Films DVD (R2)
No fairy tale… this!
The cinematic landscape had changed drastically since Russ Meyer’s last film prior to his short-lived contract with Fox, 1970’s Cherry, Harry, and Raquel! Gerard Damiano’s film Deep Throat ushered hardcore adult cinema into the mainstream. “Porno chic” was a social movement rather than an artistic one, more a loosening of legal and moral standards than a renaissance of adult cinema. An often-overlooked side effect of porno chic was that it practically eliminated the brand of cheeky softcore artistically and commercially dominated by Meyer, who reportedly loathed hardcore—likely as much for economic as artistic reasons. Post-Deep Throat, Meyer would only release three more feature films: the religiously Meyerian Supervixens! was followed by two of the most experimental and surreal films of his career: the first of which was his second collaboration with Roger Ebert, Up!1 While commercially less successful than its immediate predecessor, Up! was nonetheless an artistic triumph, and an example of Meyer’s technique honed to its finest.
Up! is structured curiously, and has effectively two openings, with the first providing the narrative hook of the story and serving as a framework for the second tier story. It is also the most sexually explicit scene in Meyer’s oeuvre: Adolf Schwartz is being serviced by several prostitutes in a dungeon in his lavish castle. The encounter is largely sadomasochistic—he is abused by three women while being flogged by local restaurateur Paul. The scene contains one clear image of a vagina as well as several shots of Paul’s massive (prosthetic) genitalia—a practice began but sparingly used in Supervixens! The scene could be interpreted as either Meyer’s capitulation to the audience’s newfound affinity for hardcore, or alternately his critique of the genre (I tend to assume the latter). While the sequence contains more sex than a large chunk of his catalog, it also has a detachment not found in any of his other works. There is no celebration of the body, male or female, nor is anything shown approaching love or even lust. Bodies move not out of ecstasy, but out of compulsion; ennui is written on every face but Adolf’s. The graphicness of the scene is matched by its dejection, and Meyer appears to be equating hardcore with prostitution while at the same time pointing out its lack of joy.
The scene serves the secondary function of reprising Meyer’s hatred of the Nazi’s. Adolf Schwartz resembles an aged Adolf Hitler, and Meyer uses the scene to give the Fuhrer his final comeuppance. After his time with the female prostitutes – each belonging to a different minority group – Adolf propositions Paul for a homosexual encounter. What follows is clearly meant to be derogatory towards Hitler, shown in homoerotic submission to Paul, dressed in the hyper-American garb of a Pilgrim. Shortly after this intended humiliation (enjoyed by Adolf, however) we see him murdered by an unknown figure by having a piranha dropped into his bath, setting up the remainder of the plot.
Schwartz’s murder would seem tangential were it not for the Greek Chorus, performed by Kitten Natividad. She keeps the murder at the forefront of the audience’s mind, providing rhyming clues and philosophical musings as she writhes around, precariously and nude, in treetops. The dubbed voice of Ms. Natividad provides a good deal of the film’s humor, but it is only secondary to her physical appearance, a celebration of the Meyerian woman. She is shown alternately cavorting in the beauty of nature or in extreme close-up, each shot reaffirming her as the epitome of beauty and muse of the film. As the entirety of the cast is suspect in the murder mystery, the audience must rely on the Chorus for truth in any concrete sense and, to a large degree, any semblance of the film’s plot.
The centerpiece of the framed story is Margo Winchester. Raven De La Croix’s Margo is cut from the same cloth as Tura Satana’s Varla: strong, beautiful, and in the right circumstances, deadly. Meyer wastes no time showing Margo’s resolve by having her kill rapist Leonard Box with her bare hands. Lecherous Sheriff Homer Johnson comes to Margo’s aid after the fact, appearing eager to help but in reality sexually blackmailing Margo in exchange for Homer reporting Box’s death as an accident rather than murder. Margo and Homer begin a relationship and he soon lands her a job working at the greasy spoon owned by the previously introduced Paul and his beautiful wife Alice, who has extramarital exploits with a female trucker with an impressive collection of toys. Margo becomes the prize in a sexual tug-of-war between the couple before Alice’s jealousy sends the trio into a whirlwind of sex and violence.
The cinematography in Up! ranks among of Meyer’s best. The almost exclusively outdoor sex scenes are breathtaking, intended to showcase the beauty of the California countryside as they are the beauty of the human body. The colors in these scenes are lush and vibrant; each scene looks delicately painted on the celluloid. The sex in Up! is natural, primal, and these scenes contrast the film’s opening in multiple ways. Each participant is shown in complete enjoyment, moving with wild abandon as Meyer cuts between positions and locations with a dizzying speed. Meyer is equating his brand of sexuality with nature; a far cry from the opening’s dreary quasi-hardcore in a dank dungeon.
These sex scenes take up the bulk of the film’s duration, but they are by no means Meyer’s only striking visuals in the film. Meyer’s use of montage hits its peak during the scenes in Alice’s diner, combining the order taking, the food cooking, and Homer’s tryst with a young lady outside into a single cinematic thought. Meyer’s tight edits reappear throughout, most often in the Chorus scenes. The speed of Natividad’s gyrations is matched by Meyer’s montage, pulsating with a rhythm that would not be seen again until the golden age of the music video a decade later.
Russ Meyer’s Up! is ultimately one of the more overlooked films in Meyer’s career. It is a surrealistic showcase of Meyer at his rebellious best, challenging society and going against the prevailing tide of adults only cinema. He gives the audience an ample portion of sex and visual spectacle while lines like “the black sperm of revenge” lilt from Kitten’s lips, furthering the overall bizarreness of the work. If Supervixens! was an explosion of the Meyer style, Up! is a full exploration of those newly widened parameters, displaying Meyer unencumbered by any boundary.
The Immoral Mr. Teas / Eve and the Handyman1959 / 1961
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!1965
Good Morning and… Goodbye!1967
Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!1968
Cherry, Harry & Raquel!1970
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls1970
The Seven Minutes1971
Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens1979