Monday, 7 January 2008

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

I finally got to see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Movies about youth culture made by people who don’t really understand that youth culture often turn out to be embarrassing. While Beyond the Valley of the Dolls superficially seems to be a satire of the youth culture of 1970 it really isn’t. It’s more a satire on, and at the same time a celebration of, all pop culture. And director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert do understand pop culture. It plunders just about all of pop culture from soap operas to superhero comics, from pop music to the sort of soft porn exploitation movies made by people like Russ Meyer. No human being has ever talked the way these characters talk, especially Ronnie Z-Man Bartell whose speech is a bizarre mixture of Shakespeare, philosophy, pop psychology, comic book and Hollywood-speak. As a result the movie has a kind of timeless quality. It’s not dated because it was never really in date. It just is, and you either accept it or you don’t. While this movie is very obviously (from the point of Meyer and Ebert) an exercise in camp it’s also a movie made with surprising skill. Meyer’s direction is energetic and imaginative. The acting is awful beyond belief but it’s awful in an interesting way. Meyer apparently directed it as if he was directing a serious movie, spending time discussing with the actors their motivations in the scenes they were about to film. As a result the actors don’t seem to know if they’re supposed to be really acting or not and the results are very strange but absolutely fascinating. Dolly Read is simply wonderful as Kelly – she has the right mix of wide-eyed naiveté, bright-eyed enthusiasm, a kind of rampant but innocent sensuality, good humour, all combined with no acting talent whatsoever. She’s a delight. John Lazar as Z-Man is eccentric almost to the point of grotesquerie. He’s acting his little heart out and the result is bizarrely entertaining.

The whole movie is funny but the ending is a kind of apotheosis of weirdness, weirdness taken to heights and to places no-one had previously dared reach for. It’s extremely violent and very very funny. The violence is so silly that you can’t really be offended by it. I enjoyed every moment of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

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