Monday, April 12, 2010

Ebert, Meyer, and the Punk Movement

There is a wonderful article on Roger Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times Journal about his meeting with Malcolm McLaren and Russ Meyer. McLaren, as I'm sure all of you know died last Thursday. Reactions to his demise in the old punk community run the gamut from sorrow to relief. His notorious battles with Johnny Rotten and the gang undoubtedly explain much of the contempt for the man, but as Johnny Rotten himself pointed out: “...Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you.” McLaren had met with Ebert and Meyer to discuss making a film together. The film was to be called, Who Killed Bambi. Unfortunately, things fell apart and the projected film turned into the  hodgepodge known as The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.

But the thing that I find most interesting about all of this is the extent to which Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a force in the punk community. The punk scene, in American and England, sprang out of the utter dismay many of us felt about what was happening to music. I remember living in New York in 1974, turning on the radio, and hearing this: "Hi. I'm Allison Steele, the Nightbird. Come fly with me." And then she'd play "Ride my Seesaw" by the Moody Blues and I'd feel like throwing my radio out the window.

Rock music had abandoned us to the likes of Yes, Jefferson Airplane, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but there was still the movies. If rock in the early seventies was bad, movies were just the opposite. They were everything that rock 'n' roll was supposed to be. They were raw, and surprising, and filled with a kind of infectious manic energy; films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Last House on the Left, Mean Streets, Sisters, and Pink Flamingos.

When the punk movement started, fans quickly noticed that besides our love for this new music, we also shared a common bond when it came to movies, and the King Daddy of all these movies was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Only Pink Flamingos had more cachet, but even here John Waters acknowledged his debt to Russ Meyer. It came as no surprise to me that the Sex Pistols chose him to make their movie. I mean, who else would you want? At the drop of a hat, many of us could quote liberally from BVD:

"I'd like to strap you on!"

"There's nothing like a Rolls! Not even a Bentley!"

"This is my happening and it freaks me out"

 The first time you see BVD is like an amusement park ride. Every scene brings surprises and every scene seems larger than life and twice as much fun. Trying to describe the film to others is a study in futility. You just have to see it. Here's what I wrote about the film back in 1985 for Incredibly Strange Films: "If there is such a thing as a perfect motion picture, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is it." I stand by that statement. I can't think of a thing I could do to make this film any better. One of my great joys in life is showing this movie to people who have never seen it (another is showing them The Loved One, but that's another story for another time). They are invariably gobsmacked. One night, after watching a few Russ Meyer films at my house, the writer Barry Alfonso made a very good point: "Why is Russ Meyer in this book? There is a level of professionalism and quality to his movies that just doesn't jibe with the other filmmakers you talk about." He was right. I've never had a good answer for this. Perhaps that is why Meyer didn't like the book and sent his copies back. He was definitely a cut above the rest. The reason he was in the book is simple: I loved his movies and he, more than anyone else, is the filmmaker I wanted to talk about.

It's too bad that Who Killed Bambi never materialized. Very few people ever bother watching The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle anymore. Only Sid's spectacular rendition of "My Way" has managed to survive that disaster. I can't say I'm surprised that it didn't happen. Imagine trying to finish a project with three people as head-strong as Meyer, McLaren, and Lydon is the same room. Still, I would have loved to have been in that room.


Barry Alfonso said...

Hi Jim! Yes, Meyer still seems a little too competent and self-aware to be classed with the feral filmmakers who largely populate Incredibly Strange Films. He did seem driven by certain obsessions, however, and insisted upon foisting them upon audiences who might've been content with simple t&a, s&m and assorted perversities. On that basis, he makes the cut.

Neil said...

A lot of the footage from the Great R&R Swindle ended up in The Filth & The Fury, and I'd say was put to much better use in that movie.