Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Vixen! (1968): or, The Dance of the Titillated Trout

Russ Meyer, the breast-obsessed director of the previously reviewed mmmmmasterpiece Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has been credited as one of the forefathers of the American Erotic Film Industry--his early film The Immoral Mr. Teas is singled out by film scholar Joe Bob Briggs in his "seminal" tome Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History as the flick that paved the way for nudity and sex in the cinematic mainstream. The eccentric and flamboyant Meyer worked pretty much constantly through the 60s and 70s, well into the heyday of American porn, the era of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones and dozens of other "classics" that finally shed their inhibitions and brought real live sex to the screen. Therefore it's seen by some as a kind of irony that Meyer himself, the man who brought gigantic bare bosoms and unabashed sex-for-pleasure to small-town cinemas across the country, never made a hardcore film of his own.

There are many possible reasons for this gap in the Meyer filmography--some argue Meyer was more about the tease than the act, and found actual filmed sex distasteful (though arguing for Meyer's refined sense of taste in the face of flicks like the gleefully irreverent mmmmmasterpieces Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and titanically tasteless Beyond the Valley of the Dolls seems frankly ridiculous); others that his sexual interest began and ended at the bust line, and nothing else held the slightest fascination for him. Other theories abound. However, after getting a look at Meyer's 1968 offering Vixen!, I am prepared to posit that such arguments are merely academic. A bacchanalian orgy of indiscretion, nudity, and unrestrained, unrestrainable sexuality, Vixen! is porn without the penetration. But it's also much more than that--a film packed with Sadean notions of vice and virtue, sexual power struggles, and a wild finish that makes less sense narratively than it does tonally, Vixen! is, like all of Meyer's best work, a powerful sort of primitive art--art that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

We open with a patented Meyer voice-over, as a documentary-style narrator tells us that in Canada there are stretches of "bush" so wild and untamed they can only be reached by small-engine plane, and that "bush pilots" are rugged men with a sense of adventure who make travel to these places possible. I'm not sure if Meyer's being suggestive at this point, but just to be safe I'm going to go ahead and say "Hoo-ah!" We get some nicely shot footage of such planes taking off and landing, flying by Inuit totem poles, setting down on hardscrabble landing fields, and finally we're introduced to our main bush pilot, Tom Palmer (Garth Pillsbury, who also played the kindly crimelord/hit-man mentor in the amazing Malibu High), stopping in for refueling. A bearded mechanic pumps his plane full of fuel (Ooo-er!) and inquires about Tom's lovely young wife Vixen, all alone out at their house/hunting lodge in the bush. The grease monkey intimates that he wouldn't leave such a hot young thing alone for long, but the amazingly good-natured Tom laughs it off. "Vixen likes to tease," he says, "but she knows enough not to cross the line."

"Mirror, mirror, in my hand--who's the hottest
biggest-breasted racist nymphomaniac psychobabe in all the land?"

We soon find that Tom's admirable faith in his wife's self-control is disastrously misplaced, however, as in the next scene we find Vixen herself (the stunning Erica Gavin) frolicking in the bush in her bikini with a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police! It's not long before she is energetically mounted by the Mountie, showing her voracious appetite as she scolds him for "going too slow"! It's quite a wild scene in which we get to see all of Gavin's amazing measurements and hear her exultant barbaric yawp upon completion. Once the Mountie has suited back up she discards him like an empty Big Gulp cup, letting him know in no uncertain terms she only wanted him for a little fun, and now she's done. Dudley Do-Wrong obviously feels hurt and insulted, but what can he do? Vixen is a Class-A maneater, and he was nothing more than a morning snack.

On her way back to her house, Vixen is accosted by two rough-looking biker types. We quickly learn that one is her baby brother Judd (Jon Evans), who sports an amazing multi-squirrel-tailed riding cap and a denim vest bedecked with Maltese crosses and other medals. Judd's best friend is Niles (the excellent Harrison Page), an African-American ex-pat who has fled to Canada to avoid being drafted into the Viet Nam war. It's here that the ugly aspects of Vixen's character really start to manifest themselves, as she hurls careless, voluminous racial slurs at Niles pretty much non-stop, calling him "Rufus" and wondering aloud where he's going to "find a watermelon" out here in the bush! The hate-hate relationship between Niles and Vixen almost reaches a boiling point before Judd convinces them both to lay off. When they arrive back at the house, Vixen makes some very unsubtle incestuous come-ons at Judd (!) before firing a parting shot at "Rufus" as they drive away.

At this point Tom returns with a couple of paying guests, Dave King (Robert Aiken) and his voluptuous spouse Janet, played by red-headed stunner Vincene Wallace. (Meyer claims that Wallace was his first and only instance of "casting couch" casting, a bit of trivia to which the only appropriate response is "Zang.") Things go from suggestive to utterly wild when, at a campfire dinner that evening, Vixen performs an astoundingly suggestive dance for Dave using a soon-to-be-cooked trout as a prop, pantomiming "fish-head" for his benefit before slipping the fish down her blouse in a way that's...arousing, I guess? It's truly one of those "only in a Meyer film" moments. Janet fumes on the sidelines while Tom smiles in his brain-dead, good-natured way at Vixen's exploits.

Judd was the founding member of the short-lived kids' group The Cthuhlhu-teers.

The Dance of the Tittilated Trout has its effect, though, as later Janet tries and fails to seduce her husband while Vixen and Tom have noisy, energetic sex in the neighboring bedroom. (Watching Aiken say no to a topless-and-willing Wallace, the viewer must struggle very hard with his suspension of disbelief.) Vixen and Tom's conjugal copulation is another "porn-without-peen" scene that once again showcases both Gavin's body and her vocal range. However, given the layering of details leading up to this--the Mountie, the racism, the incestuous come-ons, the fish dance, and Vixen's perpetual wide-eyed, borderline-psychotic glare (even--perhaps especially--during moments of passion)--the viewer must start to wonder if there's something very, very wrong with Vixen behind her nymphomania and spiteful, ugly personal interactions. That doesn't put a damper on Gavin's sexiness, though, it has to be said.

The next day Tom and Vixen take Dave and Janet on a fishing trip, and Vixen takes the opportunity to show Dave a "special spot" where he's sure to catch everything he wants. While Vixen and Dave make wild whoopee in the bush, a spurned and frustrated Janet tries to get her own back by seducing Tom. However, the good-natured nature guide is faithful to a fault and will not rise to the bait. (Again, one's suspension-of-disbelief muscles get a workout.) Inexplicably un-laid at every turn, Janet decides to get drunk at the cabin while the rest of the crew goes bird hunting. However, Vixen also stays behind to "keep our guest company." No points for guessing what happens when Vixen and Janet start drinking together, though once again Gavin's wide-eyed psychotic stare during the lesbonic encounter lends an aura of wrongness to the whole thing--Vixen literally can't help herself, and it's not all joyful sensuality. Still, her double-seduction seems to do the trick, as that night Dave and Janet re-consummate their marriage and leave the next day happily fawning over each other. The healing power of infidelity--it's really the feel-good story of the year.

While Tom returns the happily-laid couple to civilization, Judd and Niles show up again for more race-baiting from Vixen, who calls Niles' manhood into question for his refusal to fight for his country. Niles passionately explains his reasons but Vixen is having none of it, throwing out creative and frankly shocking racial epithets until Niles has to flee the house before doing something he's sure he'd regret. Judd seems to think the whole thing is hilarious, teasing his sister that she should just go ahead and have sex with Niles already, an idea Vixen shoots down with extreme--and I mean EXTREME--prejudice. I was really amazed and confused by the Vixen character's pervasive, ugly racism, and wondered what exactly Meyer was trying to get at here, having his protagonist show such an ugly side. I'm still not entirely sure, but it's certainly unforgettable, powerful, and for a modern viewer especially, profoundly disturbing.

You know you want it.

The disturbance doesn't stop there, however, not even close. As Niles tinkers with his hog outside, Judd decides to take a shower. Once again in the grip of her wild-eyed passions, Vixen decides to join him, leading to a very uncomfortable and strangely sexy scene in which all the incestuous come-ons finally come to fruition. The sex scene between Judd and Vixen is as wild and dirty as anything in a porn film, and we even get some amazing shots of the action from underneath the bed, through the wire bedsprings! When in the afterglow Vixen asks her seduced little brother what he thinks of her now, his response is all Meyer: "I've had better." Wow. Just wow.

We're almost an hour into a 70+ minute film, but there are still a couple more buttons left to push. Seemingly angry at his sister (and maybe himself?) for what just happened, Judd goes out and taunts Niles with things his sister may or may not have said about him, driving his friend into a rage and initiating what amounts to an aborted race-rape! It's the ugliest of many ugly scenes in the film, but before the hate can be consummated Tom's jeep appears on the trail and Judd comes in to break it up. Outside both Judd and Niles make small talk with the perpetually smiling Tom, a very weird and uncomfortable scene. Neither they nor Vixen (who appears on the porch fully dressed moments later) say anything about their afternoon dalliances.

Tom has another guest in tow, a stereotypical Irishman who wants Tom to fly him to San Francisco. Since Vixen's always wanted to go to San Fran, she and Tom go inside to pack while the Irishman and Niles sit and talk politics (Judd has motored off to the village to score some schoolgirls--yeah.) We quickly discover that the Irishman is a Communist and he plans to hijack Tom's plane and force the kindly pilot to fly him to Cuba! Pointing out the injustices and racism of Canada as well as the U.S., the Celtic Commie convinces Niles to join him, and before you know it the four of them are in the air on their way south.

"Comfy? Good."

The last 5 minutes of the movie concern the drama in the air, as Vixen goads the Irishman into an ill-considered racial slur at just the right moment and Niles puts an end to the hijacking plot just before they land at the US/Canada border. There's a brief scene of totally unearned reconciliation between Niles and Vixen, Niles heads back north, and presumably the Palmers wait around to hand the commie over to the cops. As they wait, another attractive young couple approach the plane, presumably to inquire about lodgings. Vixen gives the camera one of her knowing psycho looks, eyebrows arched and eyes wide, a comment on the ongoing circle of life and lust. The end.

At the beginning of this review I said Vixen! is pretty much porn without penetration, and plot-wise it certainly is--most of the movie has our title character having sex with just about everyone who comes across her path (ha!) and the amount of flesh and fornication on display stacks up favorably to any triple-X offering. But it looks a lot better than a porn film--Meyer's bright colors and clean crisp framing look fantastic here, and the girls are a lot more attractive.

But what really lifts Vixen! above its hardcore brethren is the weird psychology, deliciously shoehorned social commentary, and inexplicable spitefulness of all the characters but Tom. (I should note that it's never entirely clear whether Tom is blissfully ignorant of Vixen's indiscretions as he claims, or if he knows everything and loves her despite her faults, or even because of them--the fish dance scene would seem to support the latter. Anyway, it's another wonderfully ambiguous thread of the flick's tapestry, ripe for interpretation.)

Vixen! definitely takes place in the same universe as Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, where the chicks are all larger than life, Olympian goddesses with foibles and faults magnified to the proportions of their amazing racks. Vixen is yet another figure in Meyer's strange, almost classical mythology--not on a level with Tura Satana's Varla, perhaps, but who is?

Just 'cuz I love you people.

As mad movies go, it'd be hard to get much madder. I was shocked, disturbed, aroused, and thoroughly entertained. I think you will be too. Therefore, I'm pleased to rate Vixen! 3+ thumbs, and call it a flick any Mad Movie enthusiast or Meyer-interested viewer should see. Just leave the fish in the fridge--you never know what might happen.

(Note: according to internet sources--the BEST sources!--star Erica Gavin says that seeing herself naked and having sex onscreen in this movie precipitated her development of anorexia, which over time robbed her of the voluptuous figure she shows off to such great effect here. A true loss to cinema and beauty generally--however, by all accounts she's overcome her eating disorder and is doing well. Hang in there, Erica! You're fabulous!)


Karswell said...

Vixen is indeed a wonder to behold. You haven't really seen a Russ Meyer film though until you've seen it on the big screen it all of it's gigantic bouncy fleshiness. I actually sat right in front of Meyer and Tura Satana at an Egytpian Theatre LA screening of Faster Pussycat one time, it was unreal. Haji, Lori Williams and Susan Bernard were all there too... one of the most amazing nights of my life to meet them all and see this film properly.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Karswell, if you're trying to make me jealous...well, IT WORKED. :)

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

WHERE do you find these movies??? I laughed out loud as I read through- this is completely barking mad :)

Karswell said...

I have a photo of me with Tura around here somewhere too... but yeah, I made alot of my St Louis pals jealous with that one.

Anonymous said...

links please?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Anonymous--Thanks for stopping by. I'm afraid we're only a review site, not a links/torrent/download provider. That said, I'm sure the internet is full of places an interested person might look for these flicks. Happy hunting!

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