Monday, August 17, 2009

Up! (1976): or, No Pixar Movie, This!

Let me ask you a question: are you a fan of Russ Meyer, but with certain reservations? Specifically, did you like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, but thought the ending would have benefited from being just a little more over the top? Did you think Vixen! might have been improved had the characters been just a little less likable? Do you think Mondo Topless would have been better with a little more story and a LOT more sex?

If so, I think I just might have the movie for you.

Russ Meyer's Up! (1976), like many of his movies, presents a cartoon world peopled by characters with the depth and sophistication of figures in a fairy tale or morality play. Except Meyer puts these characters in a world where higher aspirations and nobility--the stock in trade of the fairy tale--do not exist. In Meyer's world sex and violence are the only currencies, and each is freely interchangeable with the other. Mankind's basest, most degrading desires are always right there on the surface and turned up to eleven. What you see is what you get, and you get a LOT of it.

"Howdy, folks! Welcome to Our Show!"

The movie opens with exotic Meyer phenom Kitten Natividad frolicking around in nature scenes, dressed in a pair of knee-high leather boots at the most. All joyous, unrestrained sexuality, Natividad announces her role with the line, "Buenas Dias! I'm your Greek Chorus!" and promises us a tale to titillate and inform if we'll just follow along with her. Displaying the trademark Meyer-ian subtlety, she invites the viewer to "sheathe your sword to its hilt!" Just like that, away we go!

The first scene really sets the tone for the whole movie, as we open with a scrawny old man with a Hitler moustache dressed in fur chaps, being whipped by a pilgrim while he buries his face in the prodigious bosom of a girl who's tied to a post and wearing a leather bondage zipper-mask. In the background, a naked black woman stirs a kettle. The man's not actually meant to be Hitler--he's Adolph Schwartz, played with goofy relish by Edward Schaaf, but the difference is negligible. In between lashes, speaking in boob-muffled German, the Hilter stand-in demands ever greater degradation. Happy to oblige, the pilgrim brings in a buxotic Oriental woman who ties the old man down and queens him, giving us some graphic lower-body nudity that is rather atypical of Meyer. We also get glimpses of the pilgrim boy's gigantic (and obviously prosthetic) peen when Grandpa Hitler wants him to "earn a bonus." It's like the old man's in training to represent Germany in the Special Needs Olympics!

Perhaps in alternate-history slashfic a BDSM-fixated Feurher working through his issues via multi-partner dungeon scenes and Pilgrim-applied sodomy would have saved millions of lives, but in Meyer's continuum, it's trouble. Retiring to his groovy fuckpad for a bubble bath to rinse off all the man-stank, Hitler doesn't hear the door open nor see a mysterious black-clad figure with giallo-gloves sneaking in, toting a rather large bucket. Before he can say "Was ist das?" der Feurher finds himself swimming with the fishes--these of the piranhal variety! With dozens of cosplayers and sex workers suddenly unemployed, the local economy takes a dive.

"Hotsy-totsy, I'm a Nazi!"

In between these scenes, Meyer has been juxtaposing Hitler's exploits and demise with an idyllic scene showing two energetic lesbians going at it in the forest, first taking oral pleasure in the fork of a majestic oak (Symbolism! Eat that, Fellini!), and later reclining on a large rock, one of them wearing a strap-on so massive it requires a shoulder harness. Since it has little to do with the narrative of the flick, I'm going to go ahead and call it a tonal piece.

Did I say "narrative"? Why yes, there is one, as a matter of fact! Kitten Natividad returns to shake her groove thangs and deliver a borderline Shakespearean prologue in which she recaps everything that's happened so far, complete with flashbacks (in case your short term memory has been ruined by too much straight gin), and then setting up the whodunnit by giving a shorthand run-through the suspects, only a few of whom we've already met. It's not particularly informative or entertaining, and contrary to everything Meyer has historically stood for, feels like padding.*


Next we're introduced to Margo Winchester (debuting future porn-queen Raven De La Croix), jogging down a mountain road in the middle of nowhere. Clad in a silky white jumpsuit and in DESPERATE need of a sports bra, Margo seems to have leapt out of the forest with no history, fully formed, like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Her goddess-like proportions quickly attract the attention of a passing motorist, who skids his pickup truck to a halt and offers her a ride. After some Mae West-accented banter in which Margo casts aspersions on her driver's manhood, the lust-crazed hippie drives to a secluded romantic spot where he immediately attempts romantic rape. Margo fights fiercely, fleeing to a nearby river where she somehow loses her top (I'm guessing the shear was just too much for the fabric), and does some Varla-esque kung fu (while wet and topless, mind you) before the hippie lands a sucker punch and knocks her cold--which just goes to show, she ain't no Varla. But then, who is?

"If you've got gas and grass, I'm retiring."

I haven't seen all of Russ Meyer's output--yet--but I'd be willing to bet this movie ranks near the top when it comes to sheer mean-spiritedness and out-and-out grossness. As an example, once Margo is down and helpless (after a fairly brutal beating by the hippie), her attacker proceeds to carry out his rape--accompanied by jaunty band music and cartoon sound effects! It could be said it takes a lot of gall to play a rape scene for laffs, and Meyer really uncorks his bile duct here. Whether the director honestly intended the scene to be funny or was trying to shock the viewer out of complacency is not at all clear, but if you're not uncomfortable by the time the rapist whips it out with a "SPROOIIINNNG!!!" sound effect, please move at least two rows down from me. Thanks.

Margo awakens just as the assault reaches its conclusion, and justifiably angry, stands up to resume fighting, this time getting the better of her spent opponent and snapping his spine for him! As luck would have it the mouthbreathing redneck Sheriff Homer Johnson (played a little *too* believably by Monty Bane), on his way to investigate Adolph Schwartz's murder, picks just that time to show up. Homer admits the guy probably had it coming, but he's still going to have to take Margo in on a murder charge. However, corrupt as people generally are in Russ Meyer's universe, Homer is willing to get her off, if she'll consent to do the same for him. Tit for tat, so to speak. Margo is more than willing to jump at that particular plea bargain, and we get lots of scenes of the two of them energetically closing the deal in Homer's cabin--more queening, more band music, more silly sound effects. It's a motif.

After another Greek Chorus recap, we meet part-time Pilgrim Paul (Robert McLane) working his day job at a greasy spoon owned by his bi-curious wife Sweet Lil' Alice (Janet "You Bet She" Wood), the bottom from the symbolist woodlands scene earlier. While Homer gets a Looney Tunes-style blowjob from an African-American traffic violater (watch for the old "pops the soles off his shoes" gag), Paul and Alice put up a help-wanted sign and Margo quickly answers, much to the delight of the cafe's lumberjack clientele. Giant Neanderthal log chopper Rafe (Bob Schott) takes a particular shine to the new girl.


From here on out the whodunnit takes a back seat as the flick devolves into one frenetic, cartoonish sex scene after another--Paul and Alice, Homer and Margo, Paul and Margo, Homer and a Native American princess (in a bit of typically klassee humor, Margo later observes, "Why's your dick so red? It looks like you've been fuckin' an Indian!"), Margo and's pretty much a Garanimals set of sex. All of Meyer's sex scenes are overblown and almost violent--exaggerated hip movements, excessive bouncing, shouting, and cursing--the participants could just as easily be fighting to the death as making love, and you begin to wonder if in the director's mind, the two activities might be pretty much the same thing.

Despite some gorgeous girls and very cool scenery in the well-filmed outdoors shots, Up! has been a surprisingly ugly movie, full of hateful people with only fighting and fucking on their minds, usually at the same time. There's no joy-of-the-antihero as in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, nor joy-in-excess as in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls--in fact, there's really no joy at all, except perhaps in the impish smile of giggly Greek Chorus Natividad, who pops up every now and then to show off her amazing body with a jiggly dance and a recap of events--which despite the repetitive flashbacks becomes kind of a welcome break.

Then something magical happens: Kitten Natividad goes off on what feels like a 5-minute stream of consciousness monologue that draws in Shakespeare, juvenile dirty jokes, sex puns and the by-now-standard cartoon sound effects that becomes a joyous jazz-like riff on everything dirty and sexy, as though her id had been transmuted to sheet music and blown through Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet. As the puns pile up and the allusions fly with startling and sometimes hilarious inventiveness, it really almost approaches high art--and is the signal for Meyer to finally give in and let the movie go COMPLETELY INSANE.

It's all Greek to me.

Driven mad with lust by Margo's restaurant-opening dance number (not to mention the half-case of beers he downs in about 10 seconds), Rafe the Lumberjack goes all King Kong on their asses in a serious way, destroying furniture and pulling Margo off the stage with his big, meaty paws. (The gigantic prosthetic penis makes another appearance.) Egged on by the rest of the bar patrons--the most energetic of whom turns out to be Meyer himself in a not-quite-Hitchcockian cameo--Rafe gets down to a brutal, cartoonish rape. Paul attempts to step in and gets tossed aside like a rag doll for his troubles, and when Alice also attempts an intervention, she gets thrown down on top of Margo for a double-decker sexual assault. Homer shows up and the crowd disperses, but Rafe will not be distracted--at least not until Homer grabs one of the axes hanging on the walls for decoration (ALWAYS a good idea) and buries it in the behemoth's back! Finally taken off-task, Rafe stands, removes the bloody axe from his own wound, and strikes down the heroic Homer before taking the girls and running out through the cafe wall, Looney Tunes-style again, into the forested night.

Continuing with the cartoon vibe of the proceedings, Homer is not killed by the almost-certainly mortal blow, but gets up, removes a gassed-up chainsaw from the wall (Be Prepared!), and gives chase. When he catches the beastly woodchopper he uses the chainsaw to subdue him, and they both roll down a ravine presumably to their deaths.

Left alone and out of danger, of course Alice IMMEDIATELY tries to seduce Margo, leading to a double-naked chase through the river and some of the most batshit dialog it's ever been my pleasure to witness, even in a Meyer joint. The mystery is cleared up, but in such a completely manic way your jaw will be on the floor. It's really an amazing ending that takes an already wild-and-wooly flick and puts it on steroids. Must be seen to be believed, and perhaps not even then.

Margo impresses the crowd with her recitation of the Pythagorean Theorem.

As I say, this is probably the ugliest, most mean-spirited movie I've seen in Meyer's filmography, even taking into account the in-your-face racism of Vixen! The juxtaposition of cartoon sensibilities and sexual violence is definitely still shocking, even in our jaded age. Of the acting little can be said, since the characters are all caricatures of people who likely only existed in the director's feverish, already-getting-unhinged brain. It's a rollercoaster ride of sex and violence and probably clinical insanity, and I really don't think I've seen anything else like it.

Of course in the pantheon of Mad Movies, such a summation earns you a 3+ Thumbs rating. Full of wild developments, buxotic babes, and psychological disturbances of the highest order, Up! is not the movie to start with for Meyer newbies, but is definitely one you need to see if you call yourself a fan of his work.

More images from Russ Meyer's Up!

Take a bow, Russ.


T. R Xands said...

I could never decide if I liked "Up!" in a "so bad it's good" or a "so bad it's freaking awesome" way but this...this review has brought me so much joy. So accurately captures the "whoa what wait back up" feel of everything.

Al Bruno III said...

These movies aren't really my cup of tea (perhaps exposure to the works of Christy Canyon at an early age has warped my mind too much for Meyer to make an impact.)

That being said this was a great review and a damn funny read.

Kudos my friend, kudos.

Michael J. said...

Thanks for the savvy -- and, as always, goofy-ass -- review, Vicar. You've conveyed the simultaneous delight and revulsion that Meyer can inspire (at least in me). The man seems to have lived in a world of unfettered id. Kind of glad I've got a place in a different neighborhood, but the stroll through can be a fascinating diversion -- just walk briskly and don't make eye contact with strangers.

The Duke of DVD said...

Oh dear, you had me at that gimp mask screen-cap, dear Vicar. A superbly funny review, and one that makes me realize I need to watch this movie at my soonest.

Bravo, sir!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@T. R Xands: "whoa what wait back up" is pretty much the perfect phrase to have at the ready when watching this film. As to which designation, I'm on the "so bad it's freaking awesome" side. :)

@Al Bruno III: as you're no doubt aware, Meyer was famously disapproving of full-on porn--he got his kicks above the waistline (but below the neckline), Sunshine. ;) However, in this one he skirts that fine line, which only adds to the "he's coming unglued" feel of the thing.

@Michael J.: I couldn't have said it better. And thanks for the complements! ;)

@Duke of DVD: See if Empress Kate will dispatch Faulk again for delivery. It's nearly time for my yearly tribute anyway, and I could send this in lieu of the basket of Las Frutas de los Enmascarados this year.

The Duke of DVD said...

This will indeed be a worthy substitute for your yearly tribute. I will, of course, expect the usual cask of 50 year old port and the cache of forked gypsy tongues.

Do mind the new front gate security. I can't bear to hear any more grumbling from my manservant about cleaning up bloody messes. You should have heard him after the Encyclopedia Britannica salesman's visit!

Marc said...

No mention of the one and only Roger Ebert, who wrote the film's screenplay?

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