Friday, 27 April 2018

Reflections on ... Russ Meyer's Vixen (1968)

“Russ Meyer’s Vixen! The story of a girl who loves the joy of being alive and gives herself innocently to the merry chase of life! But like any other game, life has its rules – and if we trespass beyond them, the game can become deadly! Vixen! An adult motion picture experience which is rated X!” From the trailer for Vixen

“Basically, this is a woman that is a racist, a sex fiend, an incest partner, a lesbian … an all-American girl that saves a plane from being hijacked by the communists.” Actress Erica Gavin on the title character of Vixen

“Turn on the sex. Be voluptuous, evil, sinful. Look satanic. Conceive of yourself as a female animal.” Russ Meyer’s acting directions to Gavin

“The look of calculated lust with which she views every living thing is worth the price of admission, as striking in its own right as any of the more famous close-ups of Garbo or Dietrich.” Esteemed high-brow critic Kenneth Tynan on Gavin's performance in Vixen 

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer!

Previous film club triumphs have included b-movie maestro Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. On Wednesday 18 April 2018 the featured selection is Meyer’s 1968 sexploitation shocker Vixen! An exercise in bad taste! Rated “X” upon its release! Something to offend everyone! Vixen! Is she woman or animal? A study in nymphomania starring the voluptuous Erica Gavin!

Doors to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink!

From my pre-film introduction:

Russ Meyer’s Vixen is a sensitive, thoughtful and tasteful examination of the psychological condition of nymphomania. Only kidding! This is probably the most offensive and filthy film we’ve shown to date! Trigger warning!

Rated “X” upon its release, Vixen is structured like a porn film with (almost) each scene culminating in a sexual encounter. In some ways it's comparatively tame by 2018 standards - but it still feels genuinely grubby and sleazy! 

Seen today, the most disturbing aspect is the race angle. Meyer was a white middle-aged WW II veteran with conservative social attitudes, but he would have been very aware in 1968 that the civil rights / Black Power movements were hot topics and he would have wanted to muscle-in on that action to appear current and “with it.” Which he does – in an entirely tasteless and insensitive way! He is, after all, an exploitation director! The racist character in question learns the error of her ways by the end, but in the meantime a lot of unpleasant racist language is used.

Vixen gets roughed-up and slapped-around a fair bit and there are some uncomfortable “rape-y” moments. Once again, that’s common for its time. Meyer helped create a strain of sexploitation films called “roughies.” But it wasn’t just Meyer: see also Meyer's contemporary, the female director Doris Wishman (1912 – 2002) with films like Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965).

Vixen was Erica Gavin’s film debut. She’d previously go-go danced at the same topless night clubs as Tura Satana and Haji from Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and they encouraged her to audition for Meyer. She was only 19 when she filmed this and admitted that seeing herself onscreen for the first time was so traumatic it led to her having a serious eating disorder for many years. She’s now 70 and is fine. Gavin made only one more film with Meyer – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in 1970. She eventually drifted out of acting, but Vixen has ensured her b-movie cult status.

Finally: there is speculation that Divine’s performance as Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble was at least partially inspired by Erica Gavin in Vixen. The shout-y, snarling style of acting can definitely been seen as a clear influence.

Three final words: Erotic. Fish. Dance.

Further musings: I love how there is no “explanation” or justification for hot-pool-of-woman-need / cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof Vixen’s wild amorality. There is zero “back story” to how she came to be this way. She’s simply bad!

Vixen was filmed in six weeks, cost $72,000 and grossed $7 million in its first year. (Leading lady Gavin was reportedly paid $350 a week). Meyer estimated it eventually earned about $26 million! (It was this astronomical financial success that led Twentieth Century Fox to commission Meyer to make his next pop culture outrage Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for them – his first big-budget, major studio film). 

/ Artist at work: director Russ Meyer and leading lady Erica Gavin filming Vixen /

Gavin’s wild, slanting devilish eyebrows in Vixen demand special mention. “Vixen-era Gavin is fleshy in the most delectable way, lust personified, sporting a pair of thick, antennae-like eyebrows more appropriate for one of those disquieting translucent masks hanging by an elastic band on the joke shop wall,” is how Jimmy McDonough describes them in Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer (2005). Their precise origins are shrouded in mystery and subject to dispute. In his 1981 book Shock Value, John Waters ( a Meyer acolyte) raised the issue directly with Meyer. “I read an article where Erica Gavin says you forced her to wear those weird eyebrows in Russ Meyer’s Vixen.” Meyer retorted, “No, it’s not true. Erica is prone to make a lot of statements about what I forced her to do. I’m very indebted to her for what she did for that film, but hell I don’t know anything about makeup!” In McDonough’s biography at least, Gavin seems to take responsibility for them. He recounts Meyer and Gavin’s tempestuous working relationship: “At least at first, Gavin saw Russ as a father figure and when Big Daddy was pleased – as when Erica came up with the famous Vixen eye makeup – everything was groovy. “As soon as he said, “I love those eyebrows,” that was it. Anything to make him happy.””

Most of the factoids in this post have been gleaned from From Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer. Highly recommended!

Further reading:

Read my reflections on Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! here

Read more about the free monthly Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film club here

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Thursday, 26 April 2018

Holy Religious Artefacts from Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace

/ Jayne Mansfield luxuriating in the boudoir of her Pink Palace /

The Pink Palace – the legendarily kitsch, lurid and nouveau riche Mediterranean-style mansion on 10100 Sunset Boulevard belonging to Hollywood’s platinum blonde sex-kitten-gone-berserk par excellence Jayne Mansfield (1933 – 1967) from 1957 until her death – was razed in November 2002. In my dreams, the Pink Palace would have been preserved exactly as Jayne left it and open to the public as a museum, like Elvis’ Graceland. (I’m sorry, but in low-brow trash culture terms Mansfield is every bit Presley’s equal!). Incredibly, though – five decades after Mansfield’s tragic premature death in a car crash en route to New Orleans – treasures from her long-demolished Pink Palace occasionally re-surface in the present day! For me, these are sacred holy relics!

Now this is what I call “art”! When I saw this listed online as part of Engelbert Humperdinck’s auction in autumn 2017, I felt like setting up an urgent crowdfunding page just so I could bid on this spectacular genuine vintage bust as seen in The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968)! (The online auction happened in April 2017, but I didn’t find out about it until later). The bust used to be prominently displayed in the Pink Palace.  Humperdinck (who, of course, bought the Pink Palace following Jayne’s death) must have kept it in storage for decades before auctioning it off. Weird: why wouldn’t one of Jayne’s five children have this gorgeous object? Imagine how great this would look on my mantelpiece (if I had a mantelpiece). Read the full details here – and note the status “Lot closed – unsold”. Where is it now? Some hip entrepreneur should make a mould of this bust and sell replicas commercially, like those plaster-of-Paris Elvis Presley busts that were ubiquitous in the seventies and eighties. (I had one when I was a university student! Eventually it got smashed – I don’t like to talk about it!).

/ Glimpses of the bust in situ at the Pink Palace. Mansfield seems to have kept it the bedroom / 

Then came this announcement from the Burlesque Hall of Fame's Facebook page on Valentine’s Day 2018: 
“A special Valentine’s Day reveal: Jayne Mansfield’s heart-shaped settee, refurbished for our upcoming Exotic World exhibit! 
We acquired this piece in the 1990s, shortly before Mansfield’s iconic mansion, the Pink Palace, was razed. The heart shape and colour was a theme of the mansion, which also featured a heart-shaped pool and bathtub.” 
The historical significance of this cannot be overstated! Seeing this put me in a state of religious awe - a genuine artifact from Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace! Jayne, Mickey and her Chihuahuas once frolicked and cavorted on this pink settee! (When I visited the Burlesque Hall of Fame last April when I was in town for Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender 2017,  this was most definitely not on display then! Now I have to return to pay homage!).

Let’s hope further riches are exhumed!  Maybe we could re-assemble the Pink Palace piece-by-piece!

/ Bath time at the Pink Palace /

Monday, 9 April 2018

At Home with Zsa Zsa Gabor

At home with Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1967 in her palatial Bel Air mansion! For aficionados of kitsch, this represents a goldmine and a fascinating oddity - 28 minutes and 20 seconds of pure bliss!

The TV show Good Company was apparently some kind of atomic-era variation of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or MTV Cribs with celebrities inviting you behind the security gates into their private inner sanctums. It begins with the Hungarian glamourpuss, famous-for-being famous movie diva, glorified courtesan and camp icon addressing the viewer directly (“Hello, darlings!”) from her bubble bath with soap suds up to her décolletage. Her décor is spectacular: check out the golden cherubs festooning the bathtub – a testament to her baroque / rococo taste. While waiting for Zsa Zsa to dress, host F. Lee Baily interrogates her queen-y gay male private secretary Karl. Is it a difficult job? Karl breaks into a sweat, attempting tactful diplomacy. “I can’t say it’s not difficult,” he stammers. “I guess it is. She’s very complex.” Read between the lines: she’s a temperamental nightmare! Karl backpedals, adding, “She really is this beautiful, this chic, this exciting, this witty, this unpredictable!” Phew!

/ Zsa Zsa Gabor’s ultra-glamorous passport, issued in 1966: I love that her passport photo is a beautifully lit and re-touched soft-focus Hollywood portrait and that she’s clearly doctored her birth date with a pen (which in theory should make the document invalid!). For the record, Gabor was apparently born in 1917! /

/ If this blue gown isn't the actual ensemble Zsa Zsa wears in this episode of Good Company, it's an awfully good facsimile! /

Post-bubble bath, fragrant chatelaine Zsa Zsa sweeps down the staircase and joins them. She’s donned a powder-blue, fur-trimmed floor-length muumuu and bouffant ringleted wiglet for the interview that Lady Bunny herself might covet. Zsa Zsa graciously takes Baily for a tour of her ostentatious nouveau riche home. Her closest neighbor, we learn, is Nancy Sinatra! We see the swimming pool, the Steinway gold grand piano (the one borrowed later for the 2013 Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra) covered with family photos, Zsa Zsa’s ultra-flattering idealized portrait above the fireplace, her collection of original Renoirs and various objets d’art and antiques.

/ This is the portrait of Zsa Zsa with her young daughter Francesca above the mantelpiece she contemplates with Baily /

Things turn seriously interesting and awkward when Zsa Zsa’s 18-year old aspiring actress daughter Francesca joins them. Dressed like a matronly socialite and looking like an escapee from Valley of the Dolls, the ultra-poised Francesca is one world-weary teenager.  Baily asks Francesca some outrageously intrusive, lecherous and tactless questions like if she’s “going steady” and what age of men she’s attracted to. “Between 25 and infinity,” she snarls. Zsa Zsa think Francesca says, “Between 25 and 70” and admits she doesn’t understand what “infinity” means. When Francesca leaves the room, Baily complements Zsa Zsa on how well-bred she is. “It’s not “groovy” to be polite nowadays,” Zsa Zsa laments. Postcript: the troubled Francesca’s acting career never took off and she never managed to carve a satisfying niche for herself. Later Francesca would repeatedly clash with Zsa Zsa’s ninth and final husband (the parasitic gold-digging ersatz “Prince” Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt) and she pre-deceased her mother, dying in 2015. (Wracked with ill health and dementia by then, Zsa Zsa herself died in 2016 without ever having been informed of her daughter’s death).

/ Zsa Zsa's bed - an exact replica of  Empress Joséphine’s. apparently /

/ Zsa Zsa and Francesca lounging on mama's bed. This is very how much how they both appear in this episode /

Zsa Zsa coquette-ishly invites Baily to see her boudoir, guiding him by the hand upstairs. “If I don’t come back after this next commercial, you know where I am,” Baily leers to the camera. Her bed, draped and canopied in lurid green, is an exact replica of Empress Joséphine’s, Zsa Zsa claims. Baily asks if the bed expresses her personality and Zsa Zsa nonsensically responds, “Well of course it does! It’s blue and green. Sometimes I’m blue and most of the time I’m green!” Huh? Lounging in bed, Zsa Zsa then lists the men she thinks are sexy: Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra. Turning to Baily she flutters her false eyelashes: “I’m sure you are a very sexy and glamorous man!” Watch and squirm!

/ Little sister Eva Gabor (1919 - 1995) and Zsa Zsa (1917 - 2016) sharing a laugh - and a wig /

/ Now that's what I call art: trompe l'oeil portrait of Zsa Zsa by Margaret Keane / 

Pretty much all of the photos illustrating this post are swiped from the Heritage Auctions' website for The Estate of Zsa Zsa Gabor Signature Auction later this month. The video below is a handy guide to the deluxe glitzy trash on offer / 

Monday, 2 April 2018

Reflections on ... Another Kind of Life at The Barbican

/ A portrait of Evelyn from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple) by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz, 1983 /

The Barbican’s current exhibit Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins plunges the viewer into the subterranean outlaw world of the countercultural and disenfranchised. As they put it, it “follows the lives of individuals and communities operating on the fringes of society from America to India, Chile to Nigeria.” Think sex workers, biker gangs, junkies, drag queens, teenage runaways, circus freaks, punks, rockabillies, criminals, drop-outs, misfits. You know: our kind of people! Pal and I visited on Easter Sunday - and it was mesmerizing!

/ Medicine is Art, from the series Japan Photo Theatre, by Daido Moriyama, 1968. How covetable is that Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra mask! / 

/ From the series Brooklyn Gangs by Bruce Davidson, 1959 / 

Another Kind of Life opens with a room devoted to the mother of outsider photography, Diane Arbus then encompasses other exemplars like Larry Clark and Bruce Davidson. I’m obviously very familiar with the oeuvres of Arbus, Clark and Davidson (especially the latter’s luscious 1959 series Brooklyn Gangs depicting insanely beautiful young juvenile delinquent thugs!), but they’re always a joy to re-visit. To give you an idea of the flavor and subject matter, Nan Goldin, Karlheinz Weinberger and Peter Hujar aren’t represented in the exhibit – but they easily could have been. I loved discovering new photographers I’d never heard of (especially Japanese, Russian and Latin American ones). In some cases, I’d spot a photo I recognized but never knew who took it or its origins or context.  Noteworthy: Japan’s Daido Moriyama and Seiji Kurata (check out his studies of ornately-tattooed semi-nude Yakuza gangsters lounging at the sauna). Britain’s Chris Steele-Perkins (1970s Teddy Boy subculture; love their sartorial style. Their fondness for the National Front and the Confederate flag – not so much!). France’s Philippe Chancel (stylish multiracial / anti-fascist Parisian 1980s rockabilly gangs The Vikings and The Panthers).

/ Untitled, 1982, From the series Rebel’s Paris by Philippe Chancel, 1982 / 

Many of these tales of desperate living are devoted to troubled youth and transgender communities. Mary Ellen Mark documented the homeless kids of Seattle (focusing on a haunting 13-year old waif named Tiny). Jim Goldberg’s series Raised by Wolves (1987 – 1993) does the same for young drug addicts in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  (One of Goldberg’s cadaverous, doomed subjects called Tweeky Dave died of liver disease in 1997 and bequeathed him his grungy denim jacket customized with swear words. It hangs in The Barbican like a religious artifact).

/ Lillie with her rag doll, Seattle, Washington, from the series Streetwise, by Mary Ellen Mark, 1983 /

The main image for the exhibit is Paz Errázuriz’s commanding, defiant 1983 portrait of Evelyn, a transgender sex worker in an underground Chilean brothel. Dayanita Singh explores India’s maligned eunuch community. Teresa Margolles does similar with trans prostitutes in the desolate Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez. Behind Margolles’ room is slide show of grainy photos of strippers (most seemingly transsexual) working at an absolutely filthy fleapit dive bar from the 60s to the 80s. It’s spellbinding! Each slide tells a vivid story. 

Perhaps my favourite image of the entire exhibit is Danny Lyon’s photo Corky and Funny Sonny, Chicago (1965) below. Lyon followed and photographed the outrageously sexy Outlaw motorcycle gang in the mid-60s. I find this photo aesthetically pleasing!

The exhibit is on until 27 May 2018. Go!