Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cult Club: ‘Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’ (1965)

In this new feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Cult cinema became a self-conscious movement in the ‘70s when audiences hopped up on goofballs and near-lethal doses of irony started convening at urban cinemas to hoot along with midnight showings of Pink Flamingoes and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s amazing to consider that Russ Meyer made Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! a decade earlier when every aspect of it seems consciously contrived for the midnighters. Perhaps that’s because it was so influential among the makers of those ‘70s cult items. Pink Flamingoes-director John Waters has called Pussycat “the best movie ever made… possibly better than any film that will be made in the future.” Waters, a master ironist himself, may have been joshing a bit when he wrote this in his autobiography Shock Value, but was he at least a little right?

Legions of critics would catcall, “Not even close!” Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! has been derided for its obvious offenses for decades (certainly one reason Waters holds it so close to his mustachioed heart). Even its entry in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die tisks at its "troublesome sexual politics." Russ Meyer is perhaps history’s most famous breast-fetishist, and there is certainly no shortage of female objectification in his best-known picture. The man was no less enamored with violence, which is well present, too. So sex and violence, eh? That’s why Meyer is so much more horrible than every other filmmaker, none of whom would ever indulge in such things? Well, the naysayers say “nay” because Meyer so lingers on his actresses’ cleavage, he so revels in his character’s violence. His plot hangs on sex and violence as wispily as Tura Satana’s catsuit hangs on her bodacious frame.

In Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Varla (Satana), Billie (Lori Williams), and Rosie (Haji) are a trio of go-go dancers who dig nothing more than swinging with each other and tooling around the California desert in their hot rods. When they run into a square (Ray Barlow) and his bikini-clad girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard), Varla challenges the dude to a drag race. As he starts gaining on her, she forces him off the track. When he gripes about her poor sportswomanship, Varla karate chops him to death (with a twist of back breaking). Linda gets all bent out of shape after watching her boyfriend bite the dust, so Varla commands her go-go underlings to drug and kidnap the girl until they can think of what to do with the potential squealer. While refueling at a gas station, Varla learns about a local wheelchair-bound man (Stuart Lancaster) who lives on a farm with his sons: sensible Kirk (Paul Trinka) and a muscleman known as The Vegetable (Dennis Busch). The Old Man also happens to be sitting on a big pile of cash. At the farm, he tries to get his paws on Linda, Billie tries to get hers on The Vegetable, and Varla tries to get hers on the scratch. Mayhem ensues, leaving all but our two dullest characters, Linda and Kirk, dead.
Tura Satana

Meyer uses this goofy plot as an excuse to exploit the boobs and bashing for which he is infamous. While Meyer couldn’t have possibly conceived Faster, Pussycat! as a mainstream film, he still seems bound by the restrictions of mid-‘60s American cinema. Nudity and graphic bloodshed are taboo. So is the triumph of his villains, hence the plethora of deaths that end the film. For those criticizers who’ve actually seen the film, the opening monologue about the “rapacious new breed” of violent women and Varla’s death are the strongest arguments for Meyer as misogynist, but the time in which his film was made has to take some of the blame. If we can forgive the rote moral and our antihero getting her rote comeuppance, we have without a doubt the strongest woman to appear in an American film thus far.

Varla is a take-no-bullshit leader who conquers all the men that cross her path. Men are not just drawn to her for her physical attributes— though they certainly are drawn to her physically, as we see from the drooling idiots at the go-go club and a dumbfounded gas station attendant who fixates on her breasts while blathering about seeing America (“You won’t find it down there, Columbus!” Varla barks!). It is her power that sends them into a tizzy. When Varla gets in a clutch with Kirk to get him to spill the beans about the loot, he confesses that he wants her because “You’re a beautiful animal, and I’m weak.” As they start making it, he rhapsodizes, “There’s so much of you. So damn awful much.” He’s not just talking about her body; he’s overwhelmed by her power. Not surprisingly, Meyer seemed to share that power fetish. In Shock Value, he told Waters that he “owed everything” to his wife, Kitten Natividad, for teaching him how to perform cunnilingus. Compare that to the macho morons of “The Sopranos”, who nearly kill each other over revealing their oral sex activities! It is also telling that all of the men of Pussycat prove completely ineffectual when thwarting Varla, no matter how moral (Kirk) or strong (The Vegetable) they may seem. In the end, she is brought down by Linda, who leaps behind the wheel of Kirk’s car and barrels into Varla. Only a woman operating a powerful machine could bring her down.

Meyer’s take on his character’s sexuality is equally a step ahead of the times: Varla and Billie are bisexual while Rosie is homosexual. The deaths of these characters could be read as homophobic if it were not for how Meyer is so clearly enthralled by them, especially when compared to the punishingly bland heterosexuals. Varla’s power nearly consumes the film. Billie is a fabulous comedic creation in an era when women were generally relegated to joke-less supporting roles in comedies. Lori Williams is, dare I say, brilliant as Billie, so committed that she sells the character’s lamest lines as well as her best ones. She delivers groaners like “My desert fan club!” and “They went that-a-way, pardner!” with a flourish of her arms and relish in her voice. She’s as delighted with her jokes as Varla is souped up on her strength. Haji doesn’t get as much to do. Rosie is mostly in tow to disapprove of Billie’s whimsy, pine over Varla, and fulfill the need for a broad Italian stereotype.
Lori Williams: Comic Genius

Arguably the most overtly offensive aspect of Pussycat is its least discussed. Meyer exploits The Old Man and The Vegetable‘s physical and mental disabilities for symbolic purposes—always a dicey move. But even that exploitation supports a feminist reading of the film, as their disabilities symbolize male weakness. The Old Man is also our symbol of misogyny, constantly droning on about his hatred of women and forcing The Vegetable to rape Linda for a vicarious thrill. Feeling guilty and victimized, The Vegetable can’t bring himself to go through with it and tearfully apologizes to Linda. In this sequence, The Old Man’s cruelty stings the hardest. He is our most loathsome character; a real villain in a film of villains. Meyer wants us to root for Varla. He wants us to hiss at The Old Man. A bit of back story intended to explain his misogyny hardly justifies it; The Old Man was disabled while saving a girl (who apparently looked a lot like Linda) from an oncoming train. If anything, that makes his letching after her all the sicker.

But let’s not break our backs trying to defuse the offensiveness of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, because this film wants to offend us; it delights in offending us. We are perfectly justified to take issue with its objectifications and punishments doled out against mighty women. We do not have to feel as though we are overreacting to its ethnic stereotypes or its exploitation of disabled people. This pussycat certainly isn’t meant to be a cuddly one. This kind of material is not everyone’s cup of tea, and those who find it too outrageous are advised to steer clear. For those of us who can endure the many offenses of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, we also get some great performances, great jokes , way-out action, retro zaniness (“Go, baby! Go! Work it on out! Wail!”), and strong cinematography to go with the outrageousness.
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