Sunday, October 30, 2016


Consider it a black comedy “meet cute.” José Luis (Nino Manfredi, I Knew Her Well [review]) is an undertaker charged with transporting the bodies of men killed on death row to the funeral home. After the aged executioner Amedeo (José Isbert) leaves his tools in José Luis’ truck, the undertaker has to chase the old man to his apartment to return them. There, he meets Amedeo’s daughter Carmen (Emma Penella, E amor brujo [review]). The two share an attraction, and bond over their similar predicaments. No one wants to date her because she’s the executioner’s daughter, and women are turned off by him because he’s an undertaker. Love doesn’t exactly blossom, but still, there’s something.

The Executioner is a 1963 feature from Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. Reminiscent of Italian films of the period--and, indeed, featuring a nod to Michelangelo Antonioni, alongside Ingmar Bergman, as if Berlanga wanted to state his influences outright (though I’m thinking more Pietro Germi)--The Executioner is one-part comedy of errors, one part family drama, and then something wholly unique unto itself. Though at first turned off by the little man who would become his father-in-law, José eventually falls completely under Amedeo’s sway. Even the marriage between José and Carmen seems orchestrated by the talkative death merchant. It’s less like they fall in love, and more like they want to make sure not to disappoint Amedeo--or at the very least get him out of their hair.

Our trio is a band of outsiders in Spanish society. No one looks upon Amedeo’s profession fondly. It’s not that there is a political debate anywhere in The Executioner, it’s more that people treat Amedeo as a bad omen. His hands have caused much death, and thus it follows him around. In terms of a family business, José could do worse than to have his father-in-law at one end of the supply chain, but as he’ll soon find out, there’s a lot more bureaucracy to be reckoned with than lives to be taken. When Amedeo’s impending retirement threatens to keep the new family out of a swank two-bedroom apartment, Amedeo pushes José into becoming his successor. The final third of the film is all about José’s reluctant acceptance of the job and his fear that he will actually have to perform his duties. How long can he skate by on pardons and happenstance before he has to kill a man for real?

Much of the humor here is situational, with José serving as the classic straight man pushed into situations far beyond his capacity to handle. What’s interesting about Berlanga’s pairing, however, is how neither José nor Amedeo are played to the extreme. They are both almost straight men. Manfredi never succumbs to hysterics, and though Isbert can be annoying, he doesn’t push it to comic excess. This is not, say, a Bill Murray-style pest whose persistence is both frustrating and charming. The stooped Amedeo is just undeniable. Not exactly bullish, maybe more like a billy goat. He won’t be dissuaded.

This makes for more quiet chuckles than huge guffaws, but that’s okay. The Executioner has a pleasant pace and finds its humor in how deeply the screws get turned on José’s life. Berlanga has a keen eye for character moments--the book signing where the other famous directors are namedropped or the scene where the prison warden casually counsels a panicked José have a sharp satirical age--that cause you to root for each character to turn against their own self-interests. It’s weird, because in a way, that ends up being a kind of support. Call it tough love. Or tough laughter. You’ve got to like a movie with a dark enough sense of humor to have a title song called “The Executioner Twist.” Its use serves as a good indicator of how far apart our core cast is from everyone else--something we also see via the stray details of more normal, frivolous lives going on in the background. The two things come together at the end with the well-dressed young people dancing on a sailboat as they head out to sea, and José Luis departs in the other direction, off to settle into the life that he is now unable to extricate himself from.

The Executioner was shot by Tonino Delli Colli, who also worked with Raffaello Matarazzo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and later LouisMalle. His black-and-white work for Berlanga is clean and expressive, observant in a Neorealist fashion, but also appropriately tuned in to the humor. For instance, staging the scene where José and his fellow undertaker pick up their paychecks while wearing tri-corner hats and 18th-century uniforms from inside the accountant’s booth allows for a more visual gag. Both of them peeking through the tiny windows trying to charm the paymaster to hand over their checks makes them look simultaneously like strange intruders and also relics mounted on a wall. The costumes inspire further humor in the next scene when a nervous José tries to calm a fight out of fear one of the squabblers will get killed--and he’ll have to execute his killer.

Which he’ll eventually become comfortable with doing. All of Berlanga’s characters in The Executioner serve their roles, be it to society or to family, and the greater message here is to suggest we can’t help but be who we are, even when others might not be so keen on it. In the end, José and Carmen and Amedeo and the new baby make a solid unit that supports one another and gets by as best they can. It’s just that sometimes José needs a little more coaxing to get with the program.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, October 29, 2016


There is a lot going on in McCabe & Mrs.Miller, Robert Atman’s 1971 western, and a lot to admire, but I think what comes to mind first for me is the impossible construction.

I mean this in two ways.

First, there is the location itself, the mining town of Presbyterian Church, set deep in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. It is simply a place that should not be, higher than man should really be climbing at the time, arguably so high that they have surpassed the heavens and offended God. For certainly He is not present in this ironically named town. The lone church stands empty and unappreciated, which gives one cause to wonder by what providence it remains standing. How do its rickety shacks not go sliding down the side of the mountain? What prevents the even more rickety bridge from coming undone and plummeting into the water below?

Second, there’s the formless script, written by Altman and Brian McKay. It has a throughline or two--the new arrivals in town, their enterprises, and the efforts to shut them down--but there seems to be little blueprint. In a sense, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is episodic, but it is also one long endeavor, a drunken bender embarked upon the moment Warren Beatty’s McCabe climbs down from his horse and enters the cramped, rundown Presbyterian Church saloon. People come and go, they meet, they interact, but they don’t follow the dictates of an outline or turns of plot. Except maybe the villains, who trigger change. But then, they are also their own force, pushing through, not tied to any necessity but their own.

For all the talk of Altman’s facility with ensemble, as the title might imply, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is really a character double header. Beatty plays McCabe, the gambler turned barkeep and pimp, as a posturing space case. Like many of Beatty’s characters, he is rarely in the moment, he is always either one step behind or moving on to the next. Beatty has a regular expression that could either be read as confused or lost in thought. It’s his way of disarming everyone, to be more than the handsome leading actor. “That man? That man never killed anybody,” one of the heavy gunslingers opines in reaction to hearing McCabe’s reputation as an outlaw; yet, for some reason, we are inclined to believe the legend.

Legend or not, McCabe is no match for Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, Billy Liar [review]). Mrs. Miller comes to Presbyterian Church with a proposition for McCabe: she will take over his budding prostitution business and be the madame of his whorehouse. The British woman doesn’t take no for an answer, not in anything. She sees a fixer-upper like McCabe and his business, and she goes about fixing things--a classic, if flawed and clichéd, male/female dynamic. Mrs. Miller brings sophistication to the town. We never quite learn what led her there, though we get the sense that she is outrunning her past as much as McCabe, a hunch in part confirmed by her bad habits. She’s looking for numbness through drugs by film’s end, an oh-so-modern condition. (And an oh-so-ancient one, but perhaps more interesting to consider in the post-Feminine Mystique context of 1971.)

This central relationship is a romance of sorts, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no more a conventional romance than it is a conventional western. The two leads are here to serve as examples of the independent minds ready to take advantage of the frontier spirit that defined America’s expansion. Naturally, this puts them up against other concerns. Corporate interests quickly encroach on Presbyterian Church. Whatever they are mining up there, the moneyed and powerful want it, and they won’t stand for a rapscallion like McCabe not playing by the rules. The agents of the unseen conglomerate--including the aptly named company man Roebuck (Altman-regular Michael Murphy, later to play his blundering politician Tanner)--embody the lies of free enterprise. The law (here represented by William Devane’s discouraging attorney) is no help, either. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as much about the big man vs. the little man and how that fight crushes the American Dream as it is about anything. Right down to the simple fellow making his own way in life (Keith Carradine, Thieves Like Us [review]) who gets taken down by the blonde bully who doesn’t care for trust or fairness.

Altman’s touch here is easy. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is light on its feet, easy to watch, and not without its humor. Carradine’s “aw shucks” manner and René Auberjonois’ feckless saloon owner both get laughs, as do Beatty’s unfinished homilies. His repeated “is there a turd in your pocket?” inquiry is uniquely gross and strange. These characters and their odd ways set up a soft platform for the script’s commentary, which also infuses the movie’s genre-fulfilling finale. It’s fitting that the climax should hinge on the unfinished church, and that the abandoned preacher should cause our antihero such consternation. The church also somehow unites the community in a way the other common threat cannot, perhaps because that threat comes from outside and this one burns from within. Then again, what’s that thing about how if you’re being attacked in public you should shout “Fire!” instead of “Help!” because people care more about property than their fellow human beings? No one lifts a finger in aid of McCabe.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller offers no solution for its players. Both of its main characters arguably end the film worse off than they began, partially because their success gave them more to lose. Yet, that American spirit is still there, because at least they remained true to themselves. Push came to shove, McCabe didn’t just let them take him out, he stuck to his price even it the currency changed (your money or your life!), and Mrs. Miller ends up communing with the only person she can really count on: herself.

I’d be remiss if I closed this without touching on the visual style of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s designed to look natural, from the often ratty and ill-fitting clothes, to the precarious lodgings. Presbyterian Church is dirty and muddy and as foul smelling and uninviting as Deadwood would be years later, though here the raggedy aesthetic was very much reflective of the era in which the film was made. The 1970s strike me as a very brown decade, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a very brown movie. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Rose; Heaven’s Gate [review]) shot the film in natural light, letting the dusty haze of mountain living give the movie life. There is a visible atmosphere in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The air has grit.

Adding to the film’s disposition is a trio of songs by the great Leonard Cohen. His roving narratives and unconventional melodies give the montage rhythm. In as much as Altman avoids set-up/conflict/resolution in his storytelling, Cohen largely ignores verse-chorus-verse. His melancholy folk could have been anachronistic were it not so intrinsic in how McCabe & Mrs. Miller is cut together. It feels as natural as the ambient noise, the wind in the trees, the rain on the roof. Which is just how I feel about a classic Leonard Cohen record on a hungover Sunday morning--a sentiment McCabe could likely identify with himself.

The songs are perfectly in sync with the cadence and contradictions of Altman’s tale. They manage to be both intimate and expansive, and Altman uses the tunes to underline not only the personal, tracking private moments through close-up and observation, but he also lets Cohen’s mournful playing bring pause. As the internal dialogue of the movie itself goes quiet, Zsigmond’s camera pulls back and goes wide, allowing us to appreciate the scenery. Which maybe gives us more of a sense of what these travelers are all holding on for. It’s freezing and wet and grimy but it’s also lovely in a way only such an open, untamed area can be. The way only an Altman movie can sometimes be. The way McCabe & Mrs. Miller is.

Impossible, but true.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Back when the original fairy tales were being written, folks like the Brothers Grimm had a lot more faith in kids than we do now. Their stories were dark and sinister, with grotesque imagery and real moral lessons. They knew that kids like to be scared, and they aren't the big sissies that we pretend they are now, neutralizing the older stories to make them safer.

Though he hasn't necessarily made Pan's Labyrinth for children, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy I & II [review]; Pacific Rim [review]) definitely seems to have gone back to find that ancient well of inspiration. His original story is as dark and twisted, and thus just as magical, as the classic tales. He has made a scary and wondrous fantasy film seen through the eyes of a child, and it should by turns enchant and frighten any adult who sees it.

Pan's Labyrinth has more in common with del Toro's smaller budget ghost story The Devil's Backbone than it does his big effects Hollywood films. Shot entirely in Spanish, it takes place at a rural outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco is in power, and his troops are stamping down the last of the resistance. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lost her father in the war, and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Belle Epoque), has remarried a sadistic solider, Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things). Carmen is pregnant with Vidal's child, and they are going to his isolated base camp so she can give birth near him. There, Vidal is tangling with a band of guerillas that is hiding in the mountains, and he's ruling the nearby village with an iron fist.

For Ofelia, a girl who loves old books with fantastic stories, her new home is a blessing and a curse. She is not fond of the man her mother wants her to call "father," but she is immediately intrigued by the old stone labyrinth in the forest behind Vidal's fort. Though the dutiful maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, Y tu mamá también [review]) warns her not to go inside, Ofelia is lured their by a small fairy. There, she meets the faun Pan (Doug Jones, the body of Hellboy's fish man, Abe Sapien). He tells her that she is a long lost princess who has finally come to return to her kingdom. All she has to do is complete three magical tasks. He gives her a magic book whose blank pages will reveal her missions to her when she is alone.

Her tasks aren't simple, and they have real consequences when not done right--both in the magical realm and the real world. Naturally, when Ofelia sneaks off to battle a magic toad, she is going to get in trouble for disappearing, especially when she returns covered in mud and toad spit. The pregnancy is making Carmen sick, and so insubordination isn't going to be tolerated. Vidal is not a reasonable man, and he doesn't like when things get beyond his control. His outbursts when fighting the resistance get more and more violent, and he cares less about Carmen's health than he does the birth of his son. If she dies, that's just collateral damage, and woe to Ofelia if that happens.

del Toro gives his audience two different worlds in Pan's Labyrinth. First is the brutal backdrop of the Civil War. He doesn't shy away from the killing that keeps the wheels of battle turning, and there are many gruesome scenes that will make even the most iron-stomached gore junkies cringe. The second world is Ofelia's fantasy kingdom. The adults never see what the young girl is going through, and part of the experience of Pan's Labyrinth is questioning whether Ofelia is really witnessing magic or if these scenarios are just the escape hatch she goes through to get away from her cruel stepfather. Either way, her fantasies bite back. Pan almost plays as a doppelganger for Vidal when he loses his temper over the girl's mistakes. Survival on either side of the reality line also requires sacrifice, and Ofelia is going to learn some real lessons about what that means.

Regardless of which explanation you choose to believe, the spell of Pan's Labyrinth is irresistible. Guillermo del Toro has written a multi-layered tale that will scare you, delight you, and keep you precariously poised on the edge of your seat. You'll cringe, but you won't want to look away lest you miss a frame of his gorgeously crafted alternate dimension. For the two hours that Pan's Labyrinth runs, the director reminds adults of what it's like to believe so thoroughly in your own imagination that anything is possible, while also reminding us that real heroism is fraught with human error and bought at a real price. Like the titular labyrinth, any adventure has a lot of twists and turns on its way to fulfillment. Sometimes the turns may be wrong and in others they are triumphantly right, but there's always something worth discovering just around the corner.

In addition to its beautiful new transfer, Criterion has built up its release of Pan's Labyrinth with plenty of extras. Of note to any who were intrigued of the talk of fairy tales and childhood above is a lengthy discussion between del Toro and writer Cornelia Funke on that very topic. There is also a new interview with Doug Jones, as well as the majority of extras from the movie's original DVD release.

You should also take not of the excellent Becky Cloonan cover art. Full disclosure, Becky currently works with me over at DC's Young Animal, where she does covers for Shade, the Changing Girl, but I wrote about her original horror comics ages ago on my old blog. She's a unique talent, and you can check out more of her work at her website.

Parts of this review were taken from my original review of Pan's Labyrinth when it was released theatrically.

The Blu-ray was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Monday, October 10, 2016

BOYHOOD - #839

This review was originally written for the theatrical release of Boyhood and published on in 2014.

When we left the screening of Boyhood, one of my friends mentioned that he was sort of prepared to be impressed by Richard Linklater's twelve-year experiment regardless of whether it was good or bad, just because he took it to completion. I hadn't really considered that. I know I was pretty excited by the idea myself and was somewhat predisposed to like Boyhood, but even accepting that, I feel pretty confident the film wasn't something I was automatically prepared to give an A for effort, it would have mattered if it sucked. When you consider say, an entire TV season like the recent runs of True Detective or Fargo, they are just as much work, there is an equal amount of investment. The only thing separating them from other TV shows is their quality. Did you make it through John from Cincinnati and not declare it a colossal waste of a lot of people's time? What about the extended experiment of an arty film like Godfrey Reggio's Visitors [review]? The nature of his endeavor couldn't overcome the agony of watching the final cut.

Of course, whether or not Linklater would have or should have gotten a free pass is moot since Boyhood doesn't suck. It doesn't waste the time of the participants or the viewers. It's an experiment that pays off. Over and over.

For those not in the know, Richard Linklater, the man who gave us Dazed & Confused [review] and the Before Sunrise series [review], began shooting Boyhood in 2002 when his young lead, Ellar Coltrane, was 7 years old. For the next twelve years, the director gathered his cast back together and shot a few more scenes in the child's life. Coltrane was playing a young Texan named Mason, growing up with a single mom (Patricia Arquette, True Romance) and his older sister (Lorelai Linklater), with occasional visits from his dad (Ethan Hawke, The Purge [review], Before Midnight). Each year, Mason is a little bit older, a little bit different, morphing into a young adult while we watch. Linklater finally stopped shooting Boyhood when Coltrane turned 18.

The resulting narrative, fashioned by the director and his longtime editor, Sandra Adair, covers the changes the family goes through, but with a particular focus on Mason as he navigates school, peer pressure, bad stepfathers, and just trying to figure it all out. Individual moments are fantastic. Dad is kind of a pretentious doofus, the sister goes from being a brat to acting as her brother's sometime confidante, and the awkward teen years are full of generally too-accurate awkwardness. If you end up hating Boyhood and wondering why so many critics love it, it's because we were all smarty-pants youths who thought we had a unique and profound perspective on what was really going on, and so Mason's emo decoding of the meaning of his own existence is too painfully real for us to ignore. We have a twinge of "yup, I was that much of a dumbass, too." (Sadly, I think I'm still some deluded version of the dad, pre-minivan.)

Along the way, Linklater gives us poignant moments with the rest of his main cast. As he's figuring stuff out, Mason gets to witness those around him have their own epiphanies. What's interesting to me is that Linklater could have easily spun off and followed anyone else. I'd be just as down with tracking Samantha's progress in Girlhood or even a movie called Momhood. The material is that good, the breadth of it that carefully considered. (Snarkily, I assume that Dadhood will just be Ethan Hawke's autobiography.)

Which does raise the question of how much of Boyhood is luck and how much is planning. Is Ellar Coltrane's evolving fashion sense his own, and if so, what would they have done had he turned into something else? Could Boyhood have just as easily been a sequel to Friday Night Lights if the little boy star had become a jock? What if Lorelai Linklater had turned 16, decided she was done being involved, and told her old man to get bent?

These are questions you will have, though not while you're actually watching Boyhood. During the movie's nearly three-hour running time--which, honestly, passes in a blink--I was so invested, I was always just wondering what would happen next, not how they made it happen. The film avoids any attempt to shape the chosen events into anything resembling a conventional plot with structured set-ups and finishes, instead leaving the audience to make the same discoveries Mason does as he makes them. There is tension at times. We wonder if the boy will make the wrong choices or fail to heed parental warnings or somehow fate will intervene and knock him on his ass. Linklater lets little metaphors and parables emerge, but he doesn't hammer on them. They're just there. He also doesn't draw attention to divisions in time. There are no title cards declaring the year, just changing pop songs and new models of Playstations and fleeting references to current events (Texas politics being what they are).

The sum total of these excellent scenes is a pretty impressive whole, the image of a life lovingly observed. So, yes, my friend is right, we should be impressed by the experiment, but the validation is in how well it works.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Maybe I should start timing how long I procrastinate with a review when I’m writing about a movie I didn’t particularly care for. It’s been over an hour since I first fired up this document, and I’ve done many things, checked the laundry room a couple of times to see if the other tenants finally moved their clothes to the dryer, tried some of this Jameson Caskmates, cycled trough all for sides of DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall and moved on to Avalanches’ Wildflower.

In other words, I didn’t enjoy watching Beyond theValley of the Dolls very much. Even approaching it from the point of view of looking at it as a product of its time, trying to embrace the spirit of 1970 and the cultural changes that Russ Meyer’s movie both embraces and lampoons, it doesn’t quite work. The gag doesn’t land. I guess, as they say, maybe you had to be there.

Despite the disclaimer that opens Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, this film very much began as a sequel to the 1967 original [review], but when author Jacqueline Susann objected to the new take on it, she threatened to sue. And so the studio had the names changed of the returning characters and tacked on the title card. The lineage remains, however, as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls offers another melodramatic showbiz narrative, once again taking a lance to the Hollywood lifestyle, but this time focusing on an all-girl rock-and-roll trio. Lead singer Dolly Mac Namara (Playboy Playmate Dolly Read) goes to Los Angeles to visit her Aunt Susan (Phyllis Davis, playing the character that would have been Anne Welles), and she and her bandmates end up embroiled in the California party scene and in servitude to a shady record producer everyone calls Z-Man (John LaZar, who in his sideburns and hip haircut looks a bit like one of Jack Kirby’s supernatural characters; someone should have cast him in a Witch Boy movie). The narrative follows both the trajectory of Kelly’s band and the way she and the other girls sink into a life of booze, drugs, and sex, the act breaks signaled by yet another night of debauchery at Z-Man’s groovy pad.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls comes off as one big car-crash of divergent intentions. Hoping to cash in on the late-’60s counter-culture cinema as typified by Easy Rider [review], the studio heads handed sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer the keys to this kingdom. While he delivered all the kooky lingo and the hippies and psychedelics, his final product feels like one big wind-up, a parody of the fat cats’ perception of what these kinds of movies represented. Meyer basically takes the feel of the Roger Corman acid movies and puts them together with the campy tone of the 1966 Batman TV show, ending up with something closer to the Monkees, minus the earworms and laughs. What makes the whole thing really odd, though, is the underlying sincerity that drives the picture. For however much Beyond the Valley of the Dolls feels like a put-on, it also comes across as a film made with serious intent.

Perhaps this is down to the screenwriter, the famed film critic Roger Ebert, his first contribution to an actual fiction film (he didn’t do much more, but it was all with Meyer). I’d certainly credit him with the script’s ludicrous climax, in which every soap opera cliché is trotted out and tossed into a big pile, a grinning homage to all the sudsy love stories that came before it. You’d also expect to lay the blame on him for the mash-up of characters in Z-Man’s final party: a jungle man, a Nazi, King Arthur, and a pair of superheroes. (Cynthia Myers and Erica Gavin, playing the film’s lesbian couple, dress up as Robin and Catwoman, using the actual costumes from the aforementioned Batman series.) The film nerd is checking off a bunch of items in his bucket list (however much he denies it in his commentary track...but more on that later).

Yet, it’s also Ebert who takes credit for the ludicrous last act reveal about Z-Man, which--without giving too much away--employs a regular Brian De Palma trick years before De Palma ever would, and yet is totally of the times, given that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls came out the same year as that other X-rated multi-car pile-up, Myra Breckenridge. To hear the writer tell it himself, this was not an organic plot development, but a last-minute inspiration. Which, frankly, seems even more De Palma than De Palma, whose final-scene turns usually feel like a filmmaker without a conclusion copping out.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad. For those who indulge in Russ Meyer movies for the leering voyeurism they provide, you won’t be disappointed--there are plenty of bosomy women in various states of undress. That said, the surprise for me was the displays of technique. The plot may be bogged down by plodding staging and stiff acting, but the mis-en-scene is often agile and even Godardian. Editor Dorothy Spencer, who also worked on Valley of the Dolls as well as such classics as Stagecoach [review] and Foreign Correspondent [review], employs quick cuts to keep things moving, reducing some shots to just a few seconds. Look, for instance, at the scene where Kelly ditches her former boyfriend and manager Harris (David Gurian) to go home with gigolo actor Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett), sending Harris into the arms of pornstar Ashley St. Ives (Edy Williams). Spencer cuts from one action to another before the first is even finished, jumping back and forth between the heartbreaker and the heartbroken. Even more impressive, though, is the slam-poetry montage of Los Angeles at the start of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the intercutting of Harris and Ashley’s first sex scene with automobile hood ornaments, effectively connecting America’s obsession with flesh and chrome. In these moments, Meyer gets closer to realizing the more avant-garde aspects of Godard or Dennis Hopper than he maybe even realized.

Too bad these brief flashes of brilliance don’t make up for the rest. For me, the biggest sin is how bad the music is. I hate when movies about bands don’t deliver quality tunes. Put together by studio regulars rather than legitimate rock writers and producers, but also featuring the Sandpipers and the Strawberry Alarm Clock (appearing as themselves), the musical numbers performed by the onscreen bands are heavy and intensely dull, striking an inauthentic chord that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls never manages to escape. I suppose many will watch this cult film to laugh at its many faults and fumbles, but I’ve never subscribed to the so-bad-it’s-good school of moviegoing. There’s enough that’s genuinely good to negate the necessity for laughing at the missteps of others. Once transgressive and cutting-edge, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls now just strikes me as tame and misguided. Your mileage may vary.

To match the artwork of the Valley of the Dolls release, Criterion brought in multi-talented comics artist Jim Rugg to create a composition for their Beyond the Valley of the Dolls that riffs on the original imagery while utilizing the larger cast. Just about every major and minor character is crammed in there. You should check out Rugg’s own work, including the blacksploitation tribute Afrodisiac and his delightful action comic StreetAngel.

Criterion also loads the disc with extras, including a commentary with Roger Ebert that they had the foresight to record in 2003 (apparently there was a long negotiation for rights). Ebert gives much insight into how the movie was constructed, including admitting that it was pretty much made up as he typed. He shows a genuine reverence for Russ Meyer, and suggests that much of the exaggeration in the performances is down to Meyer’s love of silent film. Interestingly, Ebert never embraces nor addresses any notion of the movie being bad--on the contrary, just as I imagined he did during production, the scribe treats Beyond the Valley of the Dolls quite seriously. I find it funny that he questions the choices of the wardrobe people and set decorators as being too exaggerated, but never quite acknowledges the same thing in his writing. Actually, what’s really fascinating is how rarely Ebert even acknowledges he is the writer. He eventually confesses that Kelly, as the main character, is subject to the whims of the author--and then sort of coyly notes that he’s that author--but outside of the very beginning and the very end, he approaches it from a less invested stance. As commentaries go, it’s disappointing, because he’s essentially defending his movie from the position of a critic who likes the final product, not as someone who had a hand in bringing it together. Which may suggest something about why this movie hits with such a resounding thud a quarter century later: the writer only sees the humor in terms of specifics, but the reality is that it was played so broadly, it has turned into a cartoon as time’s marched on. When it comes to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Roger Ebert is not a credible witness.

But again, maybe you just had to be there.

Russ Meyer on set with John LaZar.