Fifty Shades of Grey was not screened in time to make deadline. It’s a good thing. My trenchcoat and hollowed-out popcorn box are still at the dry cleaners.
Mostly, the hubbub has me confused. In an era where the depiction of the most deviant sexual desires is cost-free and but a mere mouse-click away — when it comes to documenting BDSM, all others pale in comparison to porn’s favorite shade of Grey: Sasha — why would anyone pay to see a vanilla alternative?
Still, having successfully avoided anything to do with the best-selling S&M primer — I’m still trying to get through Fear of Flying — I must admit to being curious as to what all the noise is about. In preparation for what is bound to be a letdown, here are a trio of bonded, disciplined directors sharing their fantasylands of bondage and discipline.
Russ Meyer’s Supervixens (1975)
He has been called King Leer, Bosomaniac Extraordinaire, and the Thelma Schoonmaker of softcore porn, the latter sobriquet awarded by me. In a little over 20 features, the majority of which he wrote, produced, photographed, and edited, Russ Meyer earned a spot alongside his consummate contemporaries, Jacques Tati and Sergio Leone, by creating a cinematic language uniquely his own.
Make no mistake: Meyer’s contributions to cinema stem most decidedly from a different era, a time when women were still considered part of the furniture. No matter how much some try to label him an “inadvertent feminist,” Meyer was a good-natured misogynist possessed with an uncanny flair for motion-picture editing and keen ability to sniff out phallic symbols in everyday living. He stood tall as America’s preeminent breast purist. When I asked him what he thought of silicone implants, Meyer shot me a twinkle-eyed grin and said, “That would be cheating, now wouldn’t it?”
His films were known as “businessmen specials,” X-rated “titty teasers” with what little plot there was given to lantern-jawed rubes lusting over improbably proportioned babes. Vixen, which packed Chicago’s Loop Theatre for over two consecutive years, was a tremendous midday draw. The numerous times I took in a packed afternoon matinee of a Meyer production, I found at least a sample case or ten parked in the aisle next to the gray flannel suits on lunchbreak.
The adult home-video industry did to Meyer what sound did to Buster Keaton. Only two of his films are ever revived — Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! lives on as an anthem to femdom and, oddly enough, his one mainstream hit, 20th Century Fox’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in league with Myra Breckinridge and Hello, Dolly! as one of the last nails in the studio (and studio system’s) coffin.
Even in death, Meyer refuses to make his films affordably accessible to fans. The complete catalog is available on no-frill DVD pressings that run between $40 and $50 per title. Used copies are next to impossible to find — who in their right mind would trade in a Russ Meyer picture? — so his reputation among cultists is based largely on Pussycat and BVDS.
Supervixens is Meyer’s masterwork, the first time in the annals of bosomania where sex and violence became one and the same. (How’s that for praise?) The raunchy cinematoon starred Shari Eubank in two roles — as the titular lead and her less-empowered doppelganger, Superangel — and, as Sheriff Harry Sledge, RM regular and one of the few “pornographic” actors to win mainstream acceptance, the incomparable Charles Napier. The climax finds Superangel shackled to the desert floor, legs akimbo and dynamite strategically placed, while up above, Vix uses a mountaintop to pleasure herself.
There’s only one place in town to find a copy — other than my house — and Kensington Video closes in two weeks.
Clint Eastwood and (contractually obligated) Richard Tuggle’s Tightrope (1984)
The “contractually obligated” in the title references Clint’s disdain for first-time director Tuggle’s — he wrote the script for this and Escape from Alcatraz — slow-paced style of filmmaking. Clint reportedly stepped up and called the majority of the shots.
It was the only Malpaso Productions film I had yet to revisit. Three bits invaded my memories of the opening-night screening over 30 years ago. Unbeknownst at the time, it was to be the next-to-last of Clint’s 13 collaborations as actor and director with cinematographer Bruce Surtees, lord of the neon night. I remember wondering at the time how the pitch-dark opticals would translate to home video. The 2003 DVD pressing appeared to have been visually “sweetened” to make perceptible the film’s cimmerian exteriors.
Tightrope immediately followed Sudden Impact, Clint’s fourth tour as Dirty Harry Callahan. Wanting to distance audiences (and himself) as far as possible from the vigilante cop, Clint asked that the shooting location be changed from Callahan’s home base of San Francisco to New Orleans. The major holdover from Impact was a desire on the filmmaker’s part to link cop and killer. Sure, he was still a dirty flatfoot, but as the bondage-curious Detective Wes Block, Clint challenged audiences with a new variation: Kinky Harry.
It wasn’t Clint’s first brush with bondage. Tied to a boxcar, he was forced to watch Sondra Locke be man (and woman) handled in The Gauntlet. Here, Block is assigned to a serial rapist, known only to the audience by the yellow laces on his sneakers. A bitter divorcée, Block spends a good deal of his off hours neglecting his kids while in pursuit of hookers.
This time, Clint’s widowed cop had two young daughters to answer to. My predecessor in these parts, Duncan Shepherd, observed “the character’s fatherliness to his two pre-teen daughters is established fully, and wisely, before his predilection for kinky sex.” An uncomfortable father-daughter attempt at comic relief results in behavior more abrupt and out of line than the sex scenes or anything in Clint’s canon before or since: a windshield-glazing spit-take.
It soon becomes a case of guilt-by-association, a tactic no doubt borrowed from the Charles Bronson Death Wish I–V playbook, wherein anyone even remotely close to the renegade cop has a target on their head. In this case there’s a string of prostitutes and even Block’s oldest, played by Clint’s real-life offspring, Alison Eastwood.
Genevieve Bujold adds a feminist touch as Block’s uninitiated love interest, a sharp-talking rape crisis counselor who, if given half a chance, would look simply de rigueur with a red ball-gag in her mouth. Dan Hedaya, in what must be the most thankless role of his career, co-stars as the officer fellow cops depend on to arrive first on the scene.
Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986)
When asked whether or not she’ll take in a screening of daughter Dakota Johnson’s breakthrough feature, Melanie Griffith told People, “Would you want to see your child having sex like that?”
Why the false modesty? Has Ms. Griffith somehow erased her years as one of Hollywood’s most licentious wild childs? And did she consider her parents, Peter Griffith and Hitchcock ingenue “Tippi” Hedren (Mom has spent the better portion of what little career she forged as an actress bad-mouthing the Master) when, at age 19, she appeared au naturel in the pages of Playboy?
As for BDSM, fans of Jonathan Demme’s glorious Something Wild know Griffith’s been there, done that, years before Dakota was born. The dangerously exotic bedroom exchange that opens the picture — Griffith plays handcuff-wielding kidnapper to starry-eyed businessman Jeff Daniels — is a perfect hook, keeping the audience off balance for the heavy-duty drama that closes the picture. Griffith has never been more appealing than as Lulu, patterned after Louise Brooks with equal doses of Vertigo’s Madeleine and Judy, hopefully aimed at ticking off “Tippi.”
Fifty Shades of Grey Official Trailer
With Crazy Mama, Citizen’s Band, Melvin and Howard, and Something Wild forming his American dreamers quadrilogy, Demme seemed poised and ready to assume the Frank Capra mantle. Then the Academy struck, bestowing their highest award on the director’s uncharacteristically disheartening Silence of the Lambs. This was followed by more Oscar-bait in the form of a sentimental soap opera (Philadelphia) and two doomed attempts at respinning Hollywood gold with remakes of Charade (The Truth About Charlie) and The Manchurian Candidate. Ricki and the Flash, starring Meryl Streep and scripted by (gulp) Diablo Cody is currently in post-production.
As for the once kinky Ms. Griffith, the thought of her baby simulating so much regular sex is too great to bear. “I couldn’t even do that, but the ‘room of pain’ sex?” she moaned. “I definitely couldn’t do that!” Speaking of “room of pain,” that’s what I’ll be calling the Reading Carmel Mountain where I, along with a gaggle of North County busybodies, plan on taking in Fifty Shades of opening-day festivities.