Direct Reference: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls with The Pipettes

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls poster; image courtesy of wikipedia.org

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls poster; image courtesy of wikipedia.org

So, I saw Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls last summer (thanks again to my friend Curran). I meant to write about it, but kinda didn’t know what to say. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the sordid tale of mixed-race girl band The Kelly Affair making it big by changing their name to The Carrie Nations and losing their minds in the big city. I do know that I liked it more than Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s wildly successful pulp novel about a group of girls who seek fame and instead wrestle with debilitating addictions, which just left me numb and bummed.

The unrelated sequel’s campiness, stodgy dialogue, illogical plot development, crazed characterization of Los Angeles, and parade of late 60s tacky couture made it an ideal movie to watch while drinking and cackling with friends. And I was pleasantly surprised by Roger Ebert purple, at times oddly perceptive, dialogue and how it synced up with Meyer’s arresting imagery. And having read a write-up about Meyer muse Tura Satana from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, I know that some Meyer icons have a feminist following.

And yet. I think seeing this movie with friends and laughing at it from an ironically detached position was key to my enjoyment. Without them, I think I might have been saddened by the movie’s clearly regressive gender and sexual politics. The director was in love with big, bare breasts? Duh. Lead singer/grifter Kelly MacNamara uses her wiles to get ahead in show business? Shocking. Bassist Pet Danforth is coerced into lesbianism by predatory, be-taloned fashion designer Roxanne, only to be killed in a mansion orgy that apparently was based on the Manson Family murders? Yeesh. The fact that the orgy is orchestrated and the murders executed by The Carrie Nations’ Phil Spector-like producer Z-Man, who reveals himself to be transgendered? Double yeesh. The fact that surviving members McNamara and drummer Casey Anderson distance themselves from their hedonistic past through marriage? Fail.

One thing I will give the movie full credit for is awesome music. If The Kelly Affair were a band (I prefer this name over The Carrie Nations), I’d totally listen to them. I love Lynn Carey’s voice, who fills in for “actress” Dolly Read. And others seem to agree. The Pipettes re-created the scene where the girls get discovered at an industry party in their video for “Pull Shapes.” Feel free to watch it alongside the original scene.

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8 comments

  1. Curran

    Love it! But, I, of course, have to respond. :):

    Yes, but everything you take issue with, the film is *itself* taking issue with: The film is making fun of the very idea of predatory lesbians and tranny killers. And, the ending is a parody of Hollywood endings. A double-wedding plus a paraplegic, remarkably able to walk again, meandering down a rocky river bed with his go-go-suddenly-turned-Victorian-girlfriend. Absurd! It’s in no way meant to be taken seriously or to support the idea of marriage and hetero coupling. In fact, I would say quite the opposite. There is unintentional camp and intentional camp, and this film is unequivocally an example of the latter (i.e., it knows what it’s doing).

    Plus, it’s not just Meyer’s characters that have feminist followings, but Meyer himself. Indeed, in praising Faster, Pussycat!, lesbian feminist scholar B. Ruby Rich called Meyer, “the first feminist American director.” This is surely an overstatement, and one that is insulting to the truly feminist (and female) directors that came before him. But, while I do not agree, I think there may be something to the idea of Meyer’s films as containing feminist elements. True, the women in Meyer’s films have large breasts that – along with the rest of their bodies – are repeatedly put on display. But, while Meyer’s men are generally either jerks, morons, losers or all three, his women are generally smart, (physically) strong and victorious by film’s end. For sure, this doesn’t qualify Meyer for a “Feminist of the Century” award, but it does make it more difficult to dismiss his films as simply sexist and regressive. Especially when his films are placed alongside others from the 1960s and 1970s.

    And, again, there is the issue of sex/gender parody.

    BVOD also has a large queer (by which I don’t mean just gay male) following. I’ve seen the film at queer midnight movie showings twice, and in both instances the audience was more than receptive.

    There have long been debates over whether or not, and to what degree, straights, due to different life circumstances, have access to camp. Divergent reactions to this film and Pink Flamingos make me wonder about this.

    Also, for me this brings up the whole question of whether or not effective critique must always be serious, or whether it can come in the form of humor and deliberate offensiveness. This is a central issue that I will be grappling with in my dissertation, which is focused on works that combine camp’s humor with punk’s deliberate offensiveness.

    • Alyx Vesey

      Do you have titles of books, articles, etc., to share, particularly about intentional camp, Meyer, and/or queer reception? Any of this literature might also help me further nuance my reading of BVOD and other movies of its kind.

  2. Curran

    Yes, I love giving recommendations! There are two good anthologies on camp – one edited by Fabio Cleto and the other by David Bergman. The Cleto is especially good – it includes all the major camp essays (including a few on the possibilities and limitations of feminist camp) and an introduction that gives an excellent camp overview. The Bergman is pretty good too. I own both, if you ever want to borrow them. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is, as it has been argued, also about camp – and gives camp perhaps its best (although, most convoluted) defense.

    As for the intentional vs. unintentional distinction – the anthologies will cover this, but essentially unintentional camp is derived via reception, whereas intentional camp is constructed via production/performance. Unintentional camp is Mommie Dearest, intentional camp is John Waters and RuPaul.

    For understanding the politics of queer readings, the best work is still Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer – especially the first two chapters.

    I’ll also try to locate Rich’s essay on Faster, Pussycat!

  3. Curran

    Just remembered – another (great!) book to look at is Jose Esteban Munoz’s Disidenitifications, which deals with the ways in which queers of color negotiate their way through majority culture. Alex mentioned this book in his piece on Lady Gaga. It is a useful supplement to Doty’s book, which is very white focused.

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