Discovering Russ Meyer

Cherry Harry Raquel Poster

A new tradition has developed in my household, and it’s one that might sound familiar to a few of you: watching unmarked, unfiltered VHS tapes. For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to the practice as ‘tape-diving’, although conceptually, ‘Russian roulette’ also fits the bill rather nicely.

In the back room of our house, we’ve recently discovered a bounty of long-lost, home-recorded VHS tapes; all without labels, and each as potentially terrible as the next. The only way to find out what’s on a given tape is to insert it into a player and strap in for 180 minutes of 90s-era terrestrial TV, which – as I’m sure anyone who lived through that particular decade can attest to – is a dangerous proposition indeed.

Here at el casa Snacked Up, we’re an unwittingly stubborn bunch, so much so that we’ll gladly see most tapes through to the bitter end, whether it means watching Hocus Pocus through a sheet of grain with bad tracking, or even a twenty year old S4C documentary about sand cultivation. To quote (with a similar degree of cynicism) Chuck Moseley: It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

This perhaps explains how I found myself locked into a viewing of a forty-year old erotic comedy called Cherry, Harry & Raquel over the weekend – my first encounter with director Russ Meyer. Strange as it may be to think that this film is twenty years older than I am, I still got more than my fair share of kicks out of it – for reasons I’m sure anyone familiar with Meyer can attest to.

Cherry Harry Raquel Napier and Ely

Images get saucy from here on in. Just a heads-up.

My first impressions, however, were mixed. Although Meyer is a name that has always risen to prominence in my encounters with the exploitation scene as a whole, it’s never one I’ve paid much attention to, and as a result I was left playing catch-up for a large portion of the film’s runtime, wondering when my brain would shift into gear and ‘get it’. Go back more than thirty years, and it seems that any film intended to elicit laughs will always prove an initially awkward experience, if just because you’re not sure whether you’re laughing at the age of the production or the content of the film itself.

Cherry, Harry & Raquel, as I’ve come to learn, is probably the worst Meyer film for this, considering that it was never the tightest of productions in the first place. Speculation runs wild concerning the film’s development, but usually boils down to two possibilities, either lead actress Linda Ashton dropped out during filming; or a mishap in the photo lab saw a large section of the film destroyed, resulting in a film radically different to the one originally conceived. Put simply, the narrative makes very little sense.

As a result, this film isn’t about the ‘why’ so much as the ‘what’, and as it turns out, Russ Meyer’s ‘what’ of choice is breasts. Boobies, titties, knockers, jugs – call them what you will, there are so many gratuitous jubbly-shots in this film that you could move through the Western vernacular’s entire vocabulary for mammary glands and still come up with time to spare before it ends. Meyer was a key proponent of the sexploitation sub-genre, and as a result, Cherry, Harry & Raquel proves to be erotically charged and sexually explicit in ways that you probably won’t have seen since your last Google image search.

Cherry Harry Raquel Larissa Ely Frank Bolger

I’d be lying – if not an absolute bore –  if I sat here and tried to tell you that this film wasn’t enjoyable as a good slice of sleaze. The likes of Meyer – the erotically charged auteur – seemed to go extinct at some point in the late 70’s, giving way to the onset of hardcore pornography and arthouse erotica, and so it’s refreshing to go back and see cinema and sex blend together so differently. Contemporary film seems to treat sex either as an exploration of absolute depravity, a means to an impromptu reach for the Kleenex, or an overt metaphor much grander in scope than the act itself; and while these uses have all produced great films, Meyer invites his viewer to appreciate the human form guided by little but libido, free of extraneous frills.

I don’t mean to suggest that Meyer’s work isn’t intelligent, either. Cherry, Harry & Raquel carries its content with a great deal more panache than the average top-shelf magazine, boasting some stunning cinematography, and an MTV-esque editing style so far ahead of its time that I can’t help but laugh at most of its applications. On top of this the film is punctuated with two monologues, both of which link the film’s action to Meyer’s own social and political ideology like a momentary lapse into a film studies class; segments so inherently abstract that, again, I couldn’t help but laugh through them – a humour that I’m sure Meyer was aware of, given their campy, tongue-in-cheek delivery.

In Cherry, Harry and Raquel, the erotic content isn’t hidden under the guise of something more; its meaning is literally spelled out to the viewer, before the brain switches off and buckles down for what is – at heart – a raw visual spectacle. Ultimately, Meyer’s charm comes from a sincere approach to a knowingly comic subject matter, and it still works to this day.

Cherry Harry Raquel Uschi Digard Soul

Almost two years ago, I started this blog with a review of Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, a film that I now view in a similar light to Cherry, Harry & Raquel: as an appeal to a more playful style of erotica. This film is concerned with the beauty of the human form as a pulpy, almost comical, object, and it’s an interesting take on a genre commonly devoid of taste.

My personal highlights include the explosive finale’s rapid editing, coyly intermingling sex and violence in a film so clearly concerned with the censor’s approaches to both; and a sizzling encounter between Cherry – a nurse – and her patient, a scene that single-handedly showcases the virtues of restraint; an odd remark, considering the film spends so much time lost in excess.

Cherry Harry Raquel Charles Napier Sand

I hardly present myself as a representative of my generation, but for what little it’s worth, the late Russ Meyer managed to engross this twenty year old in his world, wholesale. Abstractly funny, blatantly sexy, and surprisingly beautiful in its scope and execution; even for a first-time viewer forty years later, Russ Meyer’s work manages to take softcore antics down from the top shelf and give them the run they deserve.

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