What happens when you don't really like what you know you're supposed to… ?
by Adam Miller
It seems kind of, I don’t know, lame to pick Roger Ebert as one’s favorite critic. After all, his is the most recognizable name in the business. It’s like rooting for the Yankees—I mean duh, they’re the best (supposedly). Two things endear me to Ebert. The first is his movie glossary; a hilarious list of terms (or sins) that films commit with regularity. The second is his zero star reviews of films (for an example, consider his review of THE GREEN BERETS). Ebert states that he awards films zero stars only if they are made with total ineptitude or are morally repugnant (or both). What I respect about that system is that Ebert doesn’t mind reviewing a film harshly if he finds its content to be particularly offensive in some way (implicitly, a political way).
Ebert respects movies more than I do, and actually seems stricken when forced to watch and review absolute crap. Obviously I take a bit more distant approach. But like my idol, I too try to layer my reviews with some kind of analysis, which at times is admittedly political. Perhaps Mr. Ebert doesn’t want my praise, but that’s all right, because I’m reviewing his and Russ Meyer’s film, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS—my opinion of which is far less glowing.
Ebert wrote the screenplay to BVD and his strategy seems to have been to cram as much Hippie jargon and content into a scene as possible. An all-girl band and their dreamy-eyed manager hit the road for L.A. hoping to make the scene. This being 1970, they find free love… and free booze, marijuana, and cash. In no time the girls climb the social ladder but it leads only to heartbreak (and worse). There’s all kinds of infidelity, more corporal sexual transgressions, violence, attempted suicide, abortion, and ultimately mass murder.
One thing to like about the film is its willingness to hop genres—musical, comedy, porn, horror—just as erratically as it treats its ostensible content. It makes for perfect camp zaniness, yet in the end I couldn’t find myself liking this movie.
I think my problem was ultimately this: BVD treats a bunch of characters who are themselves largely irreverent irreverently. BVD has as little concern for its subject matter as its characters. In one scene a character goes to have an abortion and screams in horror at the sight of the stirrups. Another character (a lesbian) unwittingly fellates a gun before having her brains blown out. But this movie isn’t about abortion, lesbianism, murder, or any of the other taboo subjects which crop up during its running time. Every deranged situation a character finds him or herself in is predicated by a previously deranged situation such that the entire structure of the film is akin to a house of cards—nothing anchors its zaniness. It uses “serious” social issues like banana peels for its characters to slip over, mayhem ensuing.
BVD is often compared to ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. Both are completely insane when it comes to the “reality” of their plots, the difference is RHPS builds as fantasy from beginning to end (alien transvestites, Frankenstein-monster-boytoy pederasty, etc.) while BVD does the same with real, valid issues—issues which the U.S. had not overcome in 1970 and in some cases have still not accepted into the mainstream social fabric. I suppose BVD could be said, then, to be well ahead of its time. It makes light of things before they have been fully embalmed by mainstream social discourse. I respect that for what it is, but for me, it’s the present moment that counts the most. BVD doesn’t tackle the social issues it presents, it pulls the rug out from under them. On the one hand I want to say bravo; avant garde! On the other I realize that, if BVD is our example, something other than Hollywood will have to be the one to actually tackle the social issues which confront us.
Maybe this disturbs me more than other viewers. It’s frequently said, and not unfairly, that every critic harbors some kind of inferiority complex, “If you think this movie sucks so bad, why don’t you make a better one?” If you ask me, a lot of critics do think they can make a better movie. The kind of movie that satisfies what they feel is lacking in the cinematic landscape. But if Roger Ebert is the best film critic today, and BVD is the best film he could write, well… ?