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Friday, May 28, 1999

Run for your lives, the '60s are back!

In the 1966 film "Chappaqua," when furry freak band the Fugs rant gibberish into their mics and crush a pile of acid-dosed sugar cubes with their shiny leather boots, which the film's director/star Conrad Rooks himself proceeds to lick off the stage, you get the feeling that you are indeed sailing off the edge. "Chappaqua" is not a representation of psychedelic subculture; rather, it is an authentic byproduct of it, a mad, mad film that threatens to boil your brain with its feverish intensity.

Now when the Strawberry Alarm Clock -- in "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the other '60s revival showing in Tokyo this month -- play some cheerily cheesy folk-pop at a Beverley Hills party full of plastic porn and pop stars actually saying "right on" and flashing the peace sign, your "phony" detector is likely to start flashing hard. The extent to which sexploitation director Russ Meyer (and his screenwriter, noted film critic Roger Ebert) understood the counterculture is evidenced by such clunky dialogue as "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" This is the kind of movie actual hippies must have watched and scowled at, muttering "Man, that ain't where it's at, man." "Valley of the Dolls" is "Austin Powers" without ironic hindsight -- accidental instant kitsch.

But it's all good. Rooks, a trust-fund kid with a taste for narcotics, raided the ranks of beat/hippie culture to find collaborators for his experimental vision. The credits of "Chappaqua" read like a virtual who's who of the leading progressive artists of a generation: cameos by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Ornette Coleman; cinematography by Robert Frank; soundtrack by Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass.

Russ Meyer, on the other hand, couldn't give a damn about art, let alone hippies (though he obviously dug buxom chicks with an interest in free love). Meyer's strength was in bringing an anarchic approach to sex on the screen, and the ability to elicit hilariously serious performances from his eager but inept cast of bunnies and playmates.

They say the thing that really makes a film is having that drive, that persistent obsessive need to make it. Despite their differences, this was true of both Meyer and Rooks. Rooks had been an alcoholic since age 14, a condition he attempted to remedy by taking up drugs instead. After living through over a decade of fog before drying out, Rooks made "Chappaqua" (one of only two films he made before retiring to a beach in Thailand) in an attempt to purge his demons on film, to take us inside his delirious peyote visions and withdrawal nightmares.

As such, the film plays like an 80-minute trip, which I admit may not be everyone's cup of tea. As with many filmmakers who've been inspired by surrealist films like "Un Chien Andalou" or "Meshes of the Afternoon" and hallucinogens, adopting an experimental, improvisational approach to creating bizarre imagery results in many breakthroughs, but a good deal of pretentious silliness as well (a la The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour"). The scenes in which Rooks dons a vampire's costume are laughably fey.

There's a reason this film won the Silver Lion in Venice in '66, and that is the man behind the camera -- beat photographer Robert Frank ("Pull My Daisy," "Step Across the Border"). His astounding use of color, framing and overlays has "Chappaqua" bursting with bedazzling imagery. This tendency toward illusory and oneiric visuals was no doubt reinforced by the daily advice Rooks was receiving from Dada icon Man Ray. It's easy to see in Rooks' filmmaking style as well that he's a man given to excess, but sometimes too much is just enough.

Which could also be Russ Meyer's motto. Meyer, like Rooks, had an equally -- ahem -- pressing need to make films: namely, the desire to cast women with big chests. Well, not just big chests, mind you; more like triple-F-cup breasts that make strong men (and women) go wobbly in the knees. And none of that silicon nonsense, either.

"Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is like every sort of genre flick you could ever imagine distilled down into one concentrated shot and injected into your brain. Describing it as a cross between "Boogie Nights," "Josie and the Pussycats" and the Manson Family would only begin to hint at the sprawl of this barely coherent flick, which is vaguely about the rise-and-fall of all-girl flower-power band called the Carrie Nations, and its descent into the orgiastic hell of Beverley Hills.

This is trash cinema par excellence: The acting is laughably bad, the plot riotously contrived. But the players are soooo into it -- particularly a campy John Lazar in the role of rock-Svengali Z-Man, and Edy Williams (the future Mrs. Russ Meyer) as porn starlet Ashley St. Ives -- that their energy is infectious. They may be fake hippies, but, then again, this is entirely correct, and welcome. Much of '60s culture was about little more than adopting the right look and lingo in order to get laid and score some drugs. Just as bands like the Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd turned into the Jefferson Starship and, um, Pink Floyd (sans Syd Barrett), for many people hippie-dom was a contrived, superficial, and disposable pose. "Valley of the Dolls" captures this perfectly.

And despite his rep, there's certainly a case to be made for Russ Meyer as feminist director. Although his films are unmistakably playing to hetero male sexual fantasies, the female protagonists of his films were certainly shown as being independent (see "Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!" for further proof), and in control of their own sexuality. In this film, it's the men who are sleeping with women for cash, and trying to leech off their success and vigor. Look at the imposing camera angle Meyer frames Ashley St. Ives in, as she taunts the Carrie Nations' simpering male manager about his sexual inadequacy, and it's easy to see from where Madonna has been cribbing her ideas.

One last note: Cinema Qualite in Shinjuku is holding an Alfred Hitchcock retrospective May 29-July 9, with six films ("Psycho," "Vertigo," "Dail M for Murder," "Strangers on a Train," "I Confess" and "North by Northwest") running for one week each. Hitch's best works are happily all included, and the only raised eyebrow comes from the inclusion of "I Confess." "The Birds," "Sabotage" or "Rebecca" all have more going for them. And, to be honest, you really haven't lived until you've seen "Vertigo's" bell tower scene on the big screen.

"Chappaqua" is playing from 9:45 p.m. at Haiyuza Talkie Night, Ropponggi. "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (titled "Wild Party" here) is playing from 9 p.m. at Shibuya Cine Palace.

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