I’m somewhat abashed at admitting that I have never thus far seen the film that John Waters called ‘beyond a doubt the best movie ever made.’ I must say, this was a better film than I expected – not only a kitschy classic, but also a compelling, fast-paced and well-filmed piece in its own right. The soundtrack itself, seeming a distillation about all that was good about sixties pop, sleaze and instrumental, is worth the journey, and the dialogue is witty, hilarious and eminently quotable. The landscape, too – the bare desert of California is deeply atmospheric, and adds a touch of Western gothic to the proceedings. The cinematography is excellent (leading to descriptions of the film as the Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin of trash) – in particular the technique of lending the proceedings a grandiosity by shots from below or shrinking the action within landscape vistas.
The story follows three go-go dancers, Billie (Lori Williams), Rosie (Haji) and the instantly memorable karate-trained, black-clad leader, Varla (Tura Satana), who get into a murderous random encounter during a drag race, after which one thing leads to another leads to a ranch inhabited by a paralysed old man sitting on a fortune, and his sons, the muscular but slow ‘Vegetable’ (Dennis Busch) and Kirk (Paul Trinka). The character of the aggressive and sexual woman is a trope which could also be seen in the sixties in music like Nancy Sinatra, and would emerge as a prototype, in particular, for many underground female performers in the punk, postpunk and no wave scenes of the late 70s and 80s, as feminism moved into the postmodern era. There is a cartoony pop-art aesthetic at work here which is evident in other works from the period such as Barbarella and Satanik.
The influence of this film on later work is immediately apparent (not to mention the influence of Varla on the femme fatale personae of later artists), from the underground work of filmmakers like Richard Kern (who also uses the Californian desert as a site of wildness and transgression) to the indie mainstream of Tarantino. As for the much-discussed topic of misogyny, I think the picture is by no means black and white. There’s certainly an objectification of women in the way that they are dressed and depicted as objectified objects of desire, in voyeurism of the female as sexually vulnerable (in the person of Linda), and in the scenes of ‘girlfights,’ showers and so forth, although, in Mae Westian style, there is very little actually revealed here – no frontal nudity, for example. The argument that women using their sexuality to get what they want as a form of empowerment is a tired furphy, but what happens here is more complicated – rather than a conservative depiction of female sexuality unleashed as the embodiment of depravity, what we see here (again characteristic of the films it would influence) is a delightfully jaundiced view of humanity where no characters are admirable – where the men are equally pitifully lecherous and weak, where the ‘moral’ characters – Tommy and Linda – are pathetic and laughable, and indeed where men are equally targets of objectification – the camera caresses the Tom of Finlandian form of Dennis Busch, depicted as little more than a fantasy of the mindless, biddable muscleman.
Ultimately, this is less a misogynistic work than a charming piece of misanthropy in which the sacred cows of morality and realism are sacrificed on the altar of spectacle and sensation – an offering which is richly rewarded.