Reviews

Russ Meyer

USA, 1966

Credits

Review by Andrew Schenker

Posted on 31 August 2008

Source RM Films International DVD

Categories Bosomania!: The Sex, the Violence, and the Vocabulary of Russ Meyer

Early on in Mondo Topless, one of the numerous strippers that constitute the film’s subjects insists on the essential insignificance of her profession. “All that you’re doing is a dance,” she says, “it has no meaning whatsoever. It is entertainment and there is no other meaning than a dance.” It’s easy enough to apply her formulation to the film itself, but even taken on this simplest level – as little more than a device for delivering cheap titillation – Meyer’s picture, which consists primarily of a series of topless stripteases performed by real-life professionals, proves somewhat of a letdown. Which is certainly not to suggest that the film is without interest, but simply to note that the imagery on display has a difficult time standing up to the puffed up rhetoric of the film’s spoken text.

The picture begins with a pseudo-documentary portrait of San Francisco, melding iconic images of the city to a prurient narration that translates the town’s well-known public structures into insistently sexualized terms. As Meyer intercuts footage of a topless woman driving a car with an urban videologue, the narrator outlines the “precipitous peaks” and “capacious bosom” of the city’s landmarks, while insisting that San Francisco “thrusts itself into the bosom of the Pacific” and making explicit the phallic and vaginal associations of, respectively, the Coit Tower and the Broadway Tunnel. While this sexualization of every aspect of the city is completely in keeping with the film’s characteristic bombast (and provides some occasional moments of amusement), it’s also typical of the film’s insistence on empty rhetoric, the rather ordinary images of San Francisco failing to evoke the carnal excitement that the narrator insists we read into them.

Following a brief transitional section which introduces the city’s pleasure quarters, the core of the film consists of a series of “portraits” of the individual strippers, whom Meyer films flailing wildly against a faux natural backdrop (beach, park, empty industrial wilderness), their oversized breasts bared and set in perpetual motion. The soundtrack mixes instrumental garage rock – given its visual analogue in an ever present transistor radio or reel-to-reel tape recorder, the latter offering a neat visual rhyme with the performer’s breasts – with an enthusiastic narration which, in typically exaggerated fashion, urges us to consider both the dancers’ lack of inhibitions and the excitement they provoke in gentlemen admirers (as if the gyrating breasts can’t be trusted to perform this latter task on their own) and the woman’s own thoughts. Rather than offer any sort of insight into her particular situation, this last element tends simply to echo the narrator’s enthusiastic bombast and play up the purely sexualized image of the subject that the sexploitation audience presumably expects. So one woman (the appropriately named Babette Bardot) decries the sexual hangups of repressed Americans while another outlines the manifold delights of nudity and expresses a desire to enter a nudist camp. To be sure, the breaking down of sexual taboos (particularly in less permissive 1966) is a goal to be lauded, but this narration serves neither to place the women in any sort of situating context nor – at least when viewed over forty years later – to contribute much in the way of prurient excitement.

In contrast to the segments depicting the American strippers, Meyer intercuts sequences that cover the concurrent “European scene.” Shot to self-consciously mirror generic “European art-film” conventions, these sequences find the strippers moving with slow, deliberate gestures and often employing theatrical elements (props, costuming) in their acts, while Meyer’s camera work – every bit as deliberate as the performers’ movements – isolates individual body parts in lingering close-ups. Hilariously, the narration remains as exuberant as in the American sequences, the narrator failing to pick up on the difference between the relative un-self-consciousness of the California gyrations and the more measured European stripteases, even as it becomes clear that what best characterizes the latter performances is in no ways their “lack of inhibition.” Still, intended as some sort of Jamesian Old Europe/New America commentary, about the best can be said about the comparison is that it’s overly simplistic. The worst that can be said is that it’s dangerously misleading, but given that the gap between spoken promise and visible fulfillment – the disconnect between ho-hum image and gung-ho text – is finally what comes to characterize Meyer’s picture, this unreliability of the visual evidence should come as no great surprise.

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