Smell of female: how a bunch of exploitation directors rolled with some street-fighting girls & created the ultimate feminist icons

Posted on March 20, 2009

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By Cathi Unsworth

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Ladies and gentlemen — welcome to violence!

She came burning across the white desert plains, a vision in black. Raven hair, matching leather gloves, jeans, biker boots and the lowest of low-cut tops revealing cleavage like the prow of a battleship, cinched into a tiny waist. Heavy black eyeliner across her lids, her eyebrows and mouth set in rigid lines, like Kabuki mask. In the dust behind her, a trail of broken bodies scattered across the mythic landscape.

There never was a girl like Varla before. In the sun-kissed California of 1965, she appeared in stark monochrome, the centerpiece of a film conceived and directed by a man known as the “King of the Nudie Cuties,” ex-World War II cameraman and breast fetishist Russ Meyer. Yet, in casting the burlesque star Tura Satana as his lead, and allowing her to endow Varla with all her personal traits of toughness, resilience and pitch-black humor, it could be argued that with his Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) Russ Meyer became the greatest feminist director of his time.

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This is the story of three go-go dancers who get sick of taunting drooling males and set out across the desert in souped-up Porsche 356s, racing, fighting and spitting out one-liners like they’re high on nitroglycerine. They encounter a wholesome couple and kill the boy, take the girl hostage and drive further into the endless wilderness. Through the portal of an outback gas station and its loose-lipped attendant, they discover a delinquent family sitting on a pile of cash, a sick Old Man and two sons who could have staggered out of Steinbeck‘s Dust Bowl thirty years earlier. Conniving to relieve them of their fortune, the girls’ lust for cash and kicks ends up in a bloodbath.

There are many reasons why Faster, Pussycat! is so much more than an exploitation film. Meyer’s army training taught him many skills – fast-cut editing, stark angled shots and the ability to make a low-budget production look astonishingly good. Cinematographer Walter Schenk frames the landscape in superb high-contrast black-and-white, rendering every frame iconic. The ball-busting banter and sheer surrealism of the characters – one of the Old Man’s sons, a muscle-bound mute, is merely known as “The Vegetable” – are a delight. But the most integral part of the movie’s allure are the girls themselves.

Bouffanted blonde Billie (Lori Williams), resplendent in white hip-huggers and a padded gingham crop top, is the all-American babe gone bad. She burns rubber, swigs whiskey and seduces men with a wanton abandon. Smoldering Rosie (Haji) a lithe Latina in jeans and a tight white vest, peers through her side-parted black curtain of hair, an aloof, exotic mystery. The functionality of her feminine take on Marlon Brando‘s classic On the Waterfront threads hints at the true nature of Rosie’s sexuality, although Meyer did not tell either Satana or Haji that they were supposed to be lovers until the moment the plot reveals it, for fear that they may have imbued their characters with some unwanted tenderness.

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But centre stage is Tura Satana. There could never have been a girl like Varla unless there was a girl called Tura first. Born Tura Luna Pascual Yamaguchi, the daughter of a silent screen actor of Japanese/Filipino descent and a Cheyenne/Scots-Irish circus performer mother, Satana’s startling beauty had brought her trouble from the start. At the age of nine she was gang-raped by five men as she walked home from school. Her assailants were never prosecuted so Satana made a vow to exact her own revenge. With the help of her Karate expert father she turned herself into a skilled martial artist. Then she tracked down each and every one of her rapists. “They never knew who I was,” she later recalled, “until I told them.” [1]

The genesis of Varla continued throughout Satana’s adolescence. At 13 she joined a girl gang who carried razor blades around their necks, switchblades down their boots and wore leather gloves for fighting. Thus Varla arrives on the big screen authentically dressed for combat. When Lori Williams first clapped eyes on her, she reminisced: “She looked like a mass-murderer.” [2]

Almost all the killing in Faster, Pussycat! is down to Varla but it’s the first blood that remains the most shocking. Initially it seems like the girls are just playing with boy racer Tommy (Ray Barlow as an Elvine hunk betrayed by his taste in board shorts) and his girlfriend Linda (Susan Bernard in bikini and hair bows). When Varla taunts Tommy into a race, his first reaction is incredulity. But when she proves her superior motoring muscle that soon turns into rage: “Look, I don’t know what the hell your point is!” he screams at her. “The point of no return,” Varla coolly replies, “and you just reached it.” She then proceeds to kill him with her bare hands in front of the screaming Linda.

Tommy’s argument, however, was a pertinent one. The truly scary thing about Varla is how she appears from out of nowhere to turn a swell couple’s happy day out into a nightmare – and all for sport. Varla is like The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986), the High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973), and Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth (David Lynch, 1986) all rolled into one. Yet, these are characters that in 1965 were all yet to be born. Of course, when they eventually were, all of them would be men.

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No, there never was a girl like Varla before. And though Faster, Pussycat! bombed so badly on its release that the actresses were advised to take the film off their résumés, what Meyer and Satana achieved would light a long, long fuse. The benchmark was set for a particular type of violent femme whose look in the coming decades would continually echo Satana’s woman-in-black, her severe haircut and make-up and that threatening expanse of cleavage. It was a style that came straight from the mean streets and would be constantly referred to by other directors and performers who identified with Satana’s hard ride out of the ghetto, when, as she put it, “You either had to belong to a gang or die.” [3]

We are the hell-cats nobody likes/Man-Eaters on motorbikes!

The next time a bunch of girls as authentic as these would appear on the screen was in Herschell Gordon Lewis‘ 1968 ode to the female biker, She-Devils On Wheels. Lewis had been filling up drive-in theatres since the beginning of the decade with his garish gore films that pioneered the use of heavy colour saturation, and had previous form in Nudie Cuties too. Who better to capitalize on the then-current vogue for biker flicks by directing the first ever all-female version.

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Lewis knew he would have to cast this film from outside the Actor’s Guild. In order that his leads could handle the hogs they’d have to spend most of the movie straddling, he hired real-life biker chicks to play his fictional Man-Eaters gang. The female Cut-Throats division of the Miami-based Iron Cross provided the film’s most compelling characters – gang leader Queen (Betty Connell) resplendent in leopard skin, silver go-go boots and a towering beehive; and her sidekick, Whitey (Pat Poston), a 300lb Valkyrie on a bike, complete with long white plaits and German army cap, who is fond of making up limericks as a prelude to fighting, fucking and racing – the Man-Eaters’ main occupations.

These girls provided authenticity to the Man-Eaters’ drag with some more street-fighting fashion – Queen wears a bike chain as a belt around her waist that doubles up as a weapon; other girls have switchblades hidden in their boots and razorblade necklaces. Lewis’s love of wince-inducing colour extends into their wardrobes, a retina-frying mix of hallucinogenic pinks, greens, oranges and yellows, clashing stripes and silver hot pants, worn under club jackets with a wolf’s head Man-Eaters’ logo stitched to the back. When riding in formation towards the screen, the Man-Eaters are a motorized bad trip, heading your way.

Like Meyer, Lewis delighted in presenting a world of shocking role-reversal, where it is the women who act purely on lust, anger and the need for domination. In a script written by Allison Louise Downe, a former probation officer and longtime Lewis collaborator, the men in are either compliant sex slaves or rival gangs easily brought to their knees. The most joyful celebration of female superiority is expressed in the movie’s theme song, ‘Get Off The Road,’ a snotty garage classic penned by Lewis that would, along with Faster, Pussycat!, drip into the counter-culture of a future generation, thanks to a band of B-movie addicts called The Cramps.

A couple of misfits from Akron, Ohio, band nucleus Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach were the first of the punk generation to value the subversive style of these two films. Their 1983 live album Smell of Female takes its title from Faster, Pussycat! dialogue and they covered ‘Get Off The Road’ on their 1986 album A Date With Elvis. With a band fronted by a towering cross between Elvis Presley and Herman Munster wearing eyeliner and stilettos and a flamed-haired bass player in a sparkling red bikini promoting them, its little wonder that new fans began to seek these movies out.

A contemporary of The Cramps, “No Wave” artist Lydia Lunch was also divining Faster, Pussycat! when she collaborated with the New York filmmaker Richard Kern on the 1986 short film Fingered. Lunch plays a phone sex operator who gets bored with talking, hooks up with a client (Marty Nation) for some knife-wielding sex then takes off with him for a drive into the desert. Here they find a young female hitch-hiker (Lung Leg) who they abduct and rape in a junkyard. Shot in close-up black-and-white, the film is as brutal and claustrophobic as its makers intended.

Both Lunch and Kern are admirers of Meyer, and Lunch’s look was a punk remodel of Varla’s – a vision in black with weapons secreted about her person. But this is not a film designed to entertain, it is an investigation into abuse and annihilation that remains difficult for some to stomach. Fingered was selected for the 1986 Berlin Film Festival but was repeatedly boycotted by feminists who attempted to destroy the print. In 2007, Kern reflected, “My film gave the radical feminist movement something to rally against. Twenty years later, the same groups praise the film.” [4] The same thing would happen to Faster, Pussycat!, when in 1995 film critic B. Ruby Rich began championing Meyer’s film as a work of radical feminist, Queer Cinema importance. The fuse was burning, faster, faster…

Arnold Schwarzenegger – in a bra

The next incarnation came in a time and place not dissimilar to the world of exploitation cinema in the American Sixties. Thirty years on, it was in Hong Kong that a new wave of independent directors created the hugely influential “Heroic Bloodshed” genre. Combining stunning martial arts sequences with characters taken from comic books or ghost stories and styled with a fetishistic reverence for film noir, these sumptuous thrillers were just the place for our ass-kicking dames to reassert themselves. Director Johnny To delivered the goods in The Heroic Trio (Dung fong saam hap, 1993).

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While John Woo‘s gangster movies had modernised the Chinese heroic code of yi for a new audience, To did his best to satirize all that rampant masculinity with a film, in which the cops are powerless to defend Hong Kong against supernatural forces without the help of two superheroines, Shadow Fox and Thief Catcher. The two become three when they turn their former foe, Invisible Woman, away from the Evil Master she is serving, a vile old goat who rules his kingdom from a sewer, commanding her to steal babies born on a prophetic date to become his horned heirs.

To cast three markedly different leads. Anita Mui, who plays Shadow Fox, was a pop diva, Hong Kong’s answer to Madonna, whose presence has a tragic resonance – she died in 2003 aged only 40. [5] We first encounter her as Tung, the wife of Inspector Lau (Damian Lau) who is charged with trying to protect the disappearing infants and has no idea who he is really married to. Mui’s initial look is classic Forties mystery – a side-parted swathe of immaculately rolled hair, a blood red coat with padded shoulders and nipped-in waist. The Invisible Woman is Michelle Yeoh, who studied ballet in England as a child, a talent that endows her action sequences with an easy grace and perhaps explains why she here resembles Kate Bush in her leotard and flowing red robes.

The two women first clash when Invisible Woman snatches the Chief of Police’s son from under Inspector Lau’s nose. Shadow Fox comes to her husband’s aid, appearing over the rooftops of a city that resembles a neon Edward Hopper painting, complete with replica vintage cars. Swathed in a grey cape that flutters about her as if she is indeed commanding the shadows to become her wings, the Fox looks down through her silver mask and unleashes her throwing stars against her assailant in a breathtaking battle for the baby. Invisible Woman escapes with her charge, wounded – her blood drips onto the crowd below.

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Having failed to protect his boss’ son, Inspector Lau is in for further humiliation when an armed gang seize a chemical factory and begin shooting hostages. This time it is Thief Catcher who comes to the rescue. Maggie Cheung, a brilliant polyglot actress who would go on to international stardom, gets the greatest entrance and the best clothes. While the other girls are ethereal beings, cloaked in diaphanous layers of chiffon, Thief Catcher is the street fighter of the Trio. She appears on the huge black bike of The Man-Eaters dreams, chomping a cigar, kitted out in a combination of The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) and fetish gear – shades, a leather jacket over a basque, hot pants with suspenders and biker boots. Pushing the cops to one side, she straddles one of the toxin canisters strewn around the scene, lights a fuse with her cigar and launches herself like a rocket into the middle of the hostage-takers.

Camp and hilarious, The Heroic Trio echoes the words of film critic Roger Ebert, talking about Faster, Pussycat! in 1995: “What attracts audiences is not sex and not really violence either, but a Pop Art fantasy image of powerful women […] exaggerated in a way that seems bizarre… until you realise Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal play more or less the same characters.” [6] In 2005, that Pop Art would lift itself off the pages of a comic book to explode into a whole new vision of cinema.

The ladies are the law here – beautiful and merciless

Frank Miller‘s Sin City (2005) has long been the Holy Grail of comics’ cognoscenti. These graphic neo-noir novels, set in a parallel Manhattan with a more fitting name, are a hardboiled depiction of the collusion of politicians and clergymen with corrupt cops and gangsters. At the top of this tree are Senator Roark, protecting his kiddie-rapist son, and his brother, the Cardinal, whose own choirboy protégée eats the souls of women. Outside the city limits in Old Town, prostitutes maintain an uneasy truce with the police and racketeers. Everything that Miller writes underscores an all-encompassing misogyny at the dark heart of America.

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Miller was loathe to transfer his books to the screen and had to be persuaded by longtime fan Robert Rodriguez, a modern exploitation movie master, who had made his name with the $7000 shoot-’em-up El Mariachi in 1992. Rodriguez embraced the new technology of digital backlot, a process of shooting actors against green screens on hi-definition digital cameras, which enabled the movie to recreate Miller’s original drawings.

From the opening sequence – a woman standing alone on a balcony overlooking the vertiginous night cityscape, everything in monochrome except her red dress and lips – Sin City is a dazzling visual feast. In a combination of three stories, That Yellow Bastard, The Hard Goodbye and The Big Fat Kill, a world-weary cop (Bruce Willis as Hartigan) and two ex-cons (Mickey Rourke as Marv, Clive Owen as Dwight) attempt to protect and avenge the women of Sin City from the myriad misogynists pitted against them. Fortunately for them, these dames know how to fight.

The plots converge in Cady’s Bar, where the lowlife drink as dancer Nancy (Jessica Alba) whirls a Wild West routine across the counter. Nancy is the girl that Hartigan saved from Roark Jr eight years previously, when he blasted away “both his weapons” – his gun and his dick. She is also friends with hulking outcast Marv, who is on the trail of the Cardinal’s choirboy, murderer of the woman he loved. From the sidelines, Dwight looks out for his waitress lover Shellie (Brittany Murphy). He will lead us to Varla’s 21st century incarnations, the women of Old Town.

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Shellie is being harassed by her former boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), a dirty mac-wearing woman beater. Dwight pursues him into Old Town after a fraught encounter at Shellie’s apartment. Dwight knows the score here: the women pay off the cops to keep out would-be pimps and on these streets they are, “their own enforcers.” Leader of the pack is Gail (Rosario Dawson), a leather-and-fishnets clad dominatrix with a Mohawk and earrings that resemble razorblades.

All of the women of Old Town wear a mix of rubber, leather and chains indelibly linked to punk’s appropriation of fetish-wear and the burlesque styles favoured by Ivy Rorschach and Lydia Lunch, that by 2005 had become highly fashionable. These outfits, complete with whips and various items of ninja hardware, are the final extension of Varla and Queen’s girl gang dress trickery. The dual purpose is explicit – they can lure men in and they can spit them back in pieces.

The effect of Hong Kong cinema over this futuristic noir is reflected not just in a landscape that recalls The Heroic Trio with its combination of Art Deco architecture and Fifties fin-tailed cars, but also, in the character of Miho (fashion muse, model and actress Devon Aoki), the doll-faced assassin who is the girls’ most deadly weapon. Rodriguez’s self-penned score further enhances the feeling of forty years of film being pulled together, combining a jazz that echoes back from Faster, Pussycat!, with a garage punk edge.

Though, true to tradition, Sin City‘s was misunderstood in some quarters and criticized for its violence, Miller’s is the most deeply sympathetic feminist take on society of all these films. Which is why it has an undercurrent of sadness that can’t be dispelled by its humour; the irony that the Old Town girls represent the section of society most likely to come to a violent end is far from lost on this writer. These women are not killing for kicks but for the necessity of preventing men from taking away what little they have. In comparison to them, Varla seems the creation of a more enlightened time.

So, where next for her offspring? Rodriguez’s associate and friend, Quentin Tarantino – that serial movie shoplifter – recently announced an intention to remake Faster, Pussycat! [6] Tarantino received a co-director’s credit for Sin City, for his work on one scene, 7 but this seems to be more of a favour from Rodriguez than a recommendation. His previous “homage” to Meyer and Hong Kong cinema, Kill Bill vol.I (2003), displayed an elementary misunderstanding of wardrobe by dressing Uma Thurman in the most unflattering jumpsuit in movie history. The power of Faster Pussycat stemmed from the fact that Tura Satana was not wearing a studio-designed costume, but exactly what a real girl gangbanger would have put on to go out for a rumble. No self-respecting female from any era could have contemplated kicking ass while looking like a banana. As it would be impossible to improve on the original in any meaningful way — and with a director who increasingly only seems to fetishize violence for its own sake, rather than the powerful women Meyer adored – the only possible reaction is to scan the horizon for a black Porsche with an angry Tura Satana at the wheel. My own hope is for another new movie that takes Varla’s spirit boldly on. And perhaps, this time, it could be directed by a woman.

Notes & Sources
1 Jimmy McDonough, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws (Jonathan Cape, New York 2004), p 159
2 Lori Williams interviewed for Go, Pussycat, Go! a documentary that accompanied the 2005 40th anniversary re-release DVD of Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Arrow Films)
3 Mark Isted, ‘Tura!’ Psychotronic Video 12, Ed. Michael J Weldon (New York, 1992)
4 Transgression Confessions: An Interview with Richard Kern by Graham Rae, Film Threat, Los Angeles, December 2007
5 Mui died from cervical cancer, a disease that had also killed her older sister in 2000
6 Roger Ebert, ‘Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!’, Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, 24 March 1995)
[7] Reported by Liz Smith in ‘Tarantino wants to remake Faster Pussycat!Variety (Los Angeles, 16 January 2008)
8 Literally one scene – the Clive Own/Benecio Del Toro talking severed head hallucination.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cathi Unsworth began her journalistic career at 19 while still studying at the London College of Fashion. Headhunted by Melody Maker, she worked there as a freelance feature writer/reviewer for several years before joining Bizarre magazine. Her own writing is inspired by the late Derek Raymond, whom she met when she interviewed him for Melody Maker and who encouraged her to follow the crime-writing path. She is the editor of London Noir, a collection of London crime stories published by Serpent’s Tail. She is the author of the novels The Not Knowing [Serpent’s Tail, 2005] and The Singer [Serpent’s Tail, 2007]. She lives in London.

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Posted in: Essays