Saturday, 13 June 2015

Touch Me I’m Sick… Mudhoney (1965)


I’m one of the generation that knew of this film firstly as the name of a band, Seattle grunge pioneers Mudhoney famous for one of the greatest song titles of the period Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet no More and many more swinging sledgehammer hits.

So, 25 years after I last saw Mudhoney play (in the Kilburn Empire if memory serves, supporting Sonic Youth?) I’m finally getting round to finding out just what it was they named themselves after… and it all makes sense.

Hal Hopper and Lorna Maitland
Russ Meyer… what can you say about a man who is truly his own genre and, exploitation to one side, a film-maker of skill in terms of cinematography and narration. Sometimes his stories overwhelm themselves with too much confection… they become sickly-sweet cocktails of knowing soft-core, the odd bit of sublime and an overdose of the ridiculous. It’s as if Russ is trying to cover himself by casting a joke over proceedings: never mind the sexual violence, look at the serious messages about society and the miss-use of power (really).

Antoinette Christiani
Here the wife-beating, drunken antics from Sidney (Hal Hopper) drive much of the narrative tension and yet we’re expected to feel some pity when his own plans collapse in on him after he can’t help himself commit one more act of rape. Nothing in the film up to that point has prepared us to care a jot for his civil liberty and right to a fair trial.

Meyer is far more at home staging lingering shots of  the beautiful “mute” Eula (Rena Horten) standing naked washing her hair and bending over more than enough to highlight her impressive physical profile… there’s some action to the left but I honestly can’t remember what it was…

Important to the plot and understanding the film...not gratuitous at all...
That’s not to say the film is that flawed that it’s not enjoyable; it’s just more than a little uneven. Meyer gets the balance far better when he tries harder for full-on drama (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), swinging pop-sploitation (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and, let’s be honest, comedy-porn (Vixen).

Sociopathic Sidney
Hopper gives a superbly disturbing performance as the sloshed and sociopathic Sidney and blows most of the cast off screen as a result. It’s 1933 and the depression is in full swing… a stranger arrives in a small mid-Western town of Spooner, Missouri, en route to California. His mother named him after his intended destination and he goes by the name of Calif McKinney (John Furlong). He sees a pair of lovely legs belonging to the childlike Eula and talks with her “employer” Maggie Marie (the scarcely-regal Princess Livingston) who runs a happy-go-lucky cat house which also features the curvaceous Clara Belle (Lorna Maitland).

Calif meets the locals
Maggie sends Calif off to find work at the farm of Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster) and here he encounters Lute’s niece Hannah Brenshaw (Antoinette Christiani) who is inexplicably married to the much older and character-flawed Sidney. Hannah’s husband not only abuses her when he’s too drunk to afford one of Maggie’s girls he also takes a knife to Calif’s throat – a way of testing and establishing dominance but we suspect Calif may be made of sterner stuff.

Sidney welcomes Calif
So it proves as he begins to win the trust of Lute and Hannah whilst Sidney continues to drink himself into oblivion… Lute decides to leave his money to Calif so that he can protect it from Sidney and marry Hannah. It’s a good plan and it just might work.

Sidney continues to challenge all around him and hatches a plan with the local preacher (Frank Bolger, who was responsible for some of the Meyer over-blown voiceovers, most notably the “sex and vi-olence…” introduction to Faster, Pussycat…) and denounces Cailf and Hannah for starting a relationship even though she is still married.

Antoinette Christiani, Stuart Lancaster and John Furlong
This may well not be true but it’s seemingly enough for the townsfolk to take against them – who knew they’d be so puritanical?! This unexpected turn of events is less than convincing and it will get worse…

Meanwhile Lute dies and Sidney creates a scene at the funeral after discovering the old man’s plan to divert his inheritance. This time Sidney can’t cheat his way to an advantage and Calif knocks him all over the burial site, eventually sending him into the grave along with Lute.

The Reverend is compromised...
Sidney runs off determined on revenge but he’s on a course that will bring the town down on him like a ton of bricks… we can’t say he hasn’t got it coming but strange loyalties come into play in the closing minutes as blood runs hot...


Under pressure
Dusty verdict: The film has some good touches; Meyer lingers on his characters feet at the start of the film, creating a disassociation with some of the damage being done by the bodies above. The feet all seem to be better mannered than the arms, legs and heads attached… as one after another freak of nature is revealed.

Hannah and Calif
Hannah and Calif are the film’s sympathetic heart of course although sometimes it feels as if they’re just there to be brutalized by Sidney and then to eventually try and save him... He’s certainly a sad man especially once he’s seen that being bad doesn’t always work out… but he’s also a deeply unpleasant creation. Whilst Calif himself is finally rescued by the love of a good woman do the audience really feel compassion for Sidney as a wounded animal? Maybe that’s Meyer’s point although I’m not so sure it means much more than that and there is Meyer’s problem: he ducks and dives issues so much that you can’t tell what he really stands for.

Russ makes his point...
If you like his films then you’ll no doubt like Mudhoney although I’m not so sure you’d like the band although. as with Mr Meyer, they are altogether less concerned about what their audience thought of them.

Mudhoney is available on DVD from Amazon whilst details of the band and its current activities can be found here - they have a new album and are about to tour!

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