19/03/2018

The Immoral Mr. Teas - Soft-Core Surrealism

Thoughts On: The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959)

A salesman can't escape dreams and visions of breasts.


After WWII, in the 60s and 70s especially, there was an explosion of degeneracy across popular media in America. Film was profoundly impacted by this debased proliferation of counter-cultural fervour. And the waves of independent and underground movies that this insubordinate movement rode upon is characterised as 'exploitation'. We have spoken about this a few times before, mainly with a focus on horror and gore. Today, however, we will be looking at an early moment of 'sexploitation' via Russ Meyer.

Meyer is known in the modern day largely through Tarantino and the fact that his film, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! influenced the likes of Grindhouse and Kill Bill. And it is Faster, Pussycat! that is one Meyer's most iconic films nowadays despite the fact that it was not popular at the time, a box office flop and, unsurprisingly, critically lambasted.


Faster, Pussycat! is said to be one of the best representatives of Meyer's style as an auteur. If you've seen the trailer - which is honestly one of the best trailers you can ever watch - you don't really need to see the film. What defines the film, and what the trailer captures perfectly, is that Meyer was almost the Robert Crumb of cinema; he loved powerful, cartoonishly proportioned (b-b-b-big-breasted) women.


What Meyer's films then give incite into, like a lot of pornography does - but certainly in a more articulate and mad-cap manner - is the psychology of (what you might call ordinary) men via the mind of a fetishistic, hyper-sexual, not-too-normal deviant. Meyer's Kill, Pussycat! is seemingly in conversation with his childhood, with the fact that he (like Tarantino, it must be mentioned) was raised by a single mother who was abandoned by his father at an early age. Meyer's mother is said to have not only sold her wedding ring to buy her son his first camera, but also loved every one of his films. That, in itself, says a lot considering that Meyer's was quite obsessed with domineering women, with their bodies and sexuality, their loud and unbridled personalities, and put this on film.

Having learnt how to rapidly shoot 16mm film in the army during WWII - during which he is said to have met Hemingway in Paris, who took him to a brothel to lose his virginity - Meyer moved to L.A. There he was a still photographer, who shot some of the first photos for Hugh Hefner and Playboy. He didn't remain on this career path for long, however, and decided to start making his own films.

Meyer's vision and philosophy as a filmmaker was seemingly to just give an audience what they wanted. However, this is very clearly only one dimension of his 'artistic' being. Not only was Meyer exploiting sex and the image of women, but he was serving himself and actually making somewhat competent movies. It is undeniable that Meyer's style is very clunky and unclean, but, he developed his own kind of montage, moving through a space via extreme close-ups at a rapid pace. This, combined with his lighting and brilliant writing skills (you've heard samples of his dialogue), formulates the Meyer aesthetic that really distinguished - and continues to distinguish - his films from an awful lot of the trashier trash, or, as John Waters may say, movies of bad bad taste, not good bad taste, that he inspired.

Whilst there is much you could say about the chaos that emerges from later on in Meyer's career, I find his first feature-length film, The Immoral Mr. Teas, to be incredibly fascinating - not to mention, quite alien in terms of form and content when compared to his later movies. The Immoral Mr. Teas is considered one of the very first nude films that actually had a plot and was also one of the first (soft) pornographic films to have been widely seen and exhibited outside of private, underground circuits in America. The silent era let loose quite a few semi-pornographic films, but, with the rise of even stronger, systematised censorship in America after the move into the sound era, there was no chance nudity would be finding its way to the big screen. There would have definitely been pornography of all kinds circulating in private, but the most public examples of pornography to emerge between the 30s and 50s were nudist films. These were documentaries of sorts that were shot in nude camps, and were, in some respect, promotional tools for the camps and the nudist lifestyle; they were about freedom, nature and other hippy stuff. Nudist films were... boring. What can be refereed to as 'beach ball' films, these would have featured men and women without any clothes on frolicking in fields and swimming in ponds, hitting inflatable beach balls to one another. The camera work was basic, lighting was often natural, and there was almost never any story. By the 60s, there emerged nudist films that had plots and tried to break established conventions. One example of such a film would be Nude On The Moon, which features a nude colony... on the moon - except it's very clearly Florida. However, Nude On The Moon would have rode on the wave of nude films that The Immoral Mr. Teas would have set off 2 years prior in 1959.

Again, The Immoral Mr. Teas was not like anything that it inspired, and nor was it much like that which came before it. Whilst you can see a very clear 'beach ball film' aesthetic in certain sequences that all gravitate towards ponds and leisurely activities, any one familiar with avant-garde cinema will immediately feel a strange sense of familiarity with The Immoral Mr. Teas.

The Immoral Mr. Teas fleetingly looks, and sounds, like surrealist films such as L'Age D'Or and Un Chien Andalou. Not only is Meyer's film shot as a silent picture, but it features dream sequences, dark comedy, satire, deviant sexuality, unorthodox camera angles, a repetitive Tango-esque song, a hapless man riding a bike and a kind of l'amour fou (mad love) that characterises almost all Surrealist films. I do not know if Meyer was even aware of Buñuel, but The Immoral Mr. Teas bears an uncanny resemblance to, most certainly, Un Chien Andalou. And when you watch The Immoral Mr. Teas as more of an experimental film than basic pornography, it becomes very clear that there is an irony and commentary designed into the narrative, one that picks up upon the pathological self-suppression of a man in fear of his own sexuality. What we then see across this surreal narrative is a man in a new kind of America - an America that is economically expanding via advertisements, consumerism and the tireless efforts of puny businessmen. In the spirit of nudist films before and after it, The Immoral Mr. Teas pushes back against this 'unnatural' way of being, but does so with an embrace of deviance. This isn't about accepting the human body, instead, it is about lusting after the female body, about not being able to control ones imagination, about not being able to talk to, to interact with, women. All sexual imagery in this film is then either a form of torture or a form of placation; it doesn't do anything for the man but arose and massage his frustrations.

As I watched The Immoral Mr. Tea as a film very much so about frustration and utter patheticness, it appeared to me to be quite sad. And this rather pitiable representation of the male as subservient to impulse whose needs can never be met seemingly runs throughout Meyer's films. However, it is in The Immoral Mr. Teas that Meyer actually interacts with this perception he has of men - of male sexuality and himself maybe. In his other films, Faster, Pussycat! for example, he has long given up on men. He cares only about women and their ability to dominate and smother men completely. And whilst he quashes these dominatrix archetypes in many of his films, he always does so with a clear pretence of morality; he does not believe in the educational voice-overs and the moral turn-arounds that censors would require, they only seem to serve his point. And never is this more clear that in The Immoral Mr. Teas. There is no redemption, there is nothing learnt, there is no success; a man falls prey to his sexuality and finds a way to numb away the pain of enslavement.

If you are interested in seeing this film, and even Meyer's more famous pictures, certainly keep this subtext in mind and his work may appear to have more dimension than you would have initially anticipated. Here's a link to a documentary on Russ Meyer, a link to The Immoral Mr. Teas, and here's a link to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!






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