At first glance, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a sexist film. Made by notorious sexploitation director Russ Meyer, the three heroines are go-go dancers who spend the entirety of the film in dangerously low-cut tops. They flirt with and tease the men of the film, alongside a constant barrage of suggestive language and innuendo – “Honey, we don’t like a-nothing soft. Everything we touch is hard”. So it seems cut and dried; Pussycat is a prehistoric relic of a film, steeped in misogyny and outdated values? Not quite.
The film’s critical re-evaluation has been taking place almost constantly since its release 50 years ago. Trash champion John Waters and occasional film critic Jonathan Ross (husband of Jane Goldman, co-writer of Kick-Ass and Kingsman) both placed the film in their top ten of all time in Sight & Sound’s 2002 list, and in the latest 2012 list the number of official fans had grown to four. So what has changed in the last 50 years? Was the film judged harshly on release? It was a rare commercial failure for Meyer after all. Or have our attitudes simply changed, allowing us to see the film’s themes and characters in a new light?
The alarm bells ring the second the film starts. A voiceover sounding disturbingly like Winston Churchill announces that “while violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains…sex. This new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman”. The message is clear: female sexuality is dangerous. Men beware. But when you consider the different cultural attitudes of the time, this voiceover becomes more complicated. When it was released in 1965, American society was certainly becoming more liberal, swinging sixties and all, but such attitudes were far from universal. Was this narrative framing device a genuine warning to more conservative audiences of the dangers of female sexuality? Or was it steeped in irony, a message from the more progressive side of the fence, mocking such fears?
Perhaps the answer lies with Russ Meyer, who came up with the film’s story and directed it. Sex played a big part in his films, and to some degree it ruled his personal life as well. He had a notorious fixation with big-breasted women – a fixation which has had a worrying amount written about it, if you dare to Google – and he cast them in his films wherever possible, always making sure they were costumed and photographed in a way that accentuated their cleavages. He also fully admitted the nature of the sexploitation films he was making, saying “I exploit them [women] with zeal and gusto. A woman’s place is primarily in the kitchen and the bath and the bedroom. Not necessarily in that order”. So far, so misogynistic.
But, there was another side to Meyer, a side which arguably clashed with the objectifying nature of his direction. A lot of his work was regarded as satire of traditional American values, if not at the time, then at least in retrospect. One of his most notable contemporary admirers was legendary critic Roger Ebert (a breast man if you were wondering), who later collaborated with Meyer on several films including Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the unfinished Sex Pistols film Who Shot Bambi? In this light, the moralising voiceover which begins Pussycat reads much more like satire.
As much as Meyer had his problematic views of the opposite sex, it’s hard to say that he objectified them. That might seem a ridiculous claim to make if you watch even 60 seconds of one of his films, but crucially the women he portrays are never reduced to mere objects. They are nearly always the heroines of the film. They have agency and power. They are normally victorious against the normally male enemies they face. That’s more than can be said of many contemporary films which had an equally exploitative use of women – the James Bond series for example, with its revolving door of ‘Bond girls’ for him to use and abuse. Perhaps the most accurate phrase to describe Meyer’s relationship with women on film is that he’s having his cake and eating it. He wins, because he gets to live out his obsession with buxom women on film and they win because they get rare roles where they are the protagonists with power and control.
Nowhere is this more explicit than in Pussycat. Our three protagonists, ringleader Varla (Tura Satana), the conflicted Rosie (Haji) and the rebellious Billie (Lori Williams) flee the go-go club where they work and take to the desert for a spot of drag-racing. Their early conversations are all macho camaraderie – smoking, drinking, wrestling, racing cars – it couldn’t get much more like a stereotype of American masculinity. Even down to the linguistic quirks like condescendingly calling each other “baby”. Their behaviour feels so pointedly exaggerated it comes across like a big, winking joke.
The attack on traditional masculine values continues when they meet Tommy, an all-American boy and Linda, his girl-next-door girlfriend (one suspects they’re “going steady”) on the salt flats and proceed to race him around a makeshift track. Varla drives Tommy off the road and mocks him for not “winning” his girlfriend by beating someone in a race, another pointed jab at homely, conservative Americana. An argument turns into a fight and moments later, Varla brutally snaps his neck and leaves him dead in the dust. It’s a savage act of emasculation that almost seems as shocking now as it must have then. Not only did Tommy get beaten in a race, he then got beaten in a fight, and paid the ultimate price.
The women then visit a rural house occupied by The Old Man (Stuart Lancaster), who has lost the use of his legs; The Vegetable (Dennis Busch), his dim-witted but muscular son; and Kirk, his other son and by far the most “normal” character in the film. The women intend to rob them after hearing of some secret wealth hidden away on the farm, but half of their time is spent in failed sexual encounters. What is crucial to the message of the film is that nearly all of these liaisons are instigated by the women and ruined by the men.
Billie tries to get with The Vegetable twice. The first time they are interrupted by Linda trying to escape from an adjacent room, but the second time, the reluctant Vegetable is put off by trains rushing past nearby. It’s a canny interruption, playing on the common visual metaphor of a train entering a tunnel as a shorthand for sex – one often used to bypass censors, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Just like the film’s opening narration warned, man has been left impotent and weak in the face of female sexuality.
The imagery is equally powerful elsewhere, for example in a climactic scene where Varla tries to crush Vegetable against a wall using her car. Once more, a classic symbol of masculinity, the American muscle car, has been perverted and turned against its expected owner. As the car wheels spin in the dirt and Vegetable strains against the power with his prodigious strength, it’s tempting to view this moment in a sexual light. With the car’s bonnet pushing against his groin and the close-ups on Vegetable’s pained face, it’s almost like he’s resisting a sexual attack. This might seem a ridiculous jump to take if it weren’t for the proliferation of sexual imagery elsewhere. Most notably every single fight scene is filmed more like a wrestling match than any kind of hand-to-hand combat, and at a quick glance they resemble sex, with the attackers mounting their victims and trying to beat them to death. Sex and violence are again shown to be more or less the same thing.
In a way, all of this proves the film’s opening narration right, even while half the running time is spent mocking such conservative American values. If one thing’s certain, it’s that the Pussycats are dangerous, and their violence is coded in an explicitly sexual manner by Meyer’s symbolic direction. But time changes a lot, most of all our collective critical opinion. The expression of bold female sexuality that may have seemed radical in Pussycat in 1965 is far tamer by today’s standards. Indeed, the benefit of perspective led to B. Ruby Rich, the critic who coined the term New Queer Cinema in 1992, to drastically re-evaluate the film between viewings. As society changes, so do our opinions, and maybe it’s just the distance of time that has helped us to look deeper and reveal new meanings below the surface of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!