January 28, 2013

"Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" by Sharon Mesmer

Russ Meyer's 1965 film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a retelling, described in violence, of Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women, published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869.  Tura Satana, the racially diverse (Japanese/Filipino/Cheyenne/Scots-Irish) actress, plays Varla, the ring leader of a trio of thrill-seeking go-go dancers racing their hot-rods in the California desert.  Her counterpart in Alcott's novel is hot-tempered Jo, whose forsaken dreams include fighting alongside her father in the Civil War and gaining fame as a writer of tabloid "sensation stories." 
Throughout the film, Satana displays the fighting skills (karate, judo, aikido) acquired during her troubled childhood in a Japanese internment camp, and later on the near west side of Chicago: in one scene she kills a man by snapping his neck with her bare hands.  The Québécoise actress Haji (née Barbarella Catton) plays Rosie/Amy, always at odds with Varla/Jo.  In the scene where vulnerable, music-loving child-of-nature Billie "Boom-Boom"/Beth (Lori Williams) decides to veer off course in her hot rod to take a dip in a lake, Haji asks Varla, "How long you gonna let that kooky broad showboat like that?"  (Her Chico Marx-like accent suggests, possibly, another family constellation.) The surf music sounding ominously as Boom-Boom plunges ecstatically into the lake recalls Beth's fate: Boom-Boom will be the first of the girls to die, tragically and young, when an angry Varla knifes her in the back.   The knife is a shadow of the sewing needle used by Beth as she convalesces at her bedroom window after a fatal bout with scarlet fever (eventually even the delicate needle grows "so heavy" that she must put it down). Susan Bernard plays Linda/Meg, lovely symbol of domesticity: she first appears in the film with her boyfriend Tommy (whose neck is broken by Varla after she literally races rings around him in her hot rod) and her last appearance is with Kirk, the morally upright son of the wheelchair-bound Old Man.  Kirk rescues Linda from the clutches of both Varla and his father — Varla attempts to use her as a lure to get Old Man's fortune, hidden somewhere in the house, and Old Man wants to exact revenge, through her, upon the young girl who never thanked him for saving her from the oncoming train that broke his spine.  Missing/disappeared women haunt the motherless, dysfunctional, patriarchal trinity of Old Man, Kirk (kirche/church) and kind-hearted, mentally-challenged Vegetable (gentle dove).

"I'm tellin' you, boy," Old Man says to Vegetable as they drive through the desert seeking run-away Linda, "she's so like the one I saved that day I got hurt I thought it was a ghost when I first seen her.  She's just as purty, boy, only I ain't a-savin' this one."

We are to assume, since she is the only female alive at the end of the film, and she has already thrown in her lot with Kirk, that Linda will marry him and live in the isolated desert ranch house (the Old Man and Vegetable are dead before the end of the film), as Meg lived with John Brooke, in a small cottage with two children, and Jo with the poor German immigrant school teacher Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer.  In a subtle twist of plot, Varla is spared Jo's husbanded fate: Bhaer disapproves of Jo's "sensation stories" and encourages her to become a real writer.  Taking this course, they remain poverty-stricken and are burdened with the rearing of not only their two sons but Fritz's two orphaned nephews as well — a death-in-life for the high-spirited Jo.  One can almost smell the "bear"-like halitosis of her husband's disapproval in their cramped and shabby quarters.   The plot twist sees Varla "settling" for death as Jo "settles" for the stern, confining German school teacher.  Outside this depressive space, is the grandiose anything but a game?

The setting and plot of Faster, Pussycat, Kill! Kill! parallel the setting and plot of Alcott's novel: Old Man's abandoned desert ranch house, where the women dine on fried chicken, celery and whiskey, replaces Orchard House, the Alcott family home, in Concord, Massachusetts.  This familial arena, with its checkered tablecloth upon which gentle Vegetable's beloved tiny kitten receives his blandishments, abuts the sere theater of violent possibility represented by the surrounding and encroaching desert, where all four women experience the harrowing reality of death, and the reader/viewer is alerted to another harrowing reality: that the sole overarching terror in a woman's life is a violence that "devours all it touches" — according to the voice-over narration at the beginning of the film — and that this violence is "encased and contained in the supple skin of a woman."   Whether orchard or desert, the finality of female destiny lies with troublesome embodiment, and both sets of women meet their destinies in a place where time sucks but space is okay: Jo, the tomboy, reflects, like Varla, the changing notions of girl- and womanhood in the mid- to late-1800's.  The "tomboy" was an accepted and admirable literary trope — up to a point, at which point the "-boy" forsook all disagreement with her gender and assumed the "burdens" (breasts as focal point, "supple skin," emotional incontinence) of womanhood.  In both novel and film, the women are strongly intentioned while the men seem to exist merely to block their aims and be overcome and/or conquered ("Concord").

Jo's habitual discourse marker, "Christopher Columbus!" becomes Varla's warning to a gas station attendant (a stand-in for all readers/viewers harboring dreams of discovery, revealed truth, and wholeness): while cleaning her windshield, he gazes too long at her abundant cleavage while musing, "That's what I believe in — seeing America."  Varla sneers:

"You won't find it down there, Columbus."

Sharon Mesmer's recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books). Other collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna) and Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press). A selection of her poems will appear in the forthcoming Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology. Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, 2005). An excerpt of her story, "Revenge," appears in I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). Music writing and book reviews can be found in the Brooklyn Rail. A two-time NYFA fellow and Fulbright Specialist, she teaches at NYU, the New School, and the Chicago School of Poetics.

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