Sunday, April 29, 2007

Overlooked Report #5

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I’ve known about this cult classic for a long time, but never seen it. In fact, the primary reason I was turned on to the criticism of Roger Ebert is because of this film. As a theater arts major and actor, movies were often the topic of conversation among my friends at Hofstra University. Of course, as practitioners of the trade we clearly knew more about what made drama good or not. (I now realize practice and knowledge are two very different things.) And there were few critics with which all of us agreed. But one friend of mine pointed out that Ebert had actually written a screenplay or two, most notably the Russ Meyer exploitation classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. Therefore, he had once practiced what he was preaching.

I’ve read many articles by Ebert about his work for this film and his deep admiration for his friend and its director, Meyer. Ebert would never offer an assessment of the film’s success, due to his personal bias for it. But it was obviously a valuable experience for him as a critic, and I had always been curious and fearful that I would hate it. So when it was announced as the closing film of this year’s festival, I knew the inevitable time had come when I would finally witness Ebert’s imagination as a screenplay artist.

Well, now I’ve seen it. I didn’t hate it, but I did find it a taste I haven’t yet acquired. I believe the film is very successful in achieving what it is intending, but am not entirely convinced of the value of that goal. My biggest problem is that I have no particular taste for it source inspiration, the melodramatic sex escapade stories of the likes of “Valley of the Dolls” novelist Jacqueline Susann. Now, it is important to note that “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is not actually a sequel to “Valley of the Dolls”. It is a completely separate story that shares many of the same exploitational elements of the Susann novel and its film adaptation.

“Beyond” is really a spoof of the genre, with its tongue securely in cheek. It tells the story of an all-girl rock band that goes to Hollywood to find fame and fortune; and after making it big descends into the pitfalls of the drugs and sexual politics that ruled the late ‘60s. To call the movie bizarre would be a huge understatement. Its strange nature is meant to both reflect the age which it celebrates and criticize it. It really is quite fitting that it was penned by an already established film critic.

Ebert had been in the business for a few years, but he was still in awe of his occupation and free-spirited enough to let any inhibitions he may have had about what other people would say lay by the wayside. If you read some of the interviews he wrote from that same time period, especially his interviews with Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, you will notice a writer who is more of a participant with his subjects than a commentator on their actions. Both of these interviews can be found in Ebert’s wonderful book “Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert”.

The inclusion of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”, I think is more of a tribute to the late Russ Meyer than it is a showcase of Ebert’s screenwriting credits. But I was very glad for the opportunity to see just what bubbled beneath Ebert’s head in terms of crafting film rather than deconstructing it. What is there might seem scary and frightening to some, as it is often difficult to see that tongue lump underneath that fleshy cheek. I think the tone of the piece reflects its subject more than its creator and would very much like to see more screenplays by Ebert. He wrote one for the punk rockers The Sex Pistols that lasted about two days of production before the producers realized the band would be too difficult to work with. It’s a shame we’ll never see that one.


Even though I’m not there physically, this Sunday morning retains much of the same depression I feel ever time the Overlooked Film Festival ends. Although I never got the chance to meet these filmmakers face to face as I have in the past with such people as David Gordon Green and Paul Cox at his first Overlooked four years ago, I feel that I’m saying good bye to some people I didn’t know before watching their films. This film festival is a very personal way to watch movies. In the past, I thought that was because of the nature of an appreciative festival audience when compared to your typical multiplex crowd. But since I feel that without even attending the festival, it must be something akin to the films themselves.

Next year the Overlooked will officially change its name. In its tenth anniversary year, it will come to be known simply as Ebertfest: The Roger Ebert Film Festival. Ebert says this is because “we are no longer overlooked.” And with tickets selling out in a record-breaking two week period for this year’s festival, I guess he’s got that right. I’ll be sure to purchase mine on the first day of ticket sales for next year’s.

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