Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rule in the Temple of Love: LIVING VENUS (1960)

In the grand tradition of qualified hyperbole, let it be said that in its way, Living Venus is Herschell Gordon Lewis' Citizen Kane. In terms of legacy, impact and notoriety, Conventional Wisdom usually pronounces Blood Feast (1963) the rather-more-specific Citizen Kane of Gore. To that: fair enough, but we get ahead of ourselves. Living Venus is Lewis' first feature as director, and the plot traces the professional rise and personal disasters of a thinly fictionalized publishing magnate based on a real world celebrity. As with Charlie Kane, so with Jack Norwall of Living Venus: a new-breed whiz kid maverick slowly compromises the ideals of youth, and is corrupted by absolute power — or at least, you know, a lot of damn money. Where Welles finds his perfect embodiment for rebel-gone-bloated-and-gauche tyrant (LIKE AMERICA!) in William Randolph Hearst, Lewis takes fellow Hyde Park resident Hugh Hefner as his subject.

By the film's release in 1960 Lewis had not yet entered the business of nudie pictures proper, though he would, very shortly, with early genre entry The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), directly on Venus' heels. Living Venus begins as lighthearted rags-to-riches comedy, veers into tragic melodrama, peppers the proceedings with a handful of stilted, eerie nude modeling sessions and ends with a man weeping at his wife's grave. This sort of exposé-cum-morality-play is a common exploitation template, one Lewis would visit again in Scum of the Earth (1963), and frequent producing partner David F. Friedman would fall back on with regularity. It goes without saying that setting a story in the world of nude photography provides in-built excuses for depicting nude photography, but it also justifies threadbare production value and allows the filmmakers to essentially write what they know — not that they necessarily do so with much honesty. More unique to Venus in this regard is the about-face in tone as it voyages to the dark heart of the Mid-Century cheesecake biz.

What Kind of Man Reads Pagan?

Lewis-regular-to-be William Kerwin plays Jack Norwall in one of his best starring performances. The big, lanky, leading-man-handsome actor's J.R. "Bob" Dobbs appearance camouflaged a with-it technique; his button-down white dude squareness was always tempered with a slightly seedy, just-fuckin-around,-kids edge. For Lewis, Bill Kerwin would play straight-shooters and scumbags with aplomb, but here he's got something like an actual arc, and it is that of a self-propelled shooting star fizzling out in the void.

Since 1887

As Kerwin plays him, Jack Norwall starts as bright, creative hustler, his charm turned up past the point of insufferableness. His catchphrase, increasingly suspect with every delivery, is "I guarantee it!" He actually has a great, commercial idea but can't stop acting like he's running a con. Jack quits his job at the safe and stuffy Newlywed Magazine when his editor has the gall/good taste/responsibility to chew out for an entirely inappropriate, dubiously humorous cover photo featuring a "shotgun wedding" gag. "My family has published a first-rate magazine since 1887, and I won't have it ruined by your dirty jokes!," opines the uptight old bossman. The details — that the cover went to press without anyone noticing — may not add up, and one wonders exactly what the guy was thinking.

By Jack's estimation, he might be the liberator arrived to shake things up, to free the frustrated centerfold-peeping yearnings of the hemmed-in postwar suburban male. That's the gist of his exit rant: "I'm gonna let you sit here and die! I know what the public wants, and I'm gonna give it to 'em... I'm gonna start my own magazine, old man! It'll have everything in it that you don't understand. It'll have imagination! Humor! Aaand sexy girls!" None of which, of course, really belonged in Newlywed in the first place, so while sort of inspiring, by the end we more likely read the incident as an early foreshadowing of a self-destructive streak that is going to spark Norwall's self-immolation.

The Great Gazoo meets the Godfather of Gore

Thus does Jack exit Newlywed to launch his own revolution in the art of taking pictures of boobs. This is roughly true-to-life, as Hefner did leave a copywriting position at Esquire to strike out on his own. The first Playboy famously coasted to success with photos of Marilyn Monroe, originally taken for a calendar, to which Hef purchased the rights. This not being dramatic enough for the movies, Norwall recruits freelance photographer pal, Ken Carter, who leaps at the opportunity to express himself through naked lady pictures, rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous baby photography. Living Venus is one of Lewis' rare run-ins with a name, mainstream actor, sporting a debuting Harvey Korman as Ken, who essentially becomes the second lead, and narrates in voice over throughout. Both Korman and Kerwin had previously appeared in Lewis' first work as a director, the educational short, Carving Magic!, which is about, y'know, how to carve a crown roast and stuff. That particular cut of cornball ephemera is more widely available than it has any right to be, as Something Weird Video regularly includes it as an ironically-themed bonus feature on discs of Lewis' gore movies.

The Stars Shine At Your Shrine

Newly unencumbered by employment, Jack blows off his put-upon girlfriend Diane (Linné Ahlstrand, who does not appear nude, but actually appeared in Playboy, as July 1958's Playmate of the Month. You guys know how to use Google, I am sure), who he will eventually ditch at the alter, and heads out on a brainstorming mission/excuse for a bender. Drunkenly wandering the night in search of inspiration (ever a good idea?), our hero spies a miniature Venus de Milo reproduction in an antique dealer's storefront, and finds the "Symbol" he requires. "That's it! It's the goddess of love and beauty! It's Venus!" The store is closed so Jack groans "I want my Venus," pulls a smash-&-grab and staggers away. As the goddess of Love and Beauty, the Aphrodite statue speaks to the girlie mag magnate in the most obvious ways. So does cocktail waitress Peggy Brandon (Danica d'Hondt), who becomes the second "Venus" that Jack bumps into that fateful evening, and he whisks her off to Ken Carter's dingy studio for a creeperific late night photo shoot.

Stand not between man and the gods.

But when faced a god, always remember that they do not arrive in color-coded white and black hats. As living metaphor for an essential component of the human soul, every god embodies its aspects in inverse, too: excess and depletion. Venus-Aphrodite is the Goddess of Love, and ain't that sweet?, but when that card lands upside-down she has a talent for inciting jealousy. On that drunken night of invention, Jack Norwall names his new magazine "Pagan" and appoints Aphrodite its mascot. Hefner's bow-tied rabbit (appearing from issue 2 on) may have been selected for its hump-happy popular associations, not necessarily as a trickster archetype, though it has a nice lunar resonance with Japanese and Korean folklore. In these times, the title might evoke finger-wagging Christians slinging pejoratives at native religions and/or robed hippies dancing in a city park, but to the popular imagination of 1960 it signaled something exotic and primal. Pagan is both Playboy and the anti-Playboy — a little taboo, a little titillatingly "backwards" and nature-sexy: the savage fantasy-desires of the sophisticated contemporary male unleashed! Jack can imagine himself as a sophisticate all he wants, but he is tangled up with old, old gods.

"Everybody seemed to like our first issue"

Pagan launches to instant success, backed by distributor Max Stein, a cigar-chomping, worldly bear played by a Lewis fave, character actor Lawrence J. Aberwood — you know him as the guy spewing the beautiful "down inside you're DIRTY!" speech in the Something Weird logo montage. Max is the only person to whom Jack must suck up throughout the film, and the round, relaxed man with a recliner in his office is another sort of contrast to the scrambling, foolish Norwall. Max gives nothing but frank, sound business advice, and wants nothing from Jack's success but his piece of the Pagan pie, but Jack comes to resent and ignore even this former role model.

Ken Carter is the story's moral center as Norwall slides into his downward trajectory. In the key relationship triangle, Ken and Jack are something like friends, Jack and Ken desire Peggy, Peg desires Fame, and the model and photographer both work for Jack. Ken and Peggy spend a lot of time together by occupation ("Proximity," a wise friend once put it, "breeds boners"), and so Ken quietly falls in love while Norwall gets busy selling out. Perhaps the girl would choose the kind-hearted, talented photographer who sees her as a person with a future to consider, were it not for the magnetic, wealthy boss, who sees her as crucial to his brand. This plays out as the difference between a potential partnership and a sort of ownership. There is a mutual respect between the two artists, and the photographer strives for a better forum and warns Peg that the gig can't last forever, but Jack promises easy money and a certain kind of fame. It isn't all on Jack, either: "Ken, I'm not the vine-covered-cottage type," she explains as she turns him down, "For the first time in my life I'm going somewhere and I like it!" The exploitation king's "guarantee" is too alluring, the frustrated artist's dreams will require too much effort, and Peggy makes what we might term a Bad Choice. Alas! If only she knew the risks of both paths! She's going somewhere all right.

You can tell the vine-covered-cottage type a mile away.

Citizen Kane has Hearst's entire career up through the 1940s to mine for material, but Venus, produced only seven years into Playboy's history, traces only the magazine's creation before shifting into fantasy. That is, it imagines the premature downfall of Hugh Hefner. Not that accurate biography was ever the goal, but Lewis can obviously be forgiven for failure to predict the Sexual Revolution (he'd sort of make up for it later [see: The Girl, The Body, and The Pill (1967)]), and the way Hefner would reinvent the magazine by publishing world-class fiction, interviews, cartoons, and his own Playboy Philosophy editorials. As to whether Kane or Venus commits the greater act of character assassination, we might note that Venus is pioneering in the field of Hefsploitation, implying, decades before STAR 80, that the publisher might be complicit in the death of a former pinup girl.

Having decided that Peggy is the muse that inspired Pagan, Norwall turns her into an icon that graces every issue. Whether it is feasible to publish a girlie mag with the same girlie every month becomes a moot point, when, in order to curb the blossoming Peg/Ken relationship, Jack makes the critical error of the Anima-befuddled throughout history, and marries the muse.

Because she's not the Muse, she's not the Venus, she's not a goddess. She never is, fellows — those are concepts, metaphors, drives and ancient impulses that live in the synapses, chromosomes, and collective psychomyth. Real angels never appear in centerfolds. But Jack tries to lasso the ideal anyway, transfers the Peggy out of the pages of Pagan and insists that his new bride stop modeling and start helping sell ad space as his new Promotions Manager. Poor Ken Carter, too, is removed from service out of spite, replaced by Geoffery Page, a hack (from Hollywood!) who is more interested in scoring with the models than the integrity of the nude photographic arts. This poseur in shades and ascot is supposedly of some renown, but turns out to possess none of Ken's mad skillz: the reputation is hollow, the sunglasses-and-beret get-up an affectation. If Ken is Bunny Yeager, Geoff is Terry Richardson. Where Ken's signature style propelled Pagan to success, The Beret's artless bullshit drives the publication into hell.

Geoffrey Page Does it HOLLYWOOD STYLE!

In our already-belabored Kane parallel, Ken is the Jed Leland (a Jiminy Cricket conscience ignored at peril) and Peggy the Susan Alexander (forced on the public, possessed, and driven to drink!). Jack's worst impulses have taken over. He has sapped his creative vision, the magazine now increasingly given over to ad space propping up its indifferent content, revenue generated by forcing his own wife to seduce advertising clients. The happy, hard-working days of doing paste-ups in his bachelor apartment are gone, and with readership dropping off he cannot afford, let alone deserve, his new mansion. Any illusion that his work is dedicated to celebrating the female form is burned away: Jack Norwall has become a pimp, and in order to maintain grip on the Venus that lives in Pagan, he prostitutes his own Living Venus.

Climb Off Your Pedestal

When Ken sees Peg for the last time, she is stumbling toward a private tête-à-tête with an "advertising" client, and Ken is doing an outdoor "high fashion" shoot, saved by his premature dismissal. He does not say it, but still loves her (he "never married" in the last, uh, year), and offers assistance, if she will accept. Ken's sympathy inspires Peg's momentary resolve to tell off the client but she lurches toward the void alone. Unlike similar pictures like Scum of the Earth, Living Venus never attempts to shame, judge, or make tragedy of Peggy's modeling itself, or of the men for publishing a girlie magazine. It is Jack who is undone, and by hubris, not dirty-picture-peddling, Peggy merely the saddest casualty on the way. If Peg is debased by anything, it is mistaking fame for fulfillment, a brand of whoredom associated with marketing, and poor judgment in choosing a partner. She takes leave of her miserable job and loveless marriage to attempt to dry out. Ken watches her go with longing, and in contrast, when Peggy falls to the floor in an intoxicated heap during a Pagan editorial meeting, Jack declares her a disgrace, and leaves her sobbing on the carpet with a dismissive "I think you're an alcoholic."

As Jack prepares to celebrate Pagan's two-year anniversary, the ground is eroding beneath his feet. Everyone who he has not shut out begins to push away. Max Stein declares that backers are pulling out and he's going to dump the ailing rag, and recommends that Jack rehire Ken. But ambition has a way of getting tied up with pride, and the party rages against the dying of the light. Future Lucky Pierre himself, Billy Falbo, does a laugh-free stand-up intro, Jack stands with a model on his arm and gives an ominous toast — "Now, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow, who knows?" — and Bob Scobey's Famous Band fires up a jazz inferno and the Pagans bop into one last bacchanalia.

makin money sellin out makin money

Living Venus gives a glimpse of another Herschell Gordon Lewis that might have been, a filmmaker more serious about the art, and not so single-mindedly focused on the marketing. Certainly in any conventional sense, the script, written by Kerwin, is stronger than most any of the others Lewis would use in the future, even if it is not as outrageous and keyed-up until the last act, or idiosyncratic throughout. This is a polite way of saying that it is not hilariously stilted, incompetent or indifferent, but also not as entertainingly nutty/dumb. It is hard to say from the very soft-looking SWV DVD-R, but Venus appears to be photographed with the polish of a rumpled indie, or at least a cut above the depths scraped by later Lewis pictures. Many of the director's sloppier habits are on early display, however. The nude modeling scenes come in two modes, with dialogue scenes awkwardly staged to avoid actual nudity, while more revealing snippets take place in a weird netherworld set with no "photographer" character present. We will certainly see Lewis' career-long trademark/problem of framing with too much headroom or flooring, particularly when characters will be sitting down and standing up during a shot. But for the most part, throughout Venus the blocking is logical and motivated, compositions convey the intended information, and a few are even, gulp, striking and attractive (e.g. see above, the image of the Venus statuette framed by noir-ish glowing Venetian blinds and looming nude silhouette)

In his first film endeavor, The Prime Time (1959), Lewis co-produced with exploitation grandmaster David F. Friedman. Though Lewis and Friedman have made much sport of Prime Time director Gordon Weisenborn over the years, the problem is not that Weisenborn was a bad director, but that he was a "bad" exploitation movie director, one who cared too much about the material, shot setups, and other niceties. Basically, by Friedman's account, he didn't work quick and dirty enough. Lewis did not ask Friedman's assistance on Venus, and produced and directed the film alone. Though the reasons are not confirmed, this was probably simply for a larger cut of profits, and Lewis may have assumed he had learned all he needed from Friedman. As it turned out, very few mortals could ever sell an exploitation movie like Dave Friedman could, and the partnership was rekindled for Lucky Pierre. One wonders, though, if Lewis did not learn something about filmmaking from working with Gordon Weisenborn, only to forget it again during his more lucrative nudies-and-gore Friedman era.

Scenes from a Pagan Marriage

I'll Never Be Free

The final show-stopper setpiece really belongs to actress Danica d'Hondt, as Peggy, three-weeks sober, crashes the party at her husband's house — the spirit of Venus-Aphrodite at her best is of reciprocity — and this time offers to help him. "I don't need any help," Jack spits, "You had your chance." The woman winces and stares to the invisible horizon, as if she finally sees the map of her fate from a tawdry Olympian view: "I guess I did have my chance. I married you instead." D'Hondt radiates a fatalistic glow as the dejected, demolished ex-ideal slumps down poolside, bottle in hand. One wonders, as she wallows in remorse and/or tries to work up some kind of courage, if she is reflecting back on this moment:

Partners in doom, now and forever!

During an early date for Jack and Peg, they relax at the lounge where she waited tables. She can see where she's been, and with Jack at her side, see where she might be going, as he talks circulation numbers and toasts "To my Living Venus, now and forever!" The bar's piano man, Harry, plays a special number that he has composed for his newly successful coworker. It is a serenade to Peggy, that contrasts the adoration of the Venus statue "Symbol" ("there's only one Venus/ just one perfect form/ and that one is cold, carved from stone") against the real-world human who may not be an idealized logo made flesh, but has something else to offer. Jack proposes to buy the song for promotional purposes. Harry is baffled — the song isn't for sale, that wasn't the point, and Jack, the supposed expert in celebrating the Joy of Woman, doesn't get it. Lyrics most certainly by Lewis, our favorite auteur-composer:

You're my Living Venus/ My warm, breathing Venus
You're all that I dreamed you might be
The gods on Olympus created/ the loveliest girl in the world
And they brought her to me
The stars shine at your shrine/ I'm floating on cloud 9
My goddess, I'll never be free
So climb off your pedestal / come down to earth
Show your arms! Throw your arms around me!
You're my Living Venus
Rule in my temple of love!

Nooo, Danica, DON'T!!

D'Hondt shines in the party scene, and in his way, the director does, too. From haphazard location footage of the backyard party revelers, impressionistic inserts of hands opening champagne bottles, and incongruent details, Lewis cuts together a montage to the bleating jazz band in cubist Romero-esque fashion; time and space stop flowing smoothly, frenzy and disorientation mount; a scream, a body floats in the pool, a smash-zoom into a paper lantern looks like a supernova, a drained bottle sinks in the water, and a Venus returns to the sea. In terms of an exercise in style and for actually creating an emotional impact, Peggy Brandon Norwall's may be the best death scene in the kill-packed Lewis oeuvre.

Born of foam and blood.

The coda exists to curse Jack Norwall for his crimes. At Peggy's funeral, Max Stein tells Jack that Pagan is finished, both Venuses disappeared into the open grave before him. Standing alone by that yawning abyss, a grave that is also his own, Jack screams "I don't need any of you, I created Venus!," but there is no one to hear him. Defiant to the last, burbling through tears of hot rage, he is still singing the same song as when he left Newlywed: "I'll bury all of you in every newsstand in the country! I'll show you all! I guarantee it... I guarantee it. I guarantee it." As Jack crumbles to the ground and the camera rises, two mute Shakespearean gravediggers shrug, make the international gesture for "cuckoo-brains," and start shoveling dirt. Let him sit here and die. You wanna play pagan and tangle with the gods, this is where you end up. I guarantee it.

Special thanks to the good folks at Something Weird Video, from whose DVD-R this piece is illustrated. Please note that technical issues on my end prevented proper screencapping, and the above substandard images are just slapdash TV display photos that do not reflect the quality of SWV's transfer (which is still soft, as noted above, partially due to limitations inherent in the source materials).

Previous investigations into H.G. Lewis:
Let Them Talk! Let Them Scream!: THE PRIME TIME
Notes from the New Beverly Cinema's Tribute to David F. Friedman