Why Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Is a Great Film

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!As I was writing the birthday post for Russ Meyer, I managed to get myself sucked into watching Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! My plan was just to watch a bit of it to get reacquainted with it. But I couldn’t stop watching it. It really is a shockingly good movie.

Let me run down the plot for you so that this is clear to those who haven’t seen the film — or at least not in a while. It starts with the three women dancing in a go-go club. The men are the way men tend to be in those places. That’s just set up. The film cuts immediately to the three dancers driving around rural California in her own sports cars. They end up at a spot used by people to race cars where they meet a young couple, Tommy and Linda. The leader of the dancers, Varla (Tura Satana), ends up killing Tommy, and drugging and kidnapping Linda. When they stop to get gas, they find out about an old crippled man who is supposed to have lots of money on his farm.

The dancers go to the farm looking for the money. We find out that the old man became crippled while saving a beautiful young woman from a train. The woman caught the next train — probably because that was why she was at the train station to begin with. But as a result, the old man has a raging hatred of beautiful women who remind him of this incident. So apparently, he has his mentally limited beefcake younger son kill such women while he watches, getting some thrill out of it.

Although it’s totally pulp fiction, it also has remarkably well formed and motivated characters — always fully in keeping with the genre. This allows for the psychopathic lead, Varla (Tura Satana), to be matched with an equally (or more) evil antagonist, the old man (Stuart Lancaster). So the emotional core of the film exists in the supporting cast who are all sympathetic in their ways — victims of circumstances.

The best example of this is Rosie (Haji), Varla’s first lieutenant or enforcer or whatever you want to call her. Although she spends much of the first half of the film arguing that they just kill Linda, the young girl they kidnapped, Rosie never really kills anyone. She does run over the old man, but clearly against her will. The film goes to great pains to show that Rosie’s motivation is that she’s in love with Varla. As such, she is clearly the most tragic character in the film, and arguably the most sympathetic. Who hasn’t fallen in love with the wrong person?

Rosie is also the most intelligent and analytical of the three dancers. Varla, of course, is just a psychopath who has little interest in anything but demonstrating her power over those around her. She’s an interesting contrast to Billie who just wants to have a good time. But Varla and Billie are just alike in never thinking much about the future. They both would have been better off if they had listened to Rosie — something neither of them ever did.

Rosie is matched on the farmer side by the old man’s elder song Kirk (Paul Trinka). His commitment to his family has resulted in his father planning to kill him. He is mocked for reading books. (Nerds as noble characters is a constant thread in Meyer’s work.) He tries to limit the damage done by his father. And once it becomes clear that the kidnapped girl Linda is threatened by both his father and Varla, he spends the rest of film trying to protect her.

Interestingly, Kirk is also attracted to Varla in an unhealthy way. When she seduces him because she wants to get information about where the old man’s money is hidden, Kirk gets some of the best dialog in the whole film. After telling Varla that she is like his father in most ways, he explains why he is there kissing her, “Because you’re a beautiful animal. And I’m weak, and I want you.” But unlike Rosie, Kirk is not a tragic character because he is able to move beyond his attraction to Varla to actively fight against her.

The other aspect of the film that is really interesting is that it is fundamentally a feminist vision of the world. It isn’t just the portrayal of the physical power of the three lead women. Nor is it that men are largely portrayed as obnoxious and weak. But the film does seem to be saying that the only reason that women don’t completely dominate the world is because they haven’t chosen to do so. But the best reflection of the feminist basis of the film is found in the ending.

The last 20 minutes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is setting up a final confrontation between Kirk and Varla. Kirk and Linda have been fleeing across the desert. Varla, after killing everyone else, uses the family truck to track down Kirk and Linda. Varla and Kirk fight with obvious results: Kirk is about to die, just like Tommy did at the start of the film. So Linda runs to the truck and starts it up. This gets Varla’s attention and she moves toward the truck, allowing Linda to run her down.

This is fairly standard in a movie today. But this was fifty years ago — in 1965. That’s the year when the top five grossing films were: The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, and everyone’s favorite, That Darn Cat! What’s more, when I see a strong female character in most movies today, I don’t usually believe it. It is proforma: stuck in the film the same way that the eccentric sidekick is. It’s movie writing via Mad Libs. Russ Meyer offers something more.

I first saw Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 20 years ago. I thought it was an amazing film then. But it has only improved over time. I really don’t understand why it isn’t a more widely admired film. There doesn’t seem to be any rational reason why Criterion Collection hasn’t released it with film scholar commentaries. So it must be that there is an irrational reason: it’s a Russ Meyer film. It’s exploitation. It has big breasted women who show them off. But I think there is something more: our society hasn’t even caught up to where Russ Meyer was in 1965.

Venezuela’s Continuous Coup

Alfredo LopezThe evidence is overwhelming that the rich and powerful of Venezuela have followed a continuous, constantly morphing plan to de-stabilize the country and take over the government by any means necessary and that the United States government knows about that plan, supports it and, as much as it can, is assisting in it…

Everything about Venezuela — including its progress and successes, its growing status as a leader in its continent and its difficulties, stumbles, and failures — is driven by two realities. One is its government’s commitment to a genuine program of fundamental political and economic change and the other is an equally committed effort to sabotage that program and overthrow this government.

Is there a coup planned in Venezuela? All the time.

—Alfredo Lopez
Venezuela’s Continuous Coup

David Cameron Lies About UK Economic History

Simon Wren-LewisAh, the good old days! That was when conservatives everywhere resorted speaking in only sentences that consisted of a noun, verb, and “Greece.” Every conservative policy under the sun had to be enacted or: “We’ll turn into Greece!” Well my friends, now United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron is back with a shocking bit of noun, verb, and “Greece” propaganda. While in Brussels to discuss matters related to the Ukraine, he took a moment to talk about domestic matters, because he’s afraid that the conservatives might not win the upcoming election. And so he lied in a very big way, claiming, “When I first came here as prime minister five years ago, Britain and Greece were virtually in the same boat, we had similar sized budget deficits. The reason we are in a different position is we took long-term difficult decisions and we had all of the hard work and effort of the British people. I am determined we do not go backwards.”

Translation: we screwed our people and claimed it was for their own good; those lazy Greeks didn’t do it and look at what a mess their country is today; and vote conservative because we are doing everything right! Except that isn’t at all the case. Luckily, Simon Wren-Lewis is around to strike back, Controlling the Past. But before I get to what he wrote, I want to talk about something he barely mentioned, because he’s a real economist writing for other real economists and so assumes everyone knows: currency.

The United Kingdom, like the United States, has its own currency. So it is much easier for it to bounce back after a crisis, because other currencies will simply rise relative to it. But for a country like Greece that shares the euro with most of its trading partners, there can be no currency devaluation. Thus there is far more disruption as wages have to go down. Basically, Greece is stuck with using Germany’s valuable currency. So this made it infinitely easier for the UK to weather the 2008 financial crisis. And it is the reason that Greece should never have been used as a scare tactic for the UK and the United States. What happened to Greece simply couldn’t happen to the UK and US.

But let’s get to the bulk of Wren-Lewis’ article. It focused on the claim that “Britain and Greece were virtually in the same boat.” Is that true? Not even close:

The real travesty however is in the implication that somehow Greece failed to take the “difficult decisions” that the UK took. “Difficult decisions” is code for austerity. A good measure of austerity is the underlying primary balance. According to the OECD, the UK underlying primary balance was -7% in 2009, and it fell to -3.5% in 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 3.5% of GDP. In Greece it was -12.1% in 2009, and was turned into a surplus of 7.6% by 2014: a fiscal contraction worth 19.7% of GDP! So Greece had far more austerity, which is of course why Greek GDP has fallen by 25% over the same period. A far more accurate statement would be that the UK started taking the same “difficult decisions” as Greece took, albeit in a much milder form, but realized the folly of this and stopped. Greece did not get that choice.

So in addition to not having its own currency, Greece enacted more than five times as much austerity as the United Kingdom did. But it is those noble pasty white Brits who did the hard work. This is very clearly meant to both stroke the ego of the British public and to make them feel that the very real pain they’ve been put through was for a reason (it wasn’t). The point of all this is to change the narrative of the past so that the current government looks good. And they want to push the idea that the same old conservative policies that they are always for are what we should thank for the better economic times. It’s ridiculous.

Education “Reform” and Teacher Shortages

No Child Left Behind - Mike Keefe

I don’t write as much as I should about education. The reason is that it greatly depresses me. The education “reform” movement is so pernicious and so powerful that it is hard not to think that all is lost. Here in the United States, this movement seems focused on destroying teacher unionization more than anything else. And as always when there is an attack on worker rights, the quality of jobs goes down. Even the most idealistic of those in the “reform” movement seem only interested focusing on test scores because that is something that is easy and quantifiable. It’s the old story of the drunk looking for her keys far away from where she lost them because “the light’s better here.”

Stephen MucherLast week, Stephen Mucher, the director of Bard College’s “master of arts in teaching” program, wrote an important article, The Teaching Crisis That Unions and School Districts Won’t Address. It contains some amazing information in it. For example, “Since 2008, enrollment in teacher education programs in California is down 53%, and other bellwether states report a similar trend.” This trend is — Oh, what is the word?! — predictable. Let’s think about this for a moment.

The nation as a whole wants better teachers for our children. Everyone at least gives lip service to the idea that great teachers have a huge effect on our children. And the solution that we’ve come up with is: test the children more, over-structure classroom time, and vilify teachers. Oh, and don’t forget: get rid of their unions, decrease worker protections, and lower their salaries. That’s clearly not the way to get better teachers working in our schools. In fact, it is a recipe for destroying good teachers that are already working.

So what is it like to be a teacher?

Historically, teachers are happier than other professionals. Teaching ranks high on measures that gauge an employee’s sense of purpose and social impact… But this powerful incentive to join a field dedicated to public service is increasingly offset by other concerns.

Asked, for example, whether their “opinions seem to count” in the workplace, teachers ranked dead last among surveyed professions. Asked whether supervisors create a workplace that is “open and trusting,” teachers gave their field similarly low marks.

It is hard to see the whole of the education “reform” movement as having any philosophy other than, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Now Mucher isn’t specifically talking about the “reform” movement. But the focus on testing and the vilification of teacher unions is all coming from the “reform” movement. And the “reform” movement goes where the money pushes it. And the money comes from the same people who moved our manufacturing jobs overseas. They want to do for education what they’ve done for the rest of the economy: turn teachers into low paid cogs, who can be plugged into any educational machine.

Mucher is clear as to what needs to be done. In addition to “competitive salaries, benefits and better working conditions” teachers need their jobs to be fulfilling:

Our most promising educators crave work that honors their creativity and intellect. They are suspicious of easy answers. They need to hear more than the cliche that a great teacher can make a difference in a student’s life. They want to know whether this profession will make a difference in their own life.

No surprisingly, Diane Ravitch had a few choice words to say about all this. She noted something that is telling, “I doubt that most critics would know how to teach a classroom of 30 children of any age, but they feel emboldened to complain about those who do it every day.” I think that is part of the problem with the way that Americans look at teaching: they think it is something that anyone could do — very much the way that they think about politics. I’m not sure where they get this idea, except that Americans just have a tendency to devalue the work done by anyone. To me, the kind of teachers that the “reform” movement is crying out for practice the easiest kind of teaching.

What we end up with is a system that claims it wants Alfie Kohn acolytes in the classroom to stimulate and broaden the minds of children, but it wants to check in every two months to make sure that all the children have learned how to spell certain words and know the dictated parts of the multiplication table. That doesn’t work. But as I’ve said before, education “reform” has little or nothing to do with improving education, What Is the Goal of Education Reform? Since the real problems in our educational system are not being dealt with, it isn’t too surprising that the “reform” movement is only managing to make things worse.

Morning Music: Carol Kaye

Carol KayeToday, the legendary session bass player Carol Kaye is 80 years old. In the 1950s, she was a bebop jazz guitarist — working a lot in Los Angeles. But in 1957, she just happened to start working in the studio on the first Sam Cooke album. The following year, she created that great guitar part for Ritchie Valens’ hit “La Bamba.” It actually sounds a lot like a bass part, so it isn’t surprising that she went on to be known primarily as a bass player.

Unfortunately, because of the nature of the bass and the generally poor sound quality of YouTube videos, it is hard to find a song to highlight her. Although if you want, you can check out this amazing video of Kaye at 65 years old playing with Steve Bailey and Victor Wooten jamming at a National Association of Music Merchants meeting. The music isn’t that interesting, but it is amazing to hear all these musical titans playing together. She still has it.

Here she is playing bass on Joe Cocker’s version of “Feelin’ Alright”:

35 Years Without Óscar Romero

Oscar RomeroAs I’ve expanded exactly what a birthday post is, it was inevitable that I would finally get to deaths. But today we have a special death. On this day 35 years ago, Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated. I can’t think about him without thinking of Glenn Beck’s rant about how people should leave their churches if they hear any talk of “social justice.” It isn’t like it shocked me. I am well aware that a whole lot of American Christians think that religion has nothing to do with politics, except in the sense that Jesus was a big believer in capitalism. But clearly, Christianity was, from its earliest days, a political movement.

I don’t think that Romero saw what he was doing as being anything outside what the best priests had always done. Back in January, I wrote, Religion Is Politics. It was about how the Catholic Church, after 20 years of dithering, decided to say that Romero was a martyr to the faith. For all this time, there have been conservatives in the Vatican who wanted to deny him because they don’t believe in his politics. They are the Glenn Becks of the Catholic Church. As I wrote:

But mostly what churches do is political. And they are right in the thick of it. “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5) is a political statement. “Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) is a political statement. And the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12) is a political statement. Yes, those are all from the Sermon on the Mount. It is the best thing in the Bible and it is entirely political.

This gets to the heart of what religion is all about. Generally speaking, when religions start, they are revolutionary. But they are quickly tamed and used for the purposes of those in power. A small but important minority never lose sight of the reasons that people came to the faith to begin with. And they push back against power. The question we should ask is why there are not more religious leaders like Óscar Romero. The Catholic Church has produced more pedophiles in the priesthood than it has men who truly care about Jesus’ mission. And that makes Romero all that much more special.

I can’t exactly celebrate this anniversary. The world became much worse when Romero was assassinated. But I mark the date and honor the man.