Several weeks ago I caught a showing of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! on Turner Movie Classics. The cult film that has inspired Todd Oldham’s fashion and John Waters’ movies was something I’d always intended to see, but had never made the effort to.
Shame on me.
Within seconds I was mesmerized; held within the thrall of Ms. Tura Satana.
It’s not just that she’s uniquely beautiful. Her curves are kickin’, her cleavage unparalleled, and her stare arresting; Satana could steal the show simply with her formidable presence. But it’s so much more that makes her role as the vicious Varla iconic.
For those not in the know, F,P!K!K! is a Russ Meyer film from 1965. With taglines like “Meyer’s ode to the violence in women!” and “Filmed in Glorious Black and Blue” you know you’re in for an art trash treat.
The movie begins with a wacky pseudo-beatnik/pseudo-Rod Serling introduction over an Outer Limits-esque screen:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Violence. The word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains – sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy. It creates and moulds as well. Let’s examine closely then this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained within the supple skin of woman. The softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female. the surface shiny and silken. The body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution: handle with care and don’t drop your guard. This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs. Operating at any level, at any time, anywhere and with anybody. Who are they? One might be your secretary, your doctor’s receptionist, or a dancer in a go-go club!”
And the go-go dancing commences. Odd-angled camera shots show close-ups of Varla, Rosie, and Billie (Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams, respectively) shimmying with fervor. Satana’s contortions are especially remarkable; but of course, this former burlesque dancer is the woman who claims to have taught Elvis how to gyrate and grind.
After work, entertainment for the grrrls consists of driving Porches at top speeds in the Mojave desert, playing chicken, bisexuality (or as one character calls it, “AM/FM”), skinny dipping, smokes and booze.
Varla is icy-cool and wildly psychotic. She’s the unspoken leader of this gang of go-go dancers, one of whom describes her as being “like a velvet glove cast in iron.” Varla’s sensuality and hard personality are an intimidating intoxication which allows her to easily manipulate others.
Whilst in the desert the women come across a cocky young man named Tommy, and his annoying, bikini-clad girlfriend, Linda (Susan Bernard, apparently Playboy magazine’s first Jewish playmate). Tommy’s a member of a driving club and wants to do some timing out on the flats. Perky Linda is prepared with a stopwatch, but Varla goads Tommy into a race by letting him know that she’s a better driver than he could ever be.
“I don’t beat clocks, just people.”
Varla wins the race and Tommy, feeling emasculated, attempts to physically beat her down. But he chose to mess with a woman could take care of herself.
Varla breaks his back and kidnaps his girlfriend.
And that’s just the first 20 minutes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
From a contemporary perspective, it’s as if Quentin Tarantino, John Waters, and Ed Wood had made a film together. It’s exploitative to the max, yet also oddly (mildly) empowering—without ever intending to be. The clothes are fabulous, as is the wickedly delivered bad dialogue. All of Varla’s lines are shouted—a ludicrous technique that Waters would incorporate into some of his own work. F,P!K!K! is offensive, and thrilling; a bad grrrl Thelma and Louise meets Kill Bill meets Pricilla Queen of the Desert meets Glen or Glenda. With lot’s of camera angles completely swiped from Orson Well’s Citizen Kane.
As David Schmader has said of Showgirls, another awesomely awful film, and it’s a fitting commentary here too,
“The subtext is staggering until you notice there is no subtext.”
In my research Varla has often been referenced as a proto-action heroine—a complicated, if not problematic, reading to be sure. In a feminist interpretation questions to ask include: What are the criteria for an action heroine? Does Varla fit these in any way? Does being a villain negate her feminist potential? What about the objectification of her body—or is she in control of that? How does “The Kick-Ass Life of Tura Satana” (as is the title of her in-the-works autobiography) play a part?* What about the director’s intentions?
Writer/director Russ “he-who-loves-big-bosoms” Meyer has said, “I personally prefer the aggressive female . . . the superwoman.” As with William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, his desire is not to experience an heroic woman but a dominant one. There’s essentialism in the work of both these men. Their belief that women are the superior sex makes for a difficult feminist interpretation (as I believe in feminism as a philosophy of equality).
But just because Marston and Meyer had fetishistic leanings (bondage and breasts respectively), it doesn’t mean that feminist potential can’t be found (or that sexual play/the female body can’t be celebrated). Many have found inspiration in Wonder Woman’s altruism and empowerment in Varla’s karate chops.
Here, though, in the world of the Pussycats, the deepest message about gender (and female bodies) is that women have just as much potential for selfishness and evil as men. One could suggest that their wild desert antics are a release from their evenings of objectification. That their violence stems from the filthy behavior of men. But as my husband asked upon viewing, “Why, then would they put themselves in that situation to begin with?”
It’s a world of contradiction. Sex and sex work can be empowering, it can also be demeaning. There are no easy answers. What is unique, or at least was in 1965, was to see a woman who was capable of defending herself.
*Varla is heavily infused with Tura, and Satana is spellbinding. How does an actresses’ personal life/embodiment contribute to the experience and/or interpretation of the character? When I met her at Comic Con (at her autograph booth) I told her how exhilarating it was to watch her as Varla—to experience a woman so powerful. She replied, “You know what it is? It’s that I’m just as powerful in person as I am on screen.”
For more on Russ Meyer and Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! buy, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws
For more on the multivalence of female action heroes, particularly on negotiating simultaneous feelings of disgust, pleasure, empowerment and embarrassment, buy the fabulous, Super Bitches and Action Babes:
For more on women and violence on screen buy: Reel Knockouts