Mudhoney April 1, 2019
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
didn’t know Mudhoney (1965) existed until a few days ago. The discovery was born not of a late-in-the-game taking to the same-name Seattle grunge band but of an incidental deep dive into the career of the pillow-voiced singer-songwriter Norah Jones. I read a piece about her on Buzzfeed — “Like Everyone Else in the Aughts, I Loved Norah Jones” by Tomi Obaro — and, looking to prolong my awakened nostalgia, I passed an hour or so on
her Wikipedia page. When I clicked on information pertaining to Jones’ fifth studio album, Little Broken Hearts (2012), I discovered that its cover — featuring the singer in close-up, smoldering in rusty red lipstick, her black bangs teasingly covering an eye — was a loose facsimile of the movie poster for Mudhoney, a would-be Depression-era melodrama directed by Russ Meyer.
That Mudhoney is helmed by Meyer made me sit up. His Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, also released in 1965, is a pinnacle for the low-budget pulp thriller, and a personal favorite; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), a “sequel” to the stiff soap opera Valley of the Dolls (1967), exemplifies the virtues of campy genre filmmaking.
Meyer is known today as something of a soft-core filmmaker. Many of his films feature a pronounced presence of female nudity; it’s true that much of his filmography teeters on the squalid. But when Meyer went first for quality, then for sexed-out spectacle, often ensuing were quasi-melodramas or action movies that, in addition to being fairly good, thrillingly felt as if they’d been partially liquified and then sped up. They might appear irredeemably tacky if we didn’t sense that Meyer was chuckling while he fucked with genre conventions.
His Mudhoney is perhaps the most straight-laced of his films. It’s exaggerated, sure — the characters come across as hybrids of characters from Dynasty (1981-1989) and Tennessee Williams plays, post-nitrous oxide — but it attempts to go for the orthodox in ways other Meyer features rarely do. Set in the 1920s, it stars a hungry-looking John Furlong as Calef, a vagabond traveling from Michigan to California who unwittingly gets involved with a violent family feud after taking a farming job in the parched Spooner, Missouri.
Mudhoney’s strengths build off its assortment of oddball characters. Calef is hired, in the first place, by Lute Wade (Stuart Lancaster), a gentile local in ill health. We also must contend with Sidney (Hal Hooper), the sadistic, perennially cackling husband of Lute’s niece, Hannah (Antoinette Cristiani); a crankish preacher (Frank Bolger) with whom Sidney is embroiled in a plot to kill Lute; and a literally toothless madam (Princess Livingston) and her luscious young daughters (Rena Horton and Lorna Maitland).
The inner-workings of their lives mingle, and result in a ribald, crisscrossing narrative that brings to mind the ones found in movies like Baby Doll (1956) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — coarse south-set melodramas where personalities are flamboyantly egocentric and perpetually riding a clash with another. But where those films were extensions of studios trying to mix the prestigious up with the philistine, Mudhoney doesn’t feel so calculated. Instead, it’s a rollicking semi-lampoon of whatever the forms of those movies were; almost everyone is on their worst behavior, and almost everyone is willing to flaunt it for our enjoyment.
It’s one of Meyer’s most primitive, narratively intriguing movies. Yet it remains underrated not just because it pales in comparison to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, an orgiastic opus widely considered Meyer’s career-defining work, but also because Meyer himself always viewed it, in part due to its lacking of commercial success, as a failure. But I revere Mudhoney not as a fiasco for Meyer but an emerald — a dirtied melodrama so brilliantly dirty that it makes me wish he made more stuff like it. B+