Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

King Leer (1922-2004) and Zathras (1954-2004)

I have had exactly one week to ponder the life and art of Russ Meyer, since word reached me of his passing. Okay, maybe “art” isn’t the precise word that comes to mind when one ponders Meyer and his movies. Actually, it does for a lot of very serious and respected critics and filmmakers. Anyway, a week is way too long to be thinking about this.

It so happens that I once saw Russ Meyer in the, um, flesh. He was on hand for a midnight revival screening of his 1966 opus Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at the 1995 Seattle Film Festival. As I recall, he seemed a well-mannered and matter-of-fact sort of man. For somebody whose entire, um, body of work can reasonably be considered the frequent and predictable exploitation of women’s bodies (as Britain’s Telegraph newspaper noted in its obituary for him, he was dubbed the “‘King Leer’ of film-making”), he seemed quite respectable. I guess it has something to do with the gentility that so many men of the WWII generation have. In that age group, the men don’t say, “I dig chicks.” They say, “I like the ladies.”

To no one’s surprise, a number of self-described feminists were on hand for Meyer’s appearance. To my surprise anyway, they weren’t there to protest or to heckle but to cheer him on. As I wrote at the time, “They applauded Meyer for his films because they tend to depict women as strong, independent and superior to men in just about every way.” Among all the influences on Quentin Tarantino’s work, I think it is safe to say that Russ Meyer could fairly be cited, particularly for the recent Kill Bill movies.

Every serious auteur filmmaker has a trademark that sums up his or her work in a single enduring image. To this rule Meyer was no exception. And his trademark image can be summed up in two words. And those two words are… humungous breasts. I’m talking unnaturally large, colossal, gigantic mammary glands. It comes as no surprise that Meyer got his start as a photographer for Playboy magazine, although even Hugh Hefner himself might reject stills from Meyer’s movies as being not true enough to life. (In his 1995 Seattle appearance, an audience member asked Meyer where he managed to find so many well-endowed females, and he replied prosaically, if you can find one, they can usually get you more.)

I usually make a point to avoid reading or watching film critic Roger Ebert, but when this is unavoidable, I just remember that he is the same man who wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a title reworked from that of a notorious novel by Jacqueline Susann. (Neither Meyer nor Ebert complicated matters by actually reading her book.) Somehow, this puts everything Ebert has to say about any other film in its proper perspective.

In his own tribute to Meyer, Ebert suggested that the titles of Meyer’s films might be considered as entertaining as the films themselves, and he is right. Examples (in addition to the aforementioned Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) include Wild Gals of the Naked West and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. (When Ebert asked Meyer the question about finding such big-chested women, the reply he got was, “After they reach a certain bra size, they find me.”)

Today, Meyer’s movies seem almost tame, particularly in light of what home video and the internet have wrought. Meyer’s films may have been X-rated, but they weren’t hard core. Consistent with the Playboy tradition, his work was more about leering and innuendo than out and out pornography. You felt cheap and dirty (and more than mildly amused) watching his movies, but you didn’t feel like a criminal. In this day and age, that’s an important distinction.

* * *

Tim Choate was an actor about whom you have likely never heard unless, like me, you are a bit of fanatic about the TV series Babylon 5. Otherwise, you may well have seen him on television or in movies in brief appearances here and there, but you probably never noted his face or his name. The Texas-born actor had small parts in films like Soapdish, Jefferson in Paris and Pearl Harbor. On the small screen, he appeared for a couple of years on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and had guest shots on everything from Jake and the Fatman to Murder, She Wrote to Newhart to Highway to Heaven to Frasier to Dark Skies and The Practice and Cold Case.

But for more than a few of us, he is guaranteed immortality for a role he played in a mere four episodes of Babylon 5 in the course of its five-year run. In the first season, Choate played a strange alien named Zathras who was involved in a time travel sequence that nearly resulted in station commander Jeffrey Sinclair meeting a future version of himself. In the third season, the two-parter “War Without End” explained how that time travel incident had come about and, in the process, tied up more than a few loose ends in the overall plot of the series. We learned that Zathras was the caretaker of the Great Machine inside the planet Epsilon 3, around which Babylon 5 orbits. In the end, Zathras winds up traveling a thousand years into the past, as an escort to Sinclair who is on his way to meet his ultimate destiny. We thought at that point that we had seen the last of Zathras, but he showed up again in the fourth season. Actually, it wasn’t really Zathras; it was his brother Zathras. It turns out that there were ten brothers named Zathras, each indistinguishable from the others.

The character of Zathras holds a special place in Babylon 5 lore, and not just because of the small but pivotal role he played in the overall story. As played by Choate, Zathras was a glum, perpetually weary and resigned servant, who spoke constantly and sarcastically of himself (always in the third person) and of the load on his shoulders, in phrases that seemed lifted from a comedian’s monologue about Jewish mothers. He struck a chord with the fans, who have ever since populated B5 newsgroup discussions with classic and invented Zathras-isms. Of course, Zathras was a creation of producer/writer J. Michael Straczynski, but even under major alien makeup, Choate made the character a living, breathing personality. His delivery of Straczynski’s lines was crucial in making the improbable Zathras real. (Less noticed was Choate’s one-shot guest appearance as a character named Polix in the B5 spin-off series, Crusade.)

Sadly, Tim Choate died on September 24, when a car struck his motorcycle as he was on his way to a play rehearsal. He was just shy of his 50th birthday and leaves behind a wife and a son. In that strange phenomenon that has been spawned by television and the internet, their grief is shared by a virtual community of fans of the Babylon 5 series. And this same group is still experiencing lingering sorrow over the death of actor Richard Biggs, a member of the B5 cast during the series’ entire run, just four months ago.

-S.L., 30 September 2004

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