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This Column is About Breasts.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 8, 1998:  Really, it is. And how many of you were drawn to it as you were flipping pages on your way to "News of the Weird" just because of the word breasts? Thought so.

That mammary fascination is the focus of the winsome HBO special Breasts: A Documentary (1997, NR). But the hour-long film—a series of interviews with a couple dozen women—has a decidedly female orientation. Not that you slathering y-chromosome types won't get something out of it, but it's really about women's relationships with their most prominent glands—how they affect their self-image, whether they're too small or too big, how they felt about them during puberty, etc.

It's a fascinating, simple documentary with a lot of unspoken subtexts. The film gathers an impressively diverse group of women, most of whom appear topless on-screen. They're remarkably candid about their bodies and psyches, revealing both insecurities and self-confidence. Among them are two mother-daughter pairs, who say a lot about the odd mix of pride and resentment parents can have toward their children. There are also college students, strippers, women who have had mastectomies, large women, small women, old women, and even a transsexual. They talk about breasts as sources of confidence, embarrassment, and pleasure, as "baby bottles" and as sexual organs.

Apart from the women's words, their bodies say a lot about our (let's face it) male-dominated bust-fixated culture. Seeing so many pairs of breasts in such a casual context starts to make the big hoopla about them seem pretty silly. It may be a mini-taste of what nudists say they experience—the realization that this is, after all, just a normal part of the body, no different from a hand or nose. Still, even as it de-mythologizes breasts, the film manages the difficult trick of imbuing them with mystery and power well beyond that of any centerfold spread.

One section of the movie has women talking about men who are obsessed with breasts. The man I immediately thought of was Russ Meyer, king of '60s soft-core epics like Vixen and the most brazenly chest-crazed director of all time. Meyer actually has a critical following these days—his action-trash opus Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! had a theatrical re-release last year. Among his best-known films is the weird Hollywood "parody" Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970, NC-17), which was written by the equally breast-bedazzled Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert). It's not a good film by any means, or particularly funny, or even particularly shocking by today's standards. But the tale of a rock 'n' roll girl group overcome by sex, drugs, and general Hollywood sleaze does have chaotic energy and late '60s charm. And, of course, lots and lots of...well, you know.


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