Friday, September 01, 2006

All-American Deep-Dish Comedy: PRETTY PEACHES (1978)

Desireé Cousteau stands at the center of Pretty Peaches, moaning in befuddled despair, like a cartoonishly buxom Lucille Ball, as imagined by Bill Ward. The innocent, moronic amnesiac bubbles like a uniquely American Girl cocktail of dizziness and pluck, as she wanders through a late-'70s landscape of greed, sleaze and self-indulgence. Director Alex de Renzy's 1978 hardcore opus is an acknowledged classic of the Golden Age of American porn, and cult star Cousteau garnered an Adult Film Association of America award for her performance in the film. It is of an era for which we are starting to see ironic nostalgia crop up, fueled in no small part by Boogie Nights. That film re-cast a generation's view of the '70s porn scene as a tragic lost Eden of the American dream, much as The Godfather did for '40s gangland a generation before. What is not going hand in hand with this mythologizing is widespread revival of the films themselves. It is unfortunate that the young X'ers adding John Holmes to the Pantheon of Cool where Bruce Lee hangs out with Lou Reed, probably haven't actually seen a Gerard Damiano movie. While pornography will always be made, the astounding set of political and social circumstances that created/allowed the narrative adult films of the early '70s to mid-'80s will never be reproduced.

On one hand, that nostalgia is part of Peaches enduring magic. There are pop culture artifacts that are emblematic, seminal or landmarks of their era - e.g., for the '70s think Star Wars, the first SNL cast, the Sex Pistols. But I feel there exist some works that stand as remarkable mishmashes of so many peculiar, specific, fleeting obsessions of a time and place, they become jam-packed time capsules; art so impossibly of its day it becomes an epic critique of its native era, and looks like moon rocks to future eyes. For the '70s, think "Hong Kong Phooey", "Pink Lady and Jeff, "Oh Wicked Wanda!" Very definitely on that list is the one and only Pretty Peaches, a film which may lack the household name or iconic value of Behind the Green Door or Deep Throat, but which explores a circus tent version of 1978 like no other adult feature.

The story of Pretty Peaches is a Candide riff, similar to Terry Southern's prescient Candy. Lovable, innocent Peaches (Cousteau) arrives late at the casino chapel, but just in time to see the end of her father (John Leslie)'s wedding to a pleasant black lady (Flower). After an inexplicable, minor argument with Daddy, Peaches gulps a couple of shots at the ill-attended reception in the slot machine room, and promptly hightails it out of town in her Jeep. The plot is set in motion when Peaches crashes her truck in the woods, indicated by a single tree branch laid across the front wheel. Peaches stumbles from the wreck and passes out on the grass. Two sleazeballs with engine trouble find her, and debate how to assist, finally deciding her panties are too tight. The deeply seedy Joey Silva rapes the semi-conscious girl as his buddy tsk-tsks. When she comes to, they decide to steal her car and take the now amnesiac Peaches with them, in hopes of collecting ransom. How the amateur kidnappers intend to achieve this without knowing their victim's identity, and while letting her freely wander around the city, are the kinds of questions that do not apply.

Desireé Cousteau's gotta have her Pops.

The basic structure of Pretty Peaches is a series of madcap and/or harrowing episodes in which Peaches meets an eccentric who offers assistance but ends up taking sexual advantage of her. At the boys' house, they make repeated advances, even sleeping three abed, until the girl gets frustrated and goes to eat cereal in the middle of the night instead. An interview for an exotic dancing gig turns into a gang rape by a dozen crazed lesbian sadists, a show for which tickets are sold to to slumming socialites. In the film's most notorious (and censored from the VHS release) sequence, a low rent Dr. Benway-esque quack with his office in an echoey men's room administers a several-gallon enema as amnesia treatment. The powerful jet-spray from Cousteau's hindquarters knocks the wacky physician to the linoleum, and poor Peaches wails "I don't think he could cure anything!"

Good lord, why?

How erotic any of this is - or is supposed to be - may be up to individual taste, but it hardly seems the point. Though the sex scenes mostly involve the assault, abuse, and humiliation of the guileless Peaches, the tone is sunny and cartoonish. Even when most of the hardcore sequences end with our heroine screaming and crying, it's difficult to be disturbed. The entire cast gives their all, and the result is sweet, if unspectacular. John Leslie is passably funny as Peaches' aw-shucks Dad, and debuting Juliet "Aunt Peg" Anderson is weird as a French maid. The best bit player is the sunny Phaedra Grant, who pops up near end, bounding naked into an oh-so-'70s kitchen to drag the uncomfortable Leslie into the grand finale. Grant grins so wide it's like the biggest movie star in the world has been commissioned for a cameo: "Hey look! It's the banana girl from Candy Stripers!"

There is no such thing as "over"acting.

However, no one can keep up with Cousteau's pouting, eye-rolling, adorable performance, and definitely can't physically measure up. She's such irresistible one-woman show that even the big bad world portrayed in Pretty Peaches can't defeat the irrepressible brunette. As in Southern's Candy, the running joke is that once laying eyes on her, every human on earth has vested sexual interest in Peaches. Even the golf-cart driving psychiatrist (industry legend Paul Thomas), who eventually proves her savior, offers therapy only in the form of getting it on in his bungalow office, while Peaches squeaks "oh, doctor!" The entire Me Generation is out to use, fold, spindle, and mutilate the poor girl, and the only problem with the equation as social criticism is that Peaches - while lovable thanks to Cousteau's natural ease - doesn't stand for anything in particular. Perhaps she's the spirit of Free Love being corrupted by the spiritual vacuum of the '70s. Perhaps she's the liberated female sexuality promised by the Sexual Revolution, which in reality is just another way for the patriarchy to pry off her panties. The vague quest of Pretty Peaches is for Peaches to be reunited with her parents (though John Leslie is only 10 years older than his "daughter")... easy to forget, since they do little searching for the lost girl, and Peaches doesn't even remember she has parents.

How good is she? Costeau's giant gold heels and awesome shiny green shorts cause her to nearly fall over as she storms across a golf course. Not only does she keep going, but trips and reacts in character!

Finally, in a climactic, baby oil soaked swingers party orgy, at which all the principle players find themselves in attendance (don't ask), Peaches is snapped from her amnesia while unwittingly going down on her dad. The reunion is comically bittersweet, as the greasy nude girl hugs her new stepmom with joy, but her flustered pops storms out of the room. The picture ends on the sobbing, oily Peaches screaming "Daddy! I'm back!", and surrounded by puzzled, dripping, hairy orgy-goers. As a satire about the breakdown of the nuclear family, Pretty Peaches ranks as striking and over-the-top as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In both films it is clear something unique, nasty and uneasy is being said, but vivid images or no, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly what that message is.

Comedy. Tragedy. Beauty.
And I'm just talking about the interior decoration.

Because as erotica, Pretty Peaches has little to offer but Desireé Cousteau's spectacular pneumatic figure, and giggly sex-appeal, the film is more closely aligned with the DIY gross-out comedies of John Waters, or the anti-erotic landmine send-ups of Russ Meyer. de Renzy does not quite achieve the vulgar Americana of those Masters. Peaches is almost as loony, but misses the proto-punk attitude and outrage of Waters' finest hours, and the comedy labors a bit under the requirements of the sex scenes, grotty as they may be.

Deep focus, de Renzy style: The Lady or the Titleist?

Nor does the director quite possess Meyer's cinematic flare... which is not a cruel criticism, because after all, who does? de Renzy is ambitious, with some cute attempts at deep focus to tell the story within shots, and complicated (still sub-Meyer) montages to convey impossible feats of kinetic action, like the brain-traumatizing car crash, a seemingly endless rectal capacity in the enema sequence, and to imply the gang-raping lesbians have violated Peaches with a dildo the size of a loaf of French bread. Some non sequitur gags are puzzling, but not surreal enough to stack up to the fertile imaginations of Borowczyk, Waters or Meyer. In the best (?) of these moments, a guy climbing headfirst down a ladder for no reason conks his head on the floor and passes out.

Why? There is no why.

Admittedly, the plot - Desireé Cousteau as a bubble-brain unable to fathom the indignities to which she's subjected - is similar in several of her films, but Peaches is the ultimate fulfillment of the template. It's the family-reunion quest; it's the cast of favorites, future stars, and the iconic heroine; it's the social strata-spanning adventure, stretching from a dusty small town to the forest, suburbia to the big city, country clubs to back alley sex clubs, painting a unique portrait of a strange moment in a strange nation. These are the things that make Pretty Peaches the Golden Age's great comic epic.

Pretty Peaches is available on DVD from the fine folks at Alpha Blue Archives. The VHS-sourced disc includes the enema scene, as well as a half-hour of Golden Age adult trailers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a delightful read. I haven't seen Pretty Peaches, but I know of Desiree Cousteau and you describe her wide-eyed agreeableness perfectly. I'd like to understand porn and its audience--and its relation to popular culture--better, and your essay adds considerably to my understanding. Equating this film with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is unexpected but apt.