Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Saddest Movie Theatre in the World

Leading Reasons Not to Go Into the Armed Forces: 1941 postcard depicting the sub-human filmgoing conditions of Our Fighting Boys at Fort Dix.

From the esteemed Exploding Kinetoscope archives of crap laying around the house.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Wolf Buddy: A Celebration of Stiles

Jerry Levine and the Identity Crisis of Teen Wolf (1985)

One man cuts through the lugubrious dreamworld of Teen Wolf, like a rainbow across a murky sky. Jerry Levine as Stiles, the Beacontown High class clown, best guy-friend to the hero, and the designated comic relief of comedy film, creates a character of strange dimension and a key pivot-point for the psychodrama locked inside Teen Wolf.

The cast of Teen Wolf is thoroughly sincere; for a film that must have been conceived as a lighthearted parody of '50s teen monster flicks, the potential laughs are filtered through a proto-John Hughes mesh of parental understanding, and sympathetic adolescent drama. Few escape uncharged, from lead Michael J Fox's crack-voiced insecurity, to James Hampton's patient heart-to-heart-driven parenting as his father, to Susan Ursetti as Boof, Scott's childhood friend who expresses her romantic yearning by clutching her textbooks and making faces of doe-eyed desperation as he walks away. The few bright comic performances from Jay Tarses and Scott Paulin are outlined in my "Notes on Teen Wolf", but they are remarkable for their exception. It is the lone figure of Stiles who transcends the stereotype as written, and draws together the broken threads of Teen Wolf's plot in a meaningful way.

One of the strangest things about Teen Wolf, director Rod Daniel's 1984-lensed, '85-released teen sports comedy-cum-camp love object, is the refusal and/or inability to lend any weight to the more outrageous plot points and moments of melodrama it conjures. The plot is so determinedly focused on Beacontown, Nebraska high schooler Scott Howard's (Fox) dreams of being anything but Average, the fulfillment of his basketball dreams and complications of his werewolf lineage, that it can only demonstrate ambivalence toward the rest of its potentially complicated ideas. Though ostensibly living with the reality of his mothers' unsolved murder, Scott registers little concern when rival b-baller Mick confesses he "blew her head off with a shotgun"; Scott and Boof, lifelong friends, are peer-pressured into a closet heavy-petting session during a kegger, and never address the implications; while the "specialness" and "responsibility" that come with werewolf-powers are explored through the central sports plot, the metaphor of sexual awakening and bodily transformation is drawn, then dropped. Again we may look to Stiles for a means of reconciling the film's muddled metaphoric intentions. It is in Stiles that the scattershot emotional arcs of Teen Wolf make any sense, as he is the sole character to draw attention to the moral and logical inconsistencies. Unable to purchase beer, Stiles blithely tries to convince Scott to pretend to hold up the liquor store with a toy gun, as if there were enough legal difference between armed robbery and "pretend" armed robbery to justify the harebrained scheme.

Life Sucks, Then You Die: Enter Stiles

We get our first glimpse of Stiles during the opening basketball sequence, as he picks his way across the sparsely populated bleachers. Though not yet named, and potentially lost in an unfocused wide shot of the crowd, Stiles' spritely high-step over other spectators' legs and loose-wristed salute to Scott out on the court draw the eye even faster than his walking-billboard wardrobe. The sweaty, desperate physicality of the basketball game, as the home team is pounded by visiting Dragons, is all close-ups of Fox breathing hard, bodies being slammed to the hardwood, and the sound of screeching sneaker rubber as the Beacontown Beavers struggle to keep their footing. Stiles' fey, long-legged gait and fire engine red pants steal the attention in a space devoted to the physical fumblings of boys in uniform. Stiles is defined by his surefooted mastery of movement and privileged costuming.

It is very likely that Stiles as scripted was intended as the Bluto Blutarsky in a Teen Wolf with a more sustained, Animal House-raucous tone. Indeed, like the iconic John Belushi character, Stiles is often presented in terms of the Ultimate Party Animal, a rampaging Id beast driven by consumption and desire; the first act of Teen Wolf centers around his Herculean effort to secure a keg of beer, he officiates Bacchanalian party games, and in the third act is fueled by a hunger for money and power. There seems to end the success of the Bluto-ripoff, for Jerry Levine cannot match Belushi's lusty dominance of the screen; in a sense Belushi was not performing anyway, but submitting to the capture of his robust personality by the camera. Levine's performance, while obviously not nearly as seminal, constructs Stiles in the mold of a different archetype, and with expert physical modulation and surprising shading, creates someone fresh on the movie screen. Stiles is tied to the tradition of the Auguste clown: the buffoon figure identified by his bright, absurdly fitted costumes, aggressively foolish behavior, and opposition to authority figures. Practitioners of classical clowning can be defensive and rigid regarding definitions of clown types; since Stiles does not exist in a circus context, they would insist he cannot be a proper Auguste, and belongs to the broader "character clown" type, however, the historical and platonic ideal Auguste may remain untouched as Levine uses the model with respect and a true clown's sense of play. The Auguste's make-up is traditionally flesh-based, accentuated around the mouth and eyes, and Levine twists Stiles' mouth into geometric shapes as he hoots and shouts, leering grins to punctuate wisecracks, and draws attention to his eyes in a parade of plastic sunglasses without using the shades as a mask. The Auguste's normal exaggerated baggy, clashing clothes become Stiles' badly matched loud T-shirt, slacks and wide belt ensembles, which cling to his pinwheel body like a second skin, and an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt which flaps like an extravagantly tacky cape.

Like the Auguste, while in confident control of himself, Stiles brutalizes the space around him. He blithely tears apart a pile of junk in the family garage as he hunts for his brother's marijuana stash. He slams his locker handle and has crammed it improbably full. He has done God-knows-what to his junker car, and a decapitated, nude Barbie torso dangles from the rear-view mirror.

Master of Disguise

Boldly visual in a film costumed in convincingly drab Midwestern non-fashions (Scott wears mostly plaid and denim), Stiles is unmissable in a scene, even when attempting disguise or to disavow his own identity. It is the Auguste's nature to fail and botch all tasks and to thwart the authority of his Whiteface clown foil or any others in the process. When he tries to pose as a gravel pit worker (?!) to fool the liquor store owner, his enthusiasm for costume and play overwhelm his best efforts. Stiles affects a nonregional working class drawl, an unlit cigarette bobbing between his lips, and a child's-eye grab-bag of tough guy props: ill-fitting leather coat, huge, mirrored sunglasses, and bright green trucker's cap. Making only this perfunctory effort to obscure his natural costume under another, he leans, preening and posing against the cash register, drawing maximum attention to what was in theory an attempt to make the transaction more nonchalant.

Teen Wolf, before it drops the issue in favor of the moral implications of using werewolf-powers to win basketball games, is much concerned with the adolescent tortures of the human body. In a scene as close to crystallizing the metaphor as the film gets, Scott stares in horror at his reflected image, as his face pulses, skin changes color and texture, and hair erupts in unlikely places. The easy monster/pubescent teen motif is given new life with a clever masturbation-joke edge, as Mr. Howard demands to be let into the locked bathroom. The giggly parallel is moot by the end of the movie, but Scott is consistently delineated by discomfort in his body, and resistance to his own identity. This is the drama in which Stiles is a central player: Scott's true opposite, compliment, and necessary counter-balance.

King of the Urban Surfin': the body in ecstasy

Scott cannot keep his balance in the hallways or on the basketball court, and undergoes spontaneous mutations. We are told he is allergic to eggs, thinks he has a bad "six-dollar haircut", and Boof cannot even tell if he has showered after ball practice. Where Scott Howard is defined by the uncooperative, unstable body, Stiles is defined by physical mastery and confidence, however misguided and nontraditional. The schtick may include pratfalls, but they are in counterpoint to the painful body-blow fouls Scott receives in basketball games. When Stiles hoists a keg out of the backseat of his clownmobile trashed Nova, and crumples under the weight, or is drowned in a deluge of comedy props pouring from his locker, and knocked clean out of the frame, it is the stylized slapstick of a silent movie clown. When serving as ringmaster for the kegger games, Stiles struts and performs, bending his torso nearly parallel with the floor in Gumby-like display of unlikely posture. When caged in the classroom, he sprawls comfortably in the tiny chairs. He is in such control of his convertible car that he perches on the back of the seat to get Boof's attention while cruising down the street.

In the most celebrated sequence, he mounts the top of Scott's family hardware store delivery van, and surfs the suburban night streets as Scott drives. As "Surfin' U.S.A." beats on the soundtrack, Stiles writhes with unrestrained delight at being a teenager in a young body in the rush of physical danger. He cheers for himself, displays his wild joy in his weightless movement, despite a lack of spectators, and has so mastered the rules of the screen that he can lip synch to the nondiegetic music. Scott, meanwhile, is too preoccupied with his ears changing shape to participate in the celebration of physicality. As Stiles dances in ecstasy, a foot below him, Scott is in the throes of bodily horror.

The Self in Question: "Are you gonna tell me you're a fag?"

Scott's discomfort in his own body is a manifestation of his larger psychic problems, and search for definition of his own identity. In his first extended scene with Boof, he rails against his perception of himself as frustratingly "average" to the point that he feels it indicates a lack of identity at all. Boof is able to see past this, as are Coach Finstock, and presumably Stiles himself, and they all identify the ethics and quiet dignity Scott has learned from his father. Stiles in particular, while constantly egging Scott to cut loose, relies on his friend's moral guidance (Scott refuses to rob a liquor store), and appreciates the light ribbing which serves as an adolescent version of reigning in of Stiles' worst impulses ("Stiles, you're a cheeseball," Scott admonishes. "A-#1, baby," the cheeseball replies, but calms down a bit). Scott, refusing to give in to impulse, no matter how it frustrates him, is the tempering Ego to Stiles' Id. This dynamic is, of course, related in the relatively calm terms that Teen Wolf offers, but in a film so nakedly psychological, it should not be embarrassing to say so. Completing the loose (and admittedly imperfect) trio is their friend Lewis (Matt Adler), a younger kid who hangs around until, as Stiles would explain it, he starts getting creeped out by the werewolf. Lewis serves the rough function of the Super-ego, opposing Stiles' wildest schemes, and aggressively begging Scott to appreciate his calm life, and take satisfaction in the culturally acceptable mate he could have in Boof, instead of lusting after Mick's girlfriend Pamela. Mr. Howard also tries to nudge Boof and Scott together: Lewis as Super-ego has retained the morality and taboo codes of the father figure, and exerts pressure on Scott and Stiles from the inside. As Scott begins to lose his sense of Self, his conscience disappears with it.

The story of Stiles and Scott is of the equation of Self thrown out of balance, the drama is of watching the equation attempt to right itself. Since his craving is simply for a strong identity of any kind, and Scott is given no role models to emulate, he latches onto the strongest confident personality around him: Stiles. The true nature of the werewolf is confused, in the film's literal narrative, but in the psychodrama of Teen Wolf it begins to take on aspects of a bastard amalgamation of Scott's and Stiles' best traits. Scott nervously confesses his problem to Stiles in the pot-searching scene, and it is pointedly played as a parody of a homosexual coming out scene. A reaction shot of Stiles freezing in his tracks, and looking over his shoulder at his transformed friend, followed by a reveal of Scott breathless, hurt, and in fear of judgment, will be echoed later in the film. Stiles' reaction is disbelief, then glee that another creature as outrageous as himself, can exist in this world; even as he giggles over "T.W."'s existence, he is scheming a way to glom onto what he sees as potential publicity. Stiles does not realize it, but with his own role in the relationship threatened, he is both resisting and trying to right the imbalance.

Wolf in Stiles' clothing

Though Stiles is too individualistic and unpredictable for team sports, his pleasure in athletic movement through space and showmanship are the first things Scott swipes, as he suddenly bursts into wolf-form on the basketball court. In a musical montage cut to the soundtrack's anthemic cue "Way to Go", Scott gradually subsumes his friend's identity in small ways: first Stiles' fearless interfacing with other students of any and all social strata, race and gender. Then dancing and twirling. Eventually Scott dons the sunglasses central to Stiles' visual makeup.

* * * * *

SCENE STUDY: The Pizza Parlor

A brief waylay, to discuss the critical moment illustrated above. A celebratory scene in the pizza parlor interrupts a musical montage which chronicles Scott's rapid ascent to Beacontown superstardom, as he leads the basketball team through undefeated victories, and becomes a local celebrity. The musical montage immediately resumes after the scene, and it punctuates the sequence so oddly it draws attention to itself.

In the first screen shot, the restaurant waits in breathless anticipation of how Scott will react to the beer he has been handed. The characters stand frozen in tableau demonstrating their collective erotic spectatorship of Scott, and the manner by which their individual sense of self has been transformed by the Wolf. The Beacontown Beaver mascot has removed her costume head, replaced by the Wolf. Gina or Tina, part of an interchangeable pair of girls who dress identically and move in synchronization, is seen alone for the first time, indicating that established identities are beginning to shift and fracture. Boof, small and frightened, peers into the scene, shouldered out by hangers on. Chubby (Mark Holton), holds his uneaten slice of pizza, unable to complete the one action that defines him (unlike Boof and Stiles, he doesn't even have a real name), until he sees if the Wolf approves. Pamela tries to hold Scott's gaze, in chilly attempt at Lady MacBeth mode, but something more dire is about to happen than Pamela could comprehend in her single minded pursuit of personal glory. Stiles stares down at Scott in panic and despair: far worse than his sunglasses, the manic unpredictability at the core of Stiles' nature is about to be stolen. He raises his hands in surrender, as if to warn Scott off, but to no avail.


Scott sinks his fangs into the beer can, sending twin geysers of white foam onto the crowd, in a moment of triumphant release. In a discontinuity with the preceding shot, Styles' posture has changed, calmed. He is empty, deflated, defeated.
* * * * *

This is Nebraska: the transformation completed

Early in the film, Stiles encourages Scott to try out the van-top mimetic surfing, hoping to draw his friend out of his shell. "C'mon, you'd be the King of the Urban Surfin', baby!," he insists, and whether ironic foreshadowing or self-fulfilling prophecy, the signal that Stiles has been eclipsed by Scott's full moon is a recapitulation of the Urban Surfing scene. Stiles pulls up to the school, having traded in his own, highly identifiable multicolored Nova for a truck emblazoned with "Wolfmobile". In an embarrassing effort to reclaim his own schtick from Scott, Stiles has deepened the hole, and swapped part of his own iconography for a tool that can only inscribe more "Stiles" upon Scott's body. Scott excitedly mounts the van roof, pulling Stiles back, and smarmily growling "these waves are mine." Scott's reenactment of Stiles' "Surfin' U.S.A." bit includes more elaborate athletics, but can never be anything more than copycatting. And when Wolf Fever manages to land Scott a role in the school play, he is hilariously awful, with none of Stiles' flair for public performance demonstrated in the liquor store or kegger scenes. He manages to sleep with dream girl Pamela, but is awkward and timid, with none of the perverse sexual verve of Stiles, who dumps a bowl of Jell-O down a girl's shirt with chortling glee. Scott can steal Stiles' thunder, which in turn makes Stiles insecure and confused, but never gains an ounce of his invention or passion.

Two men at their lowest points

In the story of how Scott leeches off his friend's identity, and Stiles' misguided, vain struggle to recover his own, the pathetic, bottom-scraping moments for both characters are revealed by that great American rite of passage, the prom. Dressing up for his big date, an already Wolfed-out Scott, admires himself in the mirror, repeats a compliment Pamela gave him ("She's right: you are an animal!"), howls, and fades from the shot, leaving the bathroom empty. The scene has no counterparts in the film, making this moment of Scott's total dissolution of Self all the eerier and privileged.

At the dance, during a song called "Big Bad Wolf," presumably playing only because the school is obsessed with one Scott Howard, Stiles leaps forth from a conga-line, screams into the camera, and pulls open his jacket. The T-shirt beneath reveals that he, too, has lost himself as A-#1 Cheeseball, and is now only able to define himself in terms of his more popular friend. The shirt simply reads: "WOLF BUDDY".

The Self in Question 2: "Do the right thing, Scotty!"

The shot setups and emotional dynamic of the "coming out" scene return near the end of the film. Scott has seen the destruction and immorality he is excusing by losing himself in the Wolf; it is perhaps what Stiles would have become without the structure of Scott and Lewis' friendship. This time when he goes to his friend, it is to tell Stiles he will not be a werewolf any longer. Stiles has dropped all his money into Teen Wolf merchandise, and begs Scott not to give up the Wolf. At this nadir of his crisis, Stiles sees that the only vestiges of himself that remain are in Scott's twisted reflection, and selfish theft. And this time Scott looks over his shoulder, as Stiles stands wounded and afraid.

Teen Wolf never shows us the functioning friendship in full repair, or the psychological regeneration of Scott and Stiles, but it gestures toward a world set right again. A guilt-racked Scott learns to do without the Wolf, wins the basketball championship anyway, and in the end apparently makes right by his friends if only by hugging them and being himself. I remain concerned that Teen Wolf never decides what the Werewolf "means."  At times it is the empowered self, at others a repressed dark side, and sometimes simple adult responsibility. Since it manifests differently for Scott than for his stronger father, in the story about Scott and Stiles' symbiotic relationship, it may be most useful and interesting to consider the Wolf as an identity magnifier. In Scott's case, his insecurities and admiration of Stiles' total confidence cause him to warp and bend into a crazed mirror-Stiles. Who can blame him? The great contradiction that is Stiles begs for attention, and when you turn your head, his T-shirt asks "What are you looking at, Dicknose?"

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Jeeze Louise!: Notes on TEEN WOLF (1985)

Rialto Midnight Screening Report!

"Give me a keg of beer..."

I was entirely unaware of any burgeoning cult audience for Teen Wolf (1985), besides myself and my friends, until South Pasadena's historic and elegantly-trashed Rialto theater floated it as their Saturday midnight movie last weekend. After that sparsely-attended screening - mostly quiet but for a suspiciously rowdy and crowded 9th row - didn't do much to prove me wrong. Those held in thrall by the Rod Daniel-directed mind-boggler see it as more than a tepid, confused, rote and inoffensive kiddie horror comedy... it is the tepid, confused, rote horror comedy. Any minor generational obsession with Teen Wolf is probably the product of mushrooming '80s nostalgia, bolstered by comfy familiarity from endless cable TV airings and the patience of divergent irony-seekers. Constant catcalls and sarcastic applause (and possibly some non-sarcastic applause) for iconic moments at the Rialto show (and this writer has immunity from none of this behavior) more or less confirm Teen Wolf fans as gobbling up harmless but empty comfort food, even while gagging on it a little.

For the uninitiated, Teen Wolf reconfigures I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) as a teen high school sports comedy. Painfully average Beacontown, NE teen Scott Howard (Michael J Fox, filmed pre-Back to the Future) discovers he is the latest in a family lineage of werewolves. Able to transform at will and possessed of none of Larry Talbot's murderous instinct, Scott channels his wolf powers into phenomenal basketball skills, leads his team to the state finals, wins the lead in the play, lays the hottest girl in school, and becomes big man on campus. But at what cost?!

"... and these!"

The midnight movie has always been as much a forum for forwarding the cause of Bad Movie Appreciation as for subversive avant-garde art (if not a key locale where where they met, mingled and had babies well before "Notes on 'Camp'"). It is one of the natural tentacles of the midnight movie, coiling back further than the earliest screenings of Reefer Madness, to late-night spook shows attended by packs of howling teenagers. More and more, at least in the LA area, '80s pop movies are being programmed as midnight shows; all bases are covered, from the cream of the genre crop (Gremlins, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), to the camp non-classics (Teen Witch), to those where nostalgia-trippers-only need apply (Flight of the Navigator). I'm always a little troubled by the lumping together of the genuinely witty, the successful broad comedy and refuse that I'm happy to laugh at-but-not-with (it's how Danger: Diabolik ends up on "Mystery Science Theater 3000"), but the ideology of midnight movies has always been tangled; "troubling" is at the core of the appeal.

There's a lot about Teen Wolf that fulfills the needs of the '80s junk collector, as it abounds with high-waisted elastic cuff jeans, rolled-up sleeves, breakdancing, lots of plastic sunglasses, and eardrum-numbing soundtrack approximations of Randy Newman, "Stayin Alive" and Carly Simon. These are natural, if endearingly silly, byproducts of aiming a film at a contemporary youth market, and while Teen Wolf's surface decorations are particularly choice, I'd imagine there's only so many times you can laugh at how tight someone's pants are. To be sure, the pacing is stultifying, the cinematography ugly, the special effects makeup poor for its era, the attempts at South Pasadena standing in for Nebraska transparent and ridiculous. Having spent, well, frankly, a lot of time with the film, I believe the most astounding elements of Teen Wolf lie in profound flaws in its storytelling from basic premise to character motivation to thematic concerns.

Though the inspiration was surely to create a comic twist on I Was a Teenage Werewolf, that film already fully explored the metaphor of lycanthropy-as-adolescence, addressing the physical transformation, sexual awakening, and potential for adult violence. Teen Wolf works this idea for a few scenes: a near date-rape of Scott's gal pal Boof (Susan Ursetti) in which Scott sprouts claws during a makeout party game, and a great setpiece for the first full wolf transformation wherein the sweaty kid locks himself in the john as his father bangs on the door. "Uh no, Dad, I'm ... doing... something in here!" Fox warbles, and mutters "I'll say!" to himself. But the script drops this idea to fill the requirements of the basketball plot, where werewolfism simply unleashes hidden reservoirs of athletic talent. Scott's father, Harold (James Hampton of numerous TV guest roles) first suggests the werewolf is a manifestation of untapped personal potential ("with greater power comes a greater responsibility", he advises), only to later recant and indicate it corresponds with dark emotions, fear, rage and loss of control. It's all very confused, even down to what causes Scott to transform (full moons, anger, horniness and absolutely nothing, at various times) and what being a werewolf means in a literal sense. He is certainly not imbued with wolfish hunting instincts or a danger to others, so it's hard to buy the conclusion that the werewolf must be suppressed.

I can go on and on - why would the basketball team suddenly be good at the climax of the film when they couldn't even score before? Why is the revelation that rival b-baller Mick (Mark Arnold), murdered Scott's mother, and indeed "blew her head off with a shotgun", glossed over as normal small town villain backstory? Basically Teen Wolf tries so hard to follow so many templates that it gets its wires crossed in ways that must be seen to be believed, and seen repeatedly to be untangled in full. The whole enterprise is gloriously screwed-up in a rare way that is usually ignored in favor of fans laughing at Fox's ZZ Top-esque wolf makeup.

Jay Tarses as Coach Bobby Finstock, unrepentant slob

After enough time spent with Teen Wolf, there are some clever intentional touches to appreciate. The film opens on a glowing orb, and Scott's sweat-drenched, gasping face slides into the shot; a shock cut reveals the scene as a basketball game joined in progress, the stand-in full moon merely an out-of-focus overhead light in the gymnasium. There's a laugh-out-loud misdirect when Scott steps out his front door, and freezes when a dog on the lawn seems to say "hello!", before he realizes Boof is sitting on the porch, trying to get his attention. In two scenes, rolling objects are intercepted by disapproving authority figures: first a roll of packing tape and later an empty can. None of this modest flare makes up for the myriad of sins, but it inclines a viewer to more generosity.

As a comedy Teen Wolf is pretty anemic, except for two fun performances. Scott Paulin plays drama teacher Mr. Lolley with comical spurt and stutter line readings that rescue the character from dull stereotype. Jay Tarses is absolutely inspired as the disinterested basketball coach Bobby Finstock, armed with surely improvisation-embellished dialogue. Whether chewing gum was he shaves and eats fried chicken at his desk, or advising the boys that win or lose, it's how you play, "and even that doesn't matter that much", Tarses' role is the only entirely successful element of Teen Wolf.

NEXT on Exploding Kinetoscope: More Teen Wolf! A Celebration of Stiles

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Rip-Off Alert: PRETTY IN PINK: Everything's Duckie Edition

Besides falling prey to the trend of obnoxious variations on "special edition", last week's spanking new and spakly (literally) DVD Pretty in Pink: Everything's Duckie Edition commits one serious crime. Sending the pulse of any John Hughes fan racing is the back of box copy: THE ORIGINAL ENDING: The Lost Dance. That's a word-for-word quote. So though there is everything on-hand a Pink Head could want, including genuinely informative production featurettes and a Howard Deutch director's commentary, the Holy Grail of PiP is, like, totally M.I.A. The original ending, in which Jon Cryer's Smiths fan motormouth nancy boy character Duckie ends up in the arms of Ringwald's scrappy thrift store princess, Andie, is simply not on the DVD. There is discussion of the scene, there is explanation for the test audience approved replacement, where Andrew McCarthy's flare-nostrilled blank-slate Young Republican Blane (BLANE? His name is Blane?!) earns Andie's heart... by doing nothing whatsoever.... but "the original ending" itself is not present, boldface type promise or no.

It's hard not to recommend the disc otherwise, because it's a generous package at such a low price-point (online retailers price it at less than $9). It's also interesting that this slightly cultier Hughes title was given an upgrade before the more wildly popular Breakfast Club or mega-smash Home Alone: someone knows the audience for Pretty in Pink pretty well. With limited interest in production featurettes unless they're particularly forthwith, all I really needed was a Deutch commentary, and never expected the original ending to be touched by projector light or laser-beam again anyway. I suspect other fans of this sensitive and sweet film feel the same; we didn't need such glittery bait, so why the cruel switch?

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.