If Russ Meyer’s last three films of the seventies were a reckoning of his career and his views on sex and sexuality as the golden age of pornography pushed him out of the market, Pandora Peaks, Meyer’s direct-to-video final film from 2002, was a way to reckon with the first half of his career, namely the nudie cuties and mondo documentaries where he made his cinematic bones. The problem with this gambit was that nobody needed or asked for a reckoning of that period of his life as those films are given forever mulligans and respectfully described as relics and historical curios from a less-enlightened age. Absolutely nobody was (nor are they still) waiting for the ultimate say on the nudie-cutie except for maybe the most hardcore nostalgic you’d ever have the displeasure to meet. It would be akin to an underground filmmaker from the early 90’s shooting their farewell piece on a Fisher Price PXL2000 camera just for the sheer nostalgia of it.
Reflecting the films from his nascent days as a filmmaker, Pandora Peaks has a scant 71 minute runtime but you’d never know it because it simply doesn’t go down as easily as his earliest work due to a lack of variety and the film’s haphazard jostling between markedly different ideas, none of which share a cohesive center. On its most base level, this is a showcase for exotic dancer Pandora Peaks, the namesake of the whole project. On a whole other level, this is a spoken-word addendum to A Clean Breast, his three-volume autobiography which is itself an unwieldy and undisciplined endeavor.
But it’s ultimately difficult to describe Pandora Peaks as anything but a sad, unfortunate mess; an immensely depressing vision of sundowning on celluloid. Given that it was an official release, it has to be considered as part of Meyer’s official body of work but it will always have a mental asterisk next to it in the same way that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman will as neither work was created by people in their best and soundest of minds. For by the time Pandora Peaks was released, Meyer’s health had been long in decline and it wouldn’t be long after its release that he would barely recognize old friends, his mind sadly ravaged by dementia.
Pandora Peaks is the end result of a couple of film projects that were begun and abandoned since the early eighties (including Mondo Topless Too which was to star Kitten Natividad) and, as should be expected, ALL of the photography is stellar. And while the editing is sharp and unmistakably Russ Meyer’s, even an aged Jerry Quarry had enough muscle memory to show a little life in his stance and jab when he couldn’t begin fathom what day it was nor spell his name when given a pen.
Pandora Peaks tries to run through Meyer’s history but it has no real care for narrative or anything else and it quickly becomes a repetitive bore. Russ narrates the film in a clear-throated delivery but it lacks the same kind of bombast John Furlong brought to the game. Sweetly enough, Anthony-James Ryan is back in his coveralls and hat, tying the whole thing back to Eve and the Handyman, Meyer’s second film. (the tree surgery gag gets lovingly reused). Also in the mix are Paul Fox and Rufus Owens, two of Meyer’s Army pals and embodiments of one of the most important periods of Meyer’s life.
But the film’s biggest issue is Pandora Peaks herself. Uninteresting, dull, and too calculated by half, Pandora Peaks is just a grotesque mockery of the Meyer woman. In all of his previous work, the women felt so exotic, special, and unique. One could probably stand on any L.A. or Las Vegas street corner, throw a rock, and hit ten exotic dancers who look like Pandora Peaks.
In Mondo Topless, the interviews were actually decently insightful about how these women found themselves into their profession and mastered it after significant hardship. Pandora Peaks looks and sounds so manufactured in a specific way that makes it hard to see her as genuine or care about anything she has to say. She seems to be everything and nothing. She’s the girl next door but she’s outrageous. She loves sex but is super shy. But she’s not shy enough to talk about how to tweak her nipples and rub her breasts to turn her on. Getting to make her scream is hard but she now screams all the time. Jesus, lady. Pick a lane.
Like David Cronenberg’s debut, Stereo, there is often an incongruity between sound and image in Pandora Peaks with only a slight merging of the two every now and again. Ultimately, one of the biggest examples is what Pandora looks like versus what she’s saying in the narration. When she talks about her development and how outrageously large she was as a teenager and young woman, it’s hard to tell how much of this is the truth given just HOW augmented she is. It feels like there is a sleazy plexiglass window between the audience and Pandora Peaks where, for the price of admission, she will spin a biographical tale and a full historical dossier with her contemporary thoughts for those who really feel like the person on the other end of that glass really cares about them and would never tell them a half-truth or lie.
Not all of this film is sullied by Pandora Peaks. In fact, a good half of it is footage from various European locations cross-cut with the billowing movements of Tundi, a Euro model three times the Meyer woman Pandora was. In fact, had Pandora Peaks been taken out of Pandora Peaks and replaced by Tundi doing every single thing Pandora does with nothing but Meyer talking about his entire history intercut with the European second unit stuff, his war buddies, more footage of Candy Samples (who inexplicably turns up in some early 80’s footage in the last three minutes), and Anthony-James Ryan, this would have been a much more interesting and noble effort. As it is, it recalls the final moments of Capone from 1975 with Ben Gazzara as the camera pulls back and it reveals a man sitting poolside with enough money to live comfortably but babbling to himself as syphilitic dementia wraps itself around what’s left of his mind. Like him or loathe him, hero or villain, witnessing anyone in decline isn’t the pleasantest of things.
And, unfortunately, that’s all Pandora Peaks is. Russ would pass away two years later with a legacy that was beyond secure despite Pandora Peaks being part of it. Taken with the rambling autobiography, it’s an lamentable piece of work but not an entirely unrevealing one. Like a Jackson Pollack of tits, war buddies, Europe, past glories, historical failures, and lifetime regrets, the material produced in the last twenty years of Russ’s life, Pandora Peaks included, is best considered one big, indecipherable explanation of his epitaph “I was glad to do it,” itself the perfect and most succinct capper he could have ever crafted to explain a life lived to the fullest.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain