NOTE: At the time of this review I believed that New Line would not be including the scratch and sniff Odorama card. It turns out that they are including the Odorama card, although they didn't include it with review copies. I have edited this review to reflect that information... And now back to our regularly scheduled program...
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
John Waters seems to be the only filmmaker around that
has been making movies for over three decades and
hasn't learned a thing about filmmaking. That's not to
say that he is a bad filmmaker, just that his movies
revel in their shoddy production values and halting
storytelling. In 1980, eight years after his notorious
Pink Flamingos, however, he did the unthinkable: He started
making slicker films.
Even so, slick for Waters is still pretty raw. His fabulous Polyester owes as much to
the 50's Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk as it does to the gimmicky hucksterism
of William Castle. You see, Polyester was "filmed" is Odorama, which just means
that whenever a number appeared on the screen the audience was supposed to scratch the
appropriate circle on their Odorama card and get a whiff of something in the scene. Of
course, this mostly meant farts, skunks, and rotten shoes. Amazingly, the Odorama card
is being included with the DVD (it was also included with Criterion's laserdisc) so the film can be experienced as it was originally intended. The Odorama card was not included with the reviewer copy, so I cannot review the smells themselves, but you can be sure that they will stink.
What makes Polyester so special, however, is that it exists in such a cinematically
sophisticated world. Not to take away from Waters' earlier achievements, but the sight of a
300 pound drag queen eating dog poo in a grainy, dirty, home-movie style film, while still
shocking, seems appropriate. Almost inevitable. But the madness that takes place in
Polyester seems to have burst through the subconscious of grander, higher budget
films and torn a Hollywood story apart. It's almost as if this is what the characters in films
like Written on the Wind are really thinking and it wouldn't really be until
Jon Moritsugu's Terminal USA (1993), which owes a lot to Polyester, that
the suburban family would be so crazily and funnily exploded again.
The story concerns Francine Fishpaw (Divine in one of his first real acting jobs), who's
being driven crazy by her porn theater owning husband (David Samson), glue-sniffing
foot-stomping son (Ken King), and skanky, pregnant daughter (Mary Garlington). Her life
becomes a downward spiral of alcoholism, abandonment, and violence, until the handsome
Todd Tomorrow (amazingly played by 50's hunk Tab Hunter) enters her life. Filled with
fantastic performances from Divine, Samson, Garlington, Waters regular Mink Stole, and
the inimitable Edith Massey as Francine's only friend Cuddles, and crammed with brilliant
dialog (like Garlington's "I'm having an abortion and I can't wait!"), Polyester has
the ability to entertain after a million viewings.
Waters' Desperate Living (1977) still belongs to his earlier, more disgusting period,
especially in those years after Pink Flamingos when he must have felt some need to
out-gross that film's final moments. Serious Waters fans consider Desperate Living
his most disgusting film and it may very well be. Unfortunately it's marred by some truly
wrong use of real dead animals, something that seems out of character for Waters who
usually makes fun of more deserving targets, like nuns, anti-abortion picketers, and
suburban hypochondriacs. (Although a dead dog in the film comes courtesy of my
Baltimore alma mater, Johns Hopkins, where animal experiments are a part of life. So
who's got the bad taste again?) Still, the opening scenes of Desperate Living contain
some of the funniest material Waters has ever filmed. Mink Stole, in a truly unhinged
performance, and Jean Hill, who had a small but memorable role in Polyester, form a
sort of Imitation of Life-meets-Baise-Moi partnership that is just insane.
When they get pulled over by a cop with a secret (played by someone named Turkey Joe)
the scene becomes so absurd so fast that the film almost seems to be derailing itself. Once
the two heroines reach the film's destination, Mortville, a repository for the dregs of society,
however, the film settles into a repetitive groove that never quite reaches the heights of the
opening. Still, there are a number of all-time gross-outs, like a quickie sex-change with bad
results and some truly unusual sex scenes. The film is a cavalcade of perversion, with cross dressing, cannibalism, necrophilia, eyeball-gouging, nudity of every kind, child endangerment, smothering, rabies, and bad 70's clothes. Plus, Desperate Living gives Massey a
chance to play a villain, the evil fascist Queen Carlotta, who spouts insults at everyone and
demands sexual satisfaction. Massey was an amazing woman who really needs to be seen
to be believed. The amazing thing is that Waters never condescends to her. She always
seems to be having a ball.
Still, the seeds of Waters' obsession with Sirk can be seen briefly in Desperate
Living, particularly in the opening credit sequence. And, since Waters peaked with
's unique smell-o-drama, it's a perfect match. In the years since then Waters' films have
become increasingly isolated, to the point that 1999's Cecil B. Demented makes fun
of specific Baltimore citizens, jokes that can really only be understood by a tiny group of
moviegoers with roots in the local film scene.
The video looks pretty good, but has a fair amount of dirt on the print. Still, these are films
that have been pretty beat up over time. I've never seen Criterion's laserdisc of
Polyester, so I can't compare this disc to that release, but the improvement over the
VHS is strong. Polyester is in widescreen, Desperate Living, which was shot in 16mm is full screen.
The audio for both films is pretty rough. Polyester is available in the original mono
and in a remixed stereo. Desperate Living is only available in mono. Both films have
As I mentioned earlier, the Odorama card is included. That's about the best extra that could have been included with this feature. After years of odorless viewings, Polyester has finally been returned to its original glory.
Waters' commentaries are among the best and these both deliver. On both films he
discusses virtually every aspect of the films, from the ridiculous stories behind certain lines,
to the casts, to the budgets. He is virtually nonstop. He is joined by (or, rather, edited
together with) Liz Renay, whose West Coast burlesque background made her the first
Waters cast member from outside his Baltimore cronies. She starts the track babbling
incoherently about her life but once the film hits Mortville she becomes very funny,
soliciting Waters for more roles and talking about which costumes she hated the most.
Overall it is a very entertaining track.
Original trailers are included for each film.
John Waters' Baltimore brand of lunacy occupies a special place in the hearts of a lot of
midnite movie maniacs and everyone has their own favorite. Polyester is his most
satisfying film from a perspective of mixing storytelling, characters, and outrage, while
Desperate Living may very well be his most disgusting. Fans of his more recent
movies should definitely check this set out. Desperate Living makes a great late
night showing, especially the opening scenes which demand repeat viewing.
Polyester, on the other hand, is something that can be played over and over until the
end of time.
Other films by John Waters:
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble