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John Waters Collection 2: Polyester / Desperate Living

New Line // R // September 4, 2001
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted July 10, 2001 | E-mail the Author

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...

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 Polyester '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 subtitles.

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.

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.

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:
Pink Flamingos / Female Trouble

Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.

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