By Christopher Sharrett.
Anyone viewing Polyester for the first time might be a little confused: hasn’t all this been done before? Satires or eviscerations of the suburbs have been standard fare for at least forty years. But if the viewer is watching this splendid new Criterion Blu-ray, s/he might turn the box over. The film appeared in 1981, long before Blue Velvet, American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, Pleasantville, and all the rest. And I think I can say that the estimable John Waters covers most of the bases of his successors, from tasteless Fifties décor (Waters makes the best use of that decade of supposed plentitude as, instead, an object of scorn) to twisted sexual behavior that supposedly shocked readers of Kinsey. Waters doesn’t attack his subject obliquely, suggesting a “mystery” to the ‘burbs (Lynch); he rips it to shreds with broad, vulgar humor flowing from a wit both discerning and intelligent.
Middle-class life was always Waters’ subject, beginning with his 1972 triumph Pink Flamingos, the title of which is perfectly evocative, not only of American bad taste in lawn furnishings, but the nation’s general lunacy. Plastic flamingos even if one lives in a city? (I must confess to owning a few.) Pink Flamingos is in part a tour of the seedier sides of Baltimore, Waters’ beloved home base, led by childhood friend Glenn Milstead, transformed by Waters into the blond-bouffanted, morbidly obese drag actor immortalized as Divine. Divine died all too soon (1988), from the obesity that in part made his character; it is fair to say that his outrageous presence in Waters’ early films made the director’s name – Pink Flamingos was one of the very first midnight movies, a cult hit that inspired audience participation, especially mass gagging at the finale, when Divine consumes newly deposited dog feces. If any one scene by Waters evokes him to the average fan, it is no doubt this. Waters is one of the American cinema’s authentic provocateurs, who never strains at being one.
Waters in fact organized many of his Baltimore friends into a troupe (I have to summon Ingmar Bergman) called the “Dreamlanders,” all of whom actually served his films well. Waters used at least some of them into the period when he broke big with Hairspray, one of his gentler, socially conscious comedies eventually made into a hit musical, making Waters a millionaire, and, for some, destroying his status as a provocateur and avant-gardist.
Waters’ career as a filmmaker seems to have ended with the flops of Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame, both undeservedly ignored but almost as funny and outrageous (especially the latter) as his early scatologic triumphs. And Serial Mom has perhaps Waters’ most acute eye for ripped-from-the headlines satire – the movie tells us all we need know about the fascination with the OJ Simpson case.
Polyester marks Waters’ first attempt to break big, shot with a fortune (compared to his early films), featuring a screen star of yesteryear, Tab Hunter – some thought, incorrectly, that this was Hunter’s coming-out film. This wasn’t really the case, but it’s fun to think the opposite since he did come out long before his death in 2018. And since in this film Hunter plays Divine’s lover, I doubt he would mind he had affection for his role and his co-star. His full story is told in the perceptive and never-sarcastic documentary Tab Hunter Confidential.
Polyester is also Waters’ homage to the exploitation filmmakers Waters loved as a kid, in this case especially William Castle, famous for come-on gimmicks like having a skeleton fly out of a wall (House on Haunted Hill) or placing buzzers under certain theater seats to make audience members think they are being attacked by the onscreen monster (The Tingler). Waters’ version of all this is Odorama, consisting of a scratch-and-sniff card featuring numbers that will appear onscreen during the show. One scratches the corresponding number on the card to have one’s senses assaulted by the odor of pizza, old sneakers, and things I’d rather not recall. It is to Criterion’s credit that they gave us not only a glowing transfer of the film but this rarefied technology.
But the biggest come-on for the film is Divine playing against type (and wonderfully so) as Francine Fishpaw, a beside-herself Baltimore housewife troubled by the antics of her husband, owner of a porn theater, a son who is a foot-fetishizing household chemical sniffer, and a daughter who is militantly pro-choice even as Francine prays to the Virgin Mary. Her house is picketed by born-again types, and she is terrified that her middle-class life will be torn asunder. Her reward for her long-suffering forbearance is a cornpone stud named Tom Tomorrow (Hunter), who sweeps Francine off her feet even as he is revealed as a hayseed moron to the audience.
Waters gives us some film history instruction by imitating the excesses of Douglas Sirk’s expressionist lighting in Fifties films like All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. We come to realize that Sirk was a full-blown satirist of American middle-class life before the species was fully born; he gave the audience and the studio what it wanted (“weepies”) while giving the middle finger to same. This isn’t to say that Waters wasn’t needed.
Waters’ comedy succeeds with excess, with showing spite for things that people like Sirk could only poke at in their day. We all know that Christmas, the holiday most respectful of the family because it celebrates the holiest family, is the backdrop for some of the most traumatic melodramas, like Max Ophuls’ masterpiece The Reckless Moment, or All That Heaven Allows. In Waters’ masterpiece Female Trouble (also on Criterion), the Christmas tree isn’t merely sitting ironically in the background: it topples over on people, pinning a woman to the floor.
But is Waters a real avant-garde provocateur, or merely another exploitation-peddler, like his early heroes? After all, where is his Un Chien Andalou? To the latter I would say: look at his whole oeuvre. He has had gallery exhibitions with works like Three Assholes and a Dirty Foot, images cribbed from porn films. Yes, Waters has successfully blown up the pretenses – and ridiculous prices – of the postmodern gallery world. He lampoons it – thoughtfully – in This Filthy World, the title of his stand-up act (also on DVD).
I hope Waters keeps working, if not in film than in other forms, since he’s become the master of the audiobook with Carsick and Mister Know-it-All, books I play while driving. I laugh out loud at what he says, something that pomo comedy never makes me do – I have never even smiled at Ellen Degeneres. In Mister, he goes after the woes of airtravel, the ridiculousness of Brutalism (with its popular public buildings made of raw concrete), the doll he formally adopted, and speaks of in the most heartfelt terms.
There was a book many years ago about JFK called A Hero for Our Times. That label now belongs to Waters. So get acquainted with everything he does, including his early black-and-white adventure Multiple Maniacs (another Criterion, something that amazes Waters, after years of asking for pennies), one of the films proving how committed he has always been, starting out in Super 8mm and proceeding with any medium he could get his hands on, and always with the same school chums who were there at the beginning. How many “respected” artists can say the same thing?
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.