Beyond Trash Art

DIRECTOR: John Waters/1981

polyster 1The 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival ended on a high note, or perhaps I should say a sweet aroma, with its Thursday night showing of John Waters’ 1981 Polyester. In its original Odorama, no less! Yes, the scratch-and-sniff smells of “roses” (#1), “pizza” (#4), “new car” (#8), “skunk” (#6), and, of course, “flatulence” (#2) wafted through Sundance Cinema 6 as the appropriate number flashed on-screen, providing olfactory depth to an audience’s experience of the story well beyond the meager third dimension, and culminating in the aromatic bliss in the film’s final moments of “air freshener” (#10). (Which I suppose is in way of being a “smell spoiler”, for which I apologize.)

Kidding aside, the suffering saga of harried housewife Francine Fishpaw (played by the utterly unique Divine) is possibly Waters’ trash masterpiece, an R-Rated parody of such 50s-era “woman’s dramas” as those made by his cinematic idol Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), combined with the inspired gimmickry of ballyhoo 50s showman William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler); the latter of whose films showcased such memorable “screen processes” as Emergo (a glow-in-the-dark skeleton floating above the audience on a wire) and Percepto (electric buzzers attached under theater seats to give audience members a “jolt”). Made between the X- or Unrated, fiercely-independent features of his early career, such as Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), featuring activities, situations, and even characters that one would not be able to remotely describe on a family-friendly website, and the more (wider) audience-friendly satires of his later career like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), Polyester comes at a point of transition for Waters, and has been unfairly pegged as his “bid for the mainstream.”

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It’s not, really. From Francine’s porno theater-operating, philandering husband, Elmer (David Samson) to her fetishist son Dexter (Ken King), who is a serial “foot stomper”, to her out-of-control daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) to Lu-Lu’s punk-murderer boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators), along with the protagonist’s own delirious struggles with her weight and alcoholism, Waters may have moved the setting of his comic melodrama from Baltimore’s slums to its suburbs, but his trash vision par excellence remains untempered by a few miles of geography. What Polyester is, though, is Waters’ first movie with a bona fide star, 50s heartthrob Tab Hunter, who plays successfully against type as the unctuous Todd Tomorrow. (Really, his love scenes with oversized “fleshpot” Divine are certainly among the most unforgettable this film fan has ever witnessed.) Also on-hand is the incomparable Edith Massey, a former barmaid John Waters and his Dreamlander friends “discovered” at a local Baltimore watering hole, whose performance as the “world’s oldest debutante”, Cuddles Kovinsky, gives the film its unexpected heart as she attempts to cheer friend Francine with platitudes rendered in her indescribable, sing-songy delivery.

Most of all, this is Divine’s show, and the film simply wouldn’t work without him/her. Whereas in previous Waters’ movies s/he had played “glamorous” outlaws and height-of-fashion queens, here Divine essays the more (relatively) “normal” role of a suburban housewife in a Liz Taylor-wig. Gone are the arched eyebrows scrawled to the top of her forehead and the form-fitting red-lobster dresses of previous roles (which, by the way, became the basis for the character design of the Disney villainess Ursula in 1989’sThe Little Mermaid), her more sedate Francine could undoubtedly blend in with the sea of ample women trudging up the aisles with a shopping cart at the local supermarket or sitting reading a romance paperback at the neighborhood laundromat. Cooing, crying, cleaning, air-freshening, drinking (Cuddles memorably calls her “the drinking-est gal I ever did see”), and generally anguish-ing her way through 90 minutes of screen time, it’s amazing when one looks back at Polyester to consider how a heavy-set man could so successfully embody in his/her 300-pound frame the All-American Woman.

Similar to the celebration of feminine normality Divine’s Francine engenders, along with the hard-won “triumph” the story ultimately gives her, the “charm” in Charm City, Maryland’s own Baltimore, is the tackiness and unapologetic enthusiasm for beehive hair-dos, women who call everyone “hon”, and, well, the sexy veneer of ‘polyester’ itself. I’d identify two American cult movie directors, John Waters and David Lynch, whose films are evocations of “America”, warts and all, and celebrate both its surface of “normality” along with its sordid underbelly. Whether its Twin Peaks, Lumberton, or the more, um, “bohemian” neighborhoods of this major American city, the special feeling of, say, a movie that includes a drive-in theater that only shows “first-run art films” or a Catholic home for “unwed mothers” – whose nuns take its mothers-to-be on hayrides in the middle of a thunderstorm – might make us take a second look at our own apparently uneventful lives and perceive the wonderful weirdness lurking within.

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