Desperate Living

Desperate Living (1977) movie poster

(1977) dir. John Waters
viewed: 11/17/08

At the beginning of the year, I gave myself two main themes to explore in my movie watching for 2008: samurai films and John Waters’ movies.  Desperate Living is one of his features that I had never seen for whatever reason, his only major film made during Divine’s lifetime that didn’t include his muse.

Following Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living is another cultural critique, but also a vaguely Wizard of Oz-like fantasy.  Crass and raunchy as his earlier films, it’s not necessarilly quite as pleasing, perhaps from the lack of Divine, who carries the other films through their mondo-camp to the nth degree.  Waters is left here with a couple of key staples, Mink Stole as a neurotic psycho from the wealthy part of Baltimore forced to slum it on the lam after accidentally killing her husband with the help of her obese African-American maid.  She runs afoul of Mortville, a shantytown kingdom in the Maryland woods, run by Waters stalwart Edith Massey as a meglomaniacal queen who forces everyone to worship her, with her leathermen police force.

But the story centers on women who have killed, featuring a couple flashbacks that illustrate the stories of Mole (Susan Lowe) and Muffy (Liz Renay), the lesbian couple who ultimately overthrow the evil queen.  There is a strong, still wonderfully politically incorrect approach not just to female empowerment but to lesbian empowerment, including an interesting and gruesome trope about a would-be, though ultimately unnecessary sex change.

Waters seems to have wanted to amplify the shock value.  Some of it is hilarious, namely the baby in the refrigerator.  There is a lot of extraneous nudity, some gore (eyeball popping out and getting stepped on), and a gun being shot up someone’s anus.  Shock value indeed.  And fun, largely.  Filmed in 1976 and released in 1977, the world was finally catching up with Waters.  Punk rock.  To me, Pink Flamingos was about as punk rock as you get, and it wasn’t just the shocks, it was the much richer social criticism.  It’s still alive in Desperate Living, just a bit more muddled and a little less potent.  Still, I soldier on.  There is more John Waters to see.

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