(1981) director John Waters
A couple of years back, I started on a John Waters retrospective, one of my many “tropes” of film-viewing. I’d watched Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977) before getting hung up on not being able to land a copy of Polyester. At the time, the film had gone out of print, I guess, Netflix didn’t have it, the local video store didn’t have it. And since I’d started to watch his films in the order they were released, I got kind of caught up on not being able to see it.
Well, now I’ve got a GreenCine account, and I landed the film. And now I see that it’s available again on Netflix! Oh well.
Polyester was a big step toward the mainstream for Waters. His first film shot in 35 mm (his other films were blown-up for the format), his first film with a major movie star (Tab Hunter), albeit past his truly marketable days. And while still super-low budget, the film attempts homages to two Waters cinema icons, Douglas Sirk and William Castle. All that and another romp on the American middle class nuclear family.
Whereas Waters’ early films were outrageous, crass, scatological, reaching far beyond irreverence, all while starting in the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s, much more of the world was catching up. As I’ve noted before, his aesthetics and attitude embody a great deal of the punk rock sensibility, while also steeped in queer culture as well. And by 1981, when Polyester was released, punk rock’s initial arc was complete, and if to show how in tune the two were, Polyester features Stiv Bators of the punk band The Dead Boys, playing a teenage rebel.
The story is about the Fishpaws, particularly Francine Fishpaw (Divine), mother of a glue-sniffing, foot fetishig boy, a bratty tramp of a daughter who gets knocked up and wants to have an abortion, and wife to a cheating owner of Baltimore’s own porn movie theater. When the film opens, the town is protesting them, and Francine’s good Christian American beliefs a tested, big time.
In the Douglas Sirk vein, the film is a tribute/lampoon of the “Women’s picture”, a seemingly benign genre in which a woman’s place in middle America was tested through a great deal of drama. Sirk’s films, while appearing to define a certain 1950’s quality of America, were also quite critical and subversive in their ways. But certainly not subversive in the John Waters tradition.
As to the William Castle experience, when the film was originally released, it was done so in “Odorama”, which included the addition of scratch and sniff cards that the audience was instructed to utilize with numbers appearing on the screen. These aromas include skunk, farts, and dirty shoes, alongside more conventional pizza and roses. Like Castle’s films, which had a variety of “in theater” gimmicks, the *ahem* qualities are lost on DVD. Only the number signals remain.
As Francine’s life goes from bad to worse, she becomes an alcoholic, drinking whatever she can get her hands on. But she eventually meets Todd Tomorrow, the studly Tab Hunter, with whom she develops a mad love affair. He seems to be everything she ever needed. He owns a drive-in that shows only “art” films.
Also amusing is Waters’ use of Edith Massey in this film. In his other films, she’s on display like a freak in a freakshow, and hamming it up big time. In Polyester, she’s a maid who was left millions by one of her employers, and while she’s still Massey in looks and delivery, the good natured Cuddles is Francine’s best friend. She gets to wear all sort of posh outfits, which seem a hilarious contrast to her usual outfits.
Waters has a lot of play in this film, and while nothing reaches the “out there” magic of Pink Flamingos, Polyester is pretty rich and pretty fun. It’s kind of a wonder what he would have done with a real budget back then, but his whole character as a film-maker was hewn in the no-budget arena. As I noted in writing about Desperate Living, pop culture had been catching up with him by 1981. Not only does he have Tab Hunter and Stiv Bators, but Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie wrote some songs for the soundtrack, of which Hunter sings the title track. Interestingly, Bill Murray sings another.
Now with Polyester out of the way, I can carry on my John Waters retrospective. Which I will. And lastly I’ll note that listening to his commentary track is actually quite a lot of fun itself.