I’ve never been one for objective blogging, but there are occasions worthy of exception. This is one of those occasions. October is, undeniably and irrevocably, the best month of the entire year.* Hands down. Bar none. That being said, expect some serious posting this month. I’m talking about a genuine onslaught of pure kitsch, camp, fright, and foliage. And, in true frightful fashion, I’m going to kick us off with a doozy of suggestion: John Waters.
I know what some of you are thinking: “There’s nothing scary about Hairspray!” And you would be correct. But let’s not forget Waters’ illustrious career in shock. He is, after all, the undisputed King of Filth. We can only surmise Hairspray happened during an off year for Waters’, otherwise indie film buffs everywhere would be out one tall, gangly, potentially criminal hero.
I know what the rest of you are thinking, too: “If this guy is about to suggest I watch that awful, disgusting film Pink Flamingos…” And one could argue you’re correct in your outrage. Therefore, rest assured there will be no ingesting of that most foul of excrement on this blog. There will, however, be plenty of bad taste. What’s life without a little satire?
Waters’ career can be traced back to humble beginnings in the remarkably classy (see: working class) city of Baltimore, Maryland. As a young man, Waters befriended neighbor and fellow outcast Glenn Milstead (also known as the rattling roller coaster of a drag queen Divine); and the rest is history. Starting with Mondo Trasho (1969)–a surreal glimpse into the lives of a crazed hit-and-run driver and her soon-to-be chicken-footed victim–the pair offered up a slew of warped perceptions of Baltimore and, by extension, the suburban middle class. This skewed and arguably artful perception is further showcased in Desperate Livng (1977). As a film, Desperate Living offers little in the way of production; but what it lacks in technical panache it more than makes up for in storytelling finesse. This delightful train wreck follows the lives of Peggy Gravel, a crackpot suburban housewife, and her murderous maid, Grizelda Brown, as they are exiled to live in the filthiest part of Baltimore. So, if you have a strong backbone and the idea of an Evil Trash Queen intrigues you, come check out a copy from the library.**
While Waters’ has continued working under the same thematic arch well into the 21st century, it’s clear that there is a pivotal moment in his career, at which point he switches gears and begins producing films more palatable for the general public (i.e. Hairspray). Lucky for us, Max Chambers is home to a copy of that turning point, the film which bridged the gap between pure shock value and quasi-permissible cultural critique: Ployester (1981). In relation to Waters’ other works, Polyester is equatorial in the sense that it exists at dead center yet doesn’t disappoint in making mild-mannered audiences sweat. This is a film which makes an earnest attempt to welcome the fringe of the mainstream community. The production is glossier, the acting is more professional (evident from the casting of former heartthrob Tab Hunter), and the plot is at least somewhat believable. I won’t spoil it for you, but if anyone’s unfazed by pornographer husbands and discontented, cross-dressing wives I suggest you come pick up a copy immediately. After all, it’s nearly Halloween and we should all know nothing’s scarier (or more strangely realistic) than a dysfunctional family.
With all that said, don’t expect anything tame from the Pope of Trash. Thankfully, that’s what October and Halloween are for, movies you’d otherwise never take home to Mama. If you haven’t been scared off yet, you’re exactly the type of person who could glean from a Waters’ film what’s intended to be gleaned. I think Roger Ebert put it best when he spoke about Waters’ magnum opus (and decidedly grossest film), Pink Flamingos: “It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or as an object.”
*There’s really no use arguing this point with me.
**All John Waters films currently in the collection are only available on VHS