Pity poor Francine Fishpaw, a would-be domestic goddess, finds herself surrounded by a wretched, ungrateful family determined to humiliate her and lay her low. Her mother is a spiteful shrew, her husband Elmer is a porno theatre-owning philanderer, son Dexter is a drug-addled wreck with an uncontrollable foot fixation that leads to his conviction as the notorious ‘Baltimore stomper’, and daughter Lulu has been made pregnant by a low-life delinquent and is enthusiastically pursuing an abortion. There seems to be no end to her misery (even a would-be picnic in the great outdoors is immediately plagued by ants and a determined skunk), but can the arrival in her life of mysterious, handsome Todd Tomorrow bring her the happiness she deserves?
Polyester is John Waters’s transition film, marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble) that made his name as the Pope of Trash, and before the surprising, genuine mainstream success of Hairspray. Released in 1981, Polyester was the first of his films to be shot on 35mm, to get a proper MPAA rating, to feature a name actor (well, Tab Hunter), and, unlike its predecessors, it has decent enough sound quality that you can hear all the dialogue – it even opens with an ambitious helicopter shot. This was the first Waters movie that regular cinema-going America had access to, and I for one would love to travel back and witness the reaction, because despite the technical developments, it’s still a weird, idiosyncratic ride.
Clearly a reaction to 1950s melodramas like Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Polyester isn’t so much a parody, it’s more of a Sirk film made in John Waters’s head, with all of his obsessions allowed free rein. While he has fun playing with that toy box, he is clearly incapable of delivering anything as conventional as a straight spoof. So Francine (Divine, of course) goes through hell, but we are denied the moment of empowerment that a Hollywood film would turn upon; she mainly just reacts, usually hysterically, to the barbs and cruelties that Waters throws her way. The twists and turns of her children’s lives happen outside of her control, and justice is delivered by blind fate alone. The drama doesn’t build or progress in any conventional way: stuff happens, then more stuff happens. Thankfully, it’s generally amusing and alarming stuff, and while the film is funny as hell, the humour doesn’t arise from jokes as such – it’s more that laughter is the only available response to this parade of appalling and inappropriate behaviour.
Waters’s ever quotable dialogue is played to the hilt by the usual stock company of enthusiastic amateurs and Baltimore characters, supplemented by seemingly random ‘names’ (Stiv Bators, lead singer of the Dead Boys, pops up, enjoyably, as Lulu’s no good squeeze Bobo, in much the same way as Iggy Pop would later do in Cry Baby). Tab Hunter throws himself into the proceedings with admirable zest, Mink Stole is back as the delightfully debauched Other Woman, Ken King and Mary Garlington are great value as Francine’s rotten kids, while Edith Massey, as Cuddles Kovinsky, manages to steal scenes while delivering her lines with all the slick assurance you would expect from a school nativity play or a Warhol production. All this happens against a backdrop assembled with obvious love and care, the attention to detail in costume and set dressing ensuring that the bad taste is exactly the right kind of bad. The soundtrack is, rather awesomely, a collaboration between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Michael Kamen and, on one track, Bill Murray.
And, glory of glories, anybody attending the Scalarama festival screenings in September will be able to see the film as it was originally intended, in magnificent ‘Odorama’. Viewers in 1981 were presented at the box office with a printed card of 10 numbered circles, which, as ‘Dr Quackenshaw’ explains at the start of the film, are to be scratched and sniffed when the corresponding number shows up on the screen. This schtick was a loving tribute to cinematic showman William Castle (The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill), whose gimmicks ‘Percepto’, ‘Emergo’ and the like, made a lifelong fan of Waters as a child back in the 50s. Thus, as we view Polyester, we are assailed with various scents, starting with a rose, but including farts, airplane model glue, gasoline, pizza and dirty shoes, all integrated into the storyline, usually through scenes of Divine animatedly sniffing out another low. The amount of time, money and effort that must have gone into doing something so patently silly pays off big time, as every screening turns into a kind of lowbrow collaborative art project that is pretty much impossible not to enjoy, as we all arrive, sniffing our tears away, at scent number 10.
Polyester is definitely one of Waters’s best films, and I highly recommend attending an ‘Odorama’ screening for a unique night at the movies. Check out the full Scalarama line-up for other mind-bending celluloid offerings on the way.
Watch the trailer: