Joined: 25 Sep 2008
|Posted: Sun Jun 14, 2009 6:30 pm Post subject: “POLYESTER” -- John Waters’ Comedy of Low Manners
|Is womanhood funny? Are stereotypes reality? Do evil people get what they deserve? Are misfits and retards the best people on the planet? Do farts stink? John Waters answers “YES” resoundingly to each of these questions in Polyester, his chronicle of the outrageous misadventures of a suburban housewife who has everything and sees it crumble into dust simply because people aren’t very nice. In this film, the only production ever presented in “Odorama,” the cinematic version of “Smellovision,” Waters gives the starring role to an hysterical, and hysterically funny Divine, a woman born in a man’s body, and with your mother’s sense of smell. As Francine Fishpaw, Divine is forever sniffing out trouble, and it is everywhere to be smelled.
Francine wants nothing more than a normal life, or at least to not be spit upon by other women in the shopping center. She is unfortunately cursed with a marital relationship to a man who has no desire for social respectability, and revels in the scandal generated by his business – the “Charles Art Theater.” Her mother exploits her for money and derides her plus-size physique. Her children, alas, are also disappointments. Lu-Lu, a boiling pot of adolescent exhibitionism who would put Lolita to shame, is on her way to a bad end, and willing to be escorted there by her boyfriend Bo-bo, played without remorse by the late Stiv Bators, seminal punk rocker. Dexter, her high-cheekboned uber-goth boy-child, is addicted to inhaling the fumes from household cleaning products, and once cranked into the fourth dimension to which volatile hydrocarbons provide access, releases his pent-up anger by crushing the insteps of women whose feet he fancies. In a sound-bite, Dexter is the infamous Baltimore Foot-stomper.
The bright spot in Francine’s life is literally a dim bulb, her former maid, Cuddles. A barrel-shaped woman with a speech impediment whom fortune has favored with a windfall inheritance, Cuddles motors about in a Cadillac driven by her loyal chauffeur Heintz. Coming to wealth late in life, Cuddles is an aspiring sophisticate, earnestly acquiring the vocabulary of the upper class, complete with French phrases. She is never at a loss for an appropriate term where fashion is concerned. A Halston dress is “au courant,” and a rude retail clerk at a fancy emporium is “a regular little cochon.” Should anyone lack understanding of the term, Cuddles informs us, “and that means pig.”
With all the pieces set in place, Francine’s life spirals downward with a vengeance. The center of the vortex is the hellhole we have all known too well – the sheetrocked walls of a suburban residence with a front yard where nothing happens, a backyard where nobody goes, bedrooms where family members suffer in isolation, a living room to display the emptiness, a kitchen where the refrigerator reigns, a front door where trouble walks in without asking, and only one thing missing – a way out.
Into this existential cul-de-sac flows a torrent of bad news. Dexter is expelled from school because “in the opinion of the entire staff … Dexter is criminally insane.” Lu-Lu reinterprets her report card by claiming that “they changed the grading system,” so now “F” is for “Fantastic,” and spouts several more lies -- “I got voted president of Student Council today,” and “I’m a cheerleader, too” -- before declaring that she’s taking up the family business and getting a job as a go-go girl at the “Flaming Cave Lounge.” While the TV announces new attacks on female feet by the Baltimore Foot Stomper, Dexter skulks into the house looking surly and deranged, and rejects Francine’s offer of psychiatric help. To cap it all, a leering Bo-bo, nursing his wounds from a beating justly administered the night before by a large black woman in a gospel outfit, shows up to take Lu-Lu for a trip to the back seat of his car. Before departing, Lu-Lu announces she’s two months pregnant.
Based on a charge-card receipt found in her husband’s pocket, Francine concludes that Elmer is screwing his secretary, and sends Cuddles down to the White Gables Motel to confirm her suspicions. Cuddles is shocked to find that Francine is right – they are at the White Gables! “Haven’t they heard of the Hilton?” she exclaims. Hoping to shame them, Francine initiates a confrontation that falls flat. Elmer is relieved to end to the marriage, promises to pay nothing for his divorce, and declares that Lu-Lu and Dexter are “a perfect argument for birth control.” Sandra announces that Elmer has bought her clothes made of the “finest of polyester,” and declares there’ll be no children coming from her womb, because it would “get in the way of our erotic lifestyle.”
At this point, in the middle of our laughter, we begin to sober up. Nothing is happening to Francine that hasn’t happened to thousands of women. As she slides into alcoholism, and becomes a prisoner in her own home, Elmer ratchets up the abuse, touring the neighborhood with a squawk box, reciting all her failures in intimate detail, deriding her liberally as a pathetic excuse for a human being. The existential nausea ripens into a form of terror at that point, as we begin to fear that the screen has turned into a mirror for what we most fear. Waters keeps pushing the laugh button, but it’s deliberately off-key, because Francine’s fate is not funny or unusual, and if you know anything about the process, you’ll recognize Elmer’s behavior is merely a buffoonish version of the psychic atrocities that many people resort to in the midst of a bitter divorce.
But this is a John Waters movie! We won’t be left in the swamp of despond. There is a way out, after all. Lu-Lu goes off to a nunnery, miscarries after a hayride, and learns macramé. Dexter goes to prison and comes back an artist, having channeled his obsession with feet into marvelous renderings of ornate shoes. Bo-bo goes trick or treating and – well – we have to save something for a surprise. Francine meets Todd Tomorrow, played by Tab Hunter, a handsome new man with a Corvette and money to spare. And he runs, you guessed it – an art film drive-in that shows only first-run euro-erotica and serves caviar in the canteen!
But then dark portents appear – nose candy, Francine’s mom and Todd working in tandem to pull a hostile takeover, and simultaneously, Elmer and Sandra, back to steal whatever they can lay their hands on. Shots ring out, macrame’s put to dreadful uses, and Francine loses it, in a fabulous scene that puts the “b” in breakdown, leaving it up to Cuddles to save the day, which she, or rather Heintz, handily does, leaving no one to blame as the bodies fall like dominoes and Francine survives alone amid the corpses of her former lovers and their paramours. Survival of the fittest? I think not, unless you mean those most fit to populate a world where a naïve decency has somehow taken hold of humanity. In a world full of stinky truths, Waters’ movie freshens the atmosphere.
Fight on all occasions. Fight the more for duels being forbidden, since consequently there is twice as much courage in fighting.
A. Dumas, The Three Musketeers.