John Waters' Polyester marked a turning point in the trash auteur's storied career, which until that point had been composed of micro-budget underground comedic shockers meant for the freaks and geeks who cherished the midnight movie circuit. They were movies that weren't made just for a particular audience, but were designed to repulse and therefore drive away everyone else. Although Polyester once again featured Waters' favorite actor, Divine (n Glenn Milstead), in the leading role, this time playing a much-put-upon housewife named Francine Fishpaw, featured the usual cast and crew of eccentric "Dreamlanders," and pushed more than a few boundaries with its outrageous humor, it was a legitimate, although still low-budget, studio movie that marked the first time Waters worked within the mainstream instead of outside of it (it is sometimes described as his first "aboveground" movie, officially sanctioned with an R rating from the MPAA).
Shot on 35mm, Polyester cost $300,000 to make, which is significantly more than it cost for Waters to make all of his early films combined. With a higher budget came a glossier, more polished look, and therefore Polyester lost that gritty, raw-nerve edge that characterized his previous movies, including the notorious Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977). Starting with Polyester, Waters' films began to look more like professionally produced Hollywood product, rather than deranged home movies conceived and executed by a group of leering social deviants. While this won Waters new fans and earned him respect from mainstream film critics, it marked a sharp shift in his ongoing aesthetic. You can sense Waters reveling in his drastically increased budget in the opening moments of the film, which begin with a helicopter shot of the Baltimore suburban neighborhood in which the story takes place, leading to a lengthy Steadicam tracking shot through the Fishpaws' nouveau riche home. Bear in mind that the Steadicam was still a new technology at the time and had been used in only a dozen or so films, including Rocky (1976) and The Shining (1980), and just as in those films, the Steadicam operator on the set was Garrett Brown, the technology's inventor.
Polyester was the first of Waters' movies to take place entirely within mainstream American suburbia, although his vision of suburbia is gleefully twisted with heavy injections of the neurotic impulses that characterized his earlier films. Therefore, Francine is the weak, warbling matriarch of a family run amok. Her sleazy, adulterous husband, Elmer (David Samson), runs the local porn theater (yes, kids, there was a time when you had to go out to a theater to see pornography). Her licentious daughter, Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington), is failing all of her classes in school, dreams of becoming a go-go dancer, and proudly proclaims that she is about to have an abortion. And her son, Dexter (Ken King), is a criminally insane, glue-sniffing foot fetishist wanted by the police for stomping on women's feet. Apparent salvation for Francine arrives in the hunky form of Tod Tomorrow, played in one of Waters' greatest casting coups by Tab Hunter, a former '50s teen idol.
Because he was working with a higher budget, Waters had room to play in ways that had earlier been denied him. The overall look of Polyester is much more sophisticated than his earlier films, as it was specifically designed to evoke the look of 1950s Technicolor melodramas, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk (one sees shades of All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind all over). Waters and cinematographer David Insley (a first-timer who would go on to shoot Waters' next two films) evoke Sirk's saturated color aesthetic with intense hues and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, especially inside the Fishpaws' house. The acting hadn't improved much-Edith Massey, who plays Francine's lone friend, is particularly bizarre in her delivery as always-but the style suits Waters' deranged world. Polyester marked a major step for Divine, however, as it was the first time he was allowed to play a character that deviated from his notorious Divine persona (just hearing him deliver the line "I'm a good Christian woman" is worth the price of admission).
And, while there are only a few scenes of intense on-screen physicality (the aforementioned foot stomping, of course, and there's a bit of a bloodbath in the final moments), Waters used the film to exploit what is perhaps his most amusing means of bringing the audience into the physicality of his movie. Polyester was released with a gimmick of which William Castle would have been proud: Odorama. The Odorama card was divided into sections numbered 1 through 10, and whenever a number was flashed on the screen, the viewer was invited to scratch and sniff that number on the card so they could share in whatever aroma Francine was smelling. In true Waters fashion, not all the smells were agreeable to one's nose, and it doesn't take much imagination to guess what No. 2 smelled like. But, that is precisely what makes Waters' films fun: He makes you endure the grossest of the gross and you still laugh through the whole thing.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3)
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