From its opening title sequence, PolyesterPolyester (1981) proclaims it will be a different kind of John Waters film. It resides vaguely in the same outré universe as its predecessors perhaps, but occupies a starkly removed corner of it. This is a corner Waters would further explore and exploit in later films such as Hairspray (1988) and Serial Mom (1994).
Whereas his earlier films were unrated or X-rated, shot in 16-millimeter film, often with handheld cameras, and featured a pronounced midnite movie aesthetic,
Polyester garnered a mere R rating. It’s captured in a vivacious 35-millimeter print bursting with saturated color, helicopter shots, more nuanced and less combative camerawork (aided by Waters’ first use of Steadicam technology) and a sly nod to the cinematography of a Douglas Sirk film. (e.g., the bar of light across the eyes of the female protagonist and other characteristic lighting techniques).
The earlier films (most notoriously
Pink Flamingos ) delved into the depths of depravity to excavate humor from the repulsive and glorified the morally corrupt (see Female Trouble‘s  equation of beauty and crime). Polyester, however, indulges in a delightfully wry concern with the surface veneer of domesticity and its discontents.
The “Trash Trilogy”—
Flamingos, Trouble, and Desperate Living (1977)—and before that, Multiple Maniacs (1970), constructed the image of Divine the character as the marauding goddess of filth and the demonic embodiment of an antinomian frenzy (eating dog feces, getting sexually assaulted by giant lobsters, performing fellatio on family members, running amok on the streets of Baltimore). But Polyester reveals Divine the actor channeling Elizabeth Taylor, inspiring sympathy in place of awe, identification rather than horror.
Polyester leaves Divine the demented goddess of destruction
behind and makes room for Divine the disillusioned and
increasingly desperate housewife.
Just as we begin to suspect Waters of a reversal in all that led us to hold him dear, we realize that these changes—beguiling as they are—belie the rancid undercurrent of Waters’ excoriating vision that continues unabated from his previous output. The concern with luscious, smooth surfaces and scintillating color reveals those surfaces to be devoid of depth. The polyester of the title is a marker of the cheapness of this seemingly tame corner of the world. The film’s domesticity crumbles of its own abiding rot.
Polyesters explodes the association between Divine and the screen goddesses he calls to mind through its careful if irreverent dismantling of the trappings of glamor. The initial camera shot ushers the viewer through the front door and up the stairs to the bedroom of Francine Fishpaw (Divine) as she prepares herself for the afternoon. She struggles into her clothes, her generous flesh lurching over the straps of her bra. She depilates and applies deodorant—not only to her underarms but also to her feet.
Such deviations from the blueprint Waters had established in the 1960s and ’70s ought not to surprise his viewers. On the one hand, this was his first “Hollywood” film—meaning it was his first film with a budget worth mentioning. It was still shot in Maryland, but it was Waters’ first bid for mainstream attention. The remainder of his career witnessed Waters carving out a fairly unique niche for himself, allowing him to produce films released in major theaters (no longer small art houses and venues specializing in the midnite movie) and yet still occupying a zone characterized by a peculiar amalgam of repulsion and attraction that lay just beyond the borders of respectability.
For the most part, the way he managed to accomplish this was to move toward satire. His earlier films were provocations, not satires; they were attempts to puncture the stability of mainstream culture through incursions of the freak into the territory of normalcy. Of course, they were so committed to the outrage that very little trace of normalcy can be found in those films.
In Pink Flamingos, the viewer more or less has to assume a background of normalcy in order to register the distance from the conventional traced by the flagrant acts of perversion showed onscreen. But that background isn’t portrayed within the framework of the film, it is carried along by the quotidian experiences of the audience. If one attends solely to the world of Pink Flamingos, the morally corrupt (incest, animal abuse) and the morally questionable (public lewdness, coprophagia) collapse into a kind of everydayness achieved through their sheer suffusion throughout the fabric of the narrative.
In short, there are no “normal” people in most of these early films; there are no acts of transgression internal to the films because there are no moral limits to mark them as such. The films operate through inversions of normative ways of understanding the world external to the films. Because in day to day life, we accept that crime is a brutish corruption (and therefore a sign of decay), Female Trouble can employ the maxim “crime is beauty” to represent an inverted world that celebrates repugnancy as a form of liberation. But within the world of the film there is no need for liberation. The characters are already free from moral restraint because such restraints are inapplicable.
The problem for Waters became, of course, that there is only so far you can move away from the normative (all the while creating a fictive world where the normative need not apply) before you realize that the freedom from limits runs up against a new kind of limit. Once the inversion is total, once you have upended all moral assumptions and shown them to be groundless (or at least pretended to have done so) you reach a point of stagnation and redundancy. In a truly amoral world no acts can be transgressive because no constraints remain to transgress; everything is equally viable, and thus everything has the potential to become equally boring.
Indeed, the frenetic action and non-sequitur plot devices in early Waters films can be ungenerously read as a bulwark against the boredom of mere inversion. After all, inversion always threatens perversely to uphold the very thing it seeks to overturn. The effect of the inversion relies upon an assumption of the prescriptive power of that which is inverted.
Polyester leaves Divine the demented goddess of destruction behind and makes room for Divine the disillusioned and increasingly desperate housewife. In doing so, the film sets the stage for one of Divine’s finest portrayals and allows Waters to find his cleverest solution to the problem presented by his early work. Polyester suggests that moral depravity may be liberating for the person willing to embrace it, but it always gives rise to pain elsewhere.
The early films imagined a world on the brink of freedom from consequences and Divine functioned as a surrogate for our contempt for moral restraint. Even the death by electric chair in Female Trouble was desired by its protagonist as the ultimate manner of capturing fame, thus it wasn’t a consequence to which she was unwillingly subjected. Polyester, however, attempted to portray an exaggerated but revealing image of 1980s suburbia, the moral strain that tears at middle-class family life between a desire for unfettered individual hedonism and the assumed need for the cooperative restraint that vouchsafes familial coherence and unity. Unlike most of the earlier films, Polyester confronts the viewer with the possibility of a real suffering that cannot be so easily redeemed.
David Samson as Elmer Fishpaw and Divine as Francine Fishpaw (IMDB)
Just as we begin to suspect Waters of a reversal in all that led us
to hold him dear, we realize that these changes—beguiling as
they are—belie the rancid undercurrent of Waters’ excoriating
vision that continues unabated from his previous output.
The film charts the deterioration and reclamation of Francine Fishpaw’s family. Francine is married to Elmer (David Samson) the proprietor of a movie theater that shows pornography. (The Charles Art Theater—a parody of the actual Charles Theater wherePolyester premiered, which is an arthouse theater, but not that kind of arthouse theater.) Their neighbors regularly picket their front door, heaving invective at Elmer and eggs at Francine. Their son Dexter (Ken King) huffs intoxicating substances and has a foot fetish that violently manifests in his attaining extreme pleasure from smashing the feet of female passersby. While he remains unidentified, the press refers to him as the Baltimore Foot Stomper. Their daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is in an endless state of gyration, accepts small change at school in exchange for erotic dancing, and dates the neighborhood reprobate Bo-Bo Belsinger (Stiv Bators, lead singer of the Dead Boys).
The family lives in the posh(ish) upper-middle class suburb of Baltimore, Severna Park. For people in the Baltimore area, Severna Park represents the kind of respectability that Francine desires and that her family disdains. Francine longs for familial love and connection; she wants her husband to be respected, her children to be happy, oriented toward healthy goals, and at ease with her in their home. Instead, they treat her with utter contempt, insult and berate her, demoralize her at every turn.
The disconnect between Francine and the other members of her household is buttressed by the odd sense of time that Waters produces in this film. It is very much of its time, in one sense. Indeed, I can think of few films from the early ’80s that so presciently skewer the pretensions and sadly empty hedonism of that decade—a fictive exaggeration of a lived exaggeration. On the other hand, Waters is so successful at channeling Douglas Sirk—in both style and substance—that much of the film is redolent of the ’50s. We get the impression that Francine is separated from her loved ones not only by disposition across the chasm of a relatively distant past.
Elmer is cheating with an employee, Sandra Sullivan. (Mink Stole decked out with a ratty version of the braids Bo Derek wears in Blake Edwards’ 1979 film,
10.) When confronted with his infidelity, Elmer unapologetically abandons his family, leaving Francine in a tailspin. She sinks into an alcoholic daze while her son is arrested for being the Baltimore Foot Stomper and her daughter attempts to self-abort her illegitimate child before Francine sends her to a home for unwed mothers supervised by some rather severe nuns.
Francine’s mother La Rue (Joni Ruth White) offers no support; she filches money from Francine’s purse, taunts her with gasoline that she pretends is alcohol, and exploits her at every turn—conceiving of a vicious scheme to defraud her daughter of her alimony. Francine’s friend Cuddles Kovinsky (the inimitable Waters stalwart Edith Massey) provides some comfort but is an unrealistic model for Francine’s search for happiness. Cuddles is a housecleaner who inherited a fortune and is now carted around by her adoring driver Heintz (Hans Kramm). She wears riding gear, shops for fancy dresses (which she mindlessly tears to shreds while trying them on in the dressing room), and prepares for her debutante’s ball. She advises Francine to embrace the great beauty that nature offers while they attempt to have a picnic—one ruined by the insects and the random appearance of a skunk.
But in the midst of all of this, Francine sees a mysterious and handsome stranger standing on the roadside as she drives by with Cuddles. He is all square jaw and confident swagger, his thumb tugging provocatively on the pocket of his jeans. Francine later meets him, again on the roadside, as he observes the rescue workers carrying beheaded bodies away from a crash site. She learns that he is Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) and he runs a rival movie theater—an upper-crust drive-in showing a Marguerite Duras triple-bill with a concession stand that offers oysters, caviar, and champagne.
And so, we are introduced to a kind of meta-satire within this satire of ’80s middle-class delusion. Francine finds herself caught between two men who make their living from screening films for the public—one an “art house” that shows pornography and one a drive-in that shows art films. She has neither the stomach for pornography nor the mind for art. One of my favorite shots of Divine in the latter half of the film has her staring uncomprehendingly at an issue of Cahiers du cinema while she waits for Todd.
A reverse condition holds for Waters at this stage in his storied career. He retains the stomach for the obscene and disturbing while being blessed with the mind and sensibilities of a filmmaker able to make keen insights into the cloying world around him—the kind of insights often reserved for the milieu of what we regard as art. Francine belongs in neither venue, Waters, in some manner, belongs in both and therefore (like his heroine) seems to feel somewhat estranged from both.
The satire is present but it is presented through the halting, knowingly amateurish (and yet not entirely amateur—simply and profoundly stylized) line readings. It’s seen in the bizarre portrayals (Garlington’s Lu-Lu can never stop gyrating; King’s Dexter has discordant string music churning in his head as he cuts out pictures of feet from a glamor magazine; Massey’s Cuddles is….well, Massey in all her befuddled and befuddling glory). And it’s obvious in the absurd situations, the ridiculous penchant for alliterative names, and the film’s central gimmick.
In his effort to combine the saccharine sentimentality of Douglas Sirk with the canny showmanship of William Castle (a filmmaker for whom Waters has served as a dedicated proselytizer), Waters employed a scratch and sniff card (recreated for the Criterion Collection edition) for a filmic experience he dubbed “Odorama”. Over the course of the film, the numbers “1” through “10” flash on the screen and the viewer is meant to scratch the corresponding number and then join the olfactory-driven heroine as she sniffs out the oft-malodorous clues to her various predicaments.
The experiment begins innocently enough with the artificial but not displeasing smell of a rose. But, as you might imagine in a Waters film, things go south from there. another early entry in the card is the (oddly underwhelming) stench of one of Elmer’s farts as he turns over in their marital bed to sleep. I won’t spoil the remainder. Part of the joy of such a gimmick—or at least the strange thrill one gets from being simultaneously reluctant to participate in one’s own torture and unwilling to forgo the experience—is the ever-present anticipation of what strange scent we will be asked to endure next.
Being hyper-sensitive to the odoriferous, Francine navigates her world by literally following her nose. We often see her snuffling her way through the interior spaces of her home attempting to discern something that smells out of place, not unlike a hound dog on the scent of a disruptive presence.
In this manner, Waters turns what might be a mere gimmick into a penetrating insight into Francine’s character and indeed into what Waters seems to diagnose as the pathology of middle-class comfort. Francine requires a home decked out in French Provincial style, where everything is in its place, clean and proper. The furnishings are the very emblem of cheap, mass-produced pretension. Indeed, her home not only includes polyester fabric on the sofas and chairs, it is the embodiment of what polyester represents: relatively cheap, but durable, resistant to fading (at least reputedly), and destructive of the environment. Polyester is the fabric that offers the veneer of refinement on a budget, but is ultimately corrosive.
Francine wants a life that is stable, durable, that retains its high-gloss, that belies its corrosive underpinning. She wants a family that is ordered, unified; a family that brings to life, in a manageable and affordable manner, the advertisements she sees in magazines and on television.
All the while, she knows that is far from what she has. Everywhere she smells the decaying corpse of a family life that retains little life within it. When madness (momentarily?) comes, Francine is reduced to a howling animal, dependent merely on the senses, bereft of reason, and bereft of hope. Her entire sense of self and of happiness depends on avoiding at all costs the rot she sniffs out of every corner. She can mask it through roses or cans of air freshener, but as her husband warns her early in the film: “the world stinks.”
* * *
Criterion Collection presents a new edition of Polyester complete with the “Odorama” scratch and sniff card, a wonderful commentary track by John Waters, and numerous interviews with Divine, Waters, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, and many others. Another vignette features a TV profile on Edith Massey that is irresistible.