A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

Part I of the John Waters retrospective is here.

Pink Flamingos (1972) made a lightning rod name in the Midnight Movie circuit. He followed up with the last of his underground films—Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)—to create a trilogy like no other. Pink Flamingos had a budget of $10,000 and grossed nearly $200,000 in its initial run. This enabled budgets of $25,000 for Female Trouble and $65,000 for Desperate Living. Yet, these movies did something far more than just make money—they paved the eventual path for a (somewhat) legitimized John Waters.

Polyester (1981) had a whopping budget of $300, 000, was the first Waters film to garner an MPAA rating of “R” (his previous work had been unrated or slapped with an “X”), and moved Waters’ basic locations from garages, shanty towns and trailer parks to the suburbs. Working for the first time in 35 MM (and with good sound), Waters’ utilizes his resources to superb effect, acerbically penetrating the American dream’s facade. He did not get there by himself. Like Picasso or , Waters steals well. In Polyester, he further enriches the formidable melodrama tradition of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s influence was first discernible in Desperate Living, although Waters’ films are more forthright (taking nothing at all away from Sirk). Here, with the small town environment at his disposal, Waters models his film’s composition on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). He filters that influence, along with bits stolen from , through his own postmodern sensibilities.

In Polyester Waters invades the suburbs with unwanted minorities, social deviants, anarchists, freaks, and immigrants who threaten WASP property values (one wonders what kind of rise Waters could get out of Donald Trump’s hairpiece). That eclecticism echoes in the casting. This would also be the last film for Dreamland regulars and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with and , they are cast opposite 50s beefcake (Waters’ nod to Sirk’s use of Rock Hudson). Divine’s performances were progressively improving, and Hunter is a professional “B”-actor; the pair are beautifully juxtaposed against personality driven “Z” amateurs. Hunter exudes middle-aged poster boy charisma and delivers his lines with self-conscious precision (in sharp contrast, Waters always struggled with Massey’s inability to remember her dialogue).

Polyester scratch n' sniff cardNaturally, Waters had to have fun with such a lavish train set, creating a Castle-like gimmick with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff-cards. Polyester was the first Waters film I saw in a theater (at a midnight showing), and although it certainly holds up in home video formats, it is naturally diminished when it loses the cinema-as-participatory-theater angle. In the original experience, 10 numbers were flashed across the screen throughout the film. After Continue reading

CAPSULE: LUST IN THE DUST (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Lainie Kazan, Geoffrey Lewis,

PLOT: Gunfighters and dancehall girls converge on the dusty town of Chili Verde in search of buried treasure.

Still from Lust in the Dust (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not really weird; it’s only the presence of cult icon Divine, matched up with eccentric director Bartel, that makes the movie a curiosity.

COMMENTS: There are a lot of people who love Lust in the Dust, and a lot of people who hate it, and frankly, I can’t completely understand either camp. This light Western spoof looks good considering its low budget, features decent performances by an oddball cast, and breezes by at a brisk 84 minutes. The comedy is often labored, but everyone seems to be working hard to entertain you: the flick earns the same sort of goodwill you’d give a guy at a party who delivers an involved joke that he’s obviously worked hard at memorizing, even though the punchline isn’t that funny. It is easier to understand the position of those who hate it than those who champion it: their reaction probably comes more from disappointment than anything. The idea of Paul Bartel, fresh off the “bad taste” cult hit Eating Raoul, directing Divine in a Western with Lust in the title suggests a raunchy and outrageous movie that never materializes. This movie never rises above the level of “naughty,” and its comic sensibilities are more silly than transgressive. On the other hand, it does have a combination of quirk and competence that keeps it watchable, and one scene that’s nearly a knockout—when Lainie Kazan sings “Let Me Take You South of My Border” using a fresh corpse as a choreography aid. Kazan, as a conniving madame with a bustline and a sneer that both look made for Russ Meyer movies, steals the camp spotlight away from Divine, who is too tame in her role as a wandering lady with a penchant for accidentally crushing men with her thighs. Tab Hunter’s steely-eyed Man With No Name clone (the studly “Abel Wood”—groan) is forgettable, though not as forgettable as Cesar Romero’s kindly Mexican friar. Geoffrey Lewis, on the other hand (he’s one of those “I’m sure I know him—but from where?” actors) impresses as a ruthless but well-educated scripture quoting bandit leading a ridiculously multi-ethnic gang of desperadoes. All in all, Lust is OK, a predictable spoof with some chuckles—a résumé which makes it hard to understand why some people adore it. I suppose the Lust-lovers must all be Divine fans, although this performance (which would have been forgotten if a woman had been cast) is almost conventional by the outré crossdresser’s standards. You do get to see Divine’s rump, however, which I hope was not a clinching factor for anyone.

The title “Lust in the Dust” comes from an unflattering nickname given to David O. Selznick’s steamy 1946 oater Duel in the Sun, which this movie partly parodies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Bartel] seems convinced that simply combining Divine, Kazan and Hunter in the same room will create a fissionable comic mass. Before he shut the door, he should have also thrown in a screenplay.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Keith Stone. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)