Female Trouble: Spare Me Your Morals
By Ed Halter
The Criterion Collection
Fusing the melodrama of Douglas Sirk and the ballyhoo of William Castle, John Waters’ sixth feature, Polyester (1981),was a departure from the scrofulous 16 mm mode of production he had made his cult name plying to midnight-movie crowds in the seventies. With his ragtag band of regular collaborators, the Dreamlanders, Waters had achieved a singular notoriety via his Trash Trilogy: Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), films that lobbed a Molotov cocktail of punkish subcultural mayhem, postliberationist sexuality, and genre transgression at the American movie scene. Paeans to the enchantments of filth and the beauty of crime, these low-rent, scruffy films celebrated dissidence from norms of film presentation, social performance, and propriety. But after making Desperate Living, Waters would later confess, he was ready for “something different”: “I had done the shock-value thing, and it was becoming boring . . . I had this nightmare of myself at eighty, making movies about people eating colostomy bags.” He got his opportunity after his distributor Robert Shaye’s New Line Cinema moved into film production in the midseventies.
Polyester’s roughly $300,000 budget from New Line was quite a leap from the four- or five-figure ones of Waters’ earlier homegrown productions. The film was shot on 35 mm with the use of a Steadicam, professional lighting, split screens, helicopter shots, and relatively tony Baltimore-area locations. Waters’ greatest coup, though, may have been snagging fifties matinee teen idol Tab Hunter as the romantic lead, Todd Tomorrow, and casting him opposite Waters’ stalwart, anarchic drag goddess Divine (né Harris Glenn Milstead). Waters ingeniously conceived the film around a glorious throwback gimmick delivered via scratch-and-sniff cards, and introduced in the prologue by a Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw (Rick Breitenfeld). The white-coated expert crows, “You may experience some odors that will shock you,” before exclaiming, “This is Odorama!” as the frame expands (or perhaps exhales!) to fit the full screen. Perhaps this was a premise foretold in Waters’ earlier works, most forcefully in the notorious dog-shit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos, which relies on the charge emitted by the sight, implied scent, and—not least—imagined taste of that mongrel turd. Like his underground-film heroes—George and Mike Kuchar, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith—who trawled obsolete popular detritus for kitsch gold, Waters drew on fifties film culture for its direct appeals to the spectator’s body. He combined smell, schlock, shock, guffaws, and tears in service of this amiably boisterous parody, hoping, he admitted, to finally “make a film that really stinks!”
Polyester is also a treatise on the besieged middle-class woman, subject of that most lachrymose of genres, the “women’s film.” Set in the early eighties, the film lampoons the perturbations and hysterical hypocrisies of life in the American suburbs. Waters pinpoints the paradoxes inherent to melodramatic femininity—incarnated in the woman who is given the woeful task of enforcing domestic order (moral and otherwise) and who becomes the locus of its fundamental disorder (her sentiments run rampant). What better embodiment of that impossible fantasy of venerated femininity than the legendary Divine, doing his best bedraggled Liz Taylor impersonation, routed through the cartoonish Grand Guignol of Sins of the Fleshapoids and the hairpin plot twists and chest heaving of As the World Turns, with a touch of the materialist naivete of Rainer Werner Fassbinder thrown in?
“Waters flags private zones where women ponder the tensions between artifice, reality, and self-definition.”
“The film wryly and reflexively narrates Waters’ own place in the film industry, at once huckster, shrink, and soothsayer.”
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