Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Cynthia Amsden
Starring Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci
Directed by John Waters
Opens Friday, September 25
John Waters looks like he should be an intimidating man. Maybe it's the pencil thin mustache he wears as his signature affectation that does it. Maybe the intimidation factor comes from knowing that the cult classic Pink Flamingos and the black comedy Serial Mom came from his iconographic mind. Or maybe it is simply because the interview was set for day three of the Toronto Film Festival and everyone was running on two hours of sleep from the extended dinner party held the night before to celebrate his 13th film, Pecker.
All I know is that I met him with my heart in a bucket, hoping for leniency, only to find an incredibly agreeable man - agreeable and exotic in an urban/urbane sort of way. Pecker signals a certain mollifying of the man who brought Divine (the quintessential over-the-top drag queen) to the world. Waters's latest is the story of an 18-year-old photographer named Pecker (Edward Furlong), who works at a Baltimore sandwich joint and takes photos on the side. He's in love with Shelley (Christina Ricci), an obsessive girl who rules a laundromat with an iron fist. His mother owns a thrift shop where she dispenses fashion advice to homeless clientele, his sister works in a gay go-go dance bar called the Fudge Palace, and his grandmother, the pit beef queen of Baltimore, has a statue of Mary which talks... sort of. The essence of the plot is that Pecker's photographs become famous - New York famous - and his family is forced into the international spotlight. This, in turn, forces Pecker into choosing between selling out or protecting his life.
The crucial difference with Pecker, compared to Waters's earlier work, is that he humiliates no one. All the characters, no matter how bizarre, all reach the end of the film with their dignity intact. No scathing commentary on society, no mocking derision. Dare I say this, but this might well be the Waters's version of family values!
By his own admission Waters views his goal in life is to "make trash one percent more respectable." (Admittedly, his early attempts were extreme, with a 350- pound man dressed as a woman eating dog shit being the "highlight" of Pink Flamingos.) He has been at this since he was young. "It comes from the very first day I saw Walt Disney's Cinderella and the stepmother, and I thought, 'I love villains.' I was always on the wrong side. Looking back on it, my parents were supportive enough to not abuse me psychologically for that. I overheard them saying, 'I guess he's just an odd duck' and I thought, 'Oh that's what it is!'"
Waters talks in long, easy stretches. He loves artifice which he thinks is another word for style. Much warmer than one would expect, he hails from Baltimore, which he has dubbed the "Hairdo Capital of the World". His first film was a 8-mm short made in 1967 called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket. Mondo Trash was his first feature-length film, two years later. 1972 was his breakthrough point of notoriety with Pink Flamingos, featuring Divine and centering on the battle to secure the title of "Filthiest People Alive." Described by critics as "gleefully vile" and the first in the genre known as trash cinema, it led to the 1981 film Polyester, filmed in glorious "Odorama" (ticket buyers were given scratch 'n' sniff cards to smell along with the storyline).
While Waters has spent the last 25 years as the ring master in a continuing circus of perversions, he also has another life of social acceptance at the top including writing the occasional book reviews for the doyen of style, Vogue magazine and mingling with the art crowd of New York. This might account for why this latest film is premiering at a major film festival and not in the fringe category. Waters has been accepted, which may or may not be comforting news for the renegade element of society who rely on someone being a source of outrage. What began in his precocious youth (he used to read Variety magazine at the age of 13) has now tempered itself into what he calls "joyful defiance." Prior to this it was called (with a moment taken to qualify the answer) "just" defiance. "It wasn't angry defiance in the way of self-destruction, but you know the best humor is based on anger. Truth and anger. And I had anger but it was a healthy anger." Now he is a reasonable man who smokes only on Friday nights (he officially quit eight years ago) and eats irresponsibly on Saturdays.
But the most telling bit of trivia came to the answer to my favorite question: If he had to walk across a room full of strangers while naked (he groaned when I got to this point in the question) and he could have one item that would give him a sense of power, what would it be? "Pants! Oh, I'm never naked. Okay, then a book.. a very large art book." And this is from the man who bills himself as The King of Puke and culminates his latest film with a group toast to "the end of irony."
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