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Site created 12/15/97.

reviews added: 6/19/02

The John Waters Collection, Volume Two
(Polyester/Desperate Living)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

The Films of John Waters on DVD

The John Waters Collection, Volume Two (Polyester/Desperate Living)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

1981 (2001) - New Line

Film Rating: C+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/B+

Specs and Features

86 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom gatefold packaging, audio commentary by director John Waters, theatrical trailer, "Odorama" scratch 'n' sniff card, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (21 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0 and original 2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Desperate Living
1977 (2001) - Charm City Productions (New Line)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B-/C-

Specs and Features

91 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom gatefold packaging, audio commentary by director John Waters and actress Liz Renay, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (2.0 Mono), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

I first became aware of John Waters in 1981, with the release of Polyester, and I didn't even see the movie. I was 12 years old in '81 and I vividly remember seeing posters for Polyester at the movie theatre. The poster featured Divine and Tab Hunter, their faces inches apart, locked either in a passionate embrace or an equally passionate fight, I couldn't be sure which. The poster also trumpeted the fact that Polyester was filmed in "Odorama". "Smelling is believing," the ad copy read. I remember staring at this poster (and subsequent newspaper ads) for a long time, trying to figure out just what the hell I was looking at. This did not seem like a real movie. Now, usually during this time of my life (pre-teen through entering high school), if I became interested in an R-rated movie, I would at the very least make an effort to persuade someone in my family to take me. Not this time. I didn't ask anybody to take me to see Polyester. Somehow, I knew instinctively that nobody would. Honestly, I wasn't at all sure I wanted to see it anyway.

I never did catch up to Polyester until recently, as one half of New Line's John Waters Collection, Volume Two. Twenty years of building the movie up in my head had lead me to expect God knows what. But basically, Polyester is the lovechild of Douglas Sirk (director of classic 1950's "women's pictures" like Written on the Wind) and William Castle (director of classic 1950's "gimmick pictures" like The Tingler). Polyester tells the tragic story of Francine Fishpaw (Divine), an upper-middle-class housewife who just can't win for losing. Her husband owns a porn theatre and is leaving her for his secretary (Mink Stole). Her daughter Lulu is pregnant and planning an abortion before starting life as a go-go dancer. And her son is Baltimore's notorious Foot-Stomper. No wonder she drowns her sorrows with booze. Things start to turn around for her when she falls in love with Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), owner of Baltimore's finest art-house drive-in cinema. But since this is a soap opera, the sun can't shine for long and before you know it, poor Francine's life is falling apart around her again.

Polyester isn't a terrible movie, nor is it John Waters' worst film. It is, however, disappointing. The movie has some very funny moments, mostly courtesy of Divine's terrific performance. And surreal as it is to see Divine in a leading role with Tab Hunter, it's nothing compared to the weird thrill of seeing Edith Massey (forever known as Edie, the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos) in a major role as Francine's best friend, Cuddles. The movie's major flaw may be that it can't quite decide which direction it wants to go. The "Odorama" idea is a funny one, but it doesn't quite gel with the story being told here. Granted, there probably hasn't been a single gimmick in movie history that totally gelled with its story. If you can give me a good narrative reason for the paddle ball guy to exist in House of Wax, then you have far greater powers of rationalization than I. If Waters had concentrated either entirely on the melodrama or entirely on the gimmick, maybe the movie would have been improved. As it is, Polyester feels somehow unfinished and certainly unfulfilling.

Its mate in New Line's DVD value meal is one of my favorite Waters pictures. Desperate Living focuses on another suburban housewife, the demented Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole). Peggy and her nurse Grizelda (Jean Hill) kill Peggy's husband and take it on the lam to Mortville, a shantytown of outcasts, perverts and fringe dwellers of every kind, ruled by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). However, the residents of Mortville, including "dog food murderess" Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay) and her ultra-butch lesbian lover Mole (Susan Lowe), are getting tired of Carlotta's tyrannical rule and insane proclamations, like Backwards Day, during which all citizens must wear their clothes and walk everywhere backwards. So the people begin to talk of revolution.

A number of people I know, all of them self-proclaimed John Waters fans, dislike Desperate Living simply because it doesn't star Divine. Divine, of course, was irreplacable and his presence is certainly missed. But even without Divine, Desperate Living is one of Waters' most accomplished and, I believe, funniest works. Peggy Gravel's insane rant that opens the movie is a masterpiece of histrionics ("You've dialed the wrong number! Sorry?!! What good is that?! How can you ever repay the thirty seconds you've stolen from my life!? I hate you, your husband, your children and your relatives!"). And the litany of perversions on display in Mortville, far too bizarre to detail here, showcases Waters' talent for reimagining the outer boundaries of sleaze.

Neither of these movies looks or sounds outstanding on DVD, but this isn't entirely a shock. Polyester is the superior of the pair. The first movie Waters shot in 35mm, the image is soft and grainy, but no more so than you would expect from a low budget movie from the early 80's. I've seen comparable movies from the same period look much, much worse. As usual, New Line has enhanced the picture for widescreen monitors, which helps a bit. Desperate Living, on the other hand, looks pretty bad. Shot on 16mm, New Line presents the movie at 1.33:1 only, which makes sense but seems odd considering Waters' other 16mm movies (Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble) are both matted to their theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The sound quality of both films is merely adequate, with Polyester again slightly better than Desperate Living. Polyester features a fairly unimpressive 2.0 stereo track in addition to the original Mono soundtrack while Desperate Living only has the original Mono mix.

The bonus features follow the same basic template as the other titles in The John Waters Collection. However, Polyester automatically gets bumped up a notch for its inclusion of the "Odorama" scratch 'n' sniff card. Since its theatrical release, the only way to experience Polyester in true "Odorama" was through Criterion's laserdisc. New Line must be commended for bringing "Odorama" to DVD. As usual, Waters' commentary is strong, mixing anecdotal information and hilarious stories. Unfortunately, the commentary for Desperate Living isn't quite as good. Waters is joined by co-star Liz Renay here and, as with the John Waters/Ricki Lake commentary on Hairspray, the pair were recorded separately and edited together. The editing is much more disjointed here. Since Renay doesn't even appear until about half an hour into the picture, she talks about her life before Desperate Living. Interesting as they may be, the stories suffer from editing, becoming jumbled and hard to follow. Ms. Renay would have been better served by appearing as a separate video interview, allowing Waters to do the commentary solo. Both discs also include the films' original trailers.

As glad as I am to have "Odorama" restored to Polyester and to have Desperate Living on DVD at all, New Line's second John Waters Collection feels like a stopgap release. It doesn't seem like as much care went into the presentation of the films here as with Volumes One and Three. With Volume One, Pecker had already been released on disc, so New Line was able to concentrate on making Hairspray look and sound its best. Volume Three benefits from the recent restoration and theatrical re-release of Pink Flamingos. Volume Two feels like a rush job to bridge between the two. Too bad, because Desperate Living really deserves better.

Adam Jahnke
[email protected]

The Films of John Waters on DVD

The John Waters Collection, Volume Two (Polyester/Desperate Living)

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