*. Polyester marks a kind of halfway house in the career of director John Waters, a baby step up from pure exploitation trash like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and indicating a turn toward what he would later describe as a “futile attempt at mainstream entertainment” (or at least “my version of a mainstream movie”). With later movies like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom the shock value would be dialed way down, which would lead to broader critical and public acceptance.
*. Was this a falling off? I guess that’s up to personal taste. I find I can return to the earlier films more often than his mainstream efforts, most of which I don’t think I’ll ever bother seeing again. But I wonder how much the direction Waters’ later career took puts those early efforts in a new light. I don’t think Waters really wanted to be respectable, but he did want to be commercial. He’s never been shy about owning up to the fact that he wanted his movies to make money. Would he even object to being called a sell-out? I don’t know if he’d consider that an epithet.
*. The times were changing too. As Waters also acknowledges, by the time of Polyester the golden age of trash was over because there were no more taboos to be broken. Not only that, he claims Polyester was the first of his films that wasn’t made to be a midnight movie because midnight movies had disappeared as well. I’m not entirely sure about this. In 1981 I think there were some still around. They were definitely on their way out, but they hadn’t disappeared yet.
*. I think another thing that helps the earlier movies out is that the production values fit the talent level. Not to put any kind of point, however fine, on it, but Waters’ crew of Dreamlanders were hopeless actors. At times they were just people he literally picked up off the street. Edith Massey is the most obvious example. She’s a character, but not an actor, and doesn’t belong in any kind of professional-grade movie. Waters keeps praising her on the commentary track for “really trying,” but so what? She belongs in a freak show like Pink Flamingos, but is out of place here. And even Divine is pretty limited. He can ham a part up, and has the star’s ability to command attention, but his acting is a joke.
*. As Waters moved into the mainstream his targets also became easier and more obvious. Mocking square, bourgeois, or middle-class suburban culture was too easy, but it was what he’d come to. Though it’s not so much nouveau rich bad taste that he wanted to mock as the desire, even compulsion, people have to adopt the trappings of that lifestyle as so much moral camouflage. It’s what people want that defines and condemns them.
*. One thing this means is that Francine Fishpaw is less sympathetic than she seems. Sure she’s not the monster audiences had come to identify with Divine from her previous roles, but in her desire to be part of “a normal American family” she is a target of scorn and ridicule. Just like Elmer taking up oil painting and Lu-Lu macramé, the cliché of art as therapy, is a joke in bad taste. Even Francine’s crush on teen heartthrob Tab Hunter is a sick dream, deserving of a tragic denouement.
*. There are a bunch of things in Polyester that I think miss. I didn’t understand the business where they drive around swatting minorities with a broom, and on the commentary track Waters admits this part doesn’t work (though he also says that it’s something he actually remembers doing). The AA meeting also struck me as a one-joke bit that had been shoehorned in. The hay-ride with the nuns I didn’t get at all.
*. Odorama. A meta-joke on William Castle gimmickry. It’s interesting how devices like this, suggestive of a more immersive audience experience, are in fact so alienating, always taking us outside the film.
*. Where I find Waters holds up best is in his little moments of acid observation. For example the way Francine’s husband showers affection on his dog while treating Francine like shit. Or Lu-Lu’s insistence on having an abortion. When Francine tries to tell her that her baby is a part of her, Lu-Lu angrily responds “It’s stealing part of me, you mean. I can feel it like cancer, getting bigger and bigger like the Blob. One day it will rip me open. And it will be there in my life, ready to rob me of every bit of fun I deserve to have!” That’s so over-the-top and so honest and real.
*. I like Polyester well enough for what it is. The downsizing and domestication of Douglas Sirk melodrama, with Francine’s breakdown threatening a trip to the snake pit, is effectively droll. Like me, you may want more than drollery from Waters, but times were changing and pop culture was turning into something satire-proof. As he puts it at one point on the commentary, the targets of Waters’ scorn had become his audience. But how can we all be in on the joke? Who are we going to laugh at?