AFED #2: Polyester (US, 1981); Dir. John Waters

Remember the Avalanches' 2001 track 'Frontier Psychiatrist'? Ever wonder where they sampled the intro from? If you were really that curious you probably already knew, but as I discovered today it originated with John Waters' 1981 comedy Polyester.

Waters is probably better known nowadays as the writer/director of the original Hairspray (1988) than the excesses of his earlier work (the infamous dog shit-eating of Pink Flamingoes), but the crossover really began with Polyester. It's an affectionate tribute to the kind of melodramas that Douglas Sirk cranked out during Waters' formative years, camped up to eleven.

Waters' longtime muse, drag queen Divine, stars as Francine Fishpaw, a frustrated suburban housewife who resembles an inflated Liz Taylor with a five o' clock shadow. Francine is trapped in a loveless marriage to boorish porno cinema owner Elmer (David Samson), who deserts her for his secretary.

On top of that the Fishpaw kids are parodies of juvenile delinquents; good-time daughter Lu-Lu gets herself knocked up, while angel dusting son Dexter is wanted by police for indulging a serial foot-stomping fetish. Understandably Francine makes a rapid descent into alcoholism, but salvation presents itself in the rugged form of Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter, in what at the time was considered radical casting). Or does it?

As if that wasn't enough Waters also took the opportunity to acknowledge another of his seminal influences, gimmick-meister William Castle. You see, Polyester was originally exhibited in Odorama - audiences were presented with a numbered card to scratch and sniff when prompted on-screen. Given the smells included a fart and rotten sneakers you wonder why anybody would wish to partake. Sadly the dvd came sans scratchcard.

There's no room for sacred cows in Waters' world view and the results are predictably riotous. AA meetings, pro-lifers and even art cinemas fall under his caustic gaze as he desecrates middle America.

The cast are an odd stew of professionals and first-timers, but when you're looking to leave a strange taste that's precisely what you need. Amongst the hammy slices of dialogue Waters peppers some drole puns and put-downs. "Caught yers interruptus!" proclaims Francine when she catches her husband in the act. "You won't get a penny out of me you fat hunk of cellulite!" retorts Elmer.

Being a comparative novice to the Waters canon (having previously only seen his later musical Cry-Baby) I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this one. It revels in its absurdity and, as parodies go, delivers far more punch than more mainstream efforts. Some will balk at its deviancy, but that's because they're idiots.


  1. Funny, as someone who grew up with the more extreme Waters output (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble etc) I always thought Polyester was a bit of a copout, until I read an interview with the terror of Baltimore, where he said that he felt the film was more subversive than anything before simply because it was playing in the multiplexes. The memory of an audience full of suburbanites, all scratching and sniffing when told to, is a good memory, as I saw this on first release. And the smells? Well a lot of them were the same - I guess the roots of smelly sneakers and farts aren't that different really.


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