***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, Stiv Bators
written and directed by John Waters
by Bryant Frazer For anyone who kept up with John Waters's gleeful forays into poor taste during the 1970s, Polyester, released at the dawn of the Reagan era, must have seemed like a change-up. It was hardly a big-budget affair, but it felt posher than the earlier, low-budget features that earned him his (dis)reputation. Those movies were filmed on grungier 16mm in the belly of Waters's Baltimore hometown, but Polyester was shot on 35mm and set in the suburbs. Famed actor-in-drag Divine was once again in front of the camera, but instead of the usual outsider role, he was playing squarely against type as neglected housewife Francine Fishpaw--and sharing star billing with 1950s/'60s heartthrob Tab Hunter. Waters introduces Francine by having his camera glide into the Fishpaws' home and up the stairs (the director's first-ever Steadicam shot) to find her dressed only in bra and girdle, bathed in a golden-hour glow, as Hunter croons lines from the title tune (lyrics by Debbie Harry): "You know about abundant women/Well, this girl only aims to please/Outside there's a load of noisy neighbours/Upstairs there's a Polyester squeeze."
It promised to be quite a show, and Waters was performing a balancing act, attempting to make a break from the midnight-movies circuit towards the mainstream without compromising his dedication to the lowbrow or betraying his affection for the outsider. Francine is, in fact, an outsider in the heart of middle-American life--overweight, undersexed, and deeply unfulfilled. What's really different about this John Waters movie is that Divine's performance actually works; it's more than a lark. Oh, sure, it's over the top. Every performance in this movie is over-acted, over-articulated, and over-enthusiastic. But Francine's emotion and longing are undeniable if you adjust your empathy receptors to the more amplified frequencies where Waters is working.
Francine struggles with her weight, with her seemingly incorrigible children, and with an adulterous spouse, though her worst enemy is her sense of shame. No one around her shares it--certainly not husband Elmer, who operates an adult movie palace downtown. As the film opens, Francine is essentially a prisoner in her own home, mortified by protesters outside carrying signs with anti-pornography slogans. (One of them reads simply, "I hate movies.") Meanwhile, sexed-up daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is dating a greaser named Bo-Bo (Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators) and dreams of becoming a go-go dancer at the Flaming Cave Lounge, and glue-sniffing son Dexter (Ken King) has a violent fixation on ladies' feet that earns him tabloid notoriety as The Baltimore Foot Stomper. Francine copes by commiserating with her best friend, Cuddles (Waters regular Edith Massey), when the others aren't around. But she's driven to drink when Elmer leaves Francine for his secretary, Sandra (Mink Stole, who has appeared in every Waters film), and figures out ways to torment her from afar, driving through the neighbourhood and insulting her through a megaphone, or simply dialling the house to give her grief over the telephone. At her lowest ebb, Francine tries to hang herself from the front of her baby-blue Frigidaire. Whenever she leaves the house with Cuddles, however, she notices a certain hunk of manhood named Todd Tomorrow (Hunter) making eyes at her. Could he be The One?
Though Polyester may not live up to the anything-goes audacity of Waters's earlier work, it succinctly sends up the mores of the middle class. The Citizens for Decent Films are helplessly square, chanting "G-rated movies are mighty fine," but the ticket-buyers are depicted as meekly embarrassed, with a news broadcast showing a crowd of shame-faced men spilling hurriedly out of the theatre. (Waters seems to find the picketers' claims that pornographic films encourage rape as dubious as Elmer's declaration that his theatre helps prevent it.) Waters depicts Elmer's affair as a kind of grotesque celebration of heterosexual intercourse, with Sandra flaunting her contraceptive pills and sneering that "children would only get in the way of our erotic lifestyle" as poor Francine nurses a tawdry fantasy about a local pizza boy. And there's absurdity to spare--a hilariously boisterous AA meeting, a pair of hard-boiled nuns, and a Marguerite Duras triple-feature. By the time Lulu sobs "Bobo's dead and I've had a miscarriage," before adding, brightly, "but I've discovered macramé," I was giggling helplessly at the spectacle.
The most famous joke associated with Polyester is something Waters called Odorama. An obvious parody of the heavily marketed Cinerama format, Waters's downmarket version is a scratch-and-sniff card with a selection of odours meant to be released and inhaled by audience members at corresponding points in the film. While the first scent is that of a rose, the selections careen downhill fast, subjecting sniffers to the essence of gasoline, dirty sneakers, and, of course, intestinal gas. In context, even a relatively tame scent like pizza comes across as vaguely nauseating. Large numerals appear on screen, directing viewers to take a whiff of different spots on the card, mostly in scenes showing Francine sniffing around her environs after detecting an unusual aroma. Odorama is a hilarious idea because the execution seems so unlikely; Waters really goes the extra mile for the gag. Yet it also aligns audience sympathies with poor Francine along olfactory lines, if nothing else. If you're watching Polyester, those smells are something you experience along with Francine, even if nobody around her seems interested in or aware of them. And the gimmick turns almost poignant in the post-traumatic lull of the final scene, when the Odorama card relays the Glade aerosol scent that a sobbing Francine sprays into the nighttime air, crying, "Everything smells so much better now," and wanting desperately to believe it. The sickly-sweet chemical scents on the scratch-and-sniff card match the burlesque on screen; as Polyester depicts it, the stench of middle-American life is overwhelming.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's Blu-ray release of Polyester is a seemingly picture-perfect artifact from 1981, with rich, liquidy colour and a thick layer of film grain. Although dynamic range isn't extreme, there's plenty of contrast in the picture. Deep blacks sometimes appear crushed, though cranking the brightness reveals that grain is visible even in the darkest portions of the image, suggesting Criterion has gotten substantially all of the available shadow detail from the camera negative. Per liner notes, the new transfer, scanned at 4K and letterboxed to 1.85:1, is approved by DP David Insley. Sound quality is especially impressive, with ample detail and exceptional clarity despite the age of the monaural mix. (Sound editor Skip Lievsay has gone on to enjoy one of the more prestigious careers in Hollywood audio post, including an Oscar win for Gravity.) The track is presented as uncompressed 24-bit/48kHz PCM.
Waters, maybe the most engaging public speaker I know of, provides full-length audio commentary in a track that was recorded back in 1993 for a Criterion LaserDisc release. He covers all of the basics and then some, balancing some reflection on his career as a whole with amusing details about the production--like the story about how the crew traumatized the neighbourhood by staging a gruesome car crash on a Sunday morning--and anecdotes from real life that were recycled for the narrative. It turns out that "racist polo," where nogoodniks would ride around town with the goal of swatting members of different ethnicities on the ass, was a real thing in Baltimore, and an actual recidivist foot-stomper terrorized Atlanta. "I think that's very American, this preoccupation with things smelling bad," he says at one point. "I think those deodorizers smell worse than a bad odour. It's a terrible smell." It's a classic from the Golden Age of Audio Commentary, arguably worth the price of the disc all by itself.
Equally fun is a newly-recorded conversation between journalist Michael Musto and director John Waters (38 mins., HD) that brings the package up-to-date. They discuss the film's performances in some detail, especially Edith Massey, whom he remembers fondly as an "outsider comedienne." Some of the gab duplicates observations made on the original commentary, but much of the material is new. For example, Waters remembers here that movie theatres widely refused to pay the bill for the Odorama cards on Polyester's original release, and expresses second thoughts about a downbeat twist near the end of the film, half-joking that if he had written the ending differently, it would have been a Broadway musical. He also briefly addresses the long gap between Polyester and his next film, Hairspray, and reveals that Tab Hunter voted for Donald Trump. "I almost admired him, that he had the nerve to tell me that," Waters says. The discussion was recorded at around the same time and in the same room as "Odorama with John", another new clip (4 mins., HD) where Waters tests out new scratch-and-sniff smells.
The excellent "Dreamland Memories" (23 mins.) features a healthy complement of film clips from throughout Waters's early career, along with archival footage shot among his Dreamland Players during the 1970s, accompanied by audio interviews with casting director Pat Moran, art director Vincent Peranio, costume designer and make-up artist Van Smith, and Hunter. This feature apparently originated on the 1993 LaserDisc, but the video portion has been remastered in full HD quality. The conversation is dominated by discussion of Divine, the most famous of Waters's collaborators. Smith remembers working on Divine's exaggerated make-up, which he describes as "a combination of B-movies and Vogue magazine." And Moran says, "Van invented the divinity part of it, because Van put the face on him."
Just over 20 minutes of deleted scenes--mostly extended bits that were trimmed from scenes that remain in the completed film--are presented in workprint quality, scanned from full-frame 35mm footage. The image is surprisingly crisp despite having faded a bit into the pink. Though mostly disposable, some of this material is funny even out of context and fans will get a lot out of it. In the very last bit, Todd takes Francine to his drive-in movie theatre and tells her, "Film is truth 24 times per second." And Francine responds, "Huuuh?"
"Sniffing Out Polyester" (14 mins., HD) is a grab-bag talking-heads feature with contributions from Hunter, Stole, Garlington, and Peranio, as well as Hunter's partner Allan Glaser, critic Dennis Dermody, and Greer Yeaton, the daughter of Moran. It excerpts interviews from a longer documentary, I Am Divine. Meanwhile, a few vintage television clips offer a valuable glimpse of a more youthful Waters and crew around the time of the film's release. In "John Waters in Charm City" (7 mins.), Waters and Divine discuss their early lives in Baltimore, including Waters's early obsession with violence and Divine's aspirations towards acting, Waters offers a quick driving tour of the city. "Edith: Queen of Fells Point" (6 mins.) features Edith Massey and her Baltimore gift shop. And "People Are Talking" (4 mins.) offers a snippet of behind-the-scenes footage from Polyester along with an interview in which Waters makes his best pitch for the film and offers a spirited defense of Baltimore. Both Waters and Divine appear together again in an excerpt from "Tomorrow with Tom Snyder" (7 mins.). "Are you trying to make things in motion pictures that are the sleaziest, scuzziest, scummiest things we can?" Snyder asks Waters, who responds, "All we're trying to do is get people to laugh--and people have a strange sense of humour sometimes."
Also on board is the original trailer (2 mins.) in a somewhat murky film transfer (complete with "Filmed in Odorama: Smelling Is Believing" card at the end) and a sarcastic "No Smoking in This Theater" announcement featuring Waters himself that clocks in at a bare 46 seconds. Tucked into the disc case are a replica Odorama card in all its odoriferous glory, as well as a fold-out sheet that features liner notes and an essay by critic and film-studies lecturer Elena Gorfinkel on the reverse of a large-scale replica of the romance jacket-inspired cover art.
86 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 1.0 LPCM; English subtitles; BD-50; Region A; Criterion