Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the world of underground cinema was booming. Gross-out feature films with shock value littered throughout and moments of pure, unadulterated disgust were all the rage. In a world full of emerging blockbusters and moneymaking centerpieces, the punks and weirdos thrived in the underground. No director contributed to this craze quite like the king of trash cinema, John Waters. Exploring various taboos, fetishes, and the world of the obscure, Waters painted a picture of the world of trash some live in this country, and in the most over the top, borderline parodic fashion. Films like Multiple Maniacs, Mondo Trasho, and the legendary Pink Flamingos (which, if you haven’t seen it, is the purest form of trash cinema to have ever been released) built Waters a surefire reputation, with screenings around the world even handing out barf bags for some of his films. All the hype surrounding Waters came to a head in the late ’80s/early ’90s, with the release of two of his biggest movies, Hairspray and Cry Baby (the former eventually even becoming a hit Broadway musical). However, before he released these two hits, Waters directed one of his greatest works of storytelling, while maintaining the sense of trash that was around in his earlier films. That film was the magnificent take on suburban America, Polyester.
Starring the late and great queen of trash Divine (in easily her best role as well), Polyester follows Francine Fishpaw (Divine) as a bored and miserable housewife who happens to have a great sense of smell. She lives in your typical American suburban home with your not-so-typical American suburban family. Her husband, porn theater owner Elmer (David Samson), is a lying abuser who is cheating on her with his secretary, Sandra Sullivan (Mink Stole); her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is pregnant and always hanging around with bad boys; and her son Dexter (Ken King) has an uncontrollable foot fetish which leads him to breaking various women’s feet around the town. With all of this on her plate, her life starts to fall apart; Francine quickly becomes an alcoholic trying to find her Mr. Right while hanging around with her best friend Cuddles (Edith Massey) and getting into various ridiculous situations.
Even with John Waters being known as the king of trash cinema, Polyester was his most accessible film at the time, and still is to this day. Toning down the gross absurdity a bit for a more streamlined film about a perfect suburban family gone wrong, Polyester was the perfect transition for Waters into the mainstream world. Come on, you can’t keep making Pink Flamingos over and over again! With that being said, if you’re looking for the perfect entry point for John Waters, start with Polyester. Trust me when I say this, though: even with the toned down feel of Polyester, it is still a gross out fest. With John Waters, you don’t even need to see anything specifically disgusting to feel disgusted. He has such a way of setting up his shots and directing these actors that something as small as watching TV in bed will want to make you take a shower. It’s a true showcase of talent for Waters, showing that he doesn’t need to always be gross to make a good movie. Plus, having the incredible Divine in this helps out quite a bit, always electric and full of energy whenever shes on screen, and giving her possibly her best role in any John Waters film.
Polyester is a weird movie to wrap your head around, that’s a matter of fact, but if you can really sit back and enjoy the absurdity of everything, you’ll find a golden piece of underground cinema. Not only is the film a piece of art, but it brought with it Odorama, the clever but great gimmick of handing out scratch and sniff cards at the cinema with numbers on them. Leave it to John Waters to use the Odorama to showcase just how hard he tries to make the audience queasy, and it works perfectly! If you haven’t seen Polyester and you’re a John Waters fan, you’re really missing out on the major turning point of his career. If you’ve never seen a John Waters movie, I would 100% recommend you start with Polyester. It’s accessible but never strays away from what makes John Waters so good. If you’re in the boat of never having seen Polyester, you’re in luck! Take the commuter rail or a trip to the North Shore city of Salem this Thursday for a special screening of Polyester at Cinema Salem, with Odorama cards, a special drag show by the Closet Case before the movie and a Q&A with actress Mink Stole (!!!) after the film. “Well, this whole world stinks, Francine, so get used to it!”
dir. John Waters
Special screening at Cinema Salem Thursday, May 25th with drag show by Closet Case and Q&A with Mink Stole, starting at 7:30!