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Polyester (John Waters) 1981  

      Even though itís the tamest film that trash auteur John Waters had made up until that point, the Baltimore suburbs of his Polyester are so vile that they make the suburban hell of its spiritual successor, Douglas Sirkís All That Heaven Allows, look like utopia in comparison. Waters seems to find something to mock in every facet of suburban life here, and argues that the preened lawns and moral superiority that thrive there cover up the excitement of real life (which seems to lie in black, gay, or fringe culture in most of Watersí films). He extends this metaphor here by including Odorama, a scratch-and-sniff gimmick that enables the audience to smell unpleasant scents, such as oven fumes and sweaty gym shoes, while watching the movie, so that weíre reminded of the invigorating stench of reality. Using drag queen Divine as Francine Fishpaw, his put upon heroine, he creates a downward spiral thatís so severe that even the family pet kills itself. The people who live in these suburbs are prudish, judgmental, and so subtly racist that you could tell how easily their prejudices could be missed. The abundance of consumer products shown in many shots underlines the lame definitions of success that these people use to define their success. Watersí humor might be as broad as possible in Polyester, but itís also astute enough here to be funny from moment to moment.


    The second half of the film explores Francineís wish fulfillment after she hits rock bottom, but since her environment and ideals are so trite, this empowerment becomes comic. The rehabilitation that her family eventually finds is as ridiculously over the top as their afflictions were. When they finally become a normal American family, their life is as banal as ever. Worse yet, it lacks any distinctiveness, and it submerges into a new age dullness. Francine falls in love with Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), a hunky, coke-snorting stud who runs an art house drive-in theater where the patrons read Cahiers de Cinema. Unfortunately, the romance has no effect whatsoever when it pushes toward sincerity since sincerity is so far removed from the movieís early modus operandi. Itís tough to feel the upswing that Francine does, even temporarily. Waters has waited too long to trot out his romantic subplot, and has been too effective at creating an environment that trains us to be immediately suspicious of it. The relationship between Cuddles and Francine, which was the most endearing element of the first half of the film fades into the background as the film continues, leaving a hole that Todd canít fill. You thank God when the movie suddenly brings back Cuddles and begins deflating the glory of Todd, because it starts pushing the film back toward its subversive roots. Like in many of his films, Waters has created too many plot threads here, and when he begins tying them all up, the movie sheds momentum.


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Jeremy Heilman