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Pecker (John Waters) 1998


    If the rest of John Waters’ Pecker was as funny as its first half-hour is, it might have been one of the all-time greats. Unfortunately the film’s plot structure sends the movie spiraling into a cycle of repetition that repeats twice, each time with diminishing, but not entirely disagreeable, returns. With the trash auteur’s distinctive brand of casual perversion, the opening scenes of the movie set up Water’s native Baltimore as a cesspool, but there’s considerable warmth in that caricature this time out. All of his eccentric characters are one-note, but there are enough of them that he never has to dwell on any long enough so that they grow stale, plus they’re funny to boot. Waters might be the most consistently fun and funny modern comedy director since he rarely changes the effective game he plays. He employs shock tactics, but not to alienate his audience. The “square” characters in the film are the ones who are usually the butt of the shock. For the film’s intended audience, the shocking moments (which are usually actually quite harmless) are something to be giggled at and dismissed. Waters has seemed quite confident that anyone who’s watching his film in the first place couldn’t possibly be the enemy. Because of that apparent level of comfort, Waters lets down his guard, and allows genuine sentimentality and goodwill to filter into his vision, and his movies feel less like the angry attacks that they often are (with the notable exception of the increasingly unsettling Female Trouble), and are richer as a result.


    Just about any film that features a photographer as a protagonist could be seen as a directorial statement, and Pecker is no exception. If the titular character (Edward Furlong) here is meant to be viewed as a surrogate for the director, the key line of dialogue is probably spoken when another character says to him, “If it wasn’t for you, I would have never known this stuff existed.” It seems that Waters fancies himself the modern equivalent of the sideshow barker, directing people’s attention with such vigorous enthusiasm that the slightly odd turns into the extraordinary. Certainly he finds miracles in the mundane with Pecker’s brilliant art direction. The world that the film takes place in is home to a non-stop parade of found art object travesties, and the non-stop humor derived from looking at these locations, which would have no place in nearly any other film, allows the audience to see the fringe of Pecker’s hometown through the same optimistic, appreciative outlook that he does. Some of the attacks on the New York art world seem a bit too simple-minded and easy, especially when the venom in them is as harmless as it is, but narrative convention demands a bad guy, and Waters, unfortunately, has become too conventional a filmmaker to discard narrative.


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Jeremy Heilman