Criterion Prediction #143: Polyester, by Alexander Miller
Director: John Waters
Cast: Divine, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Mary Garlington, David Samson
Synopsis: Suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw yearns to be happy in her seemingly idyllic life. However, her life takes a turn for the worst when her unfaithful husband leaves the family, leaving Francine with two troubled kids, her teenage daughter is pregnant, and her son has been physically attacking woman by stamping on their feet.
Critique: John Waters, where to start? We all know he’s capable of being filthy and, when armed with his muse, Divine, is all the more adept at making us squirm with some of the vilest and most ludicrous antics committed to screen. So why is it that in movies like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living we’re able to laugh so hard at cannibalism, graphic incest, scatology, violence and all manner of nastiness? We can laugh because John Waters is a smart guy. He’s a sharp satirist with incisive observations and, most of all, he doesn’t take anything too seriously, especially himself. So what do you get when you take away the wanton smuttiness of Waters’ cinema?
What you get is his incisive social commentary, crass sense of humor, his kitschy, hyperbolic style and aggressively nonconformist sense of nostalgia topped with his sardonic, soapy furnishings. Polyester might not be steeped in raunchiness but it offers an emphatically cartoonish narrative that, unlike his earlier work isn’t merely a springboard for varied vignettes of filthiness but here he scrutinizes classism, gender roles and family dynamics in what feels like a nightmarish reimagining of Reagan era mores as the Fishpaw household plays like a Sirkian mutation. Francine, portrayed with the eruptive excess we can only find in a performer as unique as Divine, has that recognizable “fallen women” story arc and, in the hands of Waters, we can see that he’s evolving from a shocking exhibitionist to a more pointed satirist. He applies his sensibilities to the subversive, fetishistic shenanigans of Francine’s son, Dexter, who finds pleasure in becoming a serial foot stomper, only to arrive later fully reformed as an artist who specializes in painting portraits of women’s feet. Meanwhile, the promiscuous antics of the daughter, Lulu, provide some solid ground to lampoon the religious right and abortion protesting. Even for a relatively tamer Waters film, you can rest assured that no one is going to “look good” but it feels all the more assuring to see the overzealous conservatives take a few licks.
Polyester is a transitional piece of filmmaking from Waters and, in breaking into more mainstream fare, he also embraced the interactive scratch-and-sniff Odorama card, a theatrical gimmick in the spirit of William Castle, another influential and prolific filmmaker.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: It’s something of a surprise that Criterion inaugurated the more raunchy and rough-hewn Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble before giving a spine number to Polyester or Pink Flamingos. Both were featured in the collection during the LaserDisc years. While Shout! Factory has recently released Waters’ Serial Mom, Polyester is the next natural step in the growing relationship between the director and The Criterion Collection, seeing as it was formerly a part of Criterion’s catalogue and Polyester is a New Line release, which was merged with Warner Bros. in 2008. Shortly afterwards, in 2009, Criterion struck up a licensing deal with Warner.