Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings: POLYESTER

by JB
I used to think John Waters a funny man. I now regard him as a prophet.

I purchased the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc of John Waters’s Odor-Rama epic Polyester more from a sense of duty than out of real interest. I was in my “collecting mode” and seeing that Criterion included an actual Odor-Rama Scratch ‘N’ Sniff card in the package sealed the deal. How could I NOT possess, for home viewing, one of the only “smell-o-vision” films ever made?
Things have clearly changed in the last 38 years. I was a college freshman when I stepped up to the ticket booth at the late, lamented Thunderbird Theater in Urbana, Illinois, paid the admission price, and received my original Odor-Rama card. Back then, I thought the film was a hoot, I thought the gimmick was a hoot, I thought that life itself was a hoot. From the performances to the dialogue to the art direction and costumes, Waters proved himself to be a connoisseur of white trash culture. Back then I did not realize that Waters was tipping his hat to both gimmick maestro William Castle and melodrama master Douglas Sirk with his deep dive into the soap opera-esque life of one Francine Fishpaw.

The Plot in Brief: Everything is going south for scent-obsessed suburban mother Francine Fishpaw (Divine). Her husband Elmer (David Samson) is a dim-witted lout who runs the town’s porno theater. He is not hiding the fact that he is conducting an affair with his secretary, Sandra Sullivan (Mink Stole). Francine’s disobedient daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) wants to drop out of school; her angel dust-snorting son Dexter (Ken King) is probably the notorious Baltimore Foot Stomper. Francine’s mother LaRue (Joni Ruth White) berates and steals from her every chance she gets. Francine’s only friend is former cleaning woman Cuddles Kovinsky (Edith Massey) who, after inheriting a fortune, longs to be a debutante. Can Francine’s life get any worse? Will Francine address her obvious alcoholism? Is handsome stranger Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) the key to Francine’s rehabilitation?
Re-watching Polyester for what might be my first time since the film’s premiere showed me yet again that America 2019 has become a very different place than America 1981. Back when I first saw the film, I thought Waters was mocking a very specific slice of the population. Now I realize that Waters was predicting the future. Every character in Polyester is the worst… and proud of it, just like seemingly everyone roaming our planet today.

Case in point: this morning I attended a screening of Ad Adstra (a film I very much liked and would recommend) joined by a record number of people who came late to the screening, all of them asserting their goddamn (or God-given) right to USE THE FUCKING FLASHLIGHTS ON THEIR FUCKING CELLPHONES TO FIND THEIR FUCKING RESERVED SEATS. “It’s my right to do this,” they bellowed above the IMAX-enhanced dialogue of the film. “It’s my right to be late to a movie, and it’s my right to shine A PIECE OF THE SUN into the eyes of everyone who got here on time, who by the way are trying to look into the darkest reaches of outer space! Look at me! I’M JUST LIKE A GODDAMN CHARACTER IN A GODDAMN JOHN WATERS MOVIE! STOMP ON YOUR FOOT? DON’T MIND IF I DO! This is Rambo, right?”

“The Worst… and Proud of It” will be emblazoned on the new National T-Shirt, given out free to those proud Americans who scream, “Stop asking so many fucking questions and just get in the fucking car!” to their children in Wal-Mart parking lots, or who make boisterous booty calls on their cellphones (set to “speakerphone”) in line behind me at the bank, or who “open-carry” anything anywhere for any reason. In the film, Elmer Fishpaw delights in showing smut films at his theater because they turn a profit. He loves the picket lines that often ring his house, figuring that the attendant publicity will make him even richer. From his bad hair to his serial philandering to his brutish disregard for anyone but himself, Elmer reminds me of President Donald Trump: a man consumed by self-interest who believes that money justifies anything.

In the film, Francine’s children Lu-Lu and Dexter follow their bliss by go-go dancing nonstop/dating sociopaths and huffing drugs/stomping lady-feet, respectively. They respect no authority other than their own fickle whims and desires. Last week, a young man drove an SUV through the front window of the Sears at Woodfield Mall, five minutes from my modest suburban home, and proceeded to drive, Blues Brothers-style, through the middle of the mall until crashing into a Hollister. Reportedly, other mall-goers held the driver captive until the police could get there. Police have not yet revealed the Indoor NASCAR wannabe’s motivation, but I’m guessing that when it comes out, it will sound a lot like “It seemed like a good idea to me at the time.”
In Polyester, people say horrible things to each other all the time. On Twitter, people say horrible things to each other all the time. In Polyester, everyone turns out to be so much worse than you could have possibly imagined. In real life, everyone… well, you get my point… and get off my lawn, whippersnappers!

But the prescience of Waters’ outrageous worldview is not the only thing Polyester has going for it. Criterion has included a treasure trove of extras on the new disc. They have ported over their laserdisc commentary track with Waters himself from 1993. Film critic Michael Musto talks with Waters in a new half-hour interview segment. There are 14 minutes of outtakes from the documentary I Am Divine as well as 20 minutes of outtakes from the film itself. My favorite extra was a brief peek of John Waters trying out the scratch-and-sniff samples to be used on the disc’s new Odor-Rama cards. Waters keeps bemoaning the fact that he no longer has any sense of smell—although I found Criterion’s newly-created cards to be much more pungent than the originals. The smell of each scratched circle was much stronger, hung in the air longer, and remained on my fingernails longer than those in 1981. By the end of the film, a mélange of grossness pervaded my family room. It wound up smelling like a skunk that works at a gas station on the wrong side of town.
Also, one quibble: why provide only one card? A comically subversive, in-your-face film like Polyester is most fun to watch with friends. It’s a drag to share the single card with others, as I did with my lovely wife. This afforded her plenty of time to anticipate what the next scent would be, and to pass on the stinky ones.

She’s smart that way.


  1. The story about people shining their lights remind me of last year when i went to see 2001 A Space Odyssey and the guy was taking pictures of the screen of every iconic shot of the movie, with his tablet. You know, the shots that come up when you do a google image search of the movie. I didn't say anything because he was too far, but it was very annoying

  2. I can't wait to see this one. I recently watched Female Trouble for the first time and now I'm officially obsessed with Divine/John Waters collaborations.

  3. Although I think it is wonderful, I am still amazed to see John Waters' early films getting Criterion releases. The first time I saw one for sale, which was probably Multiple Maniacs, I thought it was some kind of gag. Since when is 1970s John Waters respectable?

    Polyester is a blast to watch. It may be my favorite Divine performance. (I still have to re-watch Female Trouble to decide.) Waters pulls off the deft balancing act of making fun of his characters without being disrespectful to them. The re-creation of the Odor-Rama experience sounds (or smells) interesting.