in Criterion Month

Polyester (1981)

With John covering Pink Flamingos a few days in addition to my earlier review of Multiple Maniacs as well as one of his key influencers, we’ve now covered a decent amount of John Waters during our Criterion Months. He’s an unlikely candidate for a director with multiple films in the Collection, since the Criterion Collection doesn’t tend to favor comedy or shlock all that much. Still, Waters’ renegade spirit and the way he turned trash and filth into extremely entertaining cinema absolutely deserves to be enshrined and appreciated, and I suppose we’ll see if Criterion continues to do more of his films, as there are still plenty to go around from his more mainstream, big studio era. Polyester is in many ways the bridge between that latter era and his earlier, low-budget movies made with the Dreamlanders, and offers a nice mix of what was great about both eras of his career.

Describing the plot of a John Waters movie often feels beside the point, but with Polyester the plot feels a little more thought out and less chaotic than some of his earlier films. It centers on Francine (played by Divine), an unhappy housewife who is married to the owner of porn theater, and also has a party animal daughter and a son who seems to be going on foot-stomping rampages behind her back. When Francine finds that her husband is having an affair, she has a bit of a mental breakdown, though eventually finds solace in the arms of Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), a middle-aged dreamboat that she keeps spotting around town over the course of the film. However, Todd (like every character in this movie) ends up being much sleazier than he appears on the surface, which, like a lot of John Waters movies eventually results in a killing spree.

I also forgot to mention that Francine has an acute sense of smell that makes her prone to sniffing out various objects that we the audience are able to sniff along with her. This is because the film is presented in Odorama, an invention that is introduced at the beginning of the film by an expert scent scientist who talks to the camera, instructing them how to use their scratch and sniff cards while watching the film. Any film that begins with a fake scientist talking to the audience is obviously doing something right, and the gimmick is a fun one, which was inspired by John Waters’ love of producer William Castle and the various fad innovations that were introduced into B-movies in the ’50s and ’60s.

Luckily, the Criterion blu-ray I bought of Polyester came with its own Odorama card, so I could scratch along to the movie, which uses flashing numbers on the screen at various moments that correspond to different smells on the card. The smells are mostly on the stingier side, like skunk smell, old sneakers, and of course farts, but they do throw in roses, new car smell, and air freshener to cap off the film. I found the smells to be relatively reminiscent of the things they were supposed to smell like, though I don’t have a ton of experience with scratch and sniff technology, which I can’t imagine is that sophisticated even now. I’d say the smells that seemed most like what they were supposed to be were a leaky gas oven and the air freshener, possible because they’re closest to whatever chemicals they’re putting on those scratch and sniff cards.

Even though the novelty of using scratch and sniff cards in the film is a big selling point, I like that there’s plenty more going on in the film than just smells. Polyester is in many ways Waters’ take on Douglas Sirk melodramas, while the presence of a former teen idol in Tab Hunter gives the film an undeniable ’50s vibe. Still, it’s not quite as kitsch as some of Waters’ other movies, as it does actually kind of feel like it takes place in a real-world version of ’80s suburbia, even if it still has the self-aware melodrama and generally unsavory characters that populate his work. Though there are less Dreamlanders in this movie than usual, you gotta love that even when Waters was starting to work on a bigger budget he still put the unpolished acting talent of Edith Massey to use in an against-type role as Francine’s former house cleaner who inherited a bunch of money and now acts like a high society rich lady, which ended up being Massey’s final role.

Of course, you can’t talk about the film’s performances without talking about Divine. This is a bit of a departure for the performer since by this time he had become known for playing multiple maniacs in Waters’s earlier movies. But here, his character is something a bit more sympathetic, as she’s clearly the victim of an out-of-control family and seems to be trapped by her alcoholism and the narrow prospects of being a newly single housewife. It’s been recounted that Divine was a bit tired of the poop-eating monster that he had become known as with Pink Flamingos and was interested in doing more diverse work like he does here or in the later films he did in the ’80s out of drag. It seems that Waters was similarly going in a direction away from his earlier DIY movies, and the two would collaborate one more time before Divine’s death with Waters’ mainstream breakout, Hairspray. Though that movie was successful enough to launch a Broadway musical and a movie version of that musical, I guess we’ll see if it ever ends up being Criterion material.