Desperate Living

Director: John Waters
Screenplay: John Waters
Stars: Divine (Francine Fishpaw), Tab Hunter (Todd Tomorrow), Edith Massey (Cuddles Kovinsky), David Samson (Elmer Fishpaw), Mary Garlington (Lu-Lu Fishpaw), Ken King (Dexter Fishpaw), Mink Stole (Sandra Sullivan)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1981
Country: USA

Desperate Living
Director: John Waters
Screenplay: John Waters
Stars: Liz Renay (Muffy St. Jacques), Mink Stole (Peggy Gravel), Susan Lowe (Mole McHenry), Edith Massey (Queen Carlotta), Mary Vivian Pearce (Princess Coo-Coo), Jean Hill (Grizelda Brown), Brook Blake (Bosley Jr.), Karen Gerwig (Beth)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1977
Country: USA
John Waters Volume 2 DVD Cover

By the time writer/director John Waters made Desperate Living in 1977, he was already a notorious midnight-movie cult celebrity, a genuine fringe iconoclastic auteur whose low-budget cinematic barbs skewered self-aggrandizing hippies as readily as it did fascist oppressors. His early movies, Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), had taken the midnight circuit by storm and had created an eclectic following of punks, deviants, and camp sophisticates. To see a John Waters movie in the 1970s was to take part in anarchy, to revel gleefully in ranting, grotesquerie, and the unequivocal mockery of all social groups and movements.

Yet, one of the fundamental basics of his early movies is that they were also a lot of fun. Yes, they were gross and politically nihilistic, even deeply offensive if you took them too seriously; but, at the same time, they had a garage-aesthetic energy and a manic humor that was exhilarating. The problem with Desperate Living is that, even by Waters' own admission, it is too grim and unsavory. Hard-core Waters fans often cite it as their favorite Waters film, but that is likely because it is the most extreme. It is Waters' angry punk sensibility—which reveled in the disgusting, celebrated the neurotic, and offered no redemption of any kind—taken to its furthest extreme.

Of course, few mainstream critics ever "got" John Waters. To them, his movies were just filthy exercises in lewdness. As Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times about Desperate Living, "You could look far and wide to find a more pointlessly ugly movie ... but why would you bother?" Maslin got it at least half-right: Desperate Living is certainly ugly, but like all of Waters' trash epics, it is hardly pointless. Waters' purpose in his early movies was inspired, in fact, by Charles Manson, who was like a deranged muse to Waters: "We wanted to do the same thing as the Manson family," Waters once said. "We wanted to scare the world."

And Desperate Living is certainly scary. Described by Waters as a "monstrous lesbian fairy tale about political corruption," it opens in mainstream suburbia, where a hysterical housewife named Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) and her enormous black maid, Grizelda (Jean Hill), inadvertently kill her husband. Escaping from the police (embodied in a perverted, cross-dressing motorcycle cop played by an actor named Turkey Joe), Peggy and Grizelda find the only place they can run is Mortville, a shanty town populated entirely with criminals and ruled by a despotic queen (Edith Massey) and her army of perverted soldiers in S&M costumes.

Peggy and Grizelda rent a room from a bitter butch lesbian named Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her lover, Muffy St. Jacques (played by Liz Renay, a sort of cut-rate Jayne Mansfield who starred in numerous exploitation movies throughout the 1960s and was the first "star" to appear in one of Waters' films). From there, the movie follows the characters as they are suppressed by the evil queen and eventually rise up in revolution, which has led Waters to describe the movie as being "feminist," although women and, especially lesbians, at the time didn't see it that way.

It is typical of Waters' movies that they inspire one to list all the offensive and grotesque things that happen in them, and Desperate Living is no different: cannibalism, rabies, road kill, a baby stuck in a refrigerator, a sex-change operation, self-castration with a pair of scissors, an eyeball gouged out with a high-heel shoe, the eating of roaches, and death by being smothered in a bowl of dog food. The movie starts on a high note, rolling the opening credits over a high-angle shot of an elegant dinner setting onto which is served a dead rat. With this sequence, Waters not only intrudes on the beauty of the dinner setting with a dead rodent, he then symbolically forces it down the viewer’s throat by putting the camera in a subjective position while someone cuts into and actually consumes the animal. This is what people had come to expect from a John Waters movie, and he wasn't about to disappoint. The movie's tagline—"It isn't very pretty"—was all too fitting.

In the end, Desperate Living certainly works as a twisted, inverted fairy tale that satirizes the excesses of fascism, but it is the least entertaining and most difficult to watch of his '70s movie. It features many of the regular troupe of "Dreamlanders" who populated his movie—including Mink Stoke, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Susan Lowe, Mary Vivian Pearce, production manager Pat Moran, and set designer Vincent Peranio—but it will always be the one movie Waters made without his favorite actor, the glorious 350-pound transvestite Divine, while the actor was still alive. The sheer enormity of Waters' discover, Jean Hill, who stood only 5'1" and weighed 480 pounds, was no substitute for the trashy star power Divine brought to the screen.

In 1977, the year Desperate Living was released, George Morris wrote in the film journal Take One, "I for one hope Waters never refines his technique to the point where he loses his outrageous, irrepressible sense of humour." Although Waters never lost his sense of humor, his technique was eventually refined to the point that the manner in which he conveyed his humor had to be altered substantially. Having conquered the underground world of midnight movies, it was only a matter of time before Waters set his sights on something a little more mainstream—namely, suburban Americana.

Four years later, Waters emerged with Polyester, which marked turning point in his career. Although it reinstated his favorite actor, Divine (née Glenn Milstead), in the leading role as a much-put-upon housewife named Francine Fishpaw, featured the usual cast of Dreamlanders, and pushed more than a few boundaries with its outrageous humor, Polyester was a legitimate, although still low-budget, studio movie that marked the first time Waters worked within the mainstream instead of outside of it. Film in 35mm, it was Waters' first movie to be rated R, as all his others had either been slapped with an X-rating or not rated at all.

Polyester cost $300,000 to make, which is significantly more than it cost for Waters to make all of his early films combined. With a higher budget came a glossier, more polished look, and therefore Polyester lost that gritty, raw edge enjoyed by Pink Flamingos and other early films. Starting with Polyester, Waters' films began to look like professionally produced Hollywood product, rather than deranged home movies made by a group of social deviants. While this won Waters new fans and earned him respect from premiere film critics, it marked a drastic turning point in his original aesthetic.

Polyester was the first of Waters' movie to take place entirely within mainstream American suburbia. Of course, he twisted it by bringing in some of the neurotic impulses that characterized his earlier movies. Therefore, Francine is the weak matriarch of a family run amok. Her sleazy, adulterous husband, Elmer (David Samson), runs the local porn theater. Her sluttish daughter, Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington), is failing all of her classes in school and proudly proclaims that she is about to have an abortion. And her son, Dexter (Ken King), is a glue-sniffing foot fetishist wanted by the police for stomping on women's feet. Apparent salvation for Francine arrives in the hunky form of Tod Tomorrow, played in one of Waters' greatest casting coups by Tab Hunter, a one-time teen idol in the 1950s.

Because he was working with a higher budget, Waters had room to play in ways that had earlier been denied him. The overall look of Polyester is much more sophisticated than his earlier films, as it was specifically designed to evoke the women's melodramas from the 1950s, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk. The acting hadn't improved much—Edith Massey is particularly bizarre in her delivery as always—but the style suits Waters' deranged universe. Polyester marked a major step for Divine, however, as it was the first time he was allowed to play a character on-screen that deviated from his notorious Divine persona (just hearing him deliver the line "I'm a good Christian woman" is worth the price of admission).

And, while there are few scenes of intense physicality on-screen in Polyester, Waters devised perhaps his most interesting means for bringing the audience into the physicality of his movie. Polyester was released with a gimmick of which William Castle would have been proud: Odorama. The Odorama card was divided into sections numbered 1 through 10, and whenever a number was flashed on the screen, the audience was invited to scratch and sniff that number on the card so they could share in whatever aroma Francine Fishpaw was smelling. In true Waters fashion, not all the smells were agreeable to one's nose, and it doesn't take much imagination to guess what No. 2 smelled like. But, that's what makes Waters' films fun: He makes you endure the grossest of the gross and you still laugh through the whole thing.

John Waters Collection Volume Two: Polyester / Desperate Living

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 (Polyester)
1.33:1 (Desperate Living)
AudioDolby 1.0 Monaural
Audio commentary by writer/director John Waters
Original theatrical trailer
Odorma card

Desperate Living
Audio commentary by writer/director John Waters and actress Liz Renay
Original theatrical trailer

DistributorNew Line Home Entertainment

Bearing in mind that Desperate Living was shot in 16mm on what was undoubtedly cheap film stock, it looks as good here as it probably ever will. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the image is generally clean and fairly free of specks and scratches, although the opening credits sequence appears to be fairly dirty. The transfer also looks to have been taken from a 16mm print, rather than a blown-up 35mm print, as the image is not overly grainy with the exception of a few insert shots. Polyester was Waters' first film to be shot in 35mm on a healthy budget, and it shows in the image quality. The opening shot betrays several scratches and blemishes (which are also apparent on the 1993 Criterion laser disc transfer, which was taken from the 35mm interpositive), but otherwise this widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic transfer is wonderful, with solid, well-saturated colors and good, crisp detail.

The sound quality on Desperate Living is pretty paltry, keeping in line with its low-brow aesthetic. Presented in one-channel monaural, it is fairly clear, although the volume tends to waver a bit and there are noticeable aural artifacts from time to time. The music sounds tinny and cramped, but it's nothing unexpected considering how inexpensive the movie was to produce. Polyester is also presented in its original monaural, but it sounds infinitely better due to its higher budget.

For my money, no one does better audio commentaries than John Waters. Waters is a brilliantly funny man, droll and campy at the same time, and his relaxed demeanor, ironic tone, and willingness to laugh at himself make his commentaries as interesting, if not more so, than the movie he's talking about. Part of this is because the making of his movies, especially the early ones, were such outrageous activities in and of themselves that the behind-the-scenes stories often rival what is happening on-screen.

Both discs in this two-disc set include screen-specific audio commentaries by Waters. His commentary on Desperate Living is interspersed with additional commentary by actress Liz Renay, who was recorded separately. Renay has some interesting anecdotes about her notorious past, but she doesn't have much of interest to say about the movie itself, except for repeatedly noting how good she thinks she looked. Waters, on the other hand, offers endless laughs in his somewhat hazy recollections of making the movie (he does claim this is the one movie in the '70s that he was not smoking pot while writing). Waters' memory is a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes and historical footnotes, especially concerning all the oddballs and social misfits who appear on-screen (almost all of whom he knew personally) and the unique quirks of Baltimore, his hometown that features prominently in all of his movies. He also happily cites his various cinematic inspirations, which range from Visconti's The Damned (1969), to Night of the Living Dead (1968), to all of the infamous Ilsa exploitation movies, which Waters can recount by name.

Waters' audio commentary for Polyester is not the same as the one that previously appeared on the Criterion laser disc, but it is quite similar. Again, Waters brings insight and humor into his take on the movie, talking about the influences of Douglas Sirk, how much the people in the neighborhood where he shot the movie hated him for having Divine screeching on the front lawn at four in the morning, and giving a bizarre explanation for why the nuns at the unwed mothers' home make Lu-Lu go on a hayride.

Both films also feature original theatrical trailers, the one for Desperate Living presented in full-frame and the one for Polyester in anamorphic widescreen. And, New Line has been good enough to include a slightly shrunken, although fully functional, replica of the Odorama card to ensure full olfactory pleasure when viewing Polyester, just as Waters intended.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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