Blu-ray Review: POLYESTER Stinks of Glory
Intro to Oderama
Close those noses and thank sweet Blu-ray Jesus, Polyester - John Waters’ smellodramatic Sirkian assault on the suburbs - has arrived in 4K in all its technicolor glory to stink up your personal Criterion collections. I’m not being figurative. The incredible package for this Waters fan favorite comes with a reprint of the original Oderama scratch & sniff card for your perverted nasal curiosity.
For those unfamiliar with the scientific innovation, Oderama is a shameless gimmick with a dual purpose for Waters. In part, Oderama pays respects to the 50s theatrical exploits of showman extraordinaire, William Castle, who earned his good name for stunts like ‘tingling’ the seats of audience members as they watched Vincent Price attempt to thwart the intergalactic Tingler. Meanwhile, Oderama also offered Waters a means to honor his most ardent haters, who’d been telling the public that Waters’ films stunk for so long, the Baltimore shock bohemian decided he should once and for all craft a film that literally stank.
And what better vehicle than Polyester, his first opportunity to create on a six figure studio scale? Finally set free from his independent shackles of the 60s and 70s, Waters not only aimed to go big, he went grandiose. As the incredible Criterion cover art, illustrated by Sam Hadley (with Raphael Geroni) conveys, Polyester is a romance of epic dime-store proportions.
Francine Fishpaw wants nothing more than to live a normal American life via the Norman Rockwellian family. She wants a good home in a safe neighborhood, a manly husband, and a good boy and girl of fine academic standing. For these sick sins, Waters punishes Francine with a hyperbolic nightmare family. Her louse pornographer husband Elmer’s very existence is picketed daily by warriors of decency chanting, “1-3-5-9, G-Rated movies are mighty fine!”. Her hyper-gogo daughter-with-a-daddy-complex, Lulu, is a straight-F student who, along with her poster-punk boyfriend (The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators in one of the all time great works of typecasting), is bound for a scandalous abortion. The same picketers harassing Elmer Fishpaw are the ones who also slap Lulu’s pregnant face then yell “That’s from Jesus!”. Lastly there’s Dexter Fishpaw aka “The Stomper”, a glue-huffing foot freak who’s lately been seen terrorizing high-heeled women at local grocery stores compelled by his urges.
Besides alcohol, Francine’s only solace comes in the form of her best friend, Cuddles, played by egg-lady and Baltimore thriftster, Edith Massey, at her most adorable. “Prrrr Francine”, Cuddles laments, “Prrrr, Prrrr Francine…”. Then there’s Tab Hunter as Todd Tomorrow, in another of the film’s ingenious displays of casting. Heartthrob Todd Tomorrow enters Francine’s life like the teen dream Tab Hunter was for millions of wide-eyed girls (and terrified boys) dangling an image of idyllic happiness before prrrr Francine’s vulnerable face.
As for the film’s central piece of too-perfect type-casting, we have Dreamland Productions starlet Divine in her first sympathetic roll as the (book of) Job-esque damsel-in-distress, helplessly free-falling down Waters’ impassioned hate-letter to the American dream. Anchored by perfect performances from its entire cast and with more laughs-per-minute than I can keep up with, I’d argue that Polyester is both John Waters’ funniest and most visionary work in an astounding career-long tribute to shameless bad taste and flippant in-your-face low-art.
Getting Polyester into the Blu-ray players of Waters fiends everywhere was no easy feat. Apparently, since the raw materials had been gathering mold up in Waters’ attic for the last 40 years, not to mention the accompanying Odermama cards that could occasionally be smelled from downstairs, restoring Polyester was a fittingly nauseating process. It sure was worth it though (easy for me to say) since the 4K digital restoration, supervised by Waters, looks spectacular with pleasingly saturated colors that pop like a good Sirkian smellodrama should.
As for the Oderama, on top of the attached cards that allow you to follow-your-nose along with the film (spoilert: only 2/10 of the scents will be enjoyable), Waters also treats us to a brief education on the gimmick’s history, from wafts of stank staining the ‘50s theaters of Scent Of Mystery, to delivery drivers throughout the ‘80s refusing to ship out foul smelling Oderama cards en masse.
The commentary track, conducted by Waters for laserdisc in 1993, is of course a treat, as is any and every opportunity to see or hear him speak. Fortunately the opportunities are many, whether it’s John hosting his own birthday party, defiling Christmas before a live audience, or - my personal favorite - hosting Burger Records’ annual Burger Boogaloo in Oakland, CA. Or you could simply get your fill by digging deep into this or any of Criterion’s treasure trove of Waters supplements.
Polyester also includes a new and very entertaining forty minute interview between Waters and critic Michael Musto that thoroughly elaborates on his “futile attempt at mainstream entertainment.” Deleted scenes tend to add up to no more than a curiosity, but in the case of Waters’ funniest film, the twenty minutes of extra Polyester footage are just as hysterical as anything else in the film.
The numerous remaining supplemental goodies and archival tidbits are strong enough to keep you re-watching for years to come. Take the excellent Dreamland Productions featurette which is especially valuable for its 20 minutes worth of awesomely-rare vintage footage of the motley crew from its earliest days. Other valuable nuggets of golden bygone time come in the form of a 1978 profile of Edith Massey in her natural Baltimore thrift store habitat, an interview with John from the set of Polyester, a 1981 tour of Baltimore, featuring interviews with Divine and a brief trip to Edith’s Shopping Bag, and a TV appearance featuring John and Divine on the smirking defense of the Tom Snyder show. Tied together with a high-falutin essay on a beautiful turd, Criterion’s packaging of Polyester is nothing short of a Christmas miracle!
Thus far Criterion has been good enough to remaster and offer stacked editions of Dreamland Productions classics, Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble. Thankfully, with this brilliant offering of Polyester now in tow, it appears that Criterion and Waters are on course for a beautiful friendship. Should his entire catalogue now be up for Criterion grabs, if I could offer a humble suggestion to any powers-that-be who may happen to be reading, before circling back to fill in the essentials, can we please fast forward to Pecker or Cecil B Demented? Just a thought. Thanks Blu-ray Jesus! Love you...