Retro Review: The Sweet Scent of POLYESTER: Blast-Off Burlesque Taboo-La-La Presents John Waters’ Most Odor-ific Cult Classic

POLYESTER (1981); Dir: John Water; Starring Divine, Tab Hunter; Plaza Theatre, Saturday, December 1 at 10:00pm; presented by BLAST-OFF BURLESQUE’S TABOO-LA-LA in ODORAMA. Trailer here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Let’s start with a question. What if I told you that, on Saturday night at the Plaza, you had a chance to experience a film in ODORAMA, a process that lets you scratch-and-sniff a card to experience with the, um, aromas of the movie you’re watching, aromas that include such delights as model airplane glue, skunk and flatulence? Does that sound like your idea of a fun weekend night?

Those of you who said “yes, please!” already know John Waters and his film, POLYESTER, playing as part of the regular TABOO-LA-LA series presented by Blast-Off Burlesque. You guys are going to be there anyway. For those of you who *ahem* politely declined, the burden now falls to me to change your mind.

John Waters is kind of a maniac, but movie nuts and those with a taste for the trashy have long considered him their maniac. Waters is a true indie, a guy whose tastes and warped sense of humor never stood a chance of playing in Hollywood, and so he made his own Hollywood in Baltimore, churning out a handful of homemade movies starring his friends, a company of actors who took to calling themselves the Dreamlanders. Perhaps the most famous Dreamlander was Divine, an actor who performed in drag and rose to fame as Waters’s muse, due equally to Divine’s incredible charisma and willingness to waltz into the darkest corners of Waters’s imagination. Divine starred in all of Waters’s early Baltimore films, never more famously (or infamously) as in PINK FLAMINGOES, which uses as its money shot a scene where Divine consumes dog shit. Did I mention that John Waters movies aren’t for the weak-stomached?

Baldly nasty content is what earned all of Waters’s early films an X-rating, when he bothered to have them rated at all. Waters sold himself as a master purveyor of camp, trash and kitsch, and his films can be endurance tests for the timid. So, Waters had to seek his audience, growing them like a culture through word of mouth. Many people watched Waters’s films with jaws dropped and raced from the theatre to tell friends who, of course, could never believe such filth existed at the cinema… and so they bought a ticket to find out for themselves. A passionate few liked what they saw and became fans for life. Waters’s movies owned midnight crowds back when late-night movies were for the deranged and the dangerous, but then a funny thing happened somewhere along the way: once the shock value numbed, fans noticed the actual craft and talent present both behind the camera and in front of it. Despite his image as the gleeful outsider with the pencil-thin moustache looking to tear down the system, Waters was the real deal, and as experience improved his work, his films became less pointedly offensive and more simply on-point. It was time for John Waters to go mainstream.

Enter POLYESTER, the film universally recognized as the transition from Waters’s early days with the Dreamlanders to an artist whose work could eventually be mined by Broadway (his hit 1988 film HAIRSPRAY eventually became a Broadway show, and then a movie musical, with John Travolta in the part originated by Divine. Times, they do change.) POLYESTER is John Waters’s take on the suburban aesthetic and weepy melodrama of Douglas Sirk, with Sirk’s painterly Technicolor tossed aside for garage-sale chic. Divine stars as a housewife named Francine Fishpaw whose marriage falls apart while her kids spin off in a variety of unsavory directions. To fully describe the plot would risk giving away many of its lightly-shocked laughs, but the movie isn’t afraid to explore. The more over-the-top the tragedy—and believe me, this clears the top by a half-a-foot–the more laughter Waters drags from the audience.

POLYESTER was the first John Waters film that could sit comfortably at the multiplex, and his first to receive an R-rating, bringing his work and his fans reluctantly blinking out into the sun. No matter which version of Waters you enjoy the most, generally everyone can agree that POLYESTER is one of his best and most accessible. In fact, The AV Club named POLYESTER as the ideal gateway into the director and his work.

And then there’s ODORAMA, the gimmick Waters cooked up to let his fans know that mainstream success wasn’t going to change him. In a nod to the showmanship of the great huckster William Castle, viewers of POLYESTER were handed scratch-and-sniff cards to keep up with the overactive olfactory system that helps Francine through the film’s plot. Now you can smell what Francine smells, and although the odors are rarely pleasant, the whole idea is just on the right side of wacky to lend the proceedings a heaping helping of charm. It’s Waters saying that it’s OK not to take his movie so seriously; he certainly doesn’t.

Blast-Off Burlesque is handing out ODORAMA cards for Saturday night’s viewing of POLYESTER, and they’re sweetening the deal with their usual variety show of burlesque performance and contests. The Dreamlanders would be proud.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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