You’re sitting in a dark theater, watching John Waters’ new movie, Pecker, thinking yourself pretty unflappable. All of a sudden something on screen makes you bark with astonishment. In the past, Waters went for over-the-top stunts, like the supremely gross moment in Pink Flamingos when Divine eats a fresh dog turd. Pecker, too, has its moments of outrageousness, but mostly Waters just makes sure his cast doesn’t look any prettier than your average person on the street—their wrinkles aren’t covered up, their clothes are tacky, their bodies aren’t model-perfect. And when you see this blown up on a gigantic movie screen, the effect is both jarringly wrong and gleefully liberating.
directed by John Waters
starring Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci, Martha Plimpton
Pecker (Edward Furlong) runs up and down the streets and back alleys of Baltimore with his camera, snapping pictures of neighbors, family, and copulating rats. His muse and primary model is his girlfriend Shelly (Christina Ricci), who runs a run-down coin laundry with an iron fist. (When a patron tries to dye her clothes in a washer, wailing, “But I don’t have any fall colors!”, Shelly snarls, “Take your tired wardrobe somewhere else!”)
Inevitably, a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor) discovers Pecker’s off-the-cuff photos, and fame descends on him and his subjects. At first it’s a wondrous gift, but celebrity soon sours. Pecker’s best friend can no longer shoplift without being recognized; Child Protection agents pursue his candy-junkie little sister, Chrissy; and his fag-hag older sister loses her job at the Fudge Palace, where she lovingly announced the male go-go dancers. Can Pecker take control of his career and bring meaning back to the lives of his loved ones?
Waters flaunts his usual gloriously unfashionable Baltimoreans, but he turns his eye on the chi-chi folk of the New York art world as well. Famous photographers Greg Gorman and Cindy Sherman (currently the subject of a show at SAM) appear as themselves, and the black-clad downtown hipoisie is rendered as absurd as any suburban fashion victim. But Waters’ talent isn’t just that he creates gross or appalling images; it’s that these images always surprise. The key is that he always likes his characters. Even when little Chrissy drools sugar out of her mouth, her eyes glazed in narcotic stupor, you can tell Waters thinks she’s adorable and ludicrous.
This atmosphere of cheerful affection lulls you into thinking Waters won’t expose these people in undignified, embarrassing positions—but of course he does. When a puffy-faced Patricia Hearst adjusts her cleavage in a mirror, there’s something so private yet so tacky about the gesture that you can’t help cringing. Pecker’s photos prompt an art critic to cry out, “He’s like a humane Diane Arbus!” The same could be said of Waters.