7 August 2004 | MichaelCarmichaelsCar
Bad movie hygiene
All of John Waters' early films, beyond being purposefully shocking and repulsive, have this really tangible dirty, raunchy quality to them. They're movies with bad hygiene, like the porno movies whose actors have dirt under their fingernails or pimples in all the wrong places. Waters has a special gift for compiling the most disgusting items and the most disgusting combinations of items (lesbian glory holes, marshmallows and Cheez-its, egg-addicted 250-lb women, bleeding gums and French kissing, 'Surfin' Bird' and anal lip-syncing) for maximum effect, filming everything in grainy, artless 16mm with alternately wooden and over-the-top line-readings not dissimilar to the acting in a porno flick.
If you've seen Waters on television, he has a certain sophisticated charm to his wit, and perhaps a dirtier director wouldn't have the right sensibility to make films as authentically dirty as this one, or the discretion enough to choose performers as dirty-looking as Turkey Joe and Kenny Orye. The fact that Waters does not show any contempt or opinion about his subjects is important. He has this open, accepting non-judgmental affection for everyone in his films that makes the films themselves OF the filth they are depicting rather than simply about that filth, and he embraces those of notoriety and dubious character such as Patty Hearst and Liz Renay. He's subversive not by philosophy or decision, but by nature. Subversiveness for Waters means a good time. What distinguishes his work as "underground" rather than "exploitation" is that he celebrates the depravity and freakishness of his performers rather than exploiting.
Every single character in 'Desperate Living' is a sociopath, as it takes place primarily in a fairy-tale town called Mortville, to which housewife Peggy Gravel (Mike Stole) and her 300-lb black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) flee after the latter murders Stole's husband by sitting on his face. Everyone in Mortville is trashy and, well, desperate, and there's a vivid pre-punk vibe here amongst psycho-dyke Mole, played by Susan Lowe, and others, and in the garish, tacky colors of the town's decor, which Waters reports was constructed entirely out of garbage with only one exception.
While I find Waters' 'Pink Flamingos' boring once the shocks become familiar, 'Desperate Living' is a fascinating movie to watch. It's probably Waters' most depraved and outrageous movie, and the funniest of his pre-'Polyester' movies. You get to see the hefty Jean Hill naked, rolling around in bed with Mink Stole, and you get to see Waters regular Edith Massey in all her snaggletoothed wonder as the wicked Queen Carlotta, being pleasured by one of her many leather-clad man-servants. You'll see this and, if nothing else, probably want to catalogue these bits to friends or show them the film, just to get a rise out of them.