Making It Big

Overexposed: Christina Ricci and Edward Furlong in John Waters's Pecker
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

At a time when glamour girl Cameron Diaz consents to playing a scene with mock semen in her 'do; when the otherwise wholesome Slums of Beverly Hills includes jokes about everything from "morning boners" to menstrual belts; when a 23-year-old first-time director concocts a film called Gummo involving flayed cats and a retarded whore who shaves her eyebrows; when the upcoming Happiness climaxes with a suburban homemaker getting a taste of her son', you get the idea.

The point is that the ante has been upped on the shock-humor aesthetic pioneered by John Waters in the likes of his Pink Flamingos and Polyester-- which salute the virtues of, respectively, "the filthiest people alive" and the fetid wonders of Odorama. Additionally, as the Farrelly Brothers' core audience seems to consist of junior-high kids and frat boys, the gross-out gesture has utterly lost its punk appeal. If an auteur as squeaky clean as Hal Hartley can see fit to deal with farts and vomit these days--hell, if Bill Clinton can define kinky sex for the masses--it's no wonder the pioneering "Pope of Trash" is toting a brand new bag.

Disarmingly slight and (gasp!) even mellow in an aging hippie sort of way, Waters's Pecker responds to the new Age of Flatulence by telling a low-key rags-to-riches story: The title character is an 18-year-old photographer (Edward Furlong) who, like Waters, makes it big in the art world by putting his vision of the tackier side of Baltimore on display. Still, even though Pecker is plenty mild by Waters's standards (more so, for instance, than his wide-released Cry-Baby and Serial Mom--and therein lies its shock value), the director can't help punctuating its opening sequence with a concise summation of his former self: an exquisitely vile shot of two rats fucking in a trash can under the words "Written and Directed by John Waters."

In other words, Pecker finds Waters in a reflective mood. Back in 1964, the 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker took an 8mm movie camera given to him by his grandmother and directed a minor atrocity called "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket." Similarly, the fresh-faced Pecker is introduced wielding a still camera from his mom's thrift store, furiously snapping shots of an odd-looking gal shaving her legs on the city bus, a man whose hat is suddenly stolen off his head, and the aforementioned "Rats Make Love"--expending an entire roll of film en route to his job as a fry cook at a cockroach-infested diner. Nothing if not resourceful, Pecker finds art in everything and photographs it all, including the sizzling cheeseburgers he cooks for customers who, naturally, get the burger along with a flyer for the chef's upcoming exhibit. As Pecker's sweetie-pie girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) puts it, in the first of many humorously didactic lines, "You see art when there's nothin' there!"--which, of course, could be the film's own aesthetic, as well as Waters's in general.

Like virtually all Waters films, from Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos through Hairspray and Cry-Baby, Pecker is a rigorously lowbrow snobs-against-the-slobs tract. Led by the tastefully manipulative art dealer Rorey Wheeler, the snobs are the New York gallery set who fetishize the dirty verisimilitude of Pecker's work. (Coincidentally or not, a print of Pink Flamingos has been in MoMA's permanent collection since the '70s.) The slobs are Pecker's lovably goofy family: his cheery mom (Mary Kay Place), dedicated to improving the fashion sense of the homeless; his 6-year-old sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), an insatiable little sugar-fiend; his older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton), who tends bar at a gay strip club called the Fudge Palace; and his dear old granny (Jean Schertler), who operates a "pit beef" sandwich stand when she isn't using a Virgin Mary statue to practice her ventriloquist's skills. (An enterprising cinema studies major could write a thesis on "The Function of Catholic Iconography in the Films of John Waters.")

Compared to Waters's last two outings, which, in trade for studio-scale financing, operated as perverse star-vehicles for Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner, Pecker is more of an ensemble picture--and therefore a return to form. But this rather cuddly work of tongue-in-cheek camp, preaching to cult-movie converts on the same art-house circuit that ran the restored Pink Flamingos, is actually less transgressive than Cry-Baby, which at least succeeded in bringing such queer characters as Traci Lords and Mink Stole into the malls. Perhaps in reference to his early-'90s multiplex adventures, Waters's latest measures the costs of co-optation: After being fired from the diner when it's discovered that one of his still lifes represents "the pubic hair of a stripper," Pecker begins selling his prints for $1,300 apiece--but the thrill is gone. Although he's hailed by critics as "a teenage Weegee" and "a humane Diane Arbus" (just as some of the more playful film reviewers used to liken Waters to Godard and Ingmar Bergman), Pecker returns home from New York to discover that his fame has made everything grotesque--the joke being that it wasn't so before.

Acting as the director's alter ego, Furlong is aptly likable, well-chosen for his kid-next-door features and nonexistent marquee value. Waters may be (or used to be?) an exhibitionist by proxy, but he's actually much too modest to have a huge star play himself. (Depp notwithstanding, Waters prefers appropriating actors whose mainstream careers are on the way down.) Still, there's a risk of overemphasizing the autobiographical element here. The humble Pecker is portrayed as a more or less impartial documentarian of real life--truly the humane Arbus--whereas Waters's early M.O. was obviously predicated on extreme showmanship, on his audacity in staging gruesome bits of business so as to sensationalize himself into a career. (See the forthcoming doc Divine Trash for a glimpse of the director's cheerleading methods on the Flamingos set, including his delicate coaxing of Divine to perform the movie's final outrage.) As Waters once joked that the best review he'd ever had was a detailed police report of Pink Flamingos, the definitive Waters protagonist remains Divine's incorrigible Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble, a careerist serial killer for whom death by electric chair is akin to winning an Oscar.

Conversely, as Pecker allegorizes its maker's preference to remain based in his beloved hometown, Pecker represents Waters's idealized vision of himself: the modest Baltimore kid who did his own thing while giving a boost to the members of his surrogate-family stock company along the way. (Perhaps seeing Divine Trash compelled Waters to feel nostalgic.) Resembling the strategic sidestep Tarantino took with Jackie Brown, Pecker (which seems destined for similarly underwhelmed reviews) raises a glass to "the end of irony," defying the pulp fiction that made its director a celebrity. It's a genuinely sweet idea, and the movie, like every Waters production since 1969's Mondo Trasho, is charmingly moralistic: Take care not to sell out your friends and family, it says, and to thine own self be true. What better motto for the artist who dared to immortalize himself through a 300-pound, trash-talking transvestite in cha-cha heels?

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