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Desperate Living (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on June 6, 2014

Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is in the middle of another nervous breakdown.  When her husband (George Stover) tries to control her, she commands her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) to sit on his face, suffocating him to death.  Now Peggy and Grizelda are on the run.  They head for Mortville, a shantytown hideout for society’s miscreants and outcasts.  They find lodging with the butch Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her voluptuous lover Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay).  Mortville is oppressed by the demented Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), who treats her subjects with contempt and humiliates them for her amusement.  Carlotta’s rebellious daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce) runs away to be with her garbageman lover, and the Queen has him executed.  The citizens of Mortville — with the exception of the uptight Peggy — are primed for a revolution.

My recent exceptionally satisfying revisit with Hairspray inspired me to re-evaluate some other films by John Waters and see how they fit into my sensibilities these days.  Although not to quite such an ecstatic degree, this is another one that has regained my affection.  The microscopic budget is evident, but perfectly suited to the shabby locale of Mortville.  The acting isn’t going to win any Golden Globes, but it’s all done with such over-the-top gusto that you can’t help being delighted by the performances.  In other films, such constant intensity gets annoying fast (Possession and Clue come to mind), but Waters’s script is so riotously funny, and so dependent on the hysteria.  The first 10 minutes alone are absolutely packed with memorable lines as Stole goes through a series of maniacal rants.  I was tempted to compose this review entirely of quotes, but here’s just a small sample: “Go home to your mother! Doesn’t she ever watch you? Tell her this isn’t some communist daycare center! Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!”

So the level of hostility coming from all sides is hilarious without being oppressive.  And while there is a sense of righteous anger on behalf of the disenfranchised, the tone is too absurd to be mistaken for serious revolutionary polemic.  Still, Waters speaks for those who didn’t have much of a voice in 1977: the fat, the homosexual, the trans-gendered.  The heroes of this story are all women (then again, so are the primary antagonists).  It’s a beautiful celebration of the underdog.  Beautiful, but very, very trashy.  Not one for the kiddies, this movie features vomiting, extensive nudity, (simulated) genital mutilation, and implied/discussed rape, pedophilia, and necrophilia.  Rarely are such topics so much fun, and unlike many other purveyors of “shock value” cinema, Waters has the sense of humor — and the affection for his characters — to pull it off.

I was going to limit my Waters retrospective to two or three selected titles, but now I’m thinking of expanding that, and maybe even hunting down the pre-Pink Flamingos stuff I haven’t seen.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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