From the December, 2015 issue
I recently revisited some of the films in the Michigan Theater's "Yours Truly, John Waters" series after not having seen his work for years. I always thought Waters' films were lively and well-made realizations of outsider perspectives, but given that shock usually doesn't age well--it's so easy for the next generation to outdo--I wondered how they'd hold up. Turns out they're still as much fun as ever, and a new generation of fans is well acquainted with them. One of the sharpest of the group is 1998's Pecker, whose theme of art world craziness hasn't lost a bit of its edge.
The titular teenage boy, named for his habit of pecking at his food, works at a diner in Baltimore's working-class Hampden neighborhood (now, perhaps due in part to the film, it's gentrifying fast). Wherever he goes, Pecker (Edward Furlong) carries an old film camera, and he has a sure eye for interesting psychological spaces and often for how to goad people into them. His grainy shots get deeply into life as it is lived on the neighborhood's rough edges--highlighting its thrift shops, his ventriloquist grandmother who makes a wooden Virgin Mary talk, his shoplifting friend, and the local gay bar (which, through the movie, did much to introduce tea-bagging to the wider world). And especially when Pecker photographs his Laundromat-manager girlfriend (a young Christina Ricci), those shots are often very beautiful. Pecker papers the neighborhood with Xeroxed flyers announcing his photo exhibition at the diner; a New York gallerist happens to see one, and the satirical plot is set in motion.
Waters' films tend to be a bit uneven, with energy to spare but some jokes that misfire, and so it is here. The first half hour, though, as he follows Pecker around his neighborhood and you are in effect looking through two cameras at once, is an astonishing piece of virtuoso filmmaking. Pecker indeed has something that marks great art: he stands inside a culture and
yet outside it, and he explores that boundary line with enormous energy.
The film as it plays out, with Pecker gaining instant celebrity but then running into problems, is a bit more predictable, but it has many pleasures. The New York art mob is gently rather than acidly drawn, and it's made up of an ensemble of fine performers, including none other than Patty Hearst. There's an unforgettable takedown of the overmedication of children, and surely there have been few films with a sense of place like that of Waters' Baltimore.
At the end a reporter asks Pecker about his future plans. There's a long pause, and he answers, "I think I'd like to direct a film." It's a nice way of indicating that this, of all Waters' films, is perhaps the closest to his own heart. Pecker will be shown at the Michigan Theater at 7 p.m. December 2, and the final film in the series will be Cecil B. Demented on December 9.
[Originally published in December, 2015.]
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