Our review of Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection, published August 22nd, 2005, is also available.
"What they call art up in New York, young man, looks like just plain misery to me."—Cop to Pecker (Edward Furlong)
John Waters finally gets personal with the story of a naïve young photographer who finds fame and fortune capturing the blue-collar squalor of his native Baltimore. All hail the end of irony!
Facts of the Case
Meet Pecker. He takes pictures. His best friend Matt (Brendan Sexton) is a professional shoplifter. His girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) runs a laundromat with an iron fist and has no time for his artistic pretensions. "You're crazy," she tells him. "You see art when there's nothing there."
Certainly, there is little artistic about his family. His father (Mark Joy) is a bartender, slowly being driven under by the strip club across the street that touts its lesbian dancers. His mother (Mary Kay Place) sells cheap clothes to the homeless. Little sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) is a sugar fiend, and older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) promotes trade at the local gay club. And grandmother (Jean Schertler) sells the best pit beef sandwiches in town, when she is not absorbed in her delusional ventriloquist act with a plastic Virgin Mary.
With a family like this, it is no wonder that Pecker jumps at the chance to enter the New York art world, when a charming art dealer (Lili Taylor) offers him a gallery show. But will Pecker's newfound fame and fortune backfire when he returns home to Baltimore?
I have talked many times in my Deep Focus column about the power of the camera to objectify the world. Like a Freudian phallus (and despite John Waters' jokey protestations, the title of this movie really is a sexual metaphor, albeit a deliberately silly one), the camera is about control. All the characters in Pecker exhibit their usually harmless means of rendering order on the world. We all have our private means of control. The problems come when those private tactics are rendered public.
Which is exactly what happens when Pecker's "culturally challenged" family and friends are exposed to the scrutiny of the New York art world. What was unassuming and harmless suddenly becomes ironic, transmuted into that elusive thing we call "art." All art, as Waters points out in his commentary track, is about pretense. Even photography, which we assume is meant to capture "raw" reality. When we see a camera, we perform, intentionally or not. And Pecker's new fame draws public attention in all the wrong places, when his friends and family realize that their personal lives have taken on an artistic resonance that they only vaguely understand.
In some ways, this is the very condition of John Waters' career. His rebellious "trash aesthetic" of his early films was a reflection of his delirious life on the fringes of Baltimore's blue-collar environment. But over the years, as he gravitated more toward the bacchanalia of New York's art crowd, he found that his guerilla filmmaking had become "hip." Suddenly, his films were seen as steeped in irony. And indeed, his films do work on both levels. Satire usually requires a certain degree of irony, but ironically, most satires that predicate themselves on the death of irony (itself an ironic reaction to postmodernism) fail because they cannot maintain their own balancing act. Take Forrest Gump for example. That film fails as satire because the audience is forced to empathize entirely with Gump, and the realm of irony, which Gump opposes, falls by the wayside. Most audiences miss seeing the very difficulty in such empathy, that Gump himself is a fantasy who exists outside of time, in spite of his insertions into the historical narrative. The similar character of Chance in Being There works far more successfully because the film acknowledges that Chance does not belong in history (hence the magical final shot of Chance walking on water), thus his lack of irony becomes a comment on the prevalence of irony itself: we cannot escape irony if we are to live in the real world. Only in fantasy can the death of irony really be announced with any lack of the same.
Pecker succeeds because it does not fully condemn either the naïve world of Baltimore or the pretentious world of New York. Both are filled with good and bad, and with interesting characters (and remarkable underplayed performances for a John Waters film). In the commentary track, Waters remarks quite correctly that we are already steeped in irony, even if we are not aware of it. But awareness of irony is a luxury item in most lives—ones where social privilege affords the opportunity to dwell on such things. The satire in Pecker may come across as mild compared to Waters' more subversive early films, but it comes with the confidence of a director who has nothing to prove. He lives in both worlds—the honest but repressed Baltimore and the pretentious but open New York—and he has a clear fondness for both. In his later years, Waters has found a way to reconcile the many sides of his life and career, and perhaps Pecker shows a director who has matured from punk-tinged confrontation with the fringes to a joyous chronicler of the many facets of American life.
Perhaps it is less Waters' personal maturity than a matter of history: he notes in the commentary track that his excursions into "bad taste" in the old days have now become mainstream. Today, Waters' films appear more sweet than subversive. It is difficult to see a critic twenty years ago describing Pink Flamingos as naïve, but even Waters admits that his power to shock has diminished. That being said, time has only served to strengthen Waters' ability to create memorable characters. Although professional actors like Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci might seem a little out of place in a John Waters film, they bring considerable depth and charm to their characters. Lili Taylor in particular gives Rorey, Pecker's would-be Svengali, a sympathetic earnestness. Plenty of the usual Waters stunt casting is evident (Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst), but everyone turns in deft and underplayed performances (well, except for drag king Moby Dick, billed as "Mo Fischer," who is supposed to ham it up as a lesbian stripper), including a few genuine New York artists who turn up for bit parts.
John Waters' commentary track for the film is one of the rare tracks worth multiple listenings. He tells great stories, and his account of the "rat porn" scene in the film is worth the price of the disc by itself. He seems to find the mundane, like buses and voting booths, terribly sexy. He also has a great deal to say about the cultural differences between blue-collar Baltimore and the "curtain of irony" in New York and how he manages to travel between the two worlds. His concern with the authenticity of the film is also evident in a ten-minute featurette included on the disc about photographer Chuck Shacochis, the real camera eye behind Pecker's photographs. He immediately dismisses the notion that photography captures authentic reality by showing his own techniques for manipulating photos and explaining how the greatest photographers (such as Diane Arbus and Weegee) used impressionistic touches to convey a heightened reality. This short featurette adds a new appreciation to the craftsmanship involved not only in Pecker's photos in the film, which are genuinely excellent, but in artistic photography in general, especially for viewers who might lack exposure to this art form. A theatrical trailer that stresses the film's "fish out of water" aspects rounds out the extras.
The transfer is presented in widescreen in a crisp, clean print, with the choice of 5.1 or 2.0 sound. Because this is a relatively low-budget film, do not look for flashy effects or a grandiose sound mix (most of the songs in the film consist of what Waters calls "redneck novelty songs"). But the film looks pretty good nonetheless.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers looking for the more openly subversive John Waters of old may find the satire in Pecker particularly mild and good-natured. As I noted above, here is a director with nothing to prove, which may ultimately blunt his edge as a satirist, but certainly does not diminish his quirky comic skills or his sense of character, which is even stronger now than it was in his earlier films. Again, if you find his happy ending naïve and unjustifiably free of irony, it is no more or less so than those early films.
New Line has released Pecker in a double-feature box set with the fine Hairspray. Both show the continuing strengths of John Waters as the comic muse of blue-collar America. Accounts of the death of irony may be exaggerated, but it is fair to say that Pecker is one of Waters' strongest and most balanced films to date.
At $30 for both Hairspray and Pecker, New Line is praised by this court for providing an excellent value on two entertaining films. Case dismissed.
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Studio: New Line
• Pecker Photo Gallery (featuring Chuck Shacochis)
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