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By Jeremy Knox | August 8, 2013

There’s a world of difference between watching a movie and experiencing a movie. Watching a movie is what teenagers do on rainy afternoons to pass the time because they’re bored and have nothing else going on. I’m a bit past that stage in my life, and the idea of staring at a screen for 90 minutes because I can think of no better way to amuse myself sounds like a joyless chore. I want to make love to cinema, not just sit there and jerk off while it’s in the same room.

Before I even start this review, I have to admit that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of John Water’s movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love the man, I really do. As a person, I find him intelligent and funny and charming. If I had a gay son, I’d be proud if the boy turned out to be half as awesome as Waters. As a director, I find his movies silly and infantile. In fact, there’s such a huge divide between my opinion of the man and my opinion of his work that I find it hard to believe that the incredibly funny, incredibly smart guy with razor sharp wit on stage in This Filthy World is the same person who directed A Dirty Shame.

That said, I sort of liked Hairspray and Cry-Baby, even though they weren’t really my thing, because I felt that they were the work of a grown-up at least. I liked Serial Mom, my favorite film of his, because it has some amazingly funny scenes, despite the fact that the movie itself is sort of a wet fart in the clean underwear of cinema. Beyond that though? I was never really a fan. Watching his stuff certainly didn’t feel like I was making love to cinema. Maybe it’s because I just wasn’t in the mood, or maybe I had a headache that night. Who knows? The thing is that his movies and I never really clicked. I had to fake all my orgasms and sneak out the next morning before they woke up and wanted seconds.

So the idea of watching one of his early films, one of the “bad” ones, did not appeal to me much. Yet, at the same time I knew it would be shown in Odorama and I really, really do love to smell things. So I was sort of on the fence here. What broke the stalemate was my wife, who wanted to go see it. Okay… forced me to go see it.

Every year, the Montreal Fantasia Film festival screens a few films that had been dubbed into French by local voice actors for their original Quebec theatrical release as a tribute for this province’s historical contribution to cinema. This year they had Polyester, Galaxy of Terror, The Belladonna of Sadness, and Sleepaway Camp. However, this was the crown jewel: The last 35mm copy of Polyester, dubbed in gloriously appropriate Quebecois French. If there’s one dialect that embodies the kitschy and trashy tradition of John Water’s oeuvres, it’s Quebec’s own Joual.

Hell, we were born to interpret his movies. The translation just makes everything sound better. It transforms what Waters intended as a farce about suburban life, pornography, foot-fetishism, drug addiction, greed and seriously f****d up families, into what is almost a proper comedy. It tones down the shrill edges of the characters, making what seemed like an over-the-top delivery in English feel somewhat more reasonable when spoken in French.

Perhaps the dysfunctional Fishpaw family is better appreciated as grotesque stereotypes, but I rather liked seeing them as exaggerated versions of people I might know. In any case, the rambling Bizarro Leave it to Beaver plot involving son Dexter being the infamous Baltimore Foot Stomper, daughter Lu-Lu wanting an abortion so that she can become a Go-Go dancer, husband Elmer attempting to drive wife Francine (Divine) insane and then murder her after she discovers that he’s cheating on her with his secretary Sandra Sullivan (Mink Stole) come through loud and clear no matter what language you watch it in.

Random thought: As a huge fan of Married with Children, I couldn’t help but notice that the family dynamic of a slutty daughter, pervert son, boorish husband and sexually unsatisfied wife reminded me a LOT of the Bundys. I’m not saying it’s a rip-off, there are too many differences between the film and the TV show to make a reasonable case for it anyway, but it was definitely an inspiration. That Divine was hired to guest star on MWC certainly suggests that the creators were aware of the film’s existence. – JK

Here are a few things I noted while experiencing this version of Polyester in a theatre with an audience:

  1. Mink Stole is kinda hot in this.
  2. Divine, while not hot by any measure known to man, is pretty enough and convincing enough as a woman to help me keep an open mind about the attractiveness of overweight transvestites.
  3. Everything Stiv Bators says is a million times funnier dubbed in Quebecois. It just is. Trust me on this.
  4. Famous Quebecois Norman Brathwaite dubbed Dexter Fishpaw. I realize most of you don’t know who that is, or why this would seem hilarious to me. However, imagine if Bill Cosby had dubbed Beat Takeshi in Boiling Point and you’ll understand why I couldn’t stop giggling.
  5. Odorama cards don’t age all that well. We were handed out some of the last remaining original cards for the screening, and the wife and I had to share ours. Smell number 1 didn’t work on mine, but worked on hers. We then discovered that all the other smells didn’t work on hers, while most of the rest worked on mine. So we were passing that one card back and forth, scratching and sniffing. It was oddly erotic.
  6. Edith Massey… Good God almighty…
  7. Apparently, I cannot tell the difference between Lee Majors and Tab Hunter. During the film I leaned over to my wife and whispered that the former Six Million Dollar Man was looking pretty good in this. My wife then responded by letting out a long sigh and rolling her eyes.
  8. Odorama cards are edible, John Waters said so, and I would have proved it if my wife hadn’t stopped me God damn it. The reason the photo I included with this article is blurry is because my wife is trying to simultaneously take a picture and grab the card out of my hand. Science lost today kids, science lost.
  9. Hearing an entire audience loudly scratching and sniffing their Odorama cards at the same time is pure comedy gold.
  10. My wife doesn’t think I’m half as funny as I think I am. (See Photo Above)

Now, about the movie: Polyester turned out to be a lot better than I expected it to be. Waters seems to have found his groove when it comes to style and atmosphere. He’s also made the wise decision to populate his story with human characters that stand a chance of eliciting empathy from viewers as opposed to having them all be post-apocalyptic mutants teleported from another dimension.

You see, there’s a fine line between being quirky and being freakish and Waters always made sure to have his entire cast take a s**t on that line, and while I laud and understand his dedication to not marginalizing himself, I have to take issue with him going out of his way to alienate 99% of audiences. I think he was afraid that he’d sell out to the squares if he toned down the more extreme aspects of his work. With Polyester however, he seemed to have made peace with his desire to shock and instead is trying to tell an actual story, one where the characters grow and have genuine emotions. It’s not Larry McMurtry, but it’s not bad either.

By the end you really do feel for Francine and want her to be happy. Divine plays her, not just as a genuine woman, but as a genuine person, and that elevates the film quite a bit. This isn’t the angry anarchy of Waters’ earlier films, but actual cinema. Perhaps his films and I will never make sweet love, but we did share a tender kiss and slow dance this one time. I can appreciate that.

To watch Polyester is to give it about three stars, maybe three and a half, but to experience it is pure magic and perfection. It’s… Divine, pun intended.

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