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Desperate Living (1977)
Directed by: John Waters
Starring: Liz Renay, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, Jean Hill, Edith Massey
Running Time: 1 h 30 m
TMM Score: 3 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Unique Story, Bizarre Production Design
After a neurotic woman murders her husband with the help of her maid, they flee to a strange town called Mortville, which is ruled over by a fascist queen.
I recently watched my first ever John Waters flick, Serial Mom, and found that to be rather delightful, in a strange kind of way. I was intrigued enough to try another one of his films, though I wanted to be cautious; I’ve heard Waters films can be kind of rough. At the beginning of this film, I was totally on board. Mink Stole (Female Trouble) plays Peggy Gravel, a high-class woman with an incredible case of neurosis. Within the first few minutes I was already laughing at the blown up performance and the Waters-style long-winded rants that she was spouting. However, soon after Peggy and her maid, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill, Polyester) murder Peggy’s husband (Grizelda smothers him by sitting on his face), they flee, and are pulled over by a cop who tells them that if they give him their underwear, he’ll let them go. Now, as I watched, I was no longer laughing with the same intensity as I had from the beginning, the movie had taken a strange turn, and from there it only got weirder. By the time Peggy and Grizelda arrive at Mortville, a pseudo-Hoosierville for lowlifes and criminals, I was no longer laughing so much as starring at the screen, with a slightly open mouth. Mortville is something like wonderland if wonderland were made by someone who’d grown up in the sewers and gutters; everything here looked filthy and worn out. The characters were all sleazy and many looked like they needed a bath. By the half hour point, when we’re first introduced to Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey, Multiple Maniacs) I wasn’t sure if I would finish the film. While nothing in the film shocked me so incredibly that I immediately felt the urge to turn it off, I had plenty of moments where I had almost reached the point of calling it. The fact is there are just so many small gross, off color things that happen in this film that I’d honestly have a hard time recommending it to anyone with a clear conscious. So, as a disclaimer, I’m saying right now that this review is not a recommendation, it is simply an observation on somebody’s art. I do think there is some value to this movie, just like I think there are some absolutely hysterical parts. But, there is also a fair amount of nudity and overblown sexual scenarios (though all of them are played for laughs) including transgender and transvestite jokes, there’s also a fair amount of language, a fair mount of depictions of violence, a scene where a real baby is put in a refrigerator, and a few moments of gross out comedy- like excessive blood/ vomit/ bodily fluids… Even writing that all down, I feel a little strange proclaiming that this film does have some artistic worth, but it does. In terms of unique directorial voice this film is incredible, it’s a cliché to say I’ve seen nothing like it, but in this case it’s absolutely true. It’s an absurdist surreal attack on class divide and fascism- it’s a political statement that incorporates lowbrow humor to make its point even more apparent. More than that, it comes with John’s trademark one-liners that appear so rapidly it’s hard to keep up sometimes.
"Look at those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen."
The best thing about this movie is the writing, both in terms of story structure and in terms of dialogue. The dialogue is classic John Waters- frequently riddled with profanities or crass imagery, but oftentimes it devolves into long hysterical rants, which are honestly the highlight of the film. For example, in one of the opening scenes Peggy picks up the phone, screaming: “Hello? What number are you calling? You’ve dialed the wrong number! Sorry!? What good is that? Hoe can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life? I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!” Peggy slams down the phone. Scenes and outbursts like that happen frequently and absolutely hilarious. Mink Stole is absolutely hilarious as Peggy- though she was almost always screaming and ranting and raving, it was hard not to really like her character. The story structure for this film is rather strange too- actually the story itself is strange too. As Peggy and Grizelda arrive in Mortville, and the first act is drawing to a close, were introduced to Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe, Cry-Baby) and her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jaques (Liz Renay, The Thrill Killers). Almost immediately we’re shown two extended flashback sequences in a row that just lay out the characters’ backstories and reasons why they’re living in Mortville. After that, Mole and Muffy become more of the main characters, and in the end, its almost as if Mole is our protagonist, or at least she’s the hero. We’re also shown quite a few scenes with Queen Carlotta, who has a team of guards who all wear black mesh shirts, and randomly strip for her when she demands it… this movie is very strange if you haven’t gathered that yet.
Another really great thing in this film is the production design. When we first join Peggy and Grizelda, they’re living in Baltimore in a suburban home where things are relatively normal, but as soon as they arrive in Mortville, things begin to look wonderfully unique and also rather gross and filthy. The gutter-like conditions that they are forced to live in is overplayed and grimly hilarious. When Peggy and Grizelda first rent a room, they find the body of the previous tenant, who’d committed suicide just the night before. It’s so shocking and surprising that it might startle you into laughing, or you’ll just stare at the screen and shake your head. The places we see in Mortville all look incredibly grungy and dreary and gross, like if you sat down anywhere you might get rabies (rabies also come into play in this movie). But while the town looks dismal and decrepit, the palace in which Queen Carlotta lives is filled with colors and extravagant dressings, further illustrating Waters’ point on class divide. There is a point to this bizarre film, even if at first, the film might just look like a bunch of filth.
As I said above, I can’t in good conscious recommend this film, just because of the content, but I can appreciate it for the art that it is. If you are interested in Waters’ films, I urge caution. If you are more conservative, I recommend just steering clear of this one all together. There are some funny moments in his movies, and Waters definitely has a voice and something to say. While I can’t give this movie any more than three stars, I can say it is certainly not anything I’ll forget soon- for better or for worse.
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