A place in his heart

September 16, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The definitive moment in "Pecker," John Waters' new comedy, arrives during the film's climax, a halcyon scene in the Hampden bar B.J.'s (called the Claw Machine in the movie) where Hampdenites and New York art snobs cavort with gay bar dancers and assorted oddballs.

"To the end of irony," a SoHo gallerist toasts earnestly.

"Yeah, but right next to his head is a crotch of a tea-bagger," Waters reminded a reporter during a recent visit to his North Baltimore home. (He was referring to one of the more obscure sexual rituals of the homosexual world.) "I say, 'To the end of irony,' but I quite realize that without irony I would have no career. There would be no contemporary art. I mean, irony is a huge part of my life, certainly. But irony is snobbery."

Indeed, when Waters was pitching the movie idea for "Pecker" to studio executives, he said the movie was about "the curtain of irony" that separates the title character -- a working-class amateur photographer who takes pictures of his Hampden family and neighbors -- and the New York art world that makes him a sensation.

"That's not the way they want to sell the movie!" Waters said, laughing. "But I live in both those worlds and 180 miles makes a hilarious difference. I have had New Yorkers in Hampden. But I haven't had Hampden in the art world. I had to imagine that."

"Pecker," which had its world premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival, will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Senator Theatre. The movie opens elsewhere on Sept. 25. Waters' followers will no doubt consider "Pecker" a culmination of his career, the definitive combination of his impulse to subvert conventional notions of decency with his own essentially decent core.

Waters has always been something of a contradiction -- even as an angry young man he had a heart as big as a house, with a sentimental streak as copious as his scatological wit.

Of Waters' 13 films, "Pecker" synthesizes these strands the most completely. Along with raunchy bar scenes, blue language, a man sexually gratifying himself with a washing machine and a breathtaking close-up of a lesbian stripper's nether-regions, there is an almost protective depiction of Hampden and its denizens -- who love their lives and their hometown with unapologetic zeal.

"It's as sweet as 'Hairspray,' but I wanted to put some of the edge of the old stuff in," Waters said of "Pecker," which stars Edward Furlong as the title character (he ate like a bird as a child). Co-stars include Christina Ricci as a dedicated laundromat owner; Mary Kay Place as Pecker's mom, the good-hearted proprietor of a thrift store; and Lili Taylor as the New York gallerist who discovers Pecker and catalyzes the collision of two distinct worlds.

Although parallels to Waters' life and career are inevitable -- he maintains homes in Baltimore and Manhattan, and he has established a career as a photographer in recent years -- he insisted "Pecker" isn't autobiographical.

"The idea for this movie was a review, I think in Newsweek, of contemporary photography, saying that no matter how great [he is], if you see this contemporary photographer come to take your picture, run for your life."

Waters was referring to the trend in modern photography, made most famous by Diane Arbus, of catching people at their most unvarnished, and sometimes at their most freakish and grotesque. Waters spoke of one of Arbus' best-known works, a haunting portrait of a giant with his conventional-sized parents that combines pathos and morbidity.

"Do the giant and his parents have that picture hanging in their house? Maybe not. But maybe," he said. "You don't know. That was completely normal for that family to be in their home. But then when everybody loved that picture, I being one of them, liked it because it was bizarre. But peoples' reality in context is never bizarre."

Like all of Waters' celluloid families, Pecker's family is as close and supportive as the Cleavers, albeit with a few more kinks. Pecker's father owns the Claw Machine, his older sister works at a "trade" bar (where heterosexuals and homosexuals meet and, well, mingle) and his younger sister nurses an increasingly alarming sugar jones. Pecker's grandmother runs a pit beef stand while keeping an ear out for her statue of the Virgin Mary, which has begun to talk. All of them stand by Pecker in a close gaggle of warmth and acceptance.

As much as Waters idealizes Pecker's family, he dons the same rosy-hued glasses when portraying Hampden. The neighborhood's screen persona is one of colorful warmth and good-hearted kookiness, with every corner deli and piece of yard art exuding love.

"I made Hampden the best it could ever be in the movie. I made it even better," Waters said, adding that even though he had never before set a movie in Hampden, "certainly it's the kind of neighborhood I make movies about. It really is an island. But I'll be honest. I liked the old Hampden better. Macrame shops don't do it for me.

"Hampden has its bad side too, you know," Water continued. "I know people who live there who have been hassled. But I didn't make a movie about that. This is about celebrating a neighborhood. And it's certainly my version of reality there.

"Certainly whatever I see as real is exaggerated. If it's good or bad, I always make it more. Because that's where the humor enters, I think. People say to me, 'Have you ever had sex with a washing machine,' and I say, 'No, but I'm young. Who knows?' "

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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