It is the fall of 2010, and I have just finished reading Role Models, John Waters’s literary tribute to those who have inspired him. This book was the first of Waters’s work that I have ever consumed, a fact that WORN’s Editor-in-Pants Serah-Marie can’t believe.
“Oh God, don’t tell me you’ve watched that Zac Efron remake of Hairspray without seeing the original. Do you even care about our friendship?”
I am quick to defend myself. I just haven’t had the chance to watch any of his stuff. Pink Flamingos isn’t exactly available at the neighbourhood Blockbuster. Besides, I’ve seen the Simpsons episode where he guest stars like, seventeen times. (“It’s camp! The tragically ludicrous? The ludicrously tragic?” “Oh, yeah. Like when a clown dies.”)
Through niche video rental stores and the magic of Netflix, I have since been able to watch the bulk of his oeuvre (including the aforementioned Pink Flamingos, his trash epic that culminates in the eating of dog shit). And I’m pleased to say that I get it. Wait, let me rephrase that. I don’t mean it in some snobby, “I understand film on a higher level” way because, hello, douchebag alert. What I mean is, I get the attachment that so many of my colleagues, Serah-Marie included, have to this man. Pecker especially penetrated me in such a way that I cannot finish this sentence without sounding like I am writing for a very different type of website.
Pecker (1998) follows the titular photographer (nicknamed that way because of his eating habits) played by Edward Furlong. Pecker wanders around his hometown of Baltimore (of course), snapping photos of his fellow townsfolk as they ham it up for the cameras. Nothing is too mundane for his lens, from the patrons on the city bus to his little sister’s sugar addiction.
“If only you could concentrate on pretty scenery or something instead of our boring lives,” says Pecker’s mother, an allusion to the John Waters’s work itself. In taking pictures of his surroundings, Pecker aims to archive the world as he sees it, but of course the presence of the camera causes everyone to fill their role. It’s kitsch without the irony; an antidote to the Ghost World-type environment wherein the heroines also cast their co-citizens as characters, yet do so at a distance, shielded by their judgmental contempt. Pecker, instead, creates an aesthetic by paying attention to the often overlooked details in his world. It’s an attitude that can be extended beyond photography into other means of expression – including, of course, style and clothing choices.
His snapshots catch the attention of the New York art world, and the scenes in Manhattan are decidedly less fun than those in Baltimore. More interesting are the scenes wherein the art critics pay a visit to Pecker’s hometown. When an art dealer tells Pecker’s girlfriend Shelley, “I love your look,” Shelly looks down, unaware that she had a look.
The art world’s attempt to commodify and replicate Pecker’s aesthetic vision fails because Pecker’s aesthetic defies artifice. It’s found in his grandmother’s religious convictions, materialized through a Virgin Mary statue that she swears speaks to her. It’s in his older sister’s job at a male strib club, where the anticipated performances are strewn off course by the spontaneity of its environment. It’s in his best friend’s machismo, compensating for his ultimately benign existence through crude language and petty theft.
The film culminates with Pecker and Shelley reconciling after a fight. Shelley, tired of the pretension of the modern art world, retreats into her job at the laundromat. The laundromat to Shelley is what photography, and by extension Baltimore, is to Pecker. Pecker convinces her that art is everywhere, even in a laundry hamper.
“The brilliant green of a grass stain?” asks Shelley. “The aqua blue of cold water as it dilutes a violent red blood—that’s art?” to which Pecker replies emphatically yes.
In Pecker’s world, art cannot be contrived or fall upon pretence. It happens naturally, by seeing the beauty in one’s natural obsessions, no matter how ugly they may seem to the rest of the world. The double entendres are just a bonus.
text and screencaps by Anna Fitzpatrick