The New Criterion Release of Polyester Stinks

John Waters is my favorite director (and maybe human being?) of all time, which means his work is difficult to introduce to the uninitiated without gushing an overwhelming flood of “Here, just watch all of it!” recommendations. Late-career suburban comedies like Serial Mom & Hairspray don’t convey the dirt-cheap D.I.Y. filmmaking context that makes his work exceptional within cinematic history, but early, scuzzier works like Desperate Living & Multiple Maniacs are likely to scare off most new audiences with their acidic depravity. 1981’s Polyester is perhaps the perfect gateway into Waters’s cheaply intoxicating oeuvre then, as it’s a middle ground between the professional-grade suburban invasion comedies of his career’s latter half and the gonzo free-for-all that preceded them. Waters may have upgraded his camera equipment & attention to craft in that debauched ode to Sirkian melodramas, but he had not yet fully shed his early catalog’s dedication to putrid filth, which you can clearly see in his insistence that his first foray into “mainstream” filmmaking carry a literal stench.

In homage to one of his artistic role models, Waters decided to enhance the Polyester experience with a William Castle-style gimmick of his own design: Odorama. Often mislabeled as a “Smell-o-Vision” Odorama was a cheeky attempt to engage audiences’ sense of smell along with the usual sights & sounds of cinema. Numbered prompts would appear onscreen throughout the film to signal to audiences in the theater to activate their patented Odorama cards: scratch & sniff activity cards dispensed at the box office to mimic the (often vile) stenches depicted onscreen. I’ve been lucky enough to see many of my favorite John Waters flicks on the big screen (which I encourage anyone interested in his work to do; they’ve invariably improved with an audience), but I’ve never had the good fortune of catching Polyester in a proper theatrical environment for the full William Castle treatment. However, I’ve now owned the film on two different home video formats—DVD & Blu-ray—that both provided their own house-made Odorama cards, to varying results.

The Odorama card that came with my DVD copy was mostly for display only. I suppose the card had a light suggestion of a smell to it, if I’m being charitable, but it mostly amounted to a hint of stale hairspray or an airduster can. There were many reasons to justify upgrading my copy of Polyester to the new Criterion Collection restoration on Blu-ray. It’s loaded with bonus materials, like feature-length commentaries & behind-the-scenes interviews; its vivid color saturation is essential to its Sirkian homage; its romance novel cover of Divine sharing a passionate embrace with Tab Hunter is itself a gorgeous work of art. Before you have time to fully soak in these more elegant pleasures, however, the most striking aspect of the film’s Criterion update announces itself: the Odorama card. As soon as you crack open the plastic casing for the Criterion Blu-ray, the pungent stench of Polyester greets you in a cloud of odorous chemicals. Unlike previous home video releases of the Odorama card, this latest nasal assault actually, genuinely reeks. It’s a wonderful thing.

I can’t report that the new & improved Odorama experience is perfect, nor am I old enough to compare it to the original theatrical release’s aromatic potency. Scratching & sniffing along with the film for the first time was a delightful novelty, but I will say my experience with individual prompts on the card led to mixed results. It was most effective in the earliest scenes, with the first few prompts on the card approximating their corresponding imagery: the perfume of a rose, the funk of a fart, the chemical ambush of amyl nitrate. From there, the results become much more muddled, with prompts 4-9 mixing into a single, amorphous chemical stench before the air-freshener fragrance of prompt 10 restores order to the exercise. For all I know, the original, theatrical Odorama cards had the same problem, since I imagine keeping these chemical odors separate & distinct on a single slice of cardboard is near impossible. The 4-9 stench-muddling could’ve also been an issue of user error; maybe I should’ve sniffed fresh cookies or coffee grinds between as a palette cleanser between prompts for a more vivid experience.

One thing is certain: the new Odorama cards falling just short of Smell-o-Vision perfection wasn’t for lack of trying. The Criterion Collection has documented its efforts in collaborating with Waters himself to deliver the best Odorama experience possible, explaining that they had to contract a Tennessee company named Print-a-Scent to simulate a wide enough range of smells to approximate the film’s . . . unique set of aromas: farts, old sneakers, skunk spray, etc. Although you may not be able to individually distinguish those stenches on the new & improved Odorama card, it’s undeniable that they have created something much more effective than the near-scentless DVD print that preceded it. Polyester is now undeniably the most pungent film in the Criterion Collection, adding to its values as a John Waters gateway drug & a subversive act of trashing up “mainstream” cinema. I can recommend it with a newfound air of intellectual superiority, sticking out my pinky as I pinch my nose.

Pictured: the new card next to the ancient DVD copy that’s on its way out my house.

-Brandon Ledet

Polyester (1981)

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Polyester was not John Waters’ first feature, but it was the first to garner any significant amount of mainstream interest. Following his first forays into feature films with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, Waters worked on what he dubbed the Trash Trilogy, consisting of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. To say that these films pushed the envelope and seemed design to induce faintness and nausea is an understatement; to say that they were in poor taste, or were made as an exploration of “good bad taste,” does the films’ shameless vulgarity a disservice. The films were confrontational, characterized by notoriety, and generally just gross for the sake of it.

Polyester was an altogether different animal. It still featured many of the actors who made up Waters’ “Dreamland” repertory troupe, but it features a much more linear narrative than his previous works. Taking its inspiration from films of the exploitation genre known as “women’s pictures,” especially those of Douglas Sirk, the film concerns the dissolution of the family unit of overweight matriarch Francine Fishpaw (Divine). Francine discovers that her husband Elmer (David Samson), the proprietor of an adult movie theater, is having an affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole); her mother (Joni Ruth White) is an abusive cokehead obsessed with wealth and class; her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is sneaking out to have sex with her delinquent greaser boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators); and her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing weirdo who has been skipping school in order to stomp the feet of unsuspecting women, dubbed the Baltimore Foot Stomper by the press. Her only friend is Cuddles (Edith Massey), the Fishpaw’s (possibly mentally handicapped) former housekeeper who is now quite wealthy after inheriting a tidy sum from another family for whom she once worked as a domestic servant. After her children face their own demons and become (relatively) well adjusted citizens, Francine struggles to overcome the alcoholic despair into which she has fallen, finding a new potential love in Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter).

The Baltimore of Polyester is a wondrously delirious place, full of odd characters and strange circumstances. From the nuns at the unwed mothers’ home that Lu-Lu is sent to, who force the pregnant women in their care to participate in a hayride in the middle of a thunderstorm, to the older choir woman who commandeers a bus in order to chase down the delinquents who swatted her as they drove by (ending with her stopping their escape by biting a hole in their vehicle’s tire), every person is an exaggerated caricature of reality. Hyperbole is Waters’ currency, and Polyester is one of the most accessible of his films for a mainstream audience. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the immersive experience he crafted for the movie: the original theatrical release of the film featured interactivity in the form of an “Odorama” card, with numbers appearing on screen to indicate when audience members should scratch the cards and smell the same thing that Francine does. I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, complete with a recreation of these cards; more often than not, the scents on the card simply smell like chemicals, but that doesn’t detract from the glory of the attempt. This is a delightfully hilarious movie, and I hesitate to say more in order to ensure that you get the maximum number of laughs from it. Suffice it to say: as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, you will love this movie.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond