Desperate Living

Certificate: 18
Running time: 90 mins
Director: John Waters
Starring: Liz Renay, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, Edith Massey
Genre: Comedy/Fantasy
Country: USA

Whether you love him or hate him, the review of Pink Flamingos should indicate my leanings, John Waters has to be credited with making films like nobody else.  Case in point Desperate Living.

When housewife Peggy Gravel (Stole) enlists her maid Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill) to help murder her husband the two flee Baltimore, and in an effort to escape the law, take refuse in Mortville; a totalitarian Queendom built in the city dump for hobos and ruled over by Queen Carlotta (Massey).

John Waters’ screenplays always come with a degree of fantasy in them.  Whether it’s the catwalk model Divine of Female Trouble, the psychotic Stepford of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom or Cavalcade of Perversions of Multiple Maniacs he always laces the mundane and trashy of impoverished Baltimore with something either vaudevillian or grotesque.  Narratively you will not find a better example of this mixture of soiled reality with downbeat fantasy than Desperate Living.  It has on one level the simplistic shapings of a crime gone wrong drama, a fish out of water tale and a demented Disney fairytale yet layer one a top of the other they’re a lot more complex, entertaining and filthy.  The lesbian tryst between Stole and Hill that leads to her husband’s murder is scripted with Waters’ trademark ear for dialogue.  If you can imagine a Raymond Chandler novel that been punctuated with segments of an interview with a Tourettes sufferer on LSD and you’ll understand the beauty that is the spoken word according to Waters.  Similarly the creation of a fantasy land within the city dump is a work of genius.  Not only does it lend itself to Waters’ lending towards dirty narratives but it also speaks of the mental health issues a lot of the impoverished have and how they have been overlooked by the American Government.  The story of the film is one of two parts, each of them rather simplistic.  Firstly, a love triangle that leads to the death of a spouse and little choice but to go evade justice.  There has been countless versions of this narrative but none (at this point) that involved two women and it would stay that way until Thelma and Louise some 14 years later.  The second is the wicked Queen narrative, this is something that Disney have made billions on.  An injust ruler of a foreign land who’s power is threatened internally (usually by a blood relative) and is ultimately toppled when external bodies lead to an internal uprising.  This too is well covered ground cinematically but never has the foreign land been that of a dump and the castle been made of cardboard boxes and newspaper.  You can’t help but think that Terry Gilliam was taking notes at this point as it works remarkably well and against all expectations.  Fans of Waters might be forgiven for not recognising their hero so far but fear not there’s a sufficient amount of trademark Waters to insure you leave either entertained or disgusted depending on your references with special mention to the panty thief Police Officer and Mole McHenry’s (Susan Lowe) added appendage which we’ll cover later.

Culturally we have come to be a generation of sanitizers.  We no longer find rolls of undeveloped film pondering what’s on them only to develop and discover a night out amongst the test shots that we had forgotten.  Each image is carefully framed shot, reviewed and if not liked either touched up with editing software or deleted leaving us with a safe rendering of our existence.  The same can be said of independent cinema.  Though it’s a great thing that anyone with the desire can make a film that will have the production value of a respectably funded Richard Linklater production there’s something to be said for warts and all.  Visually Desperate Living has the warts and all in abundance as it’s apparent that Waters is implementing every ‘hand me down’ technique for cutting together a film with limited resources.  A finer example is his earlier piece Multiple Maniacs but Desperate Living like all the works before it has the look and the feel of a far from perfect but beautifully and passionately cared for piece of cinema and you can’t help but love the amount of actual work (not Final Cut pro) that went into rendering this film ready for screening.  The evolution of the camerawork of John Waters is apparent here as there’s significantly more movement than in Mondo Trasho or Hag in a Black Leather Jacket yet his framing and shot duration isn’t as precise as that of Pecker or A Dirty Shame, that could be largely due to budgetary restrictions as much as experience though.  The same can be said for the sound editing (with lessening degrees of success) as the film will jump from relative silence to the middle of a track that was, no doubt, one of the favourites of Waters and his crew at the time.  The change in levels does prove distracting in parts and isn’t helped but you being able to hear the moment when audio overlap was stopped as the jolt takes you out of the film momentarily.  Waters was always more masterful with visual than audio and long time followers of the director will be used to it.

Mink Stole (Peggy Gravel) feels somewhat miscast.  In Pink Flamingos she was brilliant and a large proportion of that brilliance comes from the fact that she’s ever so slightly deranged.  In Desperate Living she has to play it relatively straight (as straight as they come in John Waters films) for maximum effect in the crazy land of Mortville.  You can’t help but think that she may have gotten on better if she and Mary Vivian Pierce (Princess Coo-Coo) had switched roles.  Pierce with the angelic face capable of mischief and Stole playing a slightly psychotic Princess to a completely psychotic Queen might have added something to the film.  As it is Stole has some scenes in which she is absolutely brilliant.  The murder scene and subsequent stopping by the panty thief Cop are both brilliant and her partnership with Jean Hill is little more than a female Laurel and Hardy but with gratuitous nudity and outlandish dialogue.  Mary Vivian Pierce plays the damsel Princess extremely well but she is outshone in so many of her scenes by Edith Massey (Queen Carlotta) who is absolutely brilliant.  Edith is always brilliant, her broken clock timing is something that can only exist in a realm of its own.  “I sentence you to be gang raped and infected with rabies” is a line of dialogue that’s pretty loaded yet in the hands of Massey it gets a remarkable belly laugh every time. Liz Renay as Muffy St. Jacques is a real addition to a cast that is missing Divine.  She has a genuine screen presence that’s difficult to upstage, it would be interesting to see how she would have faired on screen against Divine or even Mr. David.  Her screen chemistry with Susan Lowe (Mole) is filled with tension and flirtatiousness and it’s this, along with Waters’ lingering camerawork, that brings one of the most grotesque yet hilarious scenes in the JW arsenal as Lowe, who’s character has had a penis grafted on to her so she can keep Muffy satisfied, removes her manhood with several rough hacks and a couple of tugs.  Lowe, along with Massey, stands out in Desperate Living as the star of the piece as her character, though underdeveloped (as always), is clearly psychologically unstable and constantly rocking on the edge of a jealous rage as she struggles to keep a woman who’s interest lies elsewhere.  It’s a tragic character for so many reasons, even more so that we not only like them but find humour in the tragedy.  


The best character of the film, which largely goes without praise, is set design itself.  In a film made by a different director or with a bigger budget you might not see the imperfections, the fragility of the castle, the fact that houses are made from toilet and newspaper in equal measure and you would losing a wealth of connotations.  The shortcomings of the set act as a way of underlining the mental shortcomings and fragilities of all those who inhabit it and delivers as much or as little as you wish to read into it.  It’s beautiful charming yet sadly depressing and strikes the right chord in this sanitized world.

















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