My first John Waters film was in 1996 when I was a undergrad at U.C. Berkeley. There used to be great theater called the U.C. Theater on University Avenue that usually screened a different double feature each day. All types of movies were shown, old and new, major and indie. I already knew who the writer/director John Waters was and I was aware of his infamous first feature, Pink Flamingoes. However, I had never seen the film and it wasn’t available anywhere to own or rent. Then one day, I see that the U.C. Theater is screening a new print of Pink Flamingoes (along with something else that I can’t remember). I could not wait to see the movie and on the day it screened I trekked on over to the U.C. Theater and bought my ticket. If you have not seen Pink Flamingoes, I should warn you right here and now that you’re either going to love it or be absolutely repulsed by it. Regardless, you will certainly never forget the insane shit Waters created that propelled him to an indie cinema icon.

I liken John Waters to a more talented version of Ed Wood (coincidentally, both sport identical mustaches). Although his films will probably never earn widespread critical acclaim nor garner any Academy Awards, they’re trashy, low-budget labors of love by a filmmaker who takes great pride in his work. I can’t think of any other director who divides critics as much as Waters does. Critics either love his work or absolutely loathe it and I can see why. Like other filmmakers with a unique vision (i.e. David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier), Waters is an acquired taste. You will simply either like him or not like him. I happen to be in the former category. I love the hell out of his work, particularly his early films where Waters knew no bounds and nothing was too taboo for him.

Unfortunately, over the years Waters’ films have grown to be too pedestrian and mild compared to his more maverick days. Maybe age has made the filmmaker more conservative. Perhaps major studio distribution has forced him to scale back the shock value in his movies. Whatever the reason, Waters’ films no longer push the envelope of decency. He now plays within the boundaries with the other children and his movies are merely sad reminders of the directors’ bygone wild days. Pecker is exemplary of the now tame and boring John Waters. The movie hints here and there of the directors’ potential, but as soon as it looks like the film is going to finally become outrageous, Waters pulls the reins back in. In the end, Pecker ends up being a frustrating exercise where you feel like you’re watching the network-censored version of a good R-rated comedy.

Pecker, like all of John Waters’ movies, is set (and shot in) Baltimore and its about Pecker (Edward Furlong), a boy who obsessively shoots everything in sight with his cheap thrift store camera. His world is simple and pretty uncomplicated. He flips burgers at a local diner, has a pretty girlfriend (Christina Ricci) who runs a laundromat, and hangs out with his shoplifter buddy. Although Pecker comes from a strange family (dad operates a bar, mom runs a thrift store where she dresses up homeless people, sister is an MC at a gay bar, his little sister has a serious sugar-addiction, and his grandma carries around a statute of the Virgin Mary and claims the statute talks), he’s loved by everyone. One day, Pecker’s photos are discovered by a high-profile NYC art dealer who decides to give him a show in NYC. An overnight success, Pecker becomes the talk of the art world as his life and the subjects of his photographs turn into instant celebrities. However, Pecker soon realizes that success doesn’t necessarily equal happiness.

John Waters movies are not always known for their stories. The plots tend to be pretty straightforward and simple, but their appeal lies in the unique characters (and the equally unique actors who play them) that form the story. Waters uses his films as a platform to comment on the state of society in a usually hilarious way. Pecker contains a number of themes, one of which criticizes the art world and its critics. The message is that anything can be considered valuable art depending on who says its art. Its a caricature of the art world subculture and its pretentiousness. Waters doesn’t hold back from also making fun of other aspects of our society. The grandmother’s belief that her statute of the Virgin Mary speaks is a sharp look at Catholics and their occasional claims of seeing the Virgin appear in unlikely places. Waters, himself gay, interestingly satirizes fag hags (women who almost exclusively associate only with homosexuals) as well. There are other themes contained in this film, which I won’t cover, but one of the interesting aspects of any John Waters movie is that the areas of society Waters criticizes departs from the conventional critiques you see in other ‘message’ movies.

John Waters’ movies are also famous for having the distinction of being set and shot in Baltimore, Waters’ beloved hometown. This is something I wish more directors would do rather than either set their film in NYC or some unnamed generic city. Pecker was a little unusual in the sense that parts of the film are set (and I believe shot) in NYC, but the majority of it is still in Baltimore. Just by watching his movies, you can tell Waters has a deep affinity for his city. Real locations are frequently used, which is a nice way of making Baltimore a sort of character in the movies.

Despite being a fan of Waters, however, Pecker just doesn’t live up to the director’s earlier works. I wanted to be shocked, grossed out, and laugh hysterically. Instead, I found myself merely being amused for 1 hour and 26 minutes without feeling anything more. I remember when I saw Pink Flamingoes for the first time, I felt like I was leaving a porno theater in how outrageous the film was. Pecker is no such thing and it feels like it takes less to shock Waters these days.

I haven’t said anything about the performances and thats because the dialogue in a John Waters movie is purposely stilted and amateurish sounding. In light of this, its difficult to comment on the quality of the performances because with such dialogue, the acting comes off sounding fake. Its an aspect of Waters’ films I tend to like and it contributes to the humor of his movies. You would think why in hell would an actor want to star in a Waters movie if they have to spout lame lines? Well, I don’t think there are many filmmakers who can provide the kind of strange, unique characters that John Waters can. The title character of this movie is a happy go-lucky kid and is inseparable from his camera. I actually thought he was the weakest and most uninteresting character in the movie. The rest of the cast is far more exciting. The grandmother, the two sisters, the art critics, the mom, etc. all help move the movie along and prevent it from being a total bore.

Overall, Pecker is not something I would tell you to not watch. However, if you have never seen a John Waters movie, I would certainly then tell you to not see this until you have seen all of his earlier and MUCH BETTER films. Pecker is not a horrible film, but it doesn’t meet the John Waters standard for shock and thats what I wanted to see here. There are scenes in the film I definitely enjoyed and laughed out loud, but they were very few and the rest of the time I found myself counting down to when the movie would end.

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