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Two-thirds of the way through Pecker, the lead character says "Life is nothing if you're not obsessed." This one line of dialogue is one of the key moments in all of John Waters' career, for this approach to life plays a vital role in all of his movies. In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is obsessed with dancing on the "Corny Collins Show." In Serial Mom, Beverly "Mom" Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is obsessed with preserving her family's wholesomeness--even if it means murder. And in Pink Flamingoes, Babs Johnson (Divine) is obsessed with holding onto her title as the "World's Filthiest Person."
John Waters loves obsessions. I wouldn't doubt that he begins the process of writing a movie by first charting the obsessions of his lead characters. However, whereas the obsessions could be destructive in his early movies (such as the crime spree of Dawn Davenport [Divine] in Female Trouble), Waters now works with a kinder group of obsessions.
In Pecker, each character get his/her own distinctive obsession. Edward Furlong as the central character Pecker (named because he pecked at his food as a child) is obsessed with photography. (You might remember Furlong from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where he played the boy who befriends the cyborg.) He carries a small old-fashioned camera wherever he goes. "Everything always looks good through here," he says about his camera's viewfinder. He snaps thousands of pictures: a woman shaving her legs on the city bus; a surly neighbor flipping him the bird; cockroaches scuttling across french fries; a lesbian stripper doing a nasty bump and grind; rats humping in the trash; and just about everything else in his neighborhood. "If only you could concentrate on pretty scenery instead of our boring lives," says his mother (Mary Kay Place). He captures his neighborhood in such forthright terms that an art critic (Lili Taylor) from New York becomes fascinated with his images when she stumbles across his photo exhibit on the walls of a hamburger joint. "Pecker's like a humane Diane Arbus," says one art critic. And thus begins Pecker's rise to the top of the art world. But at what cost? For the very people that Pecker loves are the same ones that the art critics now describe as the "destitute" and the "culturally challenged."
This movie is crammed full of odd ball characters. Pecker's grandma, Memama (Jean Schertler), does a ventriloquist act with a statue of the Virgin Mary. His mother runs a thrift store called "The Bargain Hut" where she helps the homeless to accessorize: "That's flame proof in case someone sets you on fire," she says to a customer. His little sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) constantly craves sweets and screams like a banshee until she gets some. His older sister (Martha Plimpton) loves her job: she's the emcee at a gay strip bar where the male strippers occasionally "teabag" the customers. (Don't ask.) And his girlfriend (Christina Ricci) obsesses about her laundromat: when she leaves, she's certain that her customers will be "pissing in the dryers" and "putting dye in the washers." His father (Mark Joy) has the mildest obsession of the bunch--he hates the lesbian strip bar (called the "Fudge Palace") that has been luring away his customers: "Pubic hair and liquor--it's just plain illegal," he says.
Pecker himself is genuinely non-judgmental. He might be surrounded by a strange bunch of characters, but he never sees them as strange. He simply accepts them as they are. When the New York art critics begin to cast an ugly light upon his friends and family, Pecker becomes clearly troubled: "I want my family, I want my friends, and I want my career back!" he shouts.
Pecker is one of the best movies of John Waters' career. It might not be as consistently funny and entertaining as Hairspray, but it allows us a privileged look inside the mind of a artist much like Waters himself. In fact, the movie ends with Pecker contemplating his next step--to make a movie! At times Pecker becomes too indulgent, as when it spends nearly five minutes on a weak joke where Pecker and his kleptomaniac friend (Brendan Sexton III) have fun by sneaking items into the shopping carts of unsuspecting grocery shoppers--causing confusion at the checkout counter: "There's nothing wrong with my butt!" says an indignant shopper when confronted with the Preparation H in his cart.
However, ultimately, Pecker is one of Waters most positive movies. As in Hairspray, Waters embraces the eccentricities of his characters and creates a life affirming vision. He knows his characters live in a bizarre fantasy land, a kind of alternative reality where obsessions are encouraged. In a scene near the end of the movie, where Pecker explains to his girlfriend that "art is everywhere"--that blood stains and ring-around-the-collar can be beautiful--Waters highlights Pecker's soliloquy with splashes of sparkling color, as if the movie has suddenly turned into a detergent advertisement. Yes, Waters' understands the contrivances and the artificiality of his movies, but that's the point--that the artificial world that we create in our heads or through art can be just as compelling as the real thing.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]