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[whitespace] Pecker
M. Ginsburg

Celebrating the End of Irony: Christina Ricci and Edward Furlong reconcile low living and high art in John Waters' 'Pecker.'

Director John Waters dares to leave the wretchedness of his excesses behind in affectionate 'Pecker'

By Richard von Busack

IN A RECENT New Yorker profile of director Preston Sturges, written by Anthony Lane, there was inserted a photo of John Waters, with a sidebar mentioning the Baltimore director and his perkily titled new film, Pecker. ("How does he keep it up?" the magazine joshed, in a caption that never would have flown in William Shawn's day.)

The juxtaposition was perfect. Who else, since the great comedy director Sturges (Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve), has been so adept at handling a bouncing ensemble cast? Waters' films are, in a sense, family comedies, since they are usually about groups of rejects who band together against the world. As Waters has matured, the anger and the polarity have faded from his films. Still, his interest in the ways in which outsiders create their own communities has never waned. Pecker, his 13th feature film, sums up his life's work.

In Pecker, Waters indulges his twin fascination with fine art and gritty, low-budget life. Usually the conflict between art life and street life in Waters' films turns fierce, even violent. The evil Marbles in Pink Flamingos (1972), snooty criminals with artistic pretensions, look down on Divine's trailer-trash family. In Polyester, Tab Hunter's art-movie drive-in theater owner (featuring "Marguerite Duras From Dusk Till Dawn") romances the nouveau-riche Divine, whose lower-class roots show clearly.

Usually bloodshed settles the score between high-brow and low-life in Waters' films. In Pecker, however, the two harmonize after some initial discord. Warmhearted, cheerful, incisive and inclusive, Pecker is Waters' best work since Hairspray.

THE FILM'S theme song is "Happy Go Lucky," an irresistible vintage skiffle number by Paul Evans. It's a "laughing record." (These kind of recordings have been around since the days of the 78rpm record.) The singer bursts into peals of laughter during the verses: "I always laugh when nothing's funny. Ha ha hoo hyuk, happy go lucky me!" The banjo-playing Evans' folksy high spirits build into a lunatic's cackle. It sounds like a demo tape by Robert Mitchum's Max Cady from Cape Fear. This is the song of a man who's having too good a time.

Underneath the title, Pecker is hard. At work. Edward Furlong, the young John Connor from The Terminator, plays the title character. He's a pleasant, uncomplicated soul from the Hampton neighborhood in Baltimore. He got his nickname from the way he pecked at his food as a child.

One way to describe the boy is as third-generation fast-food worker. His grandmother runs a Pit Beef stand; Pecker himself works as a fry cook at a sandwich shop. Pecker's mother, Joyce (Mary Kay Place), the manager of a thrift shop, once gave him a camera as a present. (Waters got his first camera from his grandmother.)

Since then, Pecker has become a compulsive shutterbug, taking candid pictures of the blue-collar, fashion-disfavored locals. The amateur photography show Pecker sets up in his sandwich shop attracts the attention of a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor) who loves the out-of-focus "culturally deprived" look of Pecker's family and friends.

Soon, Pecker's life is thoroughlyruined by journalists, trend pigs and gawkers. His sweetheart, Shelley (the always-delightful Christina Ricci), manager of the Spin 'n Grin laundromat, is upset to hear herself called a "stain queen" by a New York art critic. ("It's just art talk," Pecker says, consolingly.) His family is harassed, his house is burglarized by a junkie he photographed and his favorite places are raided by the police. But by seizing control of his art, Pecker manages to set everything right.

Furlong's acting has a smooth clumsiness. The nice-guy Pecker, so free of guile, is the calm at the center of a storm of obsessed characters whirling around him, just like Joel McCrea or Eddie Bracken is in a Sturges movie. And the film shares his calm, his objectivity.

Waters takes a utilitarian view of the world of art. He compares an elitist art gallery to the nobility of a well-run laundromat, of a friendly drive-up sandwich shop or of a first-class thrift shop. In one especially touching scene, Pecker's mother steps away from a chilly Manhattan gallery reception to go chat with a homeless man, asking if New York has good thrift shops, at least. The homeless man almost bawls with the injustice of it all: "No, they're all so expensive!"

In Desperate Living, Waters changed the outskirts of his home city, Baltimore, into the magic kingdom of Mortville, a country of the rejects. In Pecker, he creates some imaginary nightspots for the city: the Fudge Palace, a gay strip joint where Pecker's sister (Martha Plimpton) is a barker, and the Pelt Room, where openly lesbian strippers mock the male patrons to their face and call them "suckers." Compared to this lively neighborhood, Manhattan looks dull and stifled. No other movie this year has been so encouraging to underground artists. No other movie makes artistic success on one's own terms look so delightful and so possible.

Pecker is an interesting counterpoint to another first-rate film this year, High Art, a dead-serious story about the perils awaiting those who try to make their name in the art world. In that film's convincing worst-case scenario, achieving artistic success required major sacrifice. (Which isn't to say that High Art's director, Lisa Cholodenko, was making some sort of tony version of The Valley of the Dolls. The eerie part of High Art was its suggestion that it might all be worth shame, exposure and betrayal to be a great artist.)

THE CONFIDENT WATERS takes an easier view of the artist's life. Waters has made himself and his city famous, at the cost of hearing his friends denounced as filthy weirdoes by the national press. Obviously, this kind of discomfort isn't a matter of life or death, which is why Pecker is the least violent of Waters' comedies. That's the warmth of Pecker--few artists are quite so generous as Waters about having their intentions misunderstood.

An obligatory regurgitation scene is Waters' way of reminding us of his rep as Viceroy of Vomit--but it's only a nod. He's left the wretchedness of his excesses behind. So, those who think of Waters' movies as mere gross-outs will find Pecker tame. Waters has already been outgrossed, in both senses of the word, by There's Something About Mary.

The difference between the two films is obvious, in pace, style and wit. As much as I love seeing Jonathan Richman on the big screen, I resented the appalling length of the Farrelly brothers hit--as well as the no-payoff gag of making Cameron Diaz both a reject (yeah, sure) and an orthopedic surgeon. If the Farrellys really had any guts, the movie would have been There's Something About Divine. You can tell what side of the fence the Farrelly brothers are on, which is why they've been so successful. They patronize outcasts, and Waters exalts them.

Waters' kind of people gather for a party at the finale of Pecker. Shoplifters, barflies, strippers, junkies, drag kings and even (gag) fine-art patrons set aside their differences and get down together for acelebration of the End of Irony.

Pecker (R; 87 min.), directed and written by John Waters, photographed by Robert M. Stevens and starring Edward Furlong, Lili Taylor and Mary Kay Place.

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From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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