Monday Editor’s Pick: Desperate Living (1977)

by on April 2, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon April 9 at 8:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

More fun care of Cindy Sherman, recipient of carte blanche liberties at MoMA – in honor of her career retrospective.

Jeremiah Kipp sets the stage for American Indie Cinema:

Imagine you’re in high school watching a flat performance of The Wizard of Oz in the cafeteria. Not much fun, right? The line readings are flat, as though they memorized it without emotion or feeling and just blurt the lines out in sporadic bursts without energy or much inflection. The best kids just ham it up with manic facial contortions and elaborate gestures. It’s pretty lousy, the whole damned thing, but innocent and sweet, too. When you’re older, you’ll grow nostalgic for this sort of crap.
Now, imagine that same scenario with adults running around in a fantastic city called Mortville, a no man’s land inhabited with criminals on the run from the law. Imagine that the entire place is run by a gap toothed megalomaniacal lazybones named Queen Carlotta, whose voice sounds like whisky and cigarettes and kitsch.. The citizens of Mortville bow down to her and pander to her whims, such as making everyone walk backwards for a day.
It’s a world where babies somehow find their way into being stashed in the fridge, a cross-gendered male member is sliced off and thrown to the dogs and a highway patrolman forces his suspects to strip off their underwear and let him try them on – everybody needs a fetish. Welcome to the high school play made into a movie as envisioned by John Waters.



J. Hoberman selects it as a repertory must-see for ArtInfo:

Not sure if Ms. Sherman, subject of current MOMA retro, will introduce the movie herself—or if she does, what she’ll look like—but it’s a gutsy choice. The movie that ended the first stage of Waters’s career, “Desperate Living” is tough, elaborately unpleasant, at times very funny and throughout very, very strange—a kind of cross between two of his favorite movies, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” (At the time, Waters described it as a “fairy tale for fucked-up children.”)

Matt Levin for Films in Review:

Ah, Desperate Living. There truly is no other film like it. Part twisted fairy tale, part lesbian love story, part social revolution…this film has it all. While not as easy to digest as some of Water’s other films, Desperate Living must be seen to be believed. The story centers on Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), a neurotic woman living in the hell of a nervous breakdown. After killing her husband with the aid of her 400 pound maid, Grizelda (Jean Hill), the duo attempt to flee Baltimore only to be harassed by a cop with a penchant for ladies’ underwear. Offering the women freedom in Mortville, a fantasyland where criminals can roam free, but have to succumb to the ridiculous laws of evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). Upon arriving in Mortville, Peggy and Grizelda rent a room from lesbian couple Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay). Meanwhile, Queen Carlotta is trying to stop her rebellious daughter, Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce) from running off with the janitor of a local nudist colony. Then, a house falls on Grizelda and Peggy Joins the Queen in her evil plot to give the citizens of Mortville rabies and for some reason dresses up like the wicked Queen from Snow White. Oh, yeah, and Mole McHenry wins the lottery and gets a sex change operation…ok, you get the idea. Terms of Endearment, this isn’t. But if you’re in the mood for a wild 90 minutes, this is the film for you. If laughing yourself silly is your goal, you won’t be disappointed with this masterwork by Baltimore’s “Sultan of Sleaze”.


Andy Markowitz on the hometown hero for Baltimore City Paper:

Desperate Living is the link between the fuck-the-world anarchy of John Waters’ early films and his subsequent mainstream success, maintaining the air of shock-value grunge that gave the filmmaker his loyal cult while flirting with actual storytelling and genuine, occasionally even playful wit. The film opens with high-strung Guilford housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) being pushed over the edge by wrong-number callers and neighborhood boys. In short order, she and her 350-pound maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) kill Peggy’s cloddish husband and exile themselves to the rural trash pit of Mortville–which is run by the evil Queen Carlotta (the late Edith Massey, in perhaps her greatest role)–where they move in with ultrabutch Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her busty girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques (stripper/B-movie femme Liz Renay). Desperate Living is less subversive than Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble, but it’s funnier, marking the point at which Waters’ attack on mainstream sensibilities starts evolving from deliberate assault to delirious camp.


Chris Peabody for Time Out (London):

Revelling in the travesty of carnal excess, Desperate Living transforms the standard elements of fairytale into a pastiche of dominant sexual mores. The wicked queen is an omnivorous barracuda-mother with a predilection for leather boys, who devours her empire’s sub-lumpen populace with an appetite that is tempered only by perverse sadism. Her princess daughter, trapped in the heterosexual pursuit of a Love Story, is finally saved by a rebellious uprising of lesbian transsexual heroines who bring about the collapse of the maternal dictatorship. Single-mindedly tracing the limits where hedonism becomes revulsion, this is a celebration of the flesh, a revindication of marginalised sexualities, of desire as artifice, which is a lot less misogynist than the tasteful aestheticism of ‘natural’ sexuality in softcore porn.


Yum-Yum for the blog House of Self-Indulgence:

The seemingly uncomplimentary worlds of feminine fascism, organized lesbianism, and hippie nudism clash like they’ve never clashed before in the uproarious Desperate Living, John Waters’ genteel ode to societal decay and the problems that can arise while trying to muff dive in a dystopian morass of your own making. Taking the borderline distasteful banquet of tainted meat and deformed potatoes the demented writer-director severed us in his previous ventures, Baltimore’s most uncontaminated resident has dipped his latest cinematic nugget in a steaming cauldron of rabid bat pus, and sprinkled it with a hint rat urine. On the threshold of engaging in a full-on giddy fit on a number of occasions, this has to be one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. Sure, the characters that populate the world of Mortville, a dilapidated refuge for murders, nondescript scumbags, well-kept nudists, pie merchants, and lesbian wrestlers with excess facial moles, aren’t exactly the most pleasant people to spend ninety minutes with. However, in my well-balanced mind, they represented the best and brightest the humanity have to offer.


Kipp again:

It’s important to remember that it’s all a fairy tale done by amateur thespians – that’s what makes Desperate Living more than just a freak show where one disgusting act is piled atop another. There’s something in this movie to surely offend everyone, but there’s a sly irony in the way John Waters plays it.
Something innocent and playful lurks underneath the gruesome goodies, and as oddball and gauche as his protagonists are, Waters keeps our sympathy with them because, gosh darn it, the whole stinking world is crazy. At least these people are crazy and interesting and pine for a better life.
It may “go too far” with some of the violence and crude humor, but for my money it’s all so over-the-top and played with such “bad movie” whimsy, it doesn’t offend in the slightest. In the words of Harmony Korine’s characters in the gonzo indie film, Gummo, “Life is beautiful. Really, it is. Life is beautiful and strange. If you didn’t have it, you’d be dead.”



Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies:

A literal $65,000 question, Desperate Living was the first movie in which Waters did not do the camerawork himself. Nevertheless, it is probably the most personal film in his ouevre. Shaken, perhaps, by the death of Lochary and the defection of Divine, the ex-puppeteer returned to his earliest sources of inspiration. “This one I like to think of as a fairy tale, ” he old one interviewer, “I guess if may be a movie for fucked-up children.” The most visionary, but least joyful, of all of Waters’s films.
Morttville, a set constructed by Waters outside Baltimore, is a sort of Technicolor Dogpatch. The houses seem built out of moldy patchwork quilts; their interiors are garishly decorative and bizarrely evocative of children’s nurseries. In other respects, the town resembles a degenerate hippie commune. It is littered with derelict cards which have been covered with moronic, crudely drawn psychedelic patterns. Inhabited by an assortment of lunatics, transvestites, and tramps – many of them recruited by Waters from Baltimore’s skid row – Mortville is ruled by the tyrannical Queens Carolotta, who lives in a tacky fairy-tale castle surrounded by fauvist oil portraits of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, and Idi Amin. Massey enforces her Ubu-like dictums with gestapo of effete Hell’s Angels.



Alan Shapiro for Red Room:

After the opening scene on the front doorstep of a stately ‘upper-class home’, all of the characters in John Waters’ 1977 Trash Art film Desperate Living seemed to me to be constantly screaming. It was as if all voice timbres had been equalized and limited to the coarsest level of granularity of sound wave radiation, as if one dimension of reality had been taken away. Close one eye, and you lose your three-dimensional depth perception. Close one ear wide shut, and the multimedia switching computer which your brain and biotech auditory devices are alleged to be lose their relativistic sense of position, velocity, and distance. Those human emblems of everyday authority, the distinguished psychiatrist (uncredited actor) and the ‘understanding,’ moneymaking husband-father (George Stover as Bosley Gravel), are calmly discussing the improving mental health of the highly neurotic Mrs. Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), as they stand at the outdoors user interface to the wealthy interior home, while children play baseball on the lawn. Once past this gateway from pastoral surface to entangled innards, it is ninety-nine minutes of nonstop frantic screeching. Language itself, for the ruled as well as for those who rule, becomes an unadorned, permanent, desperate outcry of the needy individual for some personal attention.
The two chronological parts of the movie, separated by the gruesome scene with Turkey Joe as the sexually perverted motorcycle cop who offers to not haul the all-points bulletin fugitives Peggy and Grizelda off to jail if they agree in return to help him get off his jollies, paint dramatically divergent ‘realities’, each of which has an inherently differing aesthetic status. In the film’s first segment, we find ourselves in the habitual environment of the polyester ennui and average white band families which John Waters, in his anger and in his art, strives to satirize. In the film’s lengthier second portion, we are transported to a realm of wretched devastation, to the abject misery which is the scorched earth town of Mortville and the crying lot of its inhabitants. Perhaps it is a ‘monstrous, revisionist, inverted fairy tale’ of the wicked, tyrannical Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey of 1972 Pink Flamingos ‘Mama Edie the Egglady’ fame) and her sadomasochistic Nazi henchmen in their plywood castle headquarters, as Waters himself claims. Perhaps it is rather a science fiction scenario of a Paul Auster-like In the Country of Last Things (dystopian epistolary novel published in 1987), where a township owned by a tourist industry mega-corporation named Charm City Productions has set up an alternative prison service with squalid ‘living’ circumstances for its inmates to provide an entertaining atrocity exhibition for the cruel voyeuristic amusement of its anti-theme park vacationer-customers. In the prurient movie currently under investigation, the Rarefied Authority of the Law and the Righteous Scales of Justice are represented by the pivotal character of Turkey Joe the transvestite motorcycle cop. In one speculative sense, the whole story of Desperate Living begins and ends within the first ten minutes of the film, culminating in the instant of Big Joey’s frenetic bliss, the moment of real material production of his desiring-machine. Everything that happens after the furious rush to orgasm, the entire sojourn of the viewer and of the Dreamland players in Mortville, might just be a deliriously wayward side-effect of the Wild Turkey’s ejaculation.



Daniel Mudie Cunningham for Senses of Cinema:

Desperate Living continues his oddball fascination with crime. Set in an over-ripe kitschy location called Mortville, Desperate Living features an ensemble of criminals, outcasts and deviants who are forced to submit to the fascist monarchy of Queen Carlotta (Massey). Stressed out middle-class Baltimore resident Peggy Gravel (Stole) and her black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) escape to Mortville after they “accidentally” murder Peggy’s husband.
Like his earlier films, Desperate Living continues to align camp and trash, though arguably on a grander, more realised scale. One review of Desperate Living claimed, “[Waters] remains the visionary of camp and the den mother of the bizarre. The film is a triumphant example of the most vital bad taste in America.” In terms of production design, “Mortville was made almost entirely out of garbage.” This bit of trivia gels with the way Mortville’s population of scum are continually referred to as garbage. For example, class-conscious Peggy is “mortified” by her new home, referring to her new neighbours as trash: “You’re so ‘low’, you make white trash look positively top drawer” says Peggy to Mole (played by Susan Lowe, whose name is referenced in this intertextual byte of dialogue).
Desperate Living was the last film Waters made in the 1970s, and was also the last where he employed self-conscious attempts to shock and outrage his audiences through comedic means. After Desperate Living Waters softened his direction somewhat because he realised audiences expected to be shocked, and they would inevitably be disappointed.


A 1978 interview with Waters, following a screening.



David Chute also talks to Waters for Film Comment in 1981:

The capering dingbats who populate John Waters’ movies have made shockhumor sight gags of their own bodies, and play out their sordid strings with a ferocious, snotty pride. Non-fans complain that Waters’ wired weirdos always shout too much. “But,” he responds, with reference to Desperate Living, “that’s the way desperate people are They don’t sit around and quietly say, ‘Pass the salt.’ If anyone is to blame for that, it’s me; I direct them to be that way. I like fanatics. These are people who don’t hold anything back – because they can’t.” The style of flagrant grotesquery that draws Waters’ sympathy is described in Shock Value: “My idea of an interesting person is someone who is quite proud of their seemingly abnormal life, and turns their disadvantage into a career.”
One is drawn to Waters’ people by the loony, pugnacious stubbornness with which they strive to palm off blemishes as beauty marks. But there’s an inescapable element of pathos in the pose. And there are startling moments in Waters’ films when this implicit poignance rises to the surface. A sequence in Desperate Living recalls the comic-pathetic Fassbinder of 13 Moons: the “warty lesbian,” Mole McEnry (Susan Lowe), undergoes a female-to-male sex change operation to please her buxom lover (Liz Renay) who, however, recoils from the rubbery appendage in disgust. Forget, for a moment, that the scene goes on to show McEnry slicing off her prosthetic member and feeding it to the dog. Notice, instead, that this “Penis of the Magi” episode ends with the two women, covered in blood, exchanging endearments of the I-love-you-just-the-way-you-are variety. It’s a borderline case, and yet one can see through the surface monstrosity to something like a common impulse lurking underneath. Feeling kinship with a John Waters character is, to be sure, a slightly queasy experience. And as he cheerfully admits, that’s part of the attraction, “because people can go to my films and say ‘Jesus, and I thought I was fucked up.'”
“I would feel much more comfortable living in Mortville than I do in suburbia. It feels like an alien world.” It is a mistake, when considering products like a punk rock song or a John Waters movie, to assume that only new, synthetic trash can properly honor what the artists love about organic trash. This is comparable to the claim that a film about boredom must itself be boring. (Kael calls this “the fallacy of expressive form.”) The greater challenge is to make boredom interesting, and thus to defeat it. John Waters, after all, does not make organic trash for drive-ins: he makes films about trash, and about people who embrace it because society makes them feel like trash. No, what’s really exhilarating is that extent to which, by dint of sheer pig-headed persistence, Waters has managed to build something from trash components that does come close to being art. That’s an aesthetic victory to match the moral victory we glimpsed in Desperate Living, when a monster became a person. In the Waters canon, Pink Flamingos stands as the emblem of “shock value,” Female Trouble as “crime as glamour,” and Desperate Living as the harbinger of true trash art.


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