It is generally acknowledged that the cinematic demarcation line for Baltimore filmmaker John Waters is Hairspray (1988), the film that saw him go from campy, taboo-smashing films featuring his good friend Divine to more mainstream-friendly fare starring recognizable movie stars like Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner. With Pink Flamingos (1972), his notorious exercise in bad taste, Waters felt that he had taken his outrageous white trash aesthetic as far as it could go. After all, where do you go after showing someone eat a piece of dog shit? From Hairspray on, his films were more sweetly subversive rather than in your face raunch. Pecker (1998) is one of his more endearing efforts, featuring Edward Furlong as a young, aspiring photographer and Christina Ricci as his girlfriend who runs a Laundromat with an iron fist. The film is an appealing tale about artistic expression and the price of becoming an overnight sensation.
When he’s not working at a local sandwich shop, Pecker (Edward Furlong) takes pictures of the people and places in the Baltimore neighborhood of Hampden. He finds beauty in every day things, like cheese melting on a burger cooking on a grill or a woman shaving her legs on the bus. Occasionally, he’s joined on spontaneous photo shoots by his best friend Matt (Brendan Sexton III), a shoplifting delinquent. They goof off, playing harmless prank games like “shopping for others,” which involves putting odd items in the shopping carts of unsuspecting customers and watching the chaos that ensues at the checkout. Pecker also hangs out with Shelley (Christina Ricci), his workaholic girlfriend and muse.
We are soon introduced to one of Waters’ trademark family of eccentrics who live a blissful existence until their world clashes with that of another. His mother Joy (Mary Kay Place) runs a thrift store shop where she dresses homeless people for very little money. His little sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey) has an eating disorder in the form of being a sugar junkie. His dad Jimmy (Mark Joy) runs a local bar and is facing stiff competition from a newly opened strip club across the street. His grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler) runs a “pit beef” sandwich stand and talks to her statue of the Virgin Mary whom she’s convinced speaks, but is really Memama saying “Full of grace.” His older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) is a fag hag that emcees go-go dancers at a gay bar in downtown Baltimore.
While exhibiting his photographs at work, Pecker meets Rorey Wheeler (LiliTaylor), a New York art gallery owner and art collector who is taken with his pictures and offers to show them in the Big Apple. His work is an instant hit among the city’s elite art snobs. As one critic puts it, “Pecker is like a humane Diane Arbus.” He even impresses legendary photographers Cindy Sherman and Greg Gorman (playing themselves).
Pecker soon finds out that he’s become a hit at home as well, but it comes at a price. His parents’ house is robbed while they were in New York, Little Chrissy is put on Ritalin by child protection services and Matt can’t shoplift anymore because storeowners recognize him from Pecker’s photos. Shelley is harassed at work with obscene phone calls (a cameo by John Waters no less), Joy is given an unnecessary fashion makeover, Memama is labeled a religious nut and can no longer get Mary to talk, and Tina is fired from her job.
Edward Furlong plays Pecker with the same kind of gee whiz optimism as Johnny Depp did in Ed Wood (1994). The young photographer is an idealistic dreamer who finds beauty in the mundane and trashiness. Of all the cast, Martha Plimpton has the most fun as Pecker’s white trash sister. The actress sports a hideous teased out black wig and calls everyone “Mary.” Tina is truly in her element emceeing at the Fudge Palace, giving the various dancers saucy introductions. It is also nice to see old school Waters regulars Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce in small roles as well as some of his newer stock company, like Patricia Hearst, in minor but memorable parts.
The screenplay for Pecker was partially inspired by some of John Waters’ own experiences with fame. He said in an interview, “What happened to me later after the successes of some of my earlier films did happen to Pecker.” However, as a whole, he didn’t feel like his career was like Pecker’s. “What is true is what happened after success, especially with people like Edith Massey … It made her life better. But there were other people whose lives were made worse. Some of them were wanted by the police, and suddenly they were being recognized by people on the street.”
While researching his script, Waters hung out at the Hampden Laundromat and the bar that he ended up using in the film. Before he started writing it, the filmmaker came up with the title. He liked writing it and saying it. “It’s a word I’ve always wanted to use because it’s funny and almost no one ever says it anymore.” With Pecker, Waters wanted the film to reflect the two sides of his life: the blue collar Baltimore and the New York art world. When it came to casting the titular character, the director was drawn to Edward Furlong’s reputation for playing brooding characters. He couldn’t recall seeing the actor smile in a film and decided to cast him against type. As a rule, Waters never casts comedians in his comedies.
Not surprisingly, Pecker received a mixed reaction from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Finding hilarity in John Waters's latest movie title is the basic pre requisite for enjoying the goofy ingenuity of his new film. Remember that Mr. Waters proudly establishes himself as perhaps the first filmmaker to accompany his directorial credit with a shot of rats mating, and you'll be nicely attuned to Pecker and its ebulliently trashy fun.” The Toronto Star’s Norman Wilner wrote, “And just as Pecker, the character, is propelled by his happy-go-lucky nature, Pecker, the movie, is similarly bouncy and amiable. There's no real villain, which does make the movie's midsection a little saggy, but then this isn't a story about good people and bad people.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Stack wrote, “The film is never truly funny, but it's an amusing novelty, gaining strength from smart characterizations and sly cogency about the way people are exploited under the limelight of celebrity.”
Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “There's also a certain tension between the gentler new Waters and his anarchic past. In the scenes in the male strip bar, for example, we keep waiting for Waters to break loose and shock us, and he never does, except with a few awkward language choices.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Waters, replaying the arc of his own career, is being smugly disingenuous about why he was ever embraced. None of this would matter, of course, if Pecker were actually funny. Alas, it's about as funny as leopard skin on a leopard.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Nothing the filmmaker has done since 1988's Hairspray has clicked and, as sweet as Pecker is, it's flimsy whimsy.”
I like that Pecker culminates in an exhibit of his latest photos that unites the freaks and art snobs so that we get hilarious images of gay strippers cavorting with lesbian go-go dancers, homeless people and art critics, dealers and lovers. We get to see the New York elite cut loose and let their freak flag fly free. At the time, Pecker was seen as Waters’ most diluted effort to date and a blatant bid for mainstream acceptance. I see it as a sincere and heartfelt statement about artistic integrity and being true to oneself. Ironically, Waters’ white trash aesthetic has finally tapped into the pop cultural zeitgeist with reality television shows like Jersey Shore, which is populated with grotesque caricatures that he could only dream of creating. Sure, Pecker is as inoffensive as it gets but there is something amusing about Waters trying to bring terms like “dingleberries” and “teabagging” into the mainstream. The film is forgettable fare for most, but let’s face it, most of Waters’ films rarely had anything profound to say and he was rather proud of that. Pecker carries on in that tradition. It is a film hard to dislike because it is so amicable and sweetly engaging.