Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

“Desperate Living” (film): John Waters’ Science Fiction Dystopia, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Maybe it was the mono sound of my budget-priced video recorder, which the salesperson at Saturn Hansa had dubbed the ‘Trabant’ (der Trabi, das Symbol eines verschwundenen Landes, the symbol of a disappeared country, hat heute längst Kultstatus erreicht, has long since attained cult status) of VCRs. Maybe it was the parallelepiped PAL cassette’s lack of THX Home Cinema Certification for its ‘film transfer onto video’ sound processing technology. Maybe it was poor original tech work, some sort of bit oversampling or multi-microphone acoustic signal mixer confusion, at the inaugural amplifier link of the sound reproduction and media storage chain. Maybe it was an intentional Director’s Cut, a willful reduction in the spectral distribution and reverberation of the direct and reflected sound fields, or a deliberate blunting or compression of dynamic range and differences in tonality. I don’t know, but, 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. Extreme caricature of a functional-dysfunctional cultural citizen of the upper crust, the near-anorexic, paranoid, just-released-from-the-mental-hospital, female outpatient Peggy Gravel, experiences perpetual mortal terror at the ordinary real-time ‘accidental connections’ of suburban technological life, a wrong-number phone call or a bedroom window smashed by the projectile of a home run hardball. Extreme parody of a societal outcast, the thieving, alcoholic, obese, 350-pound black maid Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), commits a capital felony at Peggy’s instigation, using her own fatter-than-fat buttocks as the murder weapon. The two sisters-in-crime are suddenly on the run together in the family Mercedes.

Beneath the apparent serenity of the quotidian ‘American way of life’ lies the limitless violence, desolation, madness, corruption, and vulgarity which John Waters the artist must summon into overt existence. Nothing is given, yet this very remainder banished from the dominant systems of accumulation and value provides the raw material necessary to meet head-on the challenge of ‘rousing the principle of evil’ (although others have preferred lateral approaches). Just as Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) has the oculomotoric nerve to commit double-homicide in the sub-culturally marginal Jesse Ventura Wrasslin’ Ring, and Muffy St. Jacques (played by Las Vegas strip joint burlesque star Liz Renay) is able to flagitiously divert the banal accoutrements of commonplace 1970s consumerism into a fatal dog food facial for the trippin’ babysitter who preserved the baby in the refrigerator, and into a lethal automobile electrical power window head-squeeze’n’drive for her irresponsible drink’n’drive male spouse, thus succeeding in making a twin killing, so John Waters himself employs the media of the screenplay and the feature film to attempt to pry apart the effectively non-copulative binary system of smug middle-class morality and the scapegoated residuals which it excludes, sequesters, or declares to be useless. But like his shrieking lesbian anti-heroes, Waters aspires to invent a certain alternative numerical system, between the one and the two of Haraway, rather than seeking to unpack dualistic opposition into some mere self-multiplying ultra-hi-res virtual reality or quadraphonic hyper-dimensionality.

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