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Friday, Oct. 22, 1999


Never mind the bollocks, here's art!

The career of maverick director John Waters has certainly seen its twists and turns. Perpetrator of the crudest cinematic outrages of the '70s (remember the singing bunghole of "Pink Flamingos"?) Waters, like the rest of the country, went through a conservative period in the'80s, eschewing his shock tactics in favor of silly kitsch in PG-rated films such as "Hairspray." In the '90s, with both "Serial Mom" and his latest (and 15th!) film, "Pecker," he seems to be firing from both barrels. While full of foul-mouthed dykes and crackpot Christianity, "Pecker" nevertheless maintains a bizarrely warm and fuzzy feel-good vibe -- kind of like a Disney movie for perverts.

Waters' protagonist (and thinly disguised alter ego) is a gangly grinning naif nicknamed Pecker (Edward Furlong), an amateur photographer obsessed with snapping slice-of-life pics on the streets of Baltimore, including such lovelies as a pair of rats fornicating in a trash can, or burgers sizzling in a huge pool of grease.

Also captured on film are Pecker's girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci), a stain-obsessed laundromatrix; his shoplifting friend Matt (Brendan Sexton); his amped-up sister Little Chrissy (who eats sugar from the bag and drinks only Jolt); and his batty grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler), who has a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary that can "speak."

When New York art dealer Rorey (Lily Taylor) encounters Pecker's "exhibition" in a local burger joint, she immediately arranges for a high-profile career launch in NYC. Pecker's "pure" art is a hit, but his subjects are viewed with disdain, his work a freak show. Upon returning to Baltimore, Pecker finds that fame has corrupted his art -- no one is willing to be caught in compromising photos. (As Matt puts it, "If I can't steal, I don't wanna be famous.") Meanwhile, Rorey is pressuring him to produce more of the same.

This little parable on how the "hip" urban art scene vampirically feeds off of those who are truly working on the margins is obviously close to Waters' own heart. Waters is not one to analyze obsessions or weirdness; he simply savors them for what they are: endlessly fascinating.

Essentially, the film is a justification of Waters' approach, which is sort of the cinematic equivalent of Duchamp's infamous urinal. Shelley may chastise Pecker's camera obsession by saying, "You see art where there isn't any," but by the end of the film, she's seen the light, finding art in "the brilliant green in a grass stain, the subtle yellow of a urine-soaked sheet."

In truth, Waters isn't quite walking the razor's edge like he used to in the humor department. The mainstream has caught up with him ("There's Something About Mary"), and he still seems to think there's mileage in milking a term like "dingleberries." But fans of his trashy milieu will no doubt enjoy this dredge of Baltimore's thrift shops and gay strip bars ("The Fudge Palace").

And let's give credit where it's due: His shot at the church's iconic use of the Virgin is overt and intentionally flippant, unlike that of "Sensations" Chris Ofili, who wishes to have his cake (fame-enhancing controversy) and eat it too (public funding).

It would be hard to imagine a director whose aesthetic sense is further removed from Waters' than Hal Hartley, whose urbane and mannered approach seems on the brink of what Waters is mocking in "Pecker." And yet, with his sixth film, "Henry Fool," Hartley is not only addressing the same theme as Waters' "Pecker" -- pure art on the edge vs. commerce and the "art world" -- he is also indulging in similar grossout territory. Who could ever have imagined a Hartley film in which its protagonist proposes marriage over a toilet bowl while unleashing violent bursts of diarrhea?

With its story of a wild and haggard stranger who bursts the mundane routine of a staid suburb, "Henry Fool" hardly breaks new ground for Hartley (see "Trust" or "The Unbelievable Truth"). And also typically for Hartley, his strengths and weaknesses are often one and the same: His idiosyncratic characters, arch dialogue and meticulously orchestrated scenes give the film its charm and identity, but also take away something from the film's attempt to deal with real issues and emotions.

Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is a near-autistic garbage man who's getting worn out providing for his mentally ill mother (Maria Porter) and sexaholic sister (Parker Posey), so repressed he can barely form a coherent sentence: "People think . . . you know . . . because." Into his life stumbles Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mad vagabond who also happens to be a drunk, a past sex offender, a raging egomaniac and, perhaps, even a genius poet of the gutter.

Henry, who needs an audience as much as Simon needs a friend, encourages the garbage man to overcome his low self-esteem through writing. When Simon releases his prurient poem on the Internet, the outrage leads to fame and fortune in New York literary circles. Henry, on the other hand, sits on his multivolume manuscript ("Confession") as his career goes nowhere. Is his work genius or banality? No one knows, until Henry seeks Simon's support, and their friendship becomes strained.

The most glaring weakness of "Henry Fool" is its central conceit that, in 1999, a poet could publish a work so inflammatory that it would make him a media star overnight (something even Ginsberg didn't achieve with "Howl"). The reality is that the written word is nearly powerless in '90s America where the image reigns supreme (something a filmmaker, of all people, should know).

No matter. Even with flaws, Hartley's films are always watchable, and this one is made even more so thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Ryan and Urbaniak. As Simon, Urbaniak moves with the nervous birdlike caution of a man who, despite his curiosity, fears the world around him -- not unlike Jack Nance in "Eraserhead."

Ryan, in his film debut, is simply a juggernaut. Reeling off tirades and soliloquies like the Verlaine of New Jersey, he can easily switch from pensive bottle-wisdom ("An honest man is always in trouble") to snarling threats ("Let's go tear off their arms"). His on-edge performance doesn't always sit well with Hartley's artfully contrived direction, but it certainly carries the film.

Despite their shared cynicism regarding the commercial art world, "Pecker" and "Henry Fool" ultimately end up on different sides of the coin. Pecker rejects the snobby art scene of NYC, and -- like Waters himself -- decides to stay close to his Baltimore roots, his true source of inspiration, flipping the bird at the critics. Hartley's idiot-savant Simon, on the other hand, rides his fame to the City, a classy suite, an agent/girlfriend and even a Nobel Prize! Whether the ex-garbage man ever writes another poem worth reading is the question left unspoken, but one well worth considering.

"Pecker" opens Oct. 30 at Yebisu Garden Cinema. "Henry Fool" opens Nov. 6 at Cine Vivant Roppongi.

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