Watching the Weird: Desperate Living


The best movies are the ones that surprise you.

For me that usually means movies that go so far out in left field that I’m swept up in the originality, and often the more ridiculous or implausible the plot, the better. When asked for my favourite film I tend to list Being John Malkovich, mostly because it was such an original idea and the odd things that happen throughout that film just keep coming (peak odd: John Malkovich taking the portal into his own head to find a room full of himself saying his name over and over again). I’ve felt that way about other movies — John Paiz’s Crime Wave or Robert Bierman’s Vampire’s Kiss come to mind — and I’ve decided this is the year I’m going to track down the strangest films I can.

I started this year off with a Repo Man re-watch because I wanted a little chaos, and then I kept going down the rabbit hole. So I’m going to share my journey down, here, with you. When it’s weird you want, John Waters is a pretty safe bet. So that’s where I’ll start.

Desperate Living is one big snarl of screams. From the first scene Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) believes the neighbourhood children are trying to assassinate her and she throws a tirade out the window at them (“Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!”). Peggy then turns her shrieks to a wrong number, her other children and then her husband (“I could rip your lips off!”). Her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) has had enough of the Gravels, particularly Bosley (George Stover) who berates her for stealing and demands to look in her purse (“I don’t want no white man looking at my Tampax!”), and after much wailing, she and Peggy kill Mr. Gravel and go on the run.

The duo leave the suburban hell that is the backdrop for most of Waters’ films and ultimately head to a chaotic shanty town called Mortville. Grizelda puts Peggy in her place (“I ain’t your maid anymore, bitch; I’m your sister in crime!”) and the two of them settle into their new home, a Freetown Christiania-like autonomous area within Baltimore where no one cares about your past crimes. There’s some difference between the Danish enclave and Mortville: where Christiania is a hippy commune of sorts, Mortville is ruled by a sadistic queen (Edith Massey) who sees the area’s residents as her puppets.

These puppets are an array of brilliant characters who scream and flail and fuck their way through this miserable land, and they are what put this film in the realm of the joyfully bizarre. There’s princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce) who revolts against her mother to be with the guy who picks up trash at the nudist colony; Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay) who ended up in Mortville because she suffocated the babysitter with dog food and then dragged her husband beside her car by his head; and Muffy’s partner Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a trans man whose pre-Mortville life saw him as a wrestler (Wrasslin’ Rita) who wore a large vagina on the front of his costume. Then there are their oppressors: Queen Carlotta and her team of fascist leathermen who carry her around on a wheeling lounge chair, have sex with her on the regular and kill people upon her command.

This is the first Waters film without regular collaborators Divine or David Lochary, and yet the characters are still magnetic. The mania of watching Desperate Living reminds me of the time, in grade two, when I was sent to the principal’s office to show her the play I’d written with a friend. I don’t remember the content of the play, but I do remember that the punchline of it — which was succinct when we performed it in class — went on and on in this office as the two of us threw ourselves all over the room, screaming and panicking and yelling down the receiver of the principal’s phone for over-the-top dramatic effect. This film is that moment replayed forever.

Within the constant screams and the glee of watching these characters fight back, there are definitely some dubious moments that audiences could rightly take issue with. For instance, Mole has sexual reassignment surgery and then immediately cuts off his penis because his girlfriend finds it disgusting. Even though the intended message of this action is love — Muffy loved Mole just the way he was — it incidentally frames this surgery as disgusting.

For the most part, the oppressed masses in this film rise up and win. It’s a warped fairy tale that ends with the starving residents of Mortville eating their dictator. Some of the oppressed die in the process, but I suppose there are always casualties in a revolution.

Since I’m on the lookout for anarchic films, where does Desperate Living land on my chaos metre? With all the street fights, children in refrigerators, rabies infections and constant caterwauling, Desperate Living is a nine out of 10. Come back for more chaos….

Leave a Reply