The other day John Waters was interviewed on Terry Gross's show 'Fresh Air,' and told her he'd always wanted to use the word pecker in a film title just to see if he could get away with it. So when he titled his new film 'Pecker' he wondered if the MPAA would challenge him. Not a word. The keepers of morality were probably too polite to ask him if he really meant what they thought he meant, but just in case, Waters did have if not an ace at least a decent card up his sleeve. 'Pecker,' which in American usage of course has only one meaning these days, becomes the name of his film's young hero, and we're told he's called that because when he was a child he just pecked at his food. You bet.
In any case, Pecker, who's played with a lovely kind of innocent grace by Edward Furlong, lives in the middle of a wonderful Baltimore family, where his grandma runs something called a pit beef stand outside their house, while upstairs she is a ventriloquist with a statue of the Virgin Mary that she manipulates to say 'Full of Grace,' except that she's not very good at it, and the words come out 'Full of Grease.' His mother, played by Mary Kay Place, who by the way hasn't changed a bit since 'Mary Hartman Mary Hartman' twenty years ago, runs a thrift shop, where homeless people can get a complete Easter outfit for twenty five cents. And his father owns a bar that's losing business to a new place across the street -- the Pelt Room
-- which features naked lesbians teasing heterosexual males.
It's all kind of essence of Baltimore.
Who did I leave out? Oh, Christina Ricci, Pecker's girlfriend, who runs a laundromat and knows more about stains than any human being should have to know.
So what happens? Well, what plot there is is built on two things: One is that Pecker is a compulsive photographer. He takes pictures of everything and everybody that catches his eye, and he has a show of them at the sandwich place he works at. In walks a New York gallery owner, Lili Taylor, who thinks he's the next hot thing, she brings him and the pictures to her gallery, and before you can say Diane Arbus he's the toast of New York. Now if you've been to Baltimore I'm not giving anything away by telling you that as the bus carrying a load of major New York art buyers, curators, and critics comes through Baltimore to visit Pecker, we hear them say, "Oh, look! Marble stoops!"
Waters makes almost all his films in Baltimore, and he makes better use of it as a setting than Barry Levinson has in 'Diner' and 'Avalon,' because he doesn't romanticize it or dramatize it. It's just there, as it is for Pecker's photos, but it actually carries an emotional weight. In his film 'Hairspray,' for instance, this border city between north and south provides a context in which Waters can give us an accurate shorthand look at bigotry and race hatred, without trying to beat us over the head with political statements.
'Pecker' isn't the film that 'Hairspray' was; it gives away too much of a very thin plot early on, and there's not much left to fill out even a short eighty-five minutes of film time, but still, any John Waters is better than none.