The Post’s critics highlight original movies that are being streamed and made available on demand. Here are this week’s picks.
I AM DIVINE
Does anybody not know Divine? The 300-pound drag queen — transgressive pride of Baltimore, muse to trash-epic director John Waters, inspiration to free-spirited outsiders everywhere — was one of those singular performers one could recognize simply by their silhouette: In this case, a corpulent, generously buxom physique packed tightly into a fish-tail gown, all topped by a mane of outrageously teased hair.
But does anybody really know Divine? Born Harris Glenn Milstead in Baltimore, she was both transparent and mysterious, which makes Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary “I Am Divine” not only enjoyable, but also valuable. An admiring, comprehensive chronicle of Milstead’s rise to fame — a journey of stardust, steely focus and hard work that was cut tragically short with Milstead’s death at 42 in 1988 — “I Am Divine” performs the hugely important service of recognizing a pivotal cultural figure and making sure that story is told, before all the eyewitnesses disappear or forget the most toothsome details.
You don’t have to be a fan of Milstead’s early collaborations with Waters — midnight cult movies, each of which sought to be more shocking than the last — to find “I Am Divine” absorbing. Using footage from Waters’s beloved classics and some choice early works, narrated by reminiscences from Waters and such fellow collaborators as Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce, “I Am Divine” examines how Waters, Milstead and makeup artist Van Smith created Divine’s look and persona, an elaborate confection for which Smith shaved Milstead’s forehead so that he could put as much make-up on his face as possible. And, yes, Schwarz includes the notorious “Pink Flamingos” scene of Divine eating dog feces in the film’s climax.
Punk before punk existed, predicated on an almost compulsive need to cultivate anarchy wherever she went, Divine’s act was borne of personal hurt (Milstead was mercilessly bullied as a kid) and social ferment. The result was a character, as film critic Dennis Dermody notes, who was “like Clarabelle [Howdy Doody’s clown partner] on acid.” (It’s impossible to picture Lady Gaga or Madonna without Divine’s influence.)
But Milstead, who took Divine on the road in the 1980s as a proto-techno disco singer, was always more than a novelty act. As Stole observes in the film, his challenge was to get Hollywood agents and producers to “see beyond the man in drag to [his] commitment to the performance.” Schwarz’s film makes a convincing case that under the extra weight and prosthetics and sequins and eye shadow, a real actor was ready to emerge: Milstead died the night before he was to report for work on the television show “Married With Children.”
Waters himself still evinces shock that his friend isn’t around. Fortunately, we have this film, which honors a trailblazer and manages to capture the underground culture of Baltimore, New York and San Francisco in the process. “I Am Divine” pays tribute to glorious outrageousness by knowing just when to play it straight. -- A.H.
Unrated. Contains adult themes, profanity and drug references. 90 minutes. Available through Amazon Instant video.
Just in time for Passover comes “Putzel,” an appealingly offbeat comedy set in the milieu of an Upper West Side deli specializing in smoked salmon and neurosis.
The hero of the tale is Walter Himmelstein (Jack T. Carpenter), a 30-something man-child who sells bagels nova, lox and whitefish salad in the small family shop run by his schmoozey Uncle Sid (John Pankow). The staff is rounded out by a taciturn Korean American counter-man, Song (Steve Park), and a polymorphously perverse delivery person named Tunch (Fred Berman) who loves his job a little too much. Tunch’s weirdly indeterminate accent and his sexual fixation with sliced fish make him seem slightly brain-damaged.
Walter also loves the lox and hopes to inherit the business from Sid, who has been thinking about retiring to Arizona. Unfortunately, Walter is a chronic loser, as evidenced by the fact that he’s still universally known by his childhood nickname, “Putzel” (Yiddish for “little putz,” a sexual vulgarity less affectionate than simply demeaning). Then there’s the fact that his wife (Allegra Cohen) has just left him.
In this gentle comedy of modern Manhattan manners, it is significant that Putzel is actually friends with the guy (Adrian Martinez) who’s sleeping with his wife. Nothing is terribly at stake here, except eternal happiness.
This becomes clear with the arrival of Sally (Melanie Lynskey), a peripatetic dancer whose dalliance with Sid derails his plans to move to Phoenix, which in turn delays Putzel’s dreams of taking over the fish business. As Putzel works to break up Sid and Sally, he also falls for her, and she for him. Only one thing stands in the way of Putzel running away with Sally: his phobia of leaving the Upper West Side. When Putzel gets anywhere near 59th Street, the neighborhood’s southern boundary, he has a panic attack. The same thing happens at 116th, where Morningside Heights begins.
How is Putzel ever going to be with Sally, a rolling stone, if he’s afraid to cross the street?
The film’s central conundrum — are we who we are or who we want to become? — is expressed most succinctly by Sid, who refers to it as the “[expletive] what-ifs.” Putzel himself waxes more eloquent upon this fatalistic theme when he tries to convince the very married Sid that his uncle just doesn’t have adultery in him. “We’re not the French,” he tells Sid. “We’re Upper West Side Jews. It’s like wearing a tank top. Some people can. Some people can’t.”
The writing by Rick A. Moore is sharp and amusing. And Jason Chaet’s direction keeps things credible yet light. If this were real life, Putzel’s predicament would likely be too sad to bear (and probably impossible to break). But “Putzel” is a comedy, not a documentary. In the Upper West Side of independent movie making, anyone — even a nebbish Woody-Allen-in-training like Putzel — can get away with wearing a tank top. -- M.O.
RECENTLY REVIEWED: 'Mistaken for Strangers,' 'Dead Snow, ' Home'