Having no redeeming social value may no longer be enough, to paraphrase Gore Vidal. Then again, the films of John Waters, the bard of Baltimore, remain so determinedly nihilistic, incorrigible and anti-social that they have achieved a crazy integrity all their own.
With "Desperate Living," now at the Key in Georgetown, Waters remains the master of his own wavelength, but it may be too easy to create genre classics when you are an entire genre. His film sense seems to be on the increase - "Desperate Living" includes dissolves, a tracking shot and an original score - but the redundancy is getting wearing.
To say Waters' films are not for the squeamish is like saying "Love Boat" is not for the intellectual. The very notion of allowing oneself the luxury of squeamishness in a world-gone-mad is savagely trounced. "Desperate Living" is filled with characters who drool, rape and maim, and who live within outer limits of sanity and the twilight zone of sexual identity.
Even by the ramshackle standards one must use for Waters' works, however, "Desperate Living" is a trifle too desperate. There are 15 terrific minutes, but they are, unfortunately, at the very beginning of the picture, when Mink Stole gives a hilarious performance as the world's most overwrought neurotic - a suburban housewife who interprets a wayward baseball through the window as a clear-cut assassination attempt and a dialted wrong number as an unspeakable assault.
"Am I living in hell???" she screams rhetorically. "Is that it??? Have I gone straight to hell???"
Alas, Waters soon lifts Stole and, as her 400-pound maid, Jean Hill, out of his traditional low-life urban milieu and into a fantasy town called Mortville, where the inhabitants include Liz Renay, former girl friend to Mickey Cohen, as Muffy St. Jackques, and a bsotted despot played by stock company diva Edith Massey.
Having abandoned the urban context that made Waters' previous sleazies painfully funny, "Desperate Living" becomes largely just painfully painful.