“Pecker” is basically an inside job. Director John Waters is an exhibiting artist, himself, and is currently represented by Marianne Boesky Gallery (he showed with American Fine Arts at the time of production). Waters gets a lot right in this decidedly autobiographical film, operating within two territories he is very comfortable in: his hometown of Baltimore and the New York City art world. Striking a satisfying equilibrium between the two conflicting cultural spaces, he makes fair game of the foolishness to be found in each.
The story revolves around an aspiring Baltimore-based photographer of indeterminate age named Pecker (Edward Furlong), who experiences the world almost entirely through the lens of his camera. A gift from his mother (procured from the thrift store she runs), the camera is simple and uncomplicated, just like Pecker’s relationship with his environment. He seems devoid of cynicism, and his nonstop photo-documentation of the people in his life is almost always met with benevolence.
Things change when he is discovered by a New York art dealer named Rorey (Lili Taylor), who happens upon his exhibition of photographs at the sandwich shop where he works. Rorey becomes instantly infatuated (with Pecker and his art) giving him his first sale (a close-up photograph of a stripper’s vagina) and offering him a show at her Chelsea gallery.
Pecker’s big opening is the very next scene. The space appears to be on West 22nd Street, and Waters tips his hat to a few actual galleries in the neighborhood as the windows of Cheim & Read, D’Amelio Terras, 303 Gallery and Matthew Marks flash on the screen. Cindy Sherman even makes a cameo as herself.
Pecker’s family and friends (portrayed as unsophisticated, but good-hearted folks) take the bus up from Baltimore to support him. They are obvious outsiders among these big city art snobs, and the culture clash is best summed up by Pecker’s girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci), who sneers, “These people don’t go to laundromats. They go to drycleaners.” While Pecker’s dad marvels at the $1,300 price tag for each photograph, his mom swipes a plate of hors d’oeuvres (uncommon at most blue chip art openings) and delivers it to some homeless people outside. She then invites them to the after party. His older sister (Martha Plimpton), who works in a gay strip club, calls everyone “Mary” in a try-hard effort to appear savvy. And his “Memama” (Jean Schertler) totes around a ventriloquist doll of the Virgin Mary that she believes is alive.
The show, itself, is an instant success. His new audience fetishizes the poverty and otherness they see in Pecker’s images, ironically objectifying the subjects as if they were fictional characters. He lands a glowing review in the New York Times and a curator from the Whitney calls him a “humane Diane Arbus.”
While his art career takes off, Pecker’s newfound fame drags his family life downhill. Unwanted press exposure begins with the Times calling his loved ones “culturally challenged,” while Memama shows up on the cover of Artforum. Other unintended consequences include his sister being hastily diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder by a Child Protection Services agent and the shuttering of a local gentleman’s club (The Pelt Room) for its promotion of pubic hair. Even his home is burglarized by one of his unwilling subjects, and a cop investigating the crime remarks, “What they call art up in New York, young man, looks like just plain misery to me.”
In one of the film’s few false notes, Rorey sends Pecker a gift in honor of his success—a brand new Nikon camera to replace his trusted, early model Canonet. It’s an unusual gesture, as most self-aware dealers would avoid meddling in an artist’s process this way. And since Pecker’s acclaim grew out of a bare-bones approach to photography, why would she want to change it?
Rorey’s tone-deafness continues as she suggests including a shot of Pecker’s sister sobbing in a special edition for Parkett Magazine. And for his upcoming show at the Whitney, tentatively titled “A Peek at Pecker,” she offers a poster depicting his girlfriend Shelley yelling at him. Shelley really does get upset when she spies Rorey and Pecker kissing, prompting her to scream, “I hate modern photography!”
To even the score, Pecker’s brilliant (really) plan is to cancel his show at the Whitney, and hold an exhibition in a Baltimore bar. This time, the subjects aren’t his friends and family—once gawked at like exotic birds by the art world elite. When the critics, collectors and curators from New York arrive, they see themselves in black and white, magnified to grotesque proportions. What’s beautiful about this table-turning stunt is that each camp seems to realize how they are viewed by the other. It all culminates in a dance party (the ultimate leveling force) and a toast is made to “the end of irony.” Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?