A young man named Pecker (Edward Furlong) begins snapping photographs of his fellow Baltimore denizens, capturing their grotesque beauty in a gripping yet seemingly artless fashion. He becomes the next big thing in New York City's art world, celebrated as a naïf genius. Everything is hunky-dory, until Pecker's notoriety begins to distort everything that once inspired him, and he starts to question the nature -- and inherent value -- of celebrity.

It's not hard to see the autobiographical parallels to the life and career of Pecker's writer and director, John Waters. But a lot has changed -- for Waters and America -- between the time he made his gross-out touchstone film, Pink Flamingos, and the point when it was declared a contemporary classic worthy of a reverential 25th anniversary re-release last year.

As Waters moved gradually into the mainstream with movies like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, the mainstream has moved toward him. The trash aesthetic has ascended -- propelled by tabloids, talk shows and White House sexual peccadilloes -- so that American popular culture is now in sync with John Waters' freak show sensibility.

So what is the king of schlock supposed to do, now that he can no longer shock? Return, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to innocence. Waters creates a very specific tone with Pecker, one that walks a fine line between satire and guilelessness, and treats the most bizarre social digressions with isn't-that-cute acceptance. In fact, everyone in Pecker's circle is quite content with their lot in life, until they view themselves through the fish-eye lens of the media.

Pecker is defanged Waters, but still funny on its own terms. It has just grown more difficult -- if not impossible -- to make fun of a society that's hell-bent on self-parody.

It's also telling that while Pecker himself rejects the cult of celebrity, John Waters embraces it. Perhaps the most shocking thing left he can show America is heiress-kidnap victim-bank robber Patty Hearst doing a bar-top striptease. As one of his characters toasts, here's to the end of irony!

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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