If asked, most people would probably be able to identify a moment in their own personal history when a film has changed their lives. Film can affect change in so many ways, and perhaps some of the most dynamic and powerful ways this can occur is in the way the projected image can manage to bypass the screen and become imprinted on our psyches, attached to the skin. This is the viral nature of film, its ability to spread a kind of ‘dis-ease’ within our body and mind. The one film that changes our lives becomes a breathing part of the self that alters the way we relate to the apparatus of film and our forever unstable conception of self.
The film that did this for me was John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974). Made a year before I was born, I didn’t actually see Female Trouble until 1988. I was 13-years-old. Browsing the shelves of the local video store, I was drawn to the video because its cover art announced “Warning: This movie is gross”. Accompanying this “warning” on the video box was a caricatured drawing of Female Trouble‘s two stars, Divine and Edith Massey. While watching the film later that day, I discovered that both Divine and Edith Massey were every bit the grotesque caricature suggested by the video’s cover design.
How I managed to sneak the R-rated film out of the video store, I’ll never comprehend.
Collection: Daniel Mudie Cunningham
John Waters began making films in 1964, the same year that Susan Sontag penned her landmark essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”. This is a notable cultural moment because, while Sontag’s ideas have been refuted or extended by many cultural critics, there was a general consensus that a camp sensibility was alive and well in the arts. Of course, this camp sensibility could be interpreted in any number of ways, but Sontag claimed that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration…”
Perhaps a better fitting definition of Waters’ brand of camp is one that is defined by the filmmaker himself in a 1997 episode of The Simpsons. Titled “Homer’s Phobia”, Waters makes a guest appearance as a collectable junk store owner called John. Upon visiting his store, Homer asks John why a “grown man” would collect such junk, and John replies:
JOHN: It’s camp!
Homer looks back at John with a blank expression, not comprehending what he means.
JOHN: The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic.
HOMER: Oh yeah, like when a clown dies.
JOHN: Well sort of, but I mean more like inflatable furniture or Last Supper TV trays or even this bowling shirt…
HOMER: And that kind of stuff is worth money? … You should come over to our place, it’s full of valuable worthless junk.
This dialogue from The Simpsons plays into the way Waters’ camp aesthetic playfully celebrates “valuable worthless junk”. In many respects, this view of camp echoes cultural critic Andrew Ross’ argument that camp is primarily concerned with reconstituting history’s trash as treasure. Ross perceives camp as a delight in that which is considered culturally outmoded. He writes: “The knowledge about history is the precise moment when camp takes over, because camp involves a rediscovery of history’s waste”.
Waste is one of the recurring themes of Waters’ films, and is depicted on screen as something that is often corporeal. Waters delights in demonstrating how shit, vomit, puss, mucus, saliva and other such bodily fluids can be a rich source of material from which to develop a cinematic language for the white trash body. Part of the appeal of Waters’ films is that they belong to the category of low camp. As Waters states, “I’ve always tried to please and satisfy an audience who think they’ve seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies”.
The greatest irony of John Waters’ career is that he has ended up loving and being loved by Baltimore, the town he initially tried to infuriate. From being the most disgusting filmmaker in the world, Waters has become something of a local hero, venerated for bringing an element of glitter into an area not known for its star-spangled potential.
This “local hero” status was certified on February 7, 1985, when it was proclaimed “John Waters Day” in his home town of Baltimore by the presiding mayor. Despite such accolades, Waters has also become more generally an icon in American cinema. As Sarah Hampson notes, “He is the iconoclast who has become an icon; the anti-establishment voice who has become an institution”.
Unique to Waters’ aesthetic is the way his trash imagination celebrates the marginal and excluded; his films elevate white trash above all else. But Waters is not really concerned with white trash characters who are unaware of their trash status, and in effect think they have good taste. Rather, Waters constructs his white trash characters as pioneers of bad taste. Of course, not all of his characters are white trash; one notable exception is the later inclusion in Desperate Living and Polyester of an overweight African American character (Jean Hill) who played variations of the maid and gospel minister archetypes respectively. But it is largely a white trash population that inhabits Waters’ cinematic universe.
In his book Shock Value, Waters writes: “To understand bad taste one must have very good taste”.
Waters’ films always reflect his extensive and obsessive knowledge of film, and they are often heavily influenced by a diverse range of film culture sources. Hailing from a middle-class family in suburban Baltimore, Waters consumed films with a feverish regularity. This education included the ‘high-brow’ spectrum of the film world (Fellini, Godard, Fassbinder and Bergman), coupled with ‘low-brow’ underground and exploitation genres. Among the (supposed ‘low-brow’) directors that influenced Waters are: William Castle, whose corny horror films were value-added with on-site gimmicks; Herschell Gordon Lewis, who pioneered the low-budget gore genre; Russ Meyer, whose sleazy oeuvre lasciviously coupled dumb hunks with busty broads; Kenneth Anger, who spearheaded the underground movement with his homoerotic paeans to motorbikes, comic books and cruising; Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, whose deadpan glamour and superstar chic revolutionised pop culture; and George Kuchar and Mike Kuchar, whose Douglas Sirk-inspired melodramas were so incredibly lurid in colour and design it was enough to make your eyes water. It was Waters’ avid consumption of marginal American exploitation genres and underground film movements that share a commonality with – and gave rise to – the practice he was to develop.
Waters’ first films were short, black and white and filmed on stolen 8 mm stock. His first film Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) featured his long-time friend and collaborator Mary Vivian Pearce. According to Waters, the film “is about a black man and a white girl’s … wedding on the roof of my parents home. He courts her by carrying her around in a trash can and chooses a Ku Klux Klansman to perform the wedding ceremony”.
As Waters and his Dreamlanders mostly hailed from Baltimore, it seemed the logical setting for the films, and one which was invariably emphasised. Baltimore was – and still is – the ideal backdrop to his trash epics because it is, in his opinion, “Trashtown, USA, the Sleaziest City on Earth, the Hairdo Capital of the World”.
The three early films – Hag, Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup – have never received distribution, mostly due to the fact that Waters prefers describing their contents, and keeping them under lock and key. The circulation of myths that inevitably attends such unavailable or rarely seen products transforms these earlier efforts to legendary status. Mondo Trasho (1969) was Waters’ first feature, and often considered his first film because, unlike earlier efforts, it is widely available. Moreover, it was the first to star Divine in a lead role, which imbues the film with an increased cult value. Mondo Trasho was filmed in 16 mm and was only interesting for the way it picks up where Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) left off. Scorpio Rising was notable for its images of motorbike-obsessed beefcake who cruise one another to a soundtrack of popular rock and roll songs such as “I Will Follow Him” and “Blue Velvet”. The ironic use of such music emphasises the way sadomasochistic imagery can, in some contexts, be a spectacle of camp.
Unlike Scorpio Rising, Mondo Trasho‘s narrative is only ever mock-erotic. Among many other things, Mondo Trasho features a “foot-shrimper” who delights in licking Mary Vivian Pearce’s feet, and Divine fantasising that she has picked up a nude hitchhiker. The soundtrack adds an ironic layer, rendering these self-consciously ‘degenerate’ or ‘perverse’ acts as humorous, rather than erotic. Even though it is attenuated by camp performances and a low-budget trash aesthetic, Mondo Trasho is primarily played for laughs while Scorpio Rising encourages a certain degree of visual pleasure (particularly for gay viewers).
Following on the shrimped heels of Mondo Trasho was the short film The Diane Linkletter Story (1969) which Waters describes as an “improvisational joke”.
Filmed in 1969, but completed the following year, Multiple Maniacs stars Divine as Lady Divine, a petty criminal who believes she is “the most beautiful woman in the world”. Lady Divine and her boyfriend Mr David (Lochary) use their carnival “The Cavalcade of Perversion” as a front for crime. The cavalcade would lure audiences into gawking at “puke eaters”, “real life queers kissing on the lips”, junkies shooting up, and pornographers at work. At an unsuspecting moment, Lady Divine would trap the stunned audience and steal their money and drugs. With Multiple Maniacs Waters’ cheekily attributes the recent real-life murder of Sharon Tate to the fictional characters played by Divine and Lochary. During filming, however, Charles Manson was arrested so the film was rewritten to discount the cast’s involvement in the Tate murder. Multiple Maniacs is perhaps most famous for its blasphemous content. In one scene a “religious whore” (Mink Stole) fucks Divine anally with a set of rosary beads in a cathedral, while reciting the stations of the cross.
Beneath the grotesque drag personae of Divine was a young overweight drag performer, Harris Glenn Milstead, who Waters christened Divine in the mid-1960s. It is in the “rosary job” scene of Multiple Maniacs that the religious connotations of Divine’s name are parodied. The “rosary job” sequence in Multiple Maniacs is often cited as the most obscene moment in a John Waters movie, however, the juxtaposition of a ridiculous and over-theatricalised sex act with the rituals of Catholicism underscores the way religion can be likened to theatre. After committing mass murder in Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine experiences a frenzied spiritual awakening: “I am Divine!” she melodramatically screams, realising she has earned the right to be Divine. Moments later she is raped by a huge mechanical lobster, suggesting that Divinity has more in common with surrealism than spirituality.
These early films achieved a cult status in Waters’ home town of Baltimore, where they were screened to sold-out audiences in cafes and, ironically enough, Catholic churches. But it wasn’t until his next feature, and the first in colour, that Waters was to achieve universal acclaim and notoriety. Pink Flamingos is the story of Divine (played, of course, by Divine), a shock-fetishist who reigns in underground circles as “the filthiest person alive”. Having adopted the pseudonym, Babs Johnson, Divine lives in a trailer in Baltimore with her son and lover Crackers (Danny Mills), her “travelling companion” Cotton (Pearce), and her “retarded”, egg-obsessed mother (Massey). On the other side of town lives Raymond and Connie Marble (Lochary and Stole), a middle-class couple who have declared war on Babs in the hope they will become “the filthiest people alive”. Raymond and Connie aren’t your average middle-class couple: they sell drugs to school children and run a black market baby-selling ring. After kidnapping young white girls, they force their gay butler (Channing Wilroy) to inseminate them, and keep the girls imprisoned in a grotty cellar for the duration of their pregnancy. Once the babies are born, they are sold to wealthy lesbian couples.
Babs eventually wins the “filth” war when she personally convicts the Marbles of “assholism”, and then executes them in front of a crowd of gawking reporters. After executing the Marbles, Babs qualifies her filth status by eating dog shit. The scene occurs in a single take so that the audience will be convinced that Divine actually performed this shit-eating stunt. Waters has defended the authenticity of this scene in numerous interviews as well as his own writings: “And yes, for the thousandth, for the millionth, for the trillionth time, Divine really did eat dog shit at the end of the film”.
In Pink Flamingos filth is primarily represented through Babs/Divine’s crimes, a theme explored further in Waters’ next film Female Trouble (1974). In this film Divine stars as Dawn Davenport, a career criminal whose life is represented from high school juvenile delinquency through to her death in the electric chair. Divine also plays a male character, Earl Peterson, to whom Divine falls pregnant after running away from home. The scene in which they have sex is carefully choreographed to appear as if Divine is fucking herself, even though a body double was used for this scene. When Dawn demands money from Earl, he exclaims, “go fuck yourself”. Due to Divine’s dual casting, Dawn had already “fucked herself”. Earl’s words reinforce just how “fucked” Dawn’s situation has become now she is now pregnant, broke and homeless. Dawn gives birth in a cheap hotel without medical assistance and, thereafter, supports herself and her daughter Taffy through money raised from petty crimes.
While Divine’s character in Pink Flamingos inhabits the fringe of culture, commits her crimes on the sly and is rarely malicious, Dawn is self-centred and will do anything to become a star. Dawn marries an equally self-centred hairdresser called Gator (Michael Potter), and after a time he starts preferring his tool kit to Dawn. Gator’s lesbian Aunt Ida (Massey) resents Dawn because she would rather Gator was gay. Upon meeting elite couple Donald and Donna Dasher (Lochary and Pearce), Dawn’s career in crime finally takes off. They transform Dawn into a “crime model” by taking photos of her committing various crimes to prove their theory that “crime is beauty”. The Dashers gradually brainwash Dawn into believing that “crime enhances one’s beauty; the worse the crime gets, the more ravishing one becomes”. When Aunt Ida throws acid in Dawn’s face in a fit of rage, the Dashers convince Dawn that her glamour is enhanced due to the criminal act that led to her scarred face.
Waters’ next film Desperate Living (1977) did not star Divine (though the part of Mole was originally written for Divine). During this time, Divine was appearing in an off-Broadway stage show called Women Behind Bars which eventually travelled to London. The success of this show led to another called The Neon Woman which played in New York, San Francisco, Provincetown and Chicago. To add to this, David Lochary died from a drug overdose just before Waters was to begin working on his follow-up to Female Trouble.
Desperate Living continues his oddball fascination with crime. Set in an over-ripe kitschy location called Mortville, Desperate Living features an ensemble of criminals, outcasts and deviants who are forced to submit to the fascist monarchy of Queen Carlotta (Massey). Stressed out middle-class Baltimore resident Peggy Gravel (Stole) and her black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) escape to Mortville after they “accidentally” murder Peggy’s husband.
Like his earlier films, Desperate Living continues to align camp and trash, though arguably on a grander, more realised scale. One review of Desperate Living claimed, “[Waters] remains the visionary of camp and the den mother of the bizarre. The film is a triumphant example of the most vital bad taste in America”.
Desperate Living was the last film Waters made in the 1970s, and was also the last where he employed self-conscious attempts to shock and outrage his audiences through comedic means. After Desperate Living Waters softened his direction somewhat because he realised audiences expected to be shocked, and they would inevitably be disappointed. Though his films in the 1980s and 1990s were less obsessed with shock value, they continued to explore the well-traversed themes of crime, fashion, celebrity, gender and sexual perversion (or subversion) and were still occasionally infused with scatological humour. Waters also maintained a camp/trash aesthetic in these later films, though it was more polished than his earlier 1960s and 1970s efforts.
Desperate Living was followed by the suburban housewife melodrama Polyester (1981), which starred Divine, Edith Massey, Hollywood ring-in Tab Hunter, and some of the regular Dreamland group. Divine played Francine Fishpaw, a Baltimore housewife who is dumped by her husband and despised by her children. Her ideal suburban life becomes a living nightmare and she develops a drinking problem to escape from a succession of rather outrageous scenarios that threaten to drive her insane. Polyester was Waters’ last film with Edith Massey who died from complications relating to diabetes in 1984.
Waters did not make another film until the successful mainstream crossover Hairspray (1988) – his last with Divine who died only weeks after its premiere in Baltimore. Included in his autobiographical book of musings, Crackpot (1986), is a piece called “Ladies and Gentlemen…The Nicest Kids in Town!”.
Hairspray was followed with Cry-Baby (1990), Waters’ musical homage to 1950s juvenile delinquency, starring Johnny Depp in the lead role. In 1994 Waters made the delicious black comedy Serial Mom. Like Female Trouble, Serial Mom explores the often tenuous link between criminality and celebrity by satirising serial killers who become media spectacles. The titular character of Serial Mom is Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), an unlikely serial killer housewife whose career in crime reaches an all-time high when the rights to her story are sold for a Hollywood film. Serial Mom also featured Sam Waterston, Mink Stole, Ricki Lake and Suzanne Somers.
In Pecker (1998) the eponymous character’s nickname derives from having pecked at his food as a child. Pecker (Edward Furlong) is a cheerful amateur photographer who photographs the eccentricities of his working-class family and Baltimore community. When Pecker is first discovered by a New York art dealer, Rory (Lili Taylor), he is transformed into an art world star because of his apparent “outsider” sensibility. Back home, however, his friends and family feel exploited and irritated by the attention. As Pecker’s mother (Mary Kay Place) remarks, “some people don’t feel like being art”. Pecker’s pictures are reproduced on the cover of Art Forum, and earn him the approval of various art critics and renowned photographer Cindy Sherman (who appears in the film as herself). Unfortunately, the unexpected attention turns his Baltimore subjects into white trash caricatures, caught in unguarded moments or acts of crime. Among Pecker‘s large ensemble cast were well-known actors Martha Plimpton, Christina Ricci and Brandon Sexton III.
Waters’ last completed film was Cecil B. DeMented (2000), a satirical look at cinema terrorism and guerrilla filmmaking. Ambitious underground filmmaker, Cecil (Stephen Dorff) kidnaps famous mega-bitch Hollywood actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to star in his underground film. One of the most inspired bits of casting here was the inclusion of Patricia Hearst in a small role. Having also featured in Waters’ other films Cry-Baby, Serial Mom and Pecker, Hearst is better known as the newspaper heiress who was kidnapped and brainwashed by a radical terrorist group who forced her to rob a bank and spend some 50 days in a closet. As it turned out, Hearst was convicted for grand theft and served two of a seven year term in prison until her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. Hearst plays mother to one of Cecil’s co-conspirators. Cecil B. DeMented was an ambitious project that included more stunts, car chases, and pyrotechnics than Waters had ever used before and featured a large ensemble cast of emerging young indie actors like Alicia Witt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Greiner and Larry Gilliard Jr.
While Cecil B. DeMented was Waters’ last completed film at the time this piece was being written, his career is by no means over. Apart from also being a prolific lecturer, art photographer, and author of several books, Waters is set to embark on a new feature. Slated for a 2004 release is his latest trash epic A Dirty Shame. Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti and Johnny Knoxville have signed-on to star in this production alongside Dreamland regulars Mary Vivian Pearce and Patricia Hearst. Variety reported that A Dirty Shame will be produced by legendary producers Christine Vachon and Ted Hope. The film, which is about a sex addicted convenience store owner, has been described by Waters as being about “one family’s cosmic descent into sexual dementia”.
- I am referring here to the Australian Palace Home Video release of Female Trouble. Year of release for the Australian video release is not provided on the cover design, but I can safely assume it was sometime in the early 1980s.
- The R-rated classification is specific to the Australian release of Female Trouble. In the USA, Female Trouble was classified NC-17.
- Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” , reprinted in A Susan Sontag Reader, London & New York, Penguin, 1983, p. 105.
- Dialogue transcribed from The Simpsons episode “Homer’s Phobia” (episode # 8.15) by the author. This episode originally aired in the USA on February 16, 1997.
- Andrew Ross, “Uses of Camp” in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, London & New York, Routledge, 1989, p. 151.
- John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981 (reprinted 1995), p. 2.
- Mark Kermode, “Pecker” [review], Sight and Sound, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, p. 51.
- Sarah Hampson, “King of the Golden Age of Trash”, The Globe and Mail, April 5, 2003.
- In June 2003, Hairspray won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Actress.
- John Waters, 1981, p. 2.
- John Waters, 1981, p. 41.
- John Waters, 1981, p. 76.
- Gus Van Sant, “Pink Flamingos” [review], The Advocate, April 15, 1997, p. 40.
- John Waters, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, New York, Vintage, 1983, p. 126.
- John Waters, Trash Trio: Three Screenplays, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988 (reprinted 1996), p. ix.
- John Waters, 1988, cited on book cover.
- John Waters, 1981, p. 167.
- John Waters, 1983, pp. 88–100.
- Buddy Deane died at 76 years of age on July 16, 2003.
- David Rooney, “Waters Talking ‘Dirty’”, Variety, June 10, 2003.
- David Rooney, “Waters Talking ‘Dirty’”, Variety, June 10, 2003.
- Kathy Bail, “John Waters: From Sleaze to Tease”, Cinema Papers, no. 70, November 1988, pp. 16–18.
- Daniel Mudie Cunningham, “Eat Shit and Die”, Sydney Star Observer, June 11, 1998, pp. 10–11. [on the Australian censorship debate relating to Salo & Pink Flamingos].
- Colin De Land, “A Conversation with John Waters”, Parkett, no. 49, 1997, pp. 6–13.
- Mark Huisman, “Pure Filth”, Sydney Star Observer, April 1, 1999, p. 13.
- John G. Ives, John Waters, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992.
- Bernard Jay, Not Simply Divine, New York, Fireside/Simon & Schuster Inc., 1994.
- Mark Kermode, “Pecker” [review], Sight and Sound, vol. 9, no. 2, 1999, p. 51.
- Chuck Kleinhans, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody”, in Moe Meyer (ed.), The Politics and Poetics of Camp, London & New York, Routledge, 1994, pp. 182–201.
- Emanuel Levy, “The Pope of Trash – John Waters” in Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film, New York & London, New York University, pp.74–82.
- Laura Miller, “In the Public Domain”, HQ Magazine, Jan/Feb 1999, pp. 58–61.
- Frances Milstead, My Son Divine, Los Angeles, Alyson Publications, 2001.
- Cookie Mueller, Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings of Cookie Mueller, introduction by John Waters, London & New York, Serpents Tail, 1997.
- Cookie Mueller, Garden of Ashes, New York, Hanuman Books, 1990.
- Cookie Mueller, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, New York, Semiotext(e), 1990.
- Robrt L. Pela, Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters, Los Angeles, Alyson Publications, 2002.
- Liz Renay, My Face For the World to See , reprinted with introduction by John Waters, Fort Lee, NJ, Barricade Books, 2002.
- Jeremy Russell, “Offensive Art (Marilyn Manson and John Waters)”, Bad Subjects, no. 34, October 1997.
- Jack Sargeant, “Aural Celluloid: Ten Brief Notes and Observations on Underground Film and Underground Music” , reprinted in Cinema Contra Cinema, Belgium, Fringecore, 1999. pp. 27–32.
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little-Understood Emotion (written with Michael Moon)”, Tendencies, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1993. pp. 215–251.
- Richard Smith, “John Waters: No More Mr Nasty Guy”, Gay Times, February 1999, pp. 30–36.
- Mark Spratt, “John Waters: Good Bad Taste”, Cinema Papers, no. 42, March 1983, pp. 18–21.
- Jack Stevenson, Desperate Visions: Camp America: The Films of John Waters and George & Mike Kuchar, London & San Francisco, Creation Books, 1996.
- Gus Van Sant, “Pink Flamingos” [review], The Advocate, April 15, 1997, p. 40.
- John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1981. Reprinted 1995.
- John Waters, Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, New York, Vintage, 1983.
- John Waters, Trash Trio: Three Screenplays, New York, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1988. Reprinted 1996.
- John Waters, Director’s Cut, New York, Scalo, 1997.
- John Waters and Bruce Hainley, Art: A Sex Book, London, Thames and Hudson, 2003.
Essay for the Great Directors series by Senses of Cinema
Published by Senses of Cinema, issue 28 in 2003.