Waters’ Works

“My ‘roots’? They didn’t have ratings when I first started making movies.”

The morning of my long-anticipated interview with John Waters, I was making my usual rounds on the Internet, visiting the Web sites that I go to once a day. By sheer coincidence, the Internet Movie Database’s daily poll asked what was the best John Waters movie. I was excited at the free fodder I could use for the interview. My guess for most popular Waters film was his 1988 release Hairspray, which is arguably his biggest critical success to date, as well as one of his higher grossing movies, and, of course, was recently turned into a successful Broadway play. I guessed wrong; receiving 46.5 percent of the total votes was the answer, “I’m not a big John Waters fan, sorry.”

“You didn’t tell me that was an option,” Waters chuckled when I informed him of the results—he guessed his breakthrough film, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, would’ve taken top honors. The results of this poll, although discouraging to someone like me, are wholly unsurprising considering that Waters’ films have a tendency to be a little extreme. Something about having your characters raped by giant lobsters (as happens to Divine in 1970’s Multiple Maniacs) or the reversing of sex change operations with a pair of scissors (as Susan Lowe does in 1977’s Desperate Living) tends to alienate much of a film’s potential audience.

Non-fans notwithstanding, the highest-ranking film in IMDB’s poll was 1990’s PG-13 Johnny Depp vehicle Cry-Baby—not surprising, seeing as how it’s trendy to be in love with Johnny nowadays. “More people have probably seen that than any of my movies because of television…[IMDB] doesn’t sound like it’s a cutting-edge independent film thing.” Although I don’t hate his family fare (Cry-Baby and Hairspray), I became a huge fan and remain one today because of Waters’ run of revolting movies from the ’70s, such as the aforementioned Multiple Maniacs and Desperate Living, 1974’s Female Trouble, and one of my favorite films of all time, Pink Flamingos.

For those of you preferring Waters’ ’70s movies to his ’80s or ’90s films, there is good news coming on two fronts. First, A Dirty Shame, Waters’ first film in four years, is currently in theaters. A Dirty Shame has been billed as a return to form for Waters, due to its graphic sexual content and NC-17 rating. Waters is quick to clarify. “My ‘roots’? They didn’t have ratings when I first started making movies.”

Second, Waters himself is coming to Webster University’s Winifred-Moore Auditorium (home of the Webster Film Series) October 29 to speak to anyone who can stomach a screening of Pink Flamingos. Female Trouble and 1981’s Polyester run the following two nights, but Waters won’t available for them. The apparent lack of Waters’ fans is too bad, because now is a good time to be one.

A Dirty Shame centers on Tracy Ullman’s Sylvia Stickles, a sexually repressed Baltimorean who is involved in a traffic accident, gets concussed, and finds that her new head injury leaves her prone to sexual urges, especially those brought on by her savior from the accident, Johnny Knoxville’s tow truck–driving Ray-Ray Perkins. There are other feats of sexual deviancy going on in the background, from Sylvia’s husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak) who wishes Sylvia weren’t so sexually repressed, to her go-go dancing, pendulously breasted daughter, Ursula Udders (Selma Blair). The casting of Knoxville as Ray-Ray is particularly exciting, as it finds the first crossover from Waters’ old-fashioned gross-out of the ’70s to its resurrection in programs like Jackass.

“In a weird Hollywood way, we courted each other,” Waters explains regarding Knoxville’s casting. “Johnny got a lot of other big movies around this time…but he stayed with us, and made sure that he made our movie. He made sure that we did get to make this movie.”

It’s nice to see that Knoxville acknowledges, wants to work with, and ultimately stands by his forefathers in the disgusting. Oddly enough, there is a lot of respect for the elders of the genre in gross-out films, especially Waters. For example, his childhood friend Mary Vivian Pierce has a role in A Dirty Shame, as she does in every single other Waters film, including his little-seen short films from the ’60s (which were just released upon unsuspecting audiences for the first time in almost 40 years at Waters’ recent art exhibit, “Change of Life,” at the New Museum in New York City). If you like trying to spot Pierce Waldo–style, she can be found at the sexaholics meeting—she’s the one who turns around at one point and says, “We don’t judge others here, Madam.” Also included in A Dirty Shame among Waters’ longtime favorites are Mink Stole as Marge the Neuter, Patty Hearst (yes, that one; she’s been on Waters’ team since Cry-Baby), and Channing Wilroy, who is best known as the “rather fertile” servant to the Marbles in Pink Flamingos.

After seeing A Dirty Shame, it’s fun to go back and watch Stole, Pierce, and Wilroy when they had their best Waters roles. Between these three, Mink gets the best role of the films showing in the Webster Film Series’ mini retrospective as the outright iconic antagonist Connie Marble, with her flame red hair (“dyed” each morning of filming using magic markers) and horn-rimmed glasses, spouting such quotables as, “I guess there’s just two kinds of people…my kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fall into,” and, “I love you even more than my own filthiness, more than my hair color.”

Aside from the fact that you will be seeing three great films, there are many more reasons to attend the Webster Film Series’ mini retrospective. Let’s say you’ve seen Pink Flamingos a gazillion times already. Unless you saw it during its original midnight run in the ’70s or at the Tivoli for its 25th anniversary, it is probably a safe bet you have never seen it in a theater, let alone a theater with a sold-out crowd, as Webster is sure to be. Audience reaction is about the only thing capable of making a great film like this even greater—just imagine the shrieks of disgust from the uninitiated. And if you are one of the uninitiated, don’t be scared: remember, this film became as popular as it is today largely because of the communal experience of watching it for the first time with a bunch of high midnight moviegoers. This is about as close as you can come to the original experience.

Female Trouble is a worthy follow up to Pink Flamingos. Polyester, showing Halloween night, began Waters’ digression from the disgusting films that made his career. Even so, it will be great fun to see in the theater because Waters released it with a gimmick as an homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, William Castle—those attending the screening will be given an Odorama card, that consists of ten numbered scratch-and-sniffs, which are to be scratched and sniffed when the film stipulates. Now come on, you won’t get that from renting the video.

Ultimately, the real reason to go, though, is to see Waters himself speak. Anyone who has read his books Shock Value or Crackpot (the latter of which was recently re-released with additional material) knows that Waters is overfull of the best anecdotes ever told, and anyone who was at November 2002’s Human Rights Campaign fundraiser at Windows on Washington (or anyone who has seen the Independent Spirit Awards recently, a regular hosting gig for Waters) knows what a great speaker he is. St. Louisans are lucky Waters has made it to town twice in two years.

Since Waters is arguably the best-known champion of Baltimore, I thought he might have a weak spot for St. Louis because he likes trashy cities. “Didn’t William Burroughs come from there?” was Waters’ first reply when I asked him if his St. Louis fan base was particularly large. “And didn’t Tennessee Williams hate it there?…I have all of these different, weird memories about writers I like having weird or great experiences there, so that’s good enough for me.”

Look Back in Polyester

If I were forced to choose three John Waters films to show to accompany his newest release, A Dirty Shame, and to commemorate his appearance in town, I’d be pretty hard-pressed. Pink Flamingos would make it for sure, but the other two are wild cards. Do you go with Flamingos’ predecessor Multiple Maniacs, with its “rosary job” performed on 300-pound transvestite Divine in a church? Or the first Flamingos follow-up, Female Trouble, where the highlight is Divine raping him/herself? If a print were available, 1969’s silent Mondo Trasho would be a good addition, because it is both reasonably hard to come by, and because it was Waters’ first feature-length film. Hairspray or Cry-Baby would probably draw in larger crowds, but that is a moot point, as it seems likely the films will sell out regardless of which are picked (particularly the one accompanied by Waters himself). Anything post–Cry-Baby would be a waste of time, because they are all readily available on video.

Mike Steinberg, the new programmer of the Webster Film Series, went with Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Polyester, a decision that is hard to disagree with. Pink Flamingos is as John Waters as you can get: the plot involves Divine and her clan warring with Connie and Raymond Marble for the title of “The Filthiest Person Alive,” which is an ingenious vehicle to get to the disgusting scenes and to actually make them correspond to the plot—more than most gross-out films can accomplish. Female Trouble works off of the common Waters theme of crime-as-beauty, with Divine as a teenage runaway who eventually gets knocked up and falls in with Donald and Donna Dasher, who tutor Divine in the ways of crime and beauty. And finally, Polyester is a sort of old-fashioned melodrama, where Divine’s put-upon housewife, Francine Fishpaw, gets humiliated by her amok-running children and cheating husband, until Tab Hunter’s Todd Tomorrow shows up and solves her problems.

Of the three, Pink Flamingos is an absolute classic and milestone of American independent cinema, and is therefore unmissable. Polyester’ll be fun because of the Odorama gimmick, and the movie is funny without it—when else will you get a chance to smell flatulence simultaneously with several hundred other moviegoers? Well, more often than you’d like, probably, but at least this time it will be voluntary and integral to the plot of the film. And as for Female Trouble, if the above mention of the Divine rape scene didn’t sell you, you should still come for the classic John Waters dialogue, such as Divine shouting, “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t even stand it myself!” or for Mink Stole’s Taffy Davenport, Divine’s Hare Krishna daughter who resulted from the rape. And if all of this doesn’t sound like your thing, I don’t want to hear about it; it will be your loss.

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