The 100 Essential Directors Part 10

Josef Von Sternberg to Zhang Yimou

by PopMatters Staff

5 September 2011


John Waters

John Waters
(1946 - present)

Three Key Films: Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1983), Hairspray (1988)

Underrated: The third and final film in Waters’ “Trash Trilogy” (the other two being Pink Flamingos and 1974’s Female Trouble), Desperate Living (1977) is notable for two reasons: it rivals the outrageousness of Pink Flamingos and marks Waters’ first time working with a formerly scandalous lady, Mobster Mickey Cohen’s moll Liz Renay (he would later provide roles for two other infamous women, Patty Hearst and Traci Lords). This is Waters’ second most successful attempt at making the viewer feel like they are watching a dress-up play date populated by freaks and social misfits, with tastelessness substituting for coherency. Whether one enjoys torture, unconventional sex scenes, and sex change operations and reversals, it’s hard to get Desperate Living out of your mind; Waters’ signature sense of humor being in particularly strong form helps a lot too.

Unforgettable: Most people who know the name “John Waters” have at least heard of the scene from Pink Flamingos that marked him as a Trash God. Since its notoriety is almost unmatched, let’s provide the slightest of details here—it involves drag queen Divine and something that came out of a dog. That it works as somewhat of an epilogue to the film gives it the feel of Waters saying, “You know what? This movie—with its sex with chickens, cannibalism, and incest—still isn’t tasteless enough. What will really get people talking?” It did, and they still are.

The Legend: If one’s sole knowledge of Baltimore, Maryland were gleaned from television show The Wire and John Waters’ films, that person would be right in thinking of Baltimore as a broken and deranged place. While the former provides a much more serious look at a city than the latter, it can be argued that both have given exposure and granted humanity to those on the fringes. Few things are more heartening than the fact that Waters managed to foist a plus-sized drag queen upon the mainstream, as he did so successfully with Divine. That Waters is such a strong advocate for gay rights and in opposition of censorship proves there is more to him than shock value and an affinity for kitsch.

During his childhood in a Baltimore suburb, Waters became so entranced with puppets that he staged horrific versions of Punch and Judy at the birthday parties of friends. The young Waters also spent plenty of time watching drive-in films via binoculars, and these—as well as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman—had the greatest influence on his own filmmaking.

After dabbling in short films throughout the ‘60s, Waters ended the decade with Mondo Trasho (1969), his first feature. In 1972, Waters made his first big splash with the now legendary Pink Flamingos and directed a number of other trash epics before edging closer to the mainstream with 1981’s Polyester (his first film to receive an R, rather than X, rating) before going full-throttle with Hairspray in 1988. The film made history as Waters’ first and only to be rated PG, and also became his most successful and well-received feature overall.

Following Hairspray, Waters’ films attracted big names such as Johnny Depp (1990’s Cry-Baby), Kathleen Turner (1994’s Serial Mom), and Melanie Griffith (2000’s Cecil B. Demented), but still kept their Baltimore roots and featured the odd Dreamlander, the name Waters gave to his cache of regular players (among them, Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce, who have appeared in every Waters film). While not always successful, Waters has never released a film that has failed to dignify his Baltimore roots. Of his beloved city, Waters has said, “You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.” Somehow, John Waters has made us feel privileged to be in the company of such eccentrics. Maria Schurr


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