He was born to a pair of highly conservative parents. As a child, he spent hour after hour playing the fantasy gore game “car accident” and as a teen he tended to hang around the undesirable element in his ‘50s high school. By college age he was a first class shoplifter, a bohemian troublemaker, and a fledgling filmmaker. By the time he hit his twenties, he pooled his resources and his friends. Suddenly, Dreamland Studios was born, and John Waters was a director. Today, he’s the acknowledged Prince of Puke, a man whose humor has influenced countless generations of outsider artists. From There’s Something About Mary to the many faces of Apatow, he’s the inspiration for and the King of gross out gags.
So with his birthday this week, we thought we’d revisit the Waters canon, concentrating on his full length features. Granted, we have automatically removed one from consideration (we just don’t like Cecil B. Demented) and have avoided almost anything pre-Pink Flamingos (with an exception). Also, this is just a ranking of how we see the man’s career, not some universal declaration of good and bad. As a matter of fact, Waters has had one of the most consistent oeuvres of any recognizable auteurs. Because they are always built on his singular vision, his work remains instantly discernible…and accessible. You just have to have the stomach for it, even something as innocuous as the first title on our list:
Though it represents one of the few times that Edward Furlong proved his otherwise questionable acting mantle, Pecker‘s proposed satire subject, the snarky New York art scene, wasn’t necessarily ripe for Waters’ brand of humor. It was too inside, too insular. The result was a weird amalgamation of gross out gags and local Baltimore color (mmmmm… pit beef), topped off with ancillary characters that often overshadowed our title character and his talent. Still, as a gentle reminder of what made the filmmaker infamous, this oddity is uneven if still excellent.
The casting of Kathleen Turner was genius. The slant on the sickness inside suburbia, however, was done a lot better in Waters’ wonderful Polyester. Still, this is a funny and fresh take on the tired tenets of the horror spoof. Much of the material—and many of the references—are ridiculously fun (Turner’s curse-laden obscene phone calls, the shout out to Chesty Morgan) and the narrative precepts are tweaked enough to avoid cliche. And yet you can see Waters trying to work “clean”, to translate his bad taste conceits into a mainstream setting. It almost works.
It seems odd that after nearly three decades making movies that more or less consistently comment on our carnal nature, Waters would finally find time actually address Eros outright. Considering the cast he managed to round up—Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair—he was definitely mining for gratuitous gold. The final film is a decent dive into the salacious subconscious of our society. Especially effective is the subtext which suggests that everyone is a potential pervert, if given the right blow to the back of the head. A real regressive hoot.
For many, this was the movie that marked Waters emergence as a full-blown filmmaker. While shorts like Eat Your Makeup and The Diane Linkletter Story were experimental in both form and narrative, Mondo told a story… sort of. The main thread features soon to be superstar Divine riding around Baltimore in a hilarious go-go inspired pant suit made out of gold lame. She runs over and kills someone, resulting in a series of dialogue-less hallucinations. As a stepping stone to what would be his breakthrough, Pink Flamingos, Mondo is essential. It’s also extremely entertaining.
This was the jump into the big leagues. This was the moment when Waters eccentric wit was positioned to become part of the mainstream. Too bad it happened at least 15 years before the Farrellys would mine his mayhem for their own over the top comedies. With Divine doing his/her greatest frazzled housewife and a closeted Tab Hunter playing the local lothario, all that was needed was a bit of the old Waters wildness and all was right at the end of the cul-de-sac. The bizarre arrived in the form of real life punk Stiv Bators… and Dreamland regular Edith Massey as an aging debutante.