Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Ranking the Greats: The 10 Best Films of John Waters

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014

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:
  


 
#10: Pecker


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.


 
#9: Serial Mom


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.


 
#8: A Dirty Shame


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.


 
#7: Mondo Trasho


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.


 
#6: Polyester


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.


Tagged as: list this
Related Articles
11 Sep 2014
To most, hitchhiking is a terrifying risk taken by the desperate or insane. This makes it a perfect subject for John Waters’ latest book, Carsick.
22 Mar 2012
A cautionary tale for those who dream of making it big, the title says it all. Low Budget Hell undoes the myths of filmmaking and reminds readers that not everyone makes it big in Hollywood, and that not making it is alright, too.
By PopMatters Staff
5 Sep 2011
The final day of directors is here, Josef Von Sternberg through Zhang Yimou. German Expressionism, Dogme 95, contemporary views of Asian life, post-WWII malaise in Eastern Europe, and the alternately heartwarming and queer takes on everyday life in Baltimore all hold a space on today's list. Did we forget your favorite director on this list?
discussion by

Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.