[23 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.
Before Johnny Depp became a billionaire buccaneer, he was making archaic career choices like this. Waters, fresh off the success of the PG-rated Hairspray, wanted to continue to explore his peculiar past, and did so with this mini-musical pitting the cool kid “Drapes” against the white bread “Squares”. With some amazing signature songs and a brilliant cast (including ‘50s icon David Nelson, former kidnapping victim Patty Hearst, and notorious underage porn star Traci Lords), it should have been a massive hit. Instead, it was misunderstood, left to be rediscovered once its star hit the high seas.
While the last act of this film is severely flawed, the opening ten minutes are perhaps the greatest thing Waters has ever committed to celluloid. Severely stressed Peggy Gravel believes the entire world is out to get her, and her rage-inspired rant, complete with nods to Vietnam, are priceless. As a matter of fact, this material is so witty, so well-worked within the confines of Waters world, that you can’t help but get caught up in the dementia. Once we get to Mortville, and an out of her element Liz Renay (a stripper with a definitely diva problem), things slow significantly.
Anyone who is a fan of Waters’ amazing memoir, Shock Value, remembers the story of the Nicest Kids in Town, otherwise known as the Committee of dancers on the syndicated Buddy Deane Show. From the discussion of their look and personas to the steps they mastered, it had the makings of a fantastic film—and in 1988, Waters delivered just that. The PG-rated comedy would come to be the director’s biggest commercial ‘hit.’ The film didn’t do all that well initially, but as the source for a successful Broadway musical and movie, it definitely left its mark.
This was a real toss-up. Many consider this to be the ultimate Waters experience, from the insane set-up (Divine is vying for the title “Filthiest Person Alive” against the nogoodnik couple Connie and Raymond Marble) to the many sickening set-pieces. Yes, this is where bad taste met undeniable art, resonating far beyond the dark dimensions of his previous film forays. Edith Massey’s Egg Lady alone makes up for the many unsettling excesses. Granted, this will probably be the movie Waters is best remembered for. Our number one choice, however, is far more fun…
Imagine everything that makes Pink Flamingos great, and then add in a Charles Manson-inspired storyline about Crime as Beauty/Fame. Season with some of the greatest characters and dialogue Waters has ever created and you’ve got one memorable masterpiece. Though it lacks the shocks of its forbearers, Trouble takes the titles as the filmmaker’s finest hour. It’s also the moment where Mink Stole, a solid player in Waters’ work, comes into her own. As supposedly “retarded” daughter Taffy, her every line is hilarious. But this is Divine’s shining moment in the Dreamland dynamic, and she’s outstanding.