By Kat Shook
John Waters is a punk pioneer who, in his rejection of peace-and-love culture, steered film to the ambits of uncharted deeds, granting screen time to the woe-tales and fables of his native Baltimore’s previously unheard dregs and rebels. As an influencer and creator of independent film in the early’70s, Waters ushered cinema toward an uncomfortable yet relevant existence. He offered “bad taste” to counter the bland “good taste” of conformity. Ultimately, Pink Flamingos (1972), John Waters’ cult tour de force, seated him in a high court position of cult royalty, which led to Hairspray (1988) making Waters a household name.
Over the course of this five-part series, I expect readers who are Waters regulars or some-timers to either reignite or deepen their love for his films. As for the general newbie, I intend to spawn a base interest for his retrospective set and establish a firm admiration for his band of misfit protagonists. Together we shall seek and find deliverance in the garbage bins, gutters, and suburban cracks exhibited in John Waters’ depictions of Baltimore.
“Never judge a person by what they read.” Or watch (implied).
– Beverly Sutphin, Serial Mom (1994)
John Waters films exist with a shitty stigma. His films are described as filthy, gross, repugnant, lowbrow, exploitive, sleazy, nasty, and in poor taste. Even if you have never heard of John Waters, you may find his film trailers, posters, or descriptions daunting or disconcerting. And I want to shatter those initial thoughts and preconceived notions to show that John Waters offers something more—a valid reason to dip the tip.
Within the first five seconds of Mondo Trasho (1969), a spectator will know if the entire John Waters’ catalog was meant for them. The initial scene has a masked executioner with an axe ready and quick to send chickens to their hen-maker, and so, with successive whacks, the executioner does just that. Minutes later, the viewer is thrust into a lengthy, kissy-toes, fetish scene between a man of the streets and a blonde bombshell. Some viewers may find these scenes unsettling and difficult to watch, while others will bend more toward keen on continuation (i.e. those who feel a tickle in that fun, exotic zone between cerebral annihilation and the spectacle of voyeuristic pleasure). Members of the latter are in for a divine, sweet, blood-molasses treat. Folks in the former should STOP NOW and do the mashed potato on over to “The Corny Collin’s Show” in Hairspray.
Do not pass GO to MORTVILLE, and do not collect Cuddles’ inheritance.
(References to a city of despair in ‘Desperate Living,’ and the housemaid character, Cuddles, in ‘Polyester,’ who inherits a lovely sum from a former employer.)
Note: No disrespect intended toward Hairspray. I can list a ton of admirable qualities about that film—confrontation of agoraphobia, domestic terrorism, body positivity, and racial integration to name a few. However, there is an obvious difference between the content in Mondo Trasho and Hairspray, which would be reiterated by the Motion Picture Association’s rating system.
If a viewer consents to go beyond that point, and it is highly recommended that this viewership be consensual, a Handcock scribble of the viewer’s name on a contractual agreement will be necessary and required.
I, ___________, agree to the most profoundly low and abject echelon of sensory assault.
Thereafter, the ascertaining presumption is that you are a visual thrill seeker who would gladly buckle yourself to the kind of rickety, shameful, trash ride that exists within the set of an early Waters’ film. Waters’ brand is pure, unadulterated dumpster filth, and it is those early films that earn him the prestigious title as the Pope of Trash.
A fierce, whipcrack line separates Waters’ early works from his later pieces—undoubtedly as the outcome of bigger budgets, experience, and directorial growth. Some of those later films, such as Hairspray and Cry Baby, vibrate on the side of studio conventions, which makes them a touch more palatable for those dainty and delicately inclined viewers (‘tis but a low pulsating buzz). When seated before those early films (Mondo Trasho, Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living), even in revisiting, there is a series of visceral interrogatives that cannot be squelched: What the hell am I watching? Is it horror? Is it comedy? Is it porn? Does it defy basic logic and the boundaries of social constructs?
And the answer will ALWAYS be a loud, resounding— “YES.”
A decent trash film will offend everyone, and Waters is able to kick the hivemind and shake that trash rattle time and time again. He reveals true horror where it exists—in the audacity of human nature. The conception of his characters’ nonsensical behaviors resides in observation. It is the societally deemed obscenities that we look away from and immoral behaviors that prove difficult for some of us to understand, examine, and repair (where reformation is surely needed)—extremism, division, repression, control, poverty, repulsive criminal acts, etc. Essentially, John Waters refuses to sanitize the corruption that exists despite our folkways, mores, and laws. Instead, he confronts (borderline assaults) his viewers head-on with the brutal, unsavory shit that exists in human nature. In Pink Flamingos, he gives us characters like the mentally ill, but loving, mother, Edie, (played by Edith Massey), who seldom leaves her playpen and has an obsessive penchant for eggs and her daughter/master criminal, Divine aka Babs Johnson, who was named “the filthiest person alive.” These characters step beyond existing for sheer shock value and entertainment. These characters reflect our own relationships and selves (in our flaws, our ability to problem solve, in our illnesses, vices, affirmations, validations, and lauded self-worth).
John Waters delivers a broad satisfaction of our morbid wonders with a venerable display of caricatures and distortions. He affords us the opportunity to resolve a settlement into the most depraved cavities of weird and a justification of that visit. He gives us—chicken sex, rabid bat pus, unkempt bushes, awkward nudity, rosary jobs, coprophagia (flies do it, some lagomorphs do it, 9-to-5ers do it, and in Vladimir Sorokin‘s novel, Norma, everybody does it, as the act is longstanding and mandatory—in laymen’s—it’s chowing down on poops), crybabies, acid injections, saliva curses, Pecker, defective mothers, giant lobsters, paraphilic infantilism, and a cavalcade of perversions. And still, there is more!
Whether you are a connoisseur of the bizarre or just perusing, there is a mysterious, cosmic draw to the movies of John Waters. Waters is a voice for outcasts, a venue for rebellion, and, BONUS, his films are endearing and watchable with repeat watchability. Divine eating fresh dog feces heralds a particular quintessential timelessness, which reinforces the notion that Waters’ shit remains fresh and shocking to this day. His exaggerations of human wickedness help us laugh through our own faults and bouts with darkness and pain. He gifts us a bundle of satire at its best. And I think I could argue that there is a certain wholesomeness and purity to his stories and characters, and undoubtedly, a certain charm.
John Waters’ films offer something more than just sensationalism and salaciousness. There is a distinct aftertaste that lasts past his credits. John Waters produces rubbish with a point (intentional or otherwise) and visuals and characters that stick with you. The man is not making controversial films to simply be controversial. He is challenging his viewers and his critics. He is creating interesting characters with interesting lives in interesting settings. He is creating investments and returns and films that are appropriately inappropriate. His films won’t bite, I swear, they’ll just nibble and tickle a bit.
Pigs of a leather oink together.
Isn’t that how it goes? Or is that an antiquated football reference?
Either way, let’s go and get into it!
Up next, swimming with the Dreamlanders, which lends to a cannonball on Divine.
Kat Shook is a wily writer from the enchanted hills of West Virginia. She has written for as long as she can remember—which is evidenced by the whirlwind trail of scattered and abandoned letters she has left behind. Many moons and gaffes ago, she received a degree in this stuff (B.A. in English/Literature from Concord University in Athens, WV). She has penned several stumbling lines of poetry, a trickle of short stories (non-fiction, horror, erotic, and bizarro), and a few provocative articles on politics and music. Also, she was the editor for My Shrinking Fat Belly: A Surrogate’s Side by Jana Jarrett.
Kat lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which thwarts her mind on occasion. Fortunately, therapy provides her with the tools she needs to stay balanced. Kat is also a social justice warrior who rails against poverty through activism. She volunteers as a mentor for children in her community and is a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. She has been married to her darling wife, Elizabeth, for four years now. They live and thrive together by the Shenandoah River with their pups, Cassette and BMO, as well as their elderly cat, Autumn.
Visit Kat @ www.katshook.com.