By Kat Shook
Dividing John Waters’ films up between his formative, experimental years and his later work feels necessary and smooth in its transition. Waters’ ostensibly built the dam to divide his films himself, Polyester being its foundation (proper with a series of interior Tab Hunter support beams), and the still, calm, murmuring slosh that lay beyond his build are what ends up congealing his arterial, post-midnight career. These later films are the ones that take him from the flickering gutters of cult to the showy, zinging lights over Broadway.
Of course, saying that Waters built a dam implies that he also reeled in his normal chaotic and rebellious gush in order to create a chill, inviting reservoir with potential to be inhabited by all. Right on the other side of that dam, where his initial garbage water ever rages, floats Waters’ mother turd and triumph de filth—Desperate Living (1977). Desperate Living was a culmination of Waters’ pithy morals or lack thereof. He bundled it all in a Baltimore outskirt of harlots, murderers, ne’er-do-wells, and libertine dwellers. Replete with the queen of misery, the nasty ruler of slum-town Mortville, Queen Carlotta, masterfully played by Edith Massey. With refrigerated babies, a bitch being forced to eat dog food, lesbian snuggles, and a bullet-to-the-butthole government overthrow, Waters’ salutes his collection of work in the way that only Waters himself could, but from that nod he shifts and traverses toward something new and a tad more wholesome. Existing in the vein of a soapy family drama, he offers Polyester (1981). Elements of Waters’ past still trickle in, Divine brings her acting genius, and even in a Saturday afternoon drama he gives us nose sweets, porn theaters, and fetishes. Those details are what separates Polyester from a typical, scorned Meredith Baxter flick and what make Polyester standard Waters’ fodder.
The jump from Polyester is relevant to Waters’ career in further solidifying a shift in tone. Seven years passed before he released another film, and in that time, growth and clarity occur in his message and delivery. After Polyester, John Waters presents his mainstream masterpiece, Hairspray (1988), which continues to be revered and beloved today. Divine, still key in Waters’ company, shines and delivers a rock-solid performance as Edna Turnblad, and Ricki Lake, a fresh Waters’ muse, bursts onto the big screen with loads of oomph and pizazz as Tracy Turnblad, the dancing teenage rebel with hair for days. Both Hairspray and his follow-up Cry-Baby take Waters from whispered backroom chats to forefront criticisms and acknowledgement. People did not vomit and walk out of these films, which was either a compliment or a curse. Both films were breathed new life in other iterations including Broadways shows. For many fans, these films are their only interaction with John Waters.
From midnight sight to afternoon delight (an NR to PG ratings shift), the overall vibe in John Waters’ films remains the same. Waters’ keeps the suburban Baltimore feel loyal to his service. He never strays from the setting that appears stitched into his DNA. Baltimore is home, it is familiar, and that territorial and domestic familiarity is conveyed in all of his films. There are other common threads as well—the tactically placed ’50s and ’60s pop and doo-wop tunes and jazzy horn transitions; the subtle, persistent color tones that enforce a signature cinematic palette; his use of retro fonts, uncomfortable, up-close shots of naught-bits and faces; character name alliterations; character line deliveries; and the consistent appearances by Mink Stole that cue us in and let us know, without a doubt, that we are watching a John Waters’ film.
Pecker gives us up close and personal photographs that convey one version of reality and postures that broader supposition that what some call art others call trash. Cecil B. Demented reiterates this rebellion against the suppository of sophistication taken by the art world, which has been, for some time now, infiltrated and tainted by capitalism (Hollywood). Through Demented, Waters’ reiterates the notion that sometimes our most profound ignorance exists in a pretention of knowledge forced on subjective variables. Garnered advice being—best ye forget and destroy what you think you know or what you have been told about art and run flailing and on fire away from those thoughts.
Screw the artworld as it exists in capitalism and screw the status quo.
In his later films, Waters’ calls out bigotry, hatred, religious institutions, and the insanity and hypocrisy that exists in the artworld and beyond. Eventually, Waters’ circles back to deviants and outcasts with A Dirty Shame (2004). As Mink Stoles’ character, Marge the Neuter, says, “It’s not safe out! People are shaving their crotches as we speak. There is pubic hair in the air!” Clearly, Waters’ never abandons his roots, but experience and money are apt to change a person and their perspective. With a net worth that hovers at 50 million, I wonder if Waters ever found it difficult to tap into his filmmaking origins.
A Dirty Shame ends up being a messy film, with sloppy, old-fashioned innuendos, directs, and double-entendres. Bear hags and a dozen apostle-led fetishes help nudge the film forward, but there is something missing from this film. It is hard to pinpoint the missing element(s) or to know if those element(s) were present initially and studio interference is to blame. Either way, one must ask, is there anything worth salvaging at all? John Waters’ employs the comedic brilliance of Johnny Knoxville and Tracey Ullman, which works to his advantage, but there is something to be said for the magic that existed in those original Dreamlander and Divine days. Those characters and actors, at their worst, were endearing. I would argue that there is something of value (laughter) in A Dirty Shame, but this film is never going to be Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble. Without mental instability or mind-altering drugs, it is difficult to recapture the imagination, insanity, and invincibility that can only exist in our youth.
John Waters is funny though, in every feature exhibition—yes, crude, vulgar, and stupid too, but also, significant, and FUNNY. Sure, sometimes he is amusing in the way that farts are amusing, but honestly, farts are amusing—because they are real and repulsive. The truth is this—our gross lumps of animated flesh were so poorly designed that when the internal pipe system breaks down the food we ingest it creates gases which build up then blow from a tiny, fuzzy, central hole located in a crack between our ass cheeks, and THAT is FUCKING HILARIOUS.
I do not think it’s necessary for Waters to summon the perverted demons that archived his early life. He did amazing things then, and he is capable, in a more polished manner, of doing amazing things now. Perhaps Waters works in his later years to keep the dock open for new transgressive visionaries to take the helm. Personally, I think John Waters still has it in him to create something we have never seen before, and one day I’ll write and reflect on that third installment of Waters’ films. Mark my words with a tattoo needle, Waters will continue to take us to little explored, seldom inhabited aphotic zones (deep, deep—where the light can’t reach), and I will continue to forgo light for that dive (besides, it’s where the bioluminescent dildos reside).
* All photo artwork edited/created by Kat Shook. Original images under Fair Use.
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.