Retrospective: John Waters

ph. © 1974 WBEI

I’ve seen the best, most receptive minds of my generation, brought up on the wildest experiments straight from the Midnight Madness festival section, give up after clashing with the unbridled imagination of John Waters, and start to yearn for the saccharine world of Disney. 

I’ve seen a certain celebrity who used to regularly promote herself at New Horizons storm out of the screening room, slamming the door and screaming in despair, after only 15 minutes into  Pink Flamingos back in 2011. I bet that this latter response would have elicited a broad smile under John Waters’s impeccably trimmed ‘tache.

This is not only because the genius of cinematic evil from Baltimore simply loves radical reactions to his work, which he once confirmed saying: If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.  What seems even more important is the awareness of what has been the core of Waters’s work for years now, namely the fight against phoniness, hypocrisy and feigned rebellion, with defiance turning into a commercial pose.

Although the movies made by the author of Female Trouble continue to embody campy exaggeration and fancy stylization, they also share a punk-like simplicity, grunginess and respect for authenticity, understood in a particular manner. Waters and his entourage, the crew of oddballs met in the shabby bars and seedy neighborhoods of Baltimore, who christened themselves Dreamlanders, made movies in the same way in which they lived – chaotically, intensely, against the bourgeois morality. However, the works of the author of Polyester would not be half as interesting, nor would have they withstood the test of time so well, had they been limited merely to an angry negation of the existing reality. The most subversive dimension of John Waters’s movies, and also the most dangerous one from the point of view of the defenders of the old order, seems to be their affirmative aspect, proving that it is possible to lead a happy, fulfilled life while living on the margins of society.

In praise of filth

The most complete realization of this strategy is the notorious Pink Flamingos of 1972. Babs Johnson (played by Waters’s long-time friend and muse – the drag queen Divine) and her clique, fine forerunners of today’s trash-streamers, prove with every step they take to have earned their title of the “filthiest people alive”. Stirring up general outrage and arranging ever more elaborate provocations, the protagonist do not forget, however, about mutual care and tenderness. Attention to these qualities makes us grow much fonder of Babs and her nearest and dearest than of their main adversaries – the haughty, privileged, middle-class Marbles.

The apparent ugliness that is in fact masked beauty lies also at the heart of Waters’s Female Trouble (1974). In one of the key scenes in the movie, Dawn Davenport (once again played by Divine) is attacked with acid by her hated rival. Although her face becomes hideous as a result, the woman seems to ignore it, continuing to repeat that she is still beautiful and following her old, hedonistic ways. The liberating dimension of Female Trouble is found in its emphasis on the conventional nature of all canons and in the radical democratization of the right to desire and to be desired. On the other hand, Waters’s film is provocative as usual, but also humanistic and pervaded with a broad understanding of beauty, whose traces the director seeks not in the protagonist’s looks, but in her imaginativeness, originality and bravado.

Bad taste bootlegger

Far-reaching boldness is one of John Waters’s core features. This isn’t just about his willingness to cross new boundaries, but also about his openness towards stylistic about-turns, which has involved an apparent departure from the image of an inveterate scandalmonger. In retrospect, it is clear that the risk the director took in his well-known movie Hairspray (1988) paid off entirely. This nostalgic musical brought him commercial success and led his cinema out of the ghetto reserved for lovers of movie oddities and the handful of intellectuals enamored of the avant-garde. The mass audience received Hairspray warmly, allowing Waters to smuggle some values dear to him into the mainstream, such as tolerance towards otherness, criticism of class and racial prejudice, and resentment of bourgeois hypocrisy. Serial Mom (1994) was no different: a brilliantly simple story about a housewife who loves conservative values so much that she becomes a serial killer to defend them.

The widespread fascination with Waters’s work proved to be as unexpected as it was ephemeral. The Baltimore eccentric’s subversive cinema worked as a seasonal oddity, but turned out to be too independent in its ideas and too unbridled stylistically to consolidate its presence in the mainstream. John Waters has coped with the dwindling interest in his work in his own style – using humor spiked with increasingly discernible notes of bitterness. His late masterpiece, Cecil B. Demented (2000), telling the story of a rebellious filmmaker-turned-terrorist waging war on Hollywood, comes across today as a complaint of an artist who has retained his imagination of old, but has lost his impact on the increasingly conservative reality. No wonder Cecil… happened to be the director’s penultimate effort: he made his last movie in 2004.

Fortunately, however, this doesn’t mean that John Waters has vanished completely from the public space. The American eccentric has been touring the world with his stand-up act, publishing books and giving regular interviews. In the process, he happens to inspire fans not only with his words, but also with deeds. Just like in 2012, when the director suddenly decided to leave it all and hitchhike some 3,000 miles from Baltimore to San Francisco. In Carsick, the book that recounts the adventure, Waters explained it with the urge he felt to lose control over a life planned down to the last detail. It is hard to resist the impression that this desire, intensified by months of forced isolation, is more commonly found today than ever before. It’s time, therefore, to take the first step towards this goal: let’s spend a few evenings with John Waters’s unabashed, cliché-bending, emancipatory movies.


Piotr Czerkawski

Selected Filmography

1972 Pink Flamingos 

1974 Female Trouble

1988 Hairspray

1994 Serial Mom

2000 Cecil B. Demented

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