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Filmmakers John Waters: Shock Value

Monologue: John Waters

Like the movies of John Waters, Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre aims for the gut but often lands somewhere below the belt instead. Mucking around in bad taste like pigs in you-know-what, their work sharpens camp humor to a wicked, razor point while it slyly coaxes us to admit that “the things one takes seriously are one’s weaknesses.” Waters—the man who “cultivates sleaze like a rare orchid” (The Baltimore Sun)—and Ludlum—creator of “theater without the stink of art”—are carnival barkers ushering us into their worlds of “comic heroines who thrive by vice and tragic ones destroyed by virtue.” Though other artists of the era used camp humor (notably Jack Smith and Andy Warhol in New York, Curt McDowell and the Kuchar brothers in San Francisco, Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Germany), only Waters and his collaborators were able to capture the unmistakable odor of Baltimore.

In 1987, shortly after I moved to New York, Charles Ludlum died of AIDS. Michael Feingold’s eulogy in The Village Voice could almost describe John Waters (except. of course, thank heavens, Waters still has a pulse):

“He was not, as has wrongly been assumed by the daily press, an avant-garde artist in the least; he was the reviver and purifier of a thousand traditions that had fallen into corruption, banality, and disrepute. He reinvented the burlesque tradition, the vaudeville and silent-film tradition of physical comedy, the tradition of playwriting as an ongoing conversation with a faithful audience, the tradition or repertory acting.”

With a galaxy of stars as dazzling as any in Hollywood at his studio—fittingly named Dreamland—Waters began to make films that whacked a path through the wilds of vulgarity and led us to a shocking Promised Land. Like David Lochary hawking the charms inside Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of perversion in Multiple Maniacs, Waters exploits the lures of the flesh, our curiosity to peer behind the curtain. (“We got it all and we show it all!”) He’s the insane caterer who serves you a dead rat instead of coq au vin, shocking in his cunning instinct for satisfying an audience’s secret hunger. And he knows a thing or two about giving his leading ladies a proper entrance. In Multiple Maniacs—a miracle of low-budget invention—Divine appears on screen with my favorite first line: “Ricky. Ricky! Bring me something strong, something I can get off on.”

John Waters once described Divine as “an actor who started his career as a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother, which is a pretty good stretch for a 300-pound man.” Gathering a repertory troupe of strange fruit rivaling the Warhol Factory crowd, Waters gave us one searingly vivid character after another. His films share a (fallen) Catholic love of dark ritual and a (comic) theater of cruelty with those of Warhol, though Waters was clearly always more comfortable at home (and in his skin) than Warhol. He didn’t need the chic languor of urban poseurs and celebrated instead the joys of a simpler Americana: land of trailer parks, hairspray, and egg salad.

Unafraid of corny effects or lurid spectacle, Waters produced one indelible image after another. Who can ever forget an exquisitely silly giant lobster having its way with Divine, or Jesus working miracles with canned tuna and white bread? He knows we’ll do a double take at oddballs like Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, and Jean Hill, though on closer examination, Waters has a rare gift for highlighting unique, eccentric beauties. His movies echo the cartoon villains of Disney, the gimmicky terrors of William Castle, or the cinematic gore of Herschell Gordon Lewis, yet are unmistakably his own.

During the brutally hot summer I moved to New York, I visited a friend in Baltimore. Seeking relief from the fetid squalor of his five-floor walk-up, we went on a pilgrimage to the Fells Point section of town to visit Edith Massey’s thrift shop, Edith’s Shopping Bag. Like many a devotee before us, we were heartbroken to discover that she had died in 1984. On the train ride home, he gathered nervous stares mimicking her dialogue as the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos. While my friend loudly explained to no one in particular the meaning of coprophagy while imitating Divine eating a dog turd, I shrank in my seat. He sniffed at my prudishness, in much the way that John Waters, during an interview, dismissed a reporter’s questions about Divine’s infamous stunt in Pink Flamingos with a wave of his hand: “I mean, he brushed his teeth immediately. It wasn’t like he walked around.”

─Tom Kalin

Tom Kalin is a member of the faculty in the Film Division at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His first feature film, Swoon, won the Caligari Film Prize at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival. His writing has appeared in publications including Filmmaker Magazine, Aperture, Artforum, the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, and Us. He has also taught at Yale, Brown, and the California Institute of the Arts.

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