A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE

Previously on 366 Weird Movies…

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 1

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 2

And now, today’s feature presentation…

After a two-year hiatus, returned to the big screen with Cry-Baby (1990), a nostalgic follow-up to Hairspray (1988). Although commercially a flop, Cry-Baby was mostly a critical success and did better overseas. Eventually, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby spawned a Broadway musical. Its mix of camp, sweet-toothed cynicism, and 50s nostalgia are ripe for choreographic treatment, and “Cry-Baby, The Musical” has seen two revivals. It seems inevitable that a big screen adaptation is not far off.

1994’s Serial Mom was a 13-million dollar budgeted cousin to 1974’s $25,000 Female Trouble (probably Waters’ best film). Like Cry-Baby, and every post-Hairspray Waters’ film, Serial Mom lost money, barely making back half of its cost. Like , Waters hones in on the white picket fence, not-so-discreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. His recipe calls for equal parts exploitation, celebrity crime spree, and satire on the hypocrisy of American etiquette, all on a Martha Stewart endcap display, dripping with battery acid.

In Serial Mom, Waters shifts the focus of horror away from doublewide trailers and into suburbia. Naturally, that change of palette has been criticized for taking away Waters’ edge, but this is hardly the case. Waters presents Serial Mom in a visually acceptable package, but even mainstream audiences knew it to be a facade, which is why it lost money. It is easy for middle class WASPS to jeer at and mantle an attitude of superiority towards low income Baltimore Catholic trailer trash. Hell, that approach was the appeal that filled aisle seats in all those midnight showings and made Waters a cult icon. However, nothing is more unnerving than a mirror, which Waters brandishes to his audience, and nothing is resisted like the reflection of hypocrisy.

Still from Serial Mom (1994)Star Kathleen Turner is a virtuoso as Betty in this quintessential parody of suburban family values. She should have received an Oscar for her performance as a matriarchal Norman Bates (could Norman have slaughtered Philistines so creatively with a leg of lamb, to the song ‘Tomorrow’? ) Alas, she was not even nominated in a year of woefully lame Academy choices. This ranks as one of her best performances, and the best acting in any Waters film.  A toe-licking dog (choregraphed to a VHS scene from Annie), a son masturbating to , a noisy infant doused in snot, some swooning to Barry Manilow, and Waters’ fetish for courtrooms can only be topped by killing Patty Hearst for her Labor Day blasphemy.  American  freedom is realityTV, baby. 

Four years passed before studios gambled on Waters again. With a decreased budget of 6 million (it took in 2 million), Pecker (1998) is Waters’ portrait of the artist as a young man. Pecker () is a photographer with a penchant for lesbians, cockroaches, fornicating rodents, and middle class Baltimore as his subjects. He comes by this perspective honestly. His fashion-wannabe mom () operates a thrift store; girlfriend Shelley () is a laundromat stain goddess; and Big Sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) MCs at a gay strip club. There’s also sweet-toothed little sister Chrissy (Lauren Hulsey), shoplifting BFF Matt (Brendan Sexton) and a granny (Jean Schertler) with a (sort of) talking Virgin Mary statue. As to be expected in Waters, Pecker’s worldview (or lens view) garners protests from the status quo, until a gallery success changes everything. Pecker leaves his sandwich shop job, becomes a pretentious New York City artist, and transforms from a “pecker” (so named because he pecks like a bird) into a bona fide prick. Furlong has charm, but since Waters is a woman’s director, Ricci steals Pecker’s thunder, Plimpton steals the film, and Patty Hearst and make cameos. Meanwhile, Waters exploits Waters.

With Cecil B. Demented (2000), Waters filters his Patty Hearst fetish through a satirical homage to the business of cinema. Waters’ budget increased to ten million here, but the film took in less than a million, which is only apt for such a endearingly jumbled endeavor. Waters’ writing skills are unbottled here as he crafts valentines to everyone from and Russ Meyer to , , and , while simultaneously taking aim at every hypocrisy in sight. Much like Jim Morrison taking his hippie followers to task, Waters knocks the indie filmmaking mentality off its self-assigned pedestal, but not without genuine love.

Stephen Dorff plays the title character (the name being an obvious play on that most sanctimonious of classic filmmakers, Cecil B. DeMille), but again the male lead is upstaged by the heroine (or anti-heroine) Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith). Cecil is a guerrilla filmmaker who exacts revenge on commercial Hollywood when he kidnaps superstar diva “Honey” and forces her to star in his indie film. Shades of ‘s King Of Comedy abound.  Honey sees the light and, like Patty Hearst, renounces her affluent life, joining the cinema terrorists in their revolution to destroy multiplexes, sequels, and Hollywood itself. Hearst herself appears as a mother to one of the terrorists. Since Waters is more concerned with narrative here than film aesthetics, Cecil B. Demented is intentionally amateurish.

However, Waters’ multifarious obsessions parallel the film’s kinetic pace, and it gets away from him. He has gone full circle here, from his genesis as an outlaw to the present day, both loving and loathing the strange trip. Admirably and authentically anti-PC, Waters flips the bird at status-quo complacency, which includes bourgeois tastes (teargassing housewives at a showing of Patch Adams).

Ricki Lake returns as Honey’s much-abused assistant, but the surprise here is Alicia Witt as ex-porn star Charity, who provides the film’s delightfully dirtiest vignette, describing a Christmas past gang bang. Melanie Griffith revels in self-parody, and her performance commands attention in a muddled mess that is still more honest and worthwhile than most mainstream successes.

While the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame (2004) was seen by some as a return to form, it was Waters’ biggest box office loss to date (costing 15 million and making only a million). Apparently, this was the final straw for studio investors. Waters has not made a film in the eleven years since.

Tracey Ullman stars as Baltimore suburbanite Sylvia Stickles. She’s married to dull hubby Vaughn (Chris Isaak) and hasn’t had an orgasm in years, until a concussion from a car accident transforms her into an unhinged ho, receiving muff diving lessons from a phallic Jesus under the moniker of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville). In one of the film’s off-the meter-vignettes, the duo’s antics send nursing home witnesses into straight-line mode.

Still from A Dirty Shame (2004)A Dirty Shame channels and Chesty Morgan in an all-out, full-frontal assault on the puritan religious right (who would of course arrogantly interpret that as an assault on God). This time, the theme is sexual revolution, and the Neuters, heading the Decency Squads, are unquestionable villains.

Selma Blair as Ursula Udders joins Ullman in Waters’ exhausting full-throttled “there’s no place like home” trip. Mink Stole and Patty Hearst again return for cameos in what may be Waters’ coda. That would be regrettable, but A Dirty Shame would serve as a damned fine coda, succeeding where Cecil B. Demented faltered.

Although John Waters has not made a film in eleven years, he did produce Kiddie Flamingos in 2015. It is a video shot for his show at the Marianne Bosky Art Gallery. It is exactly what it sounds like: children doing a table reading of Waters’ Pink Flamingos (minus the dirtiest parts). An excerpt can be seen in this New York Times article. Make of it what you will.

One thought on “A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE”

  1. I haven’t seen it in many years now, but “Serial Mom” remains one of my favorite John Waters films, if only for the amazing performance, as you noted, of Kathleen Turner. Sort of reminds me of the flashy, trashy turn as China Blue she did in Ken Russell’s film “Crimes of Passion” (1984)

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