To say thatis the most polarizing of American filmmakers, even among his own fan base, is stating the obvious. Not even invites Waters’ level of divisiveness. By and large, the cult filmmaker’s canon is split between those who prefer his pre-Hairspray (1988) work and moviegoers who cannot digest the earlier, low budget underground period, and are forced to begin with that crossover film. With the later Waters’ crowd, the consensus is that the director took the shock ’em til you succeed route, and it worked. After that, Waters made legitimate movies. Waters himself seemed to add fuel to that theory with Cecil B. Demented (2000), which took aim at independent (along with conglomerate) filmmaking, although he did not refrain from self-parody or self-critique.
When composer Igor Stravinsky followed a series of seismic, revolutionary works with a reversion to a neo-Classical style, many of his advocates (avant-garde proselytizer Pierre Boulez among them) and disciples deemed him a traitor, literally picketing his concerts. Waters’ earliest fans were far more forgiving of their idol’s mainstream success. Perhaps that is because their prophet is cut from the same pop cloth as an Elvis Presley, rather than Stravinksy’s heritage of European high art. Although Waters would certainly wax amused (at least publicly) at the notion of his work being classified as art, he is no less provocative or innovative than his counterparts in the academic avant-garde. His flair for provocation is born of his time, place, and culture. Waters’ response to his heritage is honest, rendering him an authentic American success story.
By dubbing himself “the Pope Of Trash” in early write-ups in Baltimore newspapers and speaking engagements, Waters himself allegedly gives credence to the argument from the “early film” faction that once the director lost regulars, , and , and experienced authentic critical and financial successes, he merely took the money and ran. The earlier films represent the real John Waters.
For a filmmaker who has always invited polemics, the controversy may be appropriate, but ultimately it proves a distraction in approaching Waters as a viable filmmaker through a substantial body of work that reveals a developing love for narrative. Waters earliest films would not have indicated this.
Like Carla Bley in jazz and Philip Guston in painting, Waters’ earliest works were primarily abstract (surreal, non-linear). Each eventually realized their work was too thematic and moved beyond abstraction into postmodern tenets. Waters’ first effort was the little seen seventeen-minute 8MM short Hag In A Black Leather Jacket (1964). Shot on a $30.00 budget at the age of eighteen, the film was made from stolen film stock courtesy of Mona Montgomery, who starred and was Waters’ then-girlfriend. The narrative reportedly concerns a white ballerina (Montgomery) who discovers a black man (an uncredited actor) in a trashcan. After a brief courtship (with Montgomery being carried around in the garbage receptacle), the two are married by a Klu Klux Klan priest (uncredited) with a drag queen serving as the bridesmaid in a rooftop wedding (filmed at the home of the director’s parents; Waters’ mother also provided the piano score).performs a dance, and the “costuming” included an American flag and tinfoil. Hag In A Black Leather Jacket is one of the few Waters films not to feature . Waters has maintained that it’s best this remains in the closet. Reportedly, many of the shots are nonsensical, and were influenced by arthouse films that Waters had read about (but not seen).
Waters was sent to NYU, but dropped out. His next film was the experimental 40-minute Roman Candles (1966), which featured Waters’ regular crew, the Dreamlanders, including longtime friend Glenn Milstead (whom Waters gifted with the stage name Divine), Lochary, Stole, Pearce, Maelcum Soul, and Montgomery (who again supplied the stolen film stock). It was the first film produced under Waters’ Dreamland Studios banner. Highly influenced by Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE‘s phenomenally successful underground film Chelsea Girls