Tag Archives: Edith Massey

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

Part I of the John Waters retrospective is here.

Pink Flamingos (1972) made a lightning rod name in the Midnight Movie circuit. He followed up with the last of his underground films—Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977)—to create a trilogy like no other. Pink Flamingos had a budget of $10,000 and grossed nearly $200,000 in its initial run. This enabled budgets of $25,000 for Female Trouble and $65,000 for Desperate Living. Yet, these movies did something far more than just make money—they paved the eventual path for a (somewhat) legitimized John Waters.

Polyester (1981) had a whopping budget of $300, 000, was the first Waters film to garner an MPAA rating of “R” (his previous work had been unrated or slapped with an “X”), and moved Waters’ basic locations from garages, shanty towns and trailer parks to the suburbs. Working for the first time in 35 MM (and with good sound), Waters’ utilizes his resources to superb effect, acerbically penetrating the American dream’s facade. He did not get there by himself. Like Picasso or , Waters steals well. In Polyester, he further enriches the formidable melodrama tradition of Douglas Sirk. Sirk’s influence was first discernible in Desperate Living, although Waters’ films are more forthright (taking nothing at all away from Sirk). Here, with the small town environment at his disposal, Waters models his film’s composition on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). He filters that influence, along with bits stolen from , through his own postmodern sensibilities.

In Polyester Waters invades the suburbs with unwanted minorities, social deviants, anarchists, freaks, and immigrants who threaten WASP property values (one wonders what kind of rise Waters could get out of Donald Trump’s hairpiece). That eclecticism echoes in the casting. This would also be the last film for Dreamland regulars and Cookie Mueller, both of whom died before Hairspray (1988). Along with and , they are cast opposite 50s beefcake (Waters’ nod to Sirk’s use of Rock Hudson). Divine’s performances were progressively improving, and Hunter is a professional “B”-actor; the pair are beautifully juxtaposed against personality driven “Z” amateurs. Hunter exudes middle-aged poster boy charisma and delivers his lines with self-conscious precision (in sharp contrast, Waters always struggled with Massey’s inability to remember her dialogue).

Polyester scratch n' sniff cardNaturally, Waters had to have fun with such a lavish train set, creating a Castle-like gimmick with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff-cards. Polyester was the first Waters film I saw in a theater (at a midnight showing), and although it certainly holds up in home video formats, it is naturally diminished when it loses the cinema-as-participatory-theater angle. In the original experience, 10 numbers were flashed across the screen throughout the film. After Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART TWO

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

To say that is 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).

Roman Candles posterWaters 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 ‘s phenomenally successful underground film Chelsea Girls Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

JOHN WATERS’ MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970)

Multiple Maniacs (1970) was second feature-length movie (his first was 1969’s Mondo Trasho). Shot in grainy black and white, it lives up to its “Cavalcade Of Perversions” tagline. Even for those familiar with Waters’ early work (and everyone should at least sample one of them), Multiple Maniacs may be considered an extreme challenge. Comparatively, Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977) and especially Polyester (1981) might be seen as -styled celebrations of white trash.

Shot on a two thousand dollar budget (Pink Flamingos came in at $5,000 and Polyester, $200,000), Multiple Maniacs opens with the camera panning down credits typed out on white paper.

, as a carny broker, introduces us to Lady ‘s “Cavalcade Of Perversions.” As the locals ready themselves in a canvas tent, Lochary, in best tent revival tone, assures us: “This is the show you want: the sleaziest show on earth. Not actors, not imposters, but real, actual filth. These assorted sluts, fags, dykes, and pimps know no bounds. They have committed acts against God and nature that would make any decent person recoil in disgust.”

These are not mere words, and before we can scream “,” we are privy to a woman licking a bicycle seat, a hippie eating a bra, two men licking the hairy armpits of a topless girl, a Human Ashtray, and two-cent choreography of a naked human pyramid that makes us thankful Adam invented the fig leaf.

Mere warm-up acts: “See two actual bearded queers French kissing! See a heroin addict in Fruit of the Looms, writhing among the leaves… Now I give you Lady Divine.”

After Divine robs the audience and killing one of its members (with a pop gun), Lochary, , and gang cruise and dance to Elvis (without permission to use the music, which is one of the reasons Multiple Maniacs has never been made available on DVD and only appeared briefly on VHS). All that 1950s devil music inspires even more hedonism, and soon Lochary and Pearce are doing the nasty, despite the fact that David is Divine’s lover. Enter to spill the beans to Divine in a phone call.

Hell hath no fury like an oversized drag queen scorned, but before Divine can get her hands on the cheating beau, she is accosted by rival queens. Fortunately,  she is consoled by her guardian angel, the Infant of Prague, who takes Lady Divine by the hand and gets her to the church on time.

With blasphemy rivaling L’ Age d’ Or or Viridiana, Divine gets a “rosary job” from on the sacred pews of St. Cecilia, as the narrative literally parallels St. Francis’ “Way Of The Cross.” Perhaps even more blasphemous than Stole inserting prayer beads into anal orifices is future egg-lady Massey as the virgin Mary, meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary. Like before him, Waters actually knows the orthodox dogma he satirizes, which makes the film effective guerrilla heterodoxy. Multiple Maniacs is Waters’ weightiest, most literal, penetrating, and spiritual film (yes, I said that). Divine (she is divine for a reason) delivers a voice-over narrative: a conjoined, meditative, idiosyncratic homily between actor and director, advocating for the societal outcast forever opposed by the smug, suburbanite Pharisees.

Made at the height of the Manson murders, Waters catapults Divine and Stole into the mayhem that had paralyzed American culture in a frenzy of fear. Caught in a perverse, religious fervor, our heroines are ordained as Waters’ SS Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs of the Multiple Maniacs.  Unlike his country, Waters was anything but appalled. Rather, his brand of faith remained lucid and unwavering.

Still from Multiple Maniacs (1970)You can rest assure that neither the kitsch martyrdom of Dick Burton or Vic Mature included being raped and stigmatized by a lobster on a passion play couch. Perhaps that is the reason Moses forbade shellfish, which actually makes sense in a Waters’ universe. If only the hopelessly self-righteous Cecil B. would have been demented enough to know, he might have spared us those 1950s Hollywood Bible epic pornos. However, given 20/20 camp-value hindsight, perhaps it is better that constipated hypocrite wasn’t in on a Waters joke. Multiple Maniacs may just be seen as a healthy response to a sanctimonious Ten Commandments (1956).

169. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)

“‘Demonstration as theater,’ because then you got the headlines, and then you made your point. And there was a lot of competition for those headlines then [the 1960s]. So, it was theater as protest, certainly, which is something that, until the Seattle riots recently, kids don’t even know about… They know ‘I have a dream,’ they know Martin Luther King, they know Malcolm X, but they don’t know all that weird stuff… this is like a radical movement against cinema, which there hasn’t ever been one, but [laughs]…”–John Waters, Pink Flamingos commentary

Beware

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Danny Mills, ,

PLOT: Divine, winner of a contest to determine the “filthiest person in the world,” has gone into hiding at a trailer park with her egg-obsessed mother, randy son Crackers, and “traveling companion” Cotton. The Marbles, a couple who make a living by kidnapping women, impregnating them, then selling the babies to lesbian couples for adoption, are jealous of Divine’s title, believing they are filthier specimens of humanity. An escalating war of outrageously foul pranks between the two camps eventually results in arson, murder, and consumption of doggie-doo.

Still from Pink Flamingos (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • According to John Waters, neither his own parents (who financed Pink Flamingos), nor Divine’s mother, ever saw the movie; in fact, they were “forbidden” to see it.
  • The film’s budget was $12,000 (about $68,000 in 2014 dollars). It made a reported $6,000,000 in its original run and perhaps an additional $12,000,000 in subsequent video rentals.
  • The movie is dedicated to Sadie, Katie and Les, the Manson Family names of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Leslie Van Houten. During the film you can also see graffiti (painted by the crew) reading “free Tex Watson.” Waters says that the Manson Family and their recent trials were a big influence in this “anti-hippie movie for hippies.”
  • The chicken that was killed during the sex scene between Crackers and Cookie had been bought from a man who was selling them as food, and was cooked and served to the cast afterwards.
  • Waters wrote a sequel to Pink Flamingos called Flamingos Forever; plans to film it were scrapped due to the reluctance of Divine to reprise the role in middle age and the 1984 death of Edith Massey.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Oh my. There is a phrase that was coined for images like those in Pink Flamingos: “what has been seen cannot be unseen.” A naked woman covered in fresh chicken blood, a rectal closeup of a curious proctological case study, and of course the film’s grand finale (and reason to exist)—300 pound transvestite Divine using her gullet as a pooper scooper, gagging down dog dirt with a grin—are all candidates. If we want to chose something less nauseating to remember, we can consider the vision of Divine herself (himself? itself?) as the takeaway image, since this is the movie that introduced the iconic drag queen—a character who looks like Elizabeth Taylor during the “Big Mac” years, if her makeup had been designed by a grateful but seriously stoned Ronald McDonald—to the wider world.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: About a 300 pound woman (played by a man) living in a trailer who is harassed by a couple of “jealous perverts” because she is anointed “the filthiest person in the world,” Pink Flamingos is a parade of hard-to-swallow, tongue-in-cheek perversities played out in an unreal subculture where society’s values have been turned on their head. It’s the ultimate stoned, amoral underground atrocity, an obscenity shouted at the normal world by angry freaks.


Clip from Pink Flamingos

COMMENTS: If you’re not offended by something in Pink Flamingos, then please go see a psychiatrist. The movie’s reason to exist is to shock and Continue reading 169. PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)

DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

If Female Trouble (1975) is John Waters‘ greatest narrative film, then Desperate Living (1977) is his inimitable descent into a surreal, kitsch abyss that few could imagine. Desperate Living is Waters’ personal, alternative universe to the parallel world of Busby Berkeley.  Seen today, Berkeley’s films are a surreal wet dream, a perverse man’s big budget fairy tales.  Waters filmed his perverse anti-fairy tale on a meager budget three years after Female Troubles, although he had substantially more money here than on his previous films. Budget or no, Desperate Living is just as grandiose and epic as anything Berkeley ever produced.

Star Divine was not available due to other commitments so Waters tapped Mink Stole, who more than makes up for the loss (additionally, Waters regular David Lochary died of an overdose shortly before filming).   The film opens with a bang in the form of a brilliant, in-your-face, unhinged preamble from Stole as Peggy, the most delightful sociopath to ever grace the annuls of independent cinema.  Peggy discovers her filthy sodomite whelps playing doctor’s office and goes berserk.  To make matter worse, Peggy’s bore of a husband, Bosley (George Stover) catches Grizelda, their 400 pound maid (Jean Hill), nipping at the jack so he decides to fire her.  Enough is enough, so Grizelda conks Bosley over the head and then suffocates him by sitting on his face.Still from Desperate Living (1977)
Grizelda tells Peggy,  “I am now your sister in crime, bitch!”  Peggy, avoiding the same fate as Bosley, goes along with her former maid.  The coupling of Peggy and Grizelda is comically deranged, literally climaxing with Grizelda forcing Peggy to give her oral sex as she screams out, ‘Eat it! Eat it!”

The two are on the run, and Peggy is disturbed by the surrounding beauty of nature: ” You know I hate nature!  Look at those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen.  Oh, I can’t stand this scenery Continue reading DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

Several years ago I came across a review of John Waters Pink Flamingos (1972) in which the reviewer made the tiresome claim that it wasn’t even a “real” movie (while reviewing it in a ‘movie’ review column).  Such is the power of John Waters to provoke.

Waters admirers seem to be divided into two camps; pre-and post Hairspray (1988 ), although it really was Polyester (1981) that ushered in the new “Waters with a budget.”  Waters certainly lost two inimitable “stars” in Divine and Edith Massey.  While he has never lost his edge, and A Dirty Shame (2005) is a good example of that, Waters post-Polyester films are not mired as steeply in that idiosyncratic Waters’ universe.

John Waters is as innovative a director as Luis Buñuel.  John Waters is as important a director as Orson Welles. John Waters is as true blooded Americana as John Ford.  John Waters defines the word auteur like few others, creating a highly personal look at the world.  It was that personal vision which brought his following to him, and not the other way around.  When John Waters started making films, he did not develop a distribution strategy nor did he factor in who his target audience might be. He simply made visionary art.  Of course, many argue the value of his vision, but it’s the lack of pretense in Waters that is unsettling.  Throughout his body of work, he has been consistently stubborn in his refusal to cater to populist notions regarding pedestrian definitions of art and entertainment.  That said, one finds Waters to be a remarkably narrative director and the 1975 Female Trouble may be his most assured narrative masterpiece.

Still from Female Trouble (1975)Female Trouble chronicles the rise and fall of an American legend, straight from the studio of Jerry Springer (long before Springer existed). Transvestite plays quintessential white trash Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport.  Dawn hates school, her parents, and Christmas, so she can’t be all bad, right?  She’s bad ass enough to run away from home and the parents who simply cannot recognize Continue reading FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)