Tag Archives: John Waters

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 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 Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE

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).

CAPSULE: CRY-BABY (1990)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Amy Locane, , Polly Bergen

PLOT: A “drape” with the ability to cry a single tear on command falls for a “square” girl in 1950s Baltimore.

Still from Cry-baby (1990)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you stacked John Waters’ movies with the weirdest on top and most mainstream on the bottom, there’s a good chance Cry-Baby would be making up the foundation.

COMMENTS: John Waters’ first movie after the 1988 death of his muse continued his retreat from the trashy outrageousness of the Pink Flamingos era into the nostalgic PG-13 rated camp represented by this and Hairspray. Cry-Baby is a nostalgic, light-hearted parody of 1950s juvenile delinquent movies, with a couple of musical production numbers thrown in almost as an afterthought. The plot is a simple star-crossed riff on West Side Story/Grease, with sexy Amy Locane as the good girl longing to be bad and Depp as the type of sensitive hood that made teen girls in poodle skirts feel things they had never felt before.

As usual in a Waters movie, the casting is half the fun. At the time, Depp was a small screen teen idol whose career arc showed little promise. Although cast because of his heartthrob status—his campy line deliveries as Cry-Baby (which sometimes sound like Elvis acting at his best) don’t allow him to really stretch his talents—Depp’s presence in a John Waters movie did telegraph his intent to gamble on oddball roles, and made casting directors look at him in a different light. As far as supporting players and cameos go, look for real-life bad girl Traci Lords as a pouty teen; Susan Tyrrell and as Cry-Baby’s reprobate roadhouse grandparents; Troy Donahue, , , Joey Heatherton, and former brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst as the older generation of drapes; and as a “hateful guard.” Ricki Lake, as a 50s version of an unfit teen mom, is piggish (“I’m so happy all knocked-up!”), rather than sympathetic as intended, but little-known Kim McGuire (or at least her makeup) makes quite an impression as the aptly-named Hatchet Face. There are so many eccentric minor players jostling for time onscreen that there’s no time for real characterization, which keeps Cry-Baby faithful to the movies it’s parodying, at least.

As a lightly magical realist comedy, Cry-Baby is fairly successful, although of course many Waters fans will miss the nasty grit of the trashpile 1970s movies. In 1990 the Eisenhower-era satirical targets are stale, but there are some amusing moments in the script, topped by an orphanage that’s run like an animal shelter, with children behind glass waiting to be adopted. “She’s Caucasian,” drawls the patrician orphanage matron in regards to a darling eight-year-old girl playing house in her cell, “but that’s about all I can recommend.” In terms of oddnesses, look for a baby cradle festooned with deaths heads, an easily spooked cow, and a “helpful” sewer rat.

Like all of Waters’ post-Hairspray work, Cry-Baby lost money at the box office. Waters regained his “R” rating with his next film, 1994’s Serial Mom, and abandoned his brief experiment in family-friendly entertainment. Depp, of course, went on to greater weirdness, starring next in ‘s Edward Scissorhands before moving on to Certified Weird performances in Dead Man (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“John Waters at his most accessible — which is still really odd.”–Rob Thomas, Capital Times

I AM DIVINE (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Jeffrey Schwarz

FEATURING: (archival footage), , Frances Milstead

PLOT: This documentary chronicles the life of Glenn Milstead, from a chunky effeminate nerd who got beat up at school to the iconic, outrageous and obscene 300 pound drag queen Divine, the main attraction in John Waters’ transgressive early comedies.

Still from I Am Divine
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As a straightforward documentary on a strange guy who just happened to star in some pretty weird movies, it’s purely supplemental material.

COMMENTS: One of the biggest questions raised by I Am Divine is, do you refer to Divine as “he” or “she”? John Waters, the foremost living authority on the subject, always refers to Divine as “he,” probably because when he thinks of Divine he thinks of Glenn Milstead. Other interviewees are inconsistent, swerving between gender pronouns. Divine, the foul-mouthed three-hundred pound harridan in clown makeup, is clearly a she, while the performer who portrays the character is clearly a he. There isn’t much conflict in this haigiographic documentary that means to celebrate Divine’s life and legacy, but to the extent that there is, one of the two key tensions is the one between she and he, between Divine and Glen. Divine swallowed Glen, and he was unable to escape her mighty maw and forge the independent career as a male character actor that he desired. (The other important conflict, which occurs more on the surface level, is between Glen and his parents, who initially reject him as a freak, then touchingly reconcile late in life).

I Am Divine does a fine job of shrinking this giant career down to a ninety minute snapshot. It’s thorough (even fitting in Divine’s brief stint as a disco diva) while remaining fast-paced and succinct. The John Waters years are covered in detail, and some may appreciate the clips of rarely seen pre-Pink Flamingos films like 1968’s Eat Your Makeup (with Divine as Jackie in an incredibly tasteless recreation of the Kennedy assassination). Although little is revealed here that will shock Divine’s hardcore followers, there are a few surprise tidbits for casual fans: salacious stories suggesting that Milstead’s appetites for sex and pot may have rivaled his love of doughnuts, and scenes from his live show that demonstrate his talent for Don Rickles-styled improvisational insult comicry. Milstead was large enough to have his own gravitational pull (his image even dwarfed a character like John Waters) and some of the movie’s most revealing insights involve Divine’s satellites. Belated credit is given to Van Smith for creating the arch makeup that defined Divine, and the curious will learn the sad answer to the question, “whatever happened to Dreamlander stalwart David Lochary?”

Divine is inspirational to gays for obvious reasons, but the character’s appeal crosses the sexual orientation line. Divine is appealing because she represents the triumph of the misfit, the ugly, the loser. As Waters points out, Divine takes everything that people laughed at Glen Milstead for—his effeminacy, his weight—and “exaggerated it and turned it into a style.” Divine proves that “undesirable” traits can be turned into assets when they’re embraced rather than hidden away, which is a powerful solace to anyone who feels like an outsider forced to pretend to be normal.

I Am Divine was a Kickstarter success story, raising over $50,000 (of a requested $40K) for post-production and licensing costs. Hundreds of names of fans who paid $10 or more for the privilege appear in the seemingly endless credits. Given that the film was made explicitly “BY and FOR” Divine fans, nothing appears here that is too penetrating or negative. The reverential interviews and clips meet, but don’t exceed, your expectations for a documentary about Divine. Still, true priests and priestesses in Divine’s peculiar cult of trash camp will eat this movie up like Divine eats… well, you know.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shows how the future John Waters muse transformed from an isolated, weird kid into an over-the-top, proudly freakish star… a striking tribute to the pioneering spirit, radical queerness and sheer divinity of Divine.”–Ethan LaCroix, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

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)

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents. Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie of the same period. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner. But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos) because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Celine Danhier

FEATURING: Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, ,

PLOT: This documentary examines the “No Wave” and “Cinema of Transgression” film

Still from Blank City (2010)

movements and their connections to performance art and punk rock in New York City circa 1977-1985.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s purely a supplemental feature for your weird movie education, giving background information on a significant underground DIY film movement.

COMMENTS: “It felt like our lives were movies,” says Debbie Harry early on in Blank City. “It was very cinematic.” Perhaps this explains Celine Danhier’s choice, which earned her criticism in some quarters, to place the focus more on the filmmakers than the films in this documentary. Based on the No Wave film clips which illustrate the story, this was the correct angle to take on the material. Most of the “greatest hits” Super-8 highlights consist of grungy hipsters smoking cigarettes in grainy black and white, or walking around dirty East Village streets in washed-out, home-movie color. By contrast, the Bohemian lifestyle the filmmakers fondly recall—sharing $50 apartments in burnt out tenements with cockroaches, shooting on the street on the spur of the moment whenever they could assemble a crew, sneaking into locations to film without permission or permits, and heading off to CBGB’s after a hard day of scraping together footage to drink and dance the night away while a pre-fame Blondie or Television played on stage—is a lot more interesting. The No Wave scene flourished during New York City’s downbeat phase, when the burg was deep in debt, full of abandoned buildings, and riddled by crime and heroin abuse (basically, the New York of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The city in the late Seventies was nasty and dangerous, but for nouveau-beatnik types it offered cheap rent, cheaper Super-8 film stock, and the company of like-minded free spirits. Although it grew out of the ashes of the previous New York avant-garde exemplified by and Jack (Flaming Creatures) Smith, movement godfather Amos Poe explains that this wave rebelled against the Continue reading CAPSULE: BLANK CITY (2010)