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 (1966), Roman Candles is completely non-linear. This collage of random, kinetic, punk imagery features Divine as a male party guest playing hide and seek, Soul chain-smoking in priestly drag, Pearce attacked by a man (Bob Skidmore) brandishing a fan, religion, sex, the Wizard of Oz, and nods to rock and roll drug culture.  Although Roman Candles has never been released separately, it was part of Waters’ recent “The Change Of Life” exhibit, shown via three simultaneous projections with an equally absurd “soundtrack” featuring an excerpt from an interview with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. It delightfully wears its experimental nature on its sleeve.

Eat Your Makeup (1968) was Waters’ first 16mm effort. It edged (barely) towards something resembling a narrative. Divine dons drag to play Jackie Kennedy in a bizarre re-enactment of the John Kennedy assassination. Soul (in her last role—she died of an overdose a few weeks after filming wrapped) is the nanny who kidnaps virginal girls (perhaps a nod to ‘s The Corpse Vanishes) and forces them to model themselves to death for boyfriend Lochary. The humiliation includes making the poor girls eat their makeup. Like Roman Candles, Eat Your Makeup was later screened in a traveling exhibition.

Barley more than a minute of footage survives from Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead (1968), which features Pat Moran as Dorothy. It is available on YouTube for the curious, but tells us little about the film (which also featured Soul as the Wicked Witch).

Mondo Trasho (1969) was Waters’ first feature film (shot on a $2,000 budget, financed by Waters’ father). It also is the earliest of his films that is relatively available (it was briefly on home video). This primarily silent, dissonant fairy tale begins with a triple decapitation of chickens, followed by a bleached-blonde Pearce as a dolled-up Jean Harlow type, a Cinderella of the Baltimore gutter. She feeds a few insects in the park and gets a “shrimp job” (John Leisenring sucks her toes) before being run over by Divine as a 370 lbs. Marilyn Monroe driving a Cadillac. Divine loads our comatose Hollywood Babylon heroine into the car. Sho’ nuff’, Divine is visited by the Virgin Mary and Tinkerbell (musically cued in by a snippet of Little Richard) who bestow divinity on our favorite transvestite and the gift of a wheelchair for Cinderella. Lo and behold, our protagonists are thrown into a loony bin where Mink Stole dances topless. The Blessed Mother reappears (accompanied by Tinkerbell) inspiring Divine, Lochary, Stole, and the asylum lunatics to all start speaking in tongues. Divine (that’s Lady Divine now) takes Cinderella to Dr. Coathanger (Lochary again, cued in by Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring). Doc amputates, replacing our virgin’s gams with chicken feet. In what may be the most jaw-dropping finale in the history of cinema, Lady Divine and Cinderella are chased by a herd of pigs (a -worthy reversal of Christ’s casting the demons into swine) and Divine is martyred, becoming our new savior. She (sort of) ascends into heaven as Our Lady and Tinkerbell declare her divinity. The postlude is a tribute to Freaks, with Pearce subbing for Olga Baklanova.

Still from Mondo Trasho (1969)Waters has expressed dissatisfaction with Mondo Trasho, saying it would have worked better as a short. He is probably correct, but this mix of mythology, fairy tales, religion, ism, and is far more original (and unforgettable) than Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway attempt at a similar fusion with “Into The Woods.” Unfortunately, Waters could not secure rights to the film’s smorgasbord of music (Elvis Presely, Judy Garland, Pat Boone, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Frank Sintara, Jo Stafford, Bill Haley & The Comets, Ike Turner, Wilson Pickett, Chet Atkins, Jim Nabors, and Mae West), leaving it officially unavailable for the time being.

The Diane Linkletter Story (1969) was shot quickly, shortly after the suicide of its subject, but never released. Art Linkletter and his wife unquestionably exploited their daughter’s death (she reportedly jumped out of a window under the influence of LSD, although the autopsy revealed she had no drugs in her system), going on a highly publicized campaign lecturing on the evils of drugs and the hippie generation—which amounted to a posthumous berating of their dead offspring. Naturally, Waters considered this an open invitation to respond. Divine plays Diane arguing with Lochary and Pearce (as her hypocritical, sanctimonious parents) before the big leap to becoming street pizza. Bootleg copies have appeared on video and the Internet. It is as fabulously trashy as it sounds (and essential Waters).

Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) are all covered individually on this site. It was with Pink Flamingos that Waters found a pulse for exceptionally strong narrative, which made him an icon for the Midnight Movie circuit. Female Troubles may be his most accomplished, funniest work, and Desperate Living his most surreal.

Next Week: Part Two will begin with Waters’ first “A” budget film, Polyester (1981), and will proceed to his most recent, A Dirty Shame (2004).


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