Waters your limit?
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This is what happened when I tried to wipe all the crusty junk and dust off my keyboard without realising that my cursor was still flashing in this text-box. I was going to just chuckle slightly to myself and delete it, but then I had a thought – and the thought was this: Smut!
What you’ve just witnessed is art born out of smut. It’s definitely art because I italicised it and framed it in quotation marks. There is an idea circling around out there, typically amongst the older members of the population, that somehow art and entertainment must be tasteful in order to be important. Well I’m here to argue the opposite, tasteless art is often the best kind! In fact, isn’t that kind of what proper art should be? It ventures into territories that are considered taboo and, yes, tasteless in order to shift the boundries of whats acceptable. Da Vinci, Picasso, Elvis, and The Beatles have all been considered tasteless at some point – now we consider them legends in their field. To prove this point to you even further, I’m going to introduce you to the 20th century’s king of smut. It’s the emperor of filthy filmmaking! It’s…
Who’s heard of John Waters? Oh come on, someone out there must have. He’s an american national treasure!
Alright, it’s ok if you don’t know who this man is. He is, after all, a cult filmmaker. I don’t mean cult as in Heavens Gate, I mean cult as in he’s responsible for directing several low budget films with very…um…particular themes, which have resonated with a small specialist crowd over the years. Not only that, but he also only ever sets his films in Baltimore, his home town.
The best way of really explaining it all to you is by starting at the beginning…with one of his earliest and most notorious films…
…Pink Flamingos! Were it not for the poster one might think it sounded like a Disney musical, but please don’t show this to your kids…pleeeease! Waters only had 10,000 dollars to play with, so like any good young wannabe filmmaker at the time – he accepted his limitations and utilised the tools at his disposal whilst understanding that any given audience would want to see something new. Keep in mind that this was 1972, so the bar for “new” was much lower than it is today.
With the help of his own personal gang of friends, nicknamed The Dreamlanders, John put together what can only be described as a mash of depraved imagery, bizarre random sexual acts, perverted misfit characters, horrendous acting, human excretion, animal cruelty, transsexuality, excessive nudity, and endlessly uncensored language all forcibly wrapped around a twisted misshapen dildo of a story. How’s that for an endorsement? Watch this one with your parents for extra awkwardness. Pink Flamingos was banned in both Australia and Norway, both my home countries. It’s good to know that my combined cultural heritage found this particular piece so offensive that they tried to wipe it from my perception. No chance! If you tell me something is vile and illegal…you can be damn sure I’m going to track it down.
I was going to post the plot of the movie here, but…there isn’t really much point. It’s too incidental, so instead I’ll just say this: If you ever find yourself sitting at home bored with the world, feeling desensitised to regular entertainment, and want to push your viewing habits over a cliff just for the hell of it…try a dose of Pink Flamingos and call me in the morning.
There’s a common rule of scriptwriting which goes like this: Audiences will not be sympathetic or possibly even interested in a character who is simply a victim of their environment. Dire circumstances must at least occasionally be the result of a failure or poor decision the character has made.
Considering that Polyester is one of Waters’ most successful films and yet completely breaks this rule, it’s making me rethink everything I know. In this film Francine Fishpaw (beware googling the meaning of that term) is a wife and mother who literally loses everything at once. Her husband, son, and daughter all abondon her and she is left to be comforted by her mentally-retarded friend Cuddle Kovinsky. Oh, and I should mention that she’s completely entranced by odours. Hey, it doesn’t have to make sense…it’s John Waters.
This is the point where some of you may jump up a little in your seats. Yes, the original 1988 version of Hairspray is a John Waters film through and through. Written and directed by the pencil-thin-moustache man himself, it marked a significant shift in his career. Clearly at some point Waters grew a little tired of making trash, and decided he would explore some of his other passions in a more…normal way.
Naturally, being John Waters, he structured the first of these experiments around the issue of racism and segregation. So we’re not getting too mainstream here, Waters would never allow that. He made sure of it by casting one of his favourite Dreamlanders, the drag queen entertainer Divine, as Tracy Turnblad’s mother; Edna. Fans of the musical-remake may remember that the role was updated in 2007 with John Travolta instead. The Travolta version creeped me the fuck out, but to be honest the Divine alternative isn’t much better. Either way you look at it, it’s still a man pretending to be a woman and expecting us to just believe it.
What is noteworthy in the original, however, is that the role of Tracy Turnblad is portrayed by a very young Ricki Lake. Ricki would turn out to be another favourite of Waters, and he continued to use her in many of his films since then.
Did you like Grease, but think it would’ve been better with a bit more…Johnny Depp? Well, John Waters has provided us with exactly that. Cry-Baby is Waters’ loving parody of teen musicals with bad-boys and good-girls.
Johnny Depp plays Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, an irresistable rebel with perfect hair and even more perfectly formed tears shaped by the inner turmoil of his conflicted soul. His gang of disfigured outcasts, The Drapes, are self segregated from the rest of the community, The Squares. Walker naturally falls in love with a Square, Allison Vernon-Williams, who is “just so sick of being good” – thus propelling the plot further into a postmodern parodical place.
Legend has it that after Johnny Depp found success as a lead in 21 Jump Street, various media companies attempted to exploit his good looks and brand him as a teen-idol. Depp therefore went out on a tirade to try and ruin that image entirely. He coincidentally bumped into John Waters, who told him “stick with me kid, I’ll destroy that in five minutes!”. He certainly made good on his promise, and Johnny Depp’s career has made some interesting twists and turns ever since.
Here we go! Now this just happens to be my favourite John Waters movie of them all. Maybe it’s because of the subject matter, but to me it’s also the funniest one. The poster and title probably give most of this away, but what the hell…
Kathleen Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, a housewife with one unique quality…she solves her neighbourhood disputes with bloodshed! This movie is like a more blatantly comedic version of American Psycho with Patrick Bateman replaced by sweet-tounged mother. If you’re a fan of Desperate Housewives then you just may like this one, as the tone is similar.
Made one year prior to the release of Scream, it has many of the same self-referential genre-based in-jokes in it and even cross-casts Matthew Lillard as Beverly’s slasher-film obsessed son. It also explores the relationship between celebrity-culture and murder, serving as an eerie precursor to the O.J. Simpson case of 1995 and reminding us all about the media attention given to Charles Manson.
Ultimately, though, it just taps into one of our deepest and most un-admitted shameful truths; don’t some people just piss you off so much you’d love to grab a knife and fuckin’ cut em!? We’ve all had the thought, all of us.
Continuing his obsession with celebrity, Waters depicted it outright in Cecil B. Demented; a film about a mental group of wannabe-filmmakers who kidnap a famous star and force her to execute bank robberies while in front of the camera.
Waters’ opinion on the subject is clear-as-day on screen, as is the glaring question of whether the main character is altering her inner character…or just experiencing Stockholm syndrome.
And so, after dabbling in both the ultra-obscene and the perfectly decent, John Waters’ legacy comes full circle with A Dirty Shame.
At home in the territory of sex, John Waters comes back into his element. A Dirty Shame follows the inhabitants of Harford Road, who experience a bizarre outbreak of head-trauma induced sex addiction. Slowly but surely every character in the film is turned into a humping, heaving, sweating, erotic mess. It’s not just regular sex either, it’s proper freaky sex! Anything and everything you can think of within the realm of human copulation is discussed in this movie. If you somehow didn’t know the meaning of the term ‘tea bagging’ before, you will after you get done watching this.
So that’s it, my pick of recommended John Waters pictures. The reason I think I like John Waters is not just because he plays with obscenity and filth, but because he’s so open. Nothing you ever ask John Waters will ever make him look at you funny, because for him…there are no taboos. How could you possibly shock John Waters? Come on, of course you can’t. The other wondrous thing about him is his approach to life. John Waters is a laugher. He pokes fun at everything and attacks it with a big bright grin. I’ve always felt like I could be friends with John, even though I’ve never met him. He just seems like the sort of person who’s incredibly easy to get along with.
Please watch the following video interview with John Waters, from 1990, to hopefully give yourself a sense of just how funny and grounded John Waters is. I pray that it makes a fan out of you.
– Rant Over!