Trash Talking: John Waters Exposes Himself!!! (Metaphorically, in Sight and Sound)

August 18, 2015 in General

In the latest Sight and Sound (September 2015), kitsch gay US film director John Waters (1946- )appears in an issue oriented toward “trash cinema.” Born in Baltimore, Maryland, John Waters was a misfit from an early age- apparently, he had the usual negative Catholic gay childhood experience with sadistic and bitter nuns, which turned him against organised authoritarian religion, consensus morality and community standards. For those of us around before the nineties, think Patricia Bartlett.  When he encountered the Village Voice and reviews of experimental cinema in New York, his interest was aroused and his fate was sealed. He found his way through an eclectic array of films, from Ingmar Bergman, Andy Warhol, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Werner Rainer Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk and Kenneth Anger on the one hand, to nudist camp shorts and cheap horror flicks on the other. On the way toward his own underground cinematic career, Waters met one Glen Milstead, a portly drag queen who became one of his superstars as Divine (after a more decorous outlaw drag queen in Jean Genet’s work). This was some time before gay liberation, so drag queens were concentrated in the poorer areas of Baltimore and rubbed shoulders with organised crime. Waters gained assistance from the Teamsters union while manufacturing his distinctive work.

Divine trooped through his early work such as Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972) , Female Trouble (1974) and Polyester (1981) , which featured her as  a profane, transgressive figure capable of mutilation, murder, and definitely not integration into heteronormative society. Waters identifies it as protopunk, aimed at other gay misfits as well as outlaw bikie groups, and deliberately designed it to frighten gentler hippie souls.  Inevitably, there were some problems with the Maryland State Board of Censors after one Catholic official, Mary Avara, viewed the unfortunate use of a rosary in a decidedly unorthodox manner and banned Multiple Maniacs, resulting in a court case, the negation of that action and high dudgeon from Ms Avara.  Ironically enough, though, he was perversely fascinated by stories of pre-Reformation Catholic mortification, self-degradation and other forms of extreme behaviour amongst certain Catholic saints.  [Hah! What about fundamentalist Protestants if you want kitsch? Some of them are quite surreal and bizarre in their own way!- Craig] Because his fifties Catholic primary and secondary education was so repressive and because the pro-censorship Catholic Legion of Decency tried to control everything Catholics viewed or read, he despairs about what he sees as conformist elements within today’s LGBT community.  His own work hasn’t escaped recuperation completely- witness Desperate Living [1977]- without Divine, but with a troupe of zany transgressive lesbians instead. Contemporary dykes love it and use it as a fundraiser.

(Virtually all of the above were available at Christchurch’s specialty video outlet, Alice’s Video,  which led some impressionable drag queens to adopt character names from Waters oeuvre. Miss Mole, that venerable figure of Christchurch drag artisty is actually named after a butch lesbian Mole in Desperate Living,  and there’s a Francine Fishpaw adapted from Polyester.   Sadly, no-one seems to have appropriated the giant crustacean Lobstora).  As time went by, mainstream stars started to sneak into Waters productions, as did rising production budgets, such as  Johnny Depp in Cry Baby (1990) and Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom (1993).  Sadly, Divine had passed away by then- her last film was the anti-racist Hairspray (1988), co-featuring a young Ricki Lake as her daughter.  Nowadays, he’s become semi-respectable and hangs around the British Film Institute and Artforum, acting as curator and columnist, identifying old camp and kitsch gems from yesteryear.

But what is ”trash” cinema anyway? Tim Lucas tells us that it’s what happens when marginal subject matter is produced by inept directors without cinematic skills employing amateur performers who can’t act, or former celebrities or stars whose glow has faded.  In the fifties, it deliberately set out to provoke and defy stultifying US social conservative orthodoxy through provocative content that defied repressive, authoritarian censorship policy and inadvertently struck blows for free speech. Of course, trash cinema can be recuperated because it’s so dreadful, which is what happened to Ed Wood in the nineties. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) is so bad, it’s good. So are the adventures of the disembodied female head in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962), A Thousand Pleasures (1968) and its man-hating killer lesbians [sadly, they lose at the end. Boo!!!- Craig], and Doris Wishman  (aka “Chesty Morgan”), whose main claim to fame was her somewhat copious mammary glands.  And then Andy Warhol filmed Joe Dallesandro in Trash (197o) and Waters made Pink Flamingos and suddenly, what had once been kitsch and marginal became a perverse new genre delighting in its anaemic performances and bargain basement production values.  Hammer Horror’s catalogue was recuperated by horror genre fans, New Zealander Richard O’Brien filmed the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975,  and Derek Jarman used it to provide an animated anarchist queer punk vista in his classic Jubilee (1977).


Kim Morgan: “The Interview: John Waters” Sight and Sound: 25:9: September 2015: 20-25.

Tim Lucas: “Total Trash” Sight and Sound: 25:9: September 2015: 26-31.

I.Q. Hunter: “The Road to Excess” Sight and Sound: 25.9: September 2015: 32-33.

I.Q. Hunter: Trash Cinema: London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan: 2015.

James Egan: John Waters: Interviews: Jackson: University of Mississippi Press: 2011.





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