The canon of great auteurs for your average cinephile includes a very fixed set of respected heterosexual artists: Kubrick, Tarantino, Eastwood, Scorsese, Nolan, etc… But if your knowledge of film history only goes that far you’re truly depriving yourself of some of the best movies ever made. While there’s no doubting the talent of that aforementioned list, real, subversive and experimental cinema often falls to the wayside.
John Waters, sometimes called The Pope of Trash or the Prince of Puke, offers an entirely different lens through which cinema can be viewed: Instead of offering aesthetic beauty or emotional catharsis, Waters aims for shock and disgust. This transversal of cinematic values runs counter to centuries of both middlebrow and highbrow art criticism, and has garnered him a devoted cult following who embrace the grotesque.
Waters, who debuted his first feature-length film in 1969, has divided critics for decades with his unapologetic depictions of a kind of homosexual underground filled with criminals and sexual deviants. His regular troupe of actors, known as the Dreamlanders, have since been immortalized as queer icons: Especially the drag queen Divine, whose starkly and purposefully ugly look have ironically since become a paradigm of alternative beauty.
But not all Waters movies are created equally, especially as mainstream studios attempted to co-opt his brand of offbeat brand of aberrance. What movies are worth watching and what can be skipped? We’ve ranked the Godfather of Filth’s filmography to help you figure that out:
Waters’ last feature length film, A Dirty Shame, is a mess from start to finish. What begins as a chronicling of bizarre fetishes culminates in several unfunny and juvenile sequences of absurd sexual acts. It’s not entirely Waters’ fault: Aprolonged battle over the film’s extreme sexual content renders more heavily censored versions of the movie absolutely incoherent. Johnny Knoxville (yes, from Jackass) does his best and manages to channel the lewd energy of Waters’ late Dreamland members, but the subversive pathos of the movie simply doesn’t hold a candle to the director’s earlier works. Worst of all: The movie was such a colossal financial failure it’s made it hard for Waters to secure funding for projects in the future. Truly, a shame!
Crybaby is John Waters’ pastiche of 50’s and 60’s doo-wop music — a send-up of American naivete. The movie is a sort of re-interpretation of Grease with only slightly less schmaltz. While the production design from Rachel Talalay is quite obviously eye catching — and there’s something effervescently swoon-worthy about a teenage Johnny Depp (and his impossibly strong jawline) — there’s something irritatingly saccharine about the whole movie that makes it more annoying than entertaining. The musical scenes aren’t particularly compelling. Even if the cheesiness of the whole thing is both parodic and intentional, the film winds up more irritating than endearing. There are, of course, some wonderfully repugnant touches: The female protagonist in one scene drinking a jar of her own tears is somehow both poetic and lovably repulsive.
A love letter to underground cinema, this postmodern parable explores the lives of a fictional sect of cult movie-worshippers on the brink of a violent attack against mainstream audiences. Melanie Griffith plays a brainwashed victim of this terrorist faction, and she’s exceedingly hilarious at delivering some of the strangest lines ever written by Waters. A self-reflexive flex on the Hollywood Industrial Complex, Cecil is both lovable and witty — but a lot of the references to obscure film icons will likely be lost on more pedestrian audiences, meaning that it’s a bit less accessible than Waters’ other works.
Waters’ obsession with trash culture is taken to its most logical conclusion with Desperate Living, about a suburban housewife exiled from her ritzy world and doomed to live in a bizarre kingdom made of garbage. It’s a fun concept, and Jean Hill is especially stunning throughout. There’s nothing wrong with Desperate Living at all — it’s a perfectly entertaining and deeply strange movie, but as an exemplar of Waters’ thesis about the beauty of low-brow culture, it’s simply not as poignant or memorable as his other masterpieces.
Kathleen Turner is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, and John Waters gave her a real demented occasion to shine in Serial Mom. The husky-voiced matron plays a psychopathic housewife on a murder spree — killing everyone who violates the mannered fantasy world her delusions have created while making lewd phone calls to neighbors in between stabbings. There’s no real moral or political message here — it wouldn’t be wrong to call the film vapid, with a small side of political satire — but the absolute glee with which the film’s vulgar premise is delivered makes it worth the price of admission.
Polyester could be Waters’ most coherent and fully realized film: In this parody of the so-called “women’s pictures” of the 1950’s, Divine plays a housewife whose life is crumbling around her — until she’s (seemingly) rescued by the dreamy Todd Tomorrow, played by the dashing Tab Hunter, whose esteemed acting credentials gave mainstream legitimacy to the film. Although politically class-conscious as ever, Waters slows down his feverish pace with this more thoughtful and slightly less histrionic drama. The only real drawback is that compared to his other works, Polyester feels a bit slow.
Despite a particularly lascivious homosexual act being a main plot-point of Pecker, the movie’s actually pretty family friendly! The eponymous middle-class hero becomes an unlikely art star in New York after his photos of his wildly bawdy Baltimore life attract the attention of a high-powered curator. Although he’s pressured to embrace his newfound fame, what he learns along the way is that friends are more important than money, and that real art comes from the heart — like I said, shockingly family friendly. Pecker should probably be taught in art schools alongside John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, as it’s an essential — and much more accessible — object lesson on the politics of taste and the aesthetics of class.
Speaking of family-friendly, Hairspray is John Waters’ most mild film, garnering an uncharacteristic PG rating from the MPAA. Far better than the insipid 2007 remake — how dare they cast John Travolta to play a role perfectly embodied by Divine! — the 1988 film chronicles the misadventures of protagonist Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), whose inter-racial relationship scandalizes her small town. The social justice messaging here goes down with a spoonful of sugar, and the film is surprisingly kindhearted and sweet considering the director’s more lascivious reputation. Some of the film’s most subversive bits (including, in some iterations, the famous cockroach dress), which rescued the movie from becoming treacle, were sadly wiped out of the Broadway adaptation. Waters is usually at his best when he’s being dirty, but Hairspray’s status as a widely beloved and sharp-witted comedy shows that he’s got more than one trick up his filthy sleeve.
As with most filmmakers’ earliest works, Mondo Trasho is one the purest distillations of Waters’ aesthetic. Although he’s since distanced himself from this no-budget experimental film (and although it’s almost impossible to find through legal channels considering the film’s usage of unlicensed music throughout), Mondo Trasho is essential viewing for real filth aficionados. Using no dialogue in the entire movie, Mary Viviene Pearce wanders through a desolate and bizarre Baltimore, encountering various perverts along the way — until Divine (visited strangely by the spirit of the Virgin Mary) takes her under her disgusting wing. The film descends further into pure surrealism as it progresses — meaning that it’s clearly not made for your average audience — but it’s unhinged aesthetic and strange premise remain powerful to this day.
This is Divine at the height of her powers: so transcendentally vile she can force even inanimate objects to do her bidding! Up there with the greatest LGBTQ+ movies ever made, Pink Flamingos tracks Divine’s defense of her title as the Filthiest Person Alive — and her insidious plot for revenge when faced with a challenge. The movie’s nauseating final moment is perhaps the most iconic moment in drag herstory. With impeccably hideous styling from Van Smith, endlessly quotable zany dialogue, and some truly revolting scenes involving unexpected feats of human anatomy, Pink Flamingos is raucously outrageous and not for the faint of heart or easily offended. This movie is perhaps the birth of what became known as punk ethos, and will forever be remembered as a triumph of shock art.
Although Pink Flamingos is Waters’ most notorious work, Divine’s ascension into a Sadean goddess in the final scenes of Female Trouble have inspired and perturbed philosophers and filmgoers alike for decades. The foremother of postmodern gender theory, Judith Butler, even cited the work as a main influence on her thinking. In Female Trouble, the bratty Dawn Davenport (played by an increasingly psychotic Divine) runs away from her family and faces a series of traumas before becoming the resplendently disfigured Queen of Crime. Lost in her narcissistic fantasies and scarred by the world around her, she demands her devotees “Die for art!” as she fires a handgun into a crowd of her followers. Divine absolutely vibrates with glamour and power, and Waters provides her with stunningly anti-social and experimental monologues throughout. Female Trouble is Waters’ most complete vision and remains a powerful statement on the beauty of transgression.
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