Waters, John: Still Pope of Trash

In the early days, there was a cultural war going on. It was them versus us.
John Waters, 1974

The golden age of trash is over because there are no more taboos.
John Waters, 1994

“A Dirty Shame,” John Waters' new “carnal-concussion” comedy, is more a return to roots than a return to form. As a celebration of the libido and every form of sexual practice, it bears thematic resemblance to Waters' earlier rude, anarchic pictures. In treatment and sensibility, however, it's a comedy with an extremely soft and generous heart. Tempered by the sweetness that has marked Waters' recent films, “Dirty Shame” is a shaggy comedy that winks at rather than probes transgressive issues. That said, it's more ribald than Waters' last film, “Cecil B. DeMented,” and far more outr and entertaining than “Pecker.”

“Dirty Shame” is set in Harford Road in Waters' native Baltimore. Like most of Waters' work, it is better appreciated and more enjoyable by viewers who know movies and pop culture well enough to experience a new perspective on them. Packed with gags that range from the droll to the vulgar, the comedy benefits from a good premise. It is based on the assumption that one the side effects of people who suffer severe concussion is an uncontrollable carnal lustan irrepressible libido.

The film's first reel, in which Waters introduces his characters, is funny and even original. The protagonist, Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), is a repressed middle-aged hausfrau who runs the family's “Pinewood Park and Pay” convenience store. After a car accident in which she suffers a concussion, Sylvia is rescued by a sexy tow-truck driver Ray-Ray Perkins (Johnny Knoxville). An erotic healer with a low-life mentality, Ray-Ray brings out her hidden desires. Shedding her prudishness, she sports a sexy leopard dress and high heels. Utterly motivated by her libido, Sylvia now views the world through her hypersexual eyes. Sylvia's mom, Big Ethel (Susanne Shepherd), decides to fight back and, supported by her sanctimonious, sex-hating neighbor Marge (Mink Stole), she leads the battle for “Neuter normalcy and decency.”

Time has considerably lessened the extremis of Waters' work. He represents an underground phenomenon waded into the mainstream, an outlaw career rendered palatable. Waters' hardcore fans have been lamenting the sweet tenderness of his recent movies. They complain that his comedies have become more cuddling than cutting, endearing rather than demented. Indeed, more than anything else, “Dirty Shame” demonstrates how tough it is to be outrageous in today's climate. Has Waters lost his ability to shock Has he mellowed in middle-age Is he a victim of the radicalization of American pop culture, which is much more flamboyant and tolerant than it was when he began his career

Waters became a cult figure in the 1970s, when he began making films of “dubious taste, exploitation films for the arthouse crowd. He has consistently populated his films with people whose appearance and demeanor are deviant and abnormal. He once explained: “My films are about people who take what society thinks is a disadvantage, exaggerate their supposed defect, and turn it into a winning style.” Subverting conventional plots, his early work was designed to outrage viewers, based on his belief that “the fantastic is beyond the realm of observable reality.” This was achieved through shocking satires with garish characters and grotesque imagery–like rats and vomiting.

Waters' first features, “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs,” introduced the “offensive” satirical mode that would become his specialty. He burst to prominence in 1972 with “Pink Flamingos,” a bad-taste classic that still contains the best-known scene of his work: Divine stooping to devour dog excrement. This movie also offered the spectacle of an “Egg Lady” begging for poultry from her crib, and the rape and murder of a chicken.

“Variety” panned “Pink Flamingos” as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” But Waters wasn't offended–he took the review as a compliment and badge of honor. Negative reviews have never fazed Waters. He holds that critics who dismiss his work simply don't get the joke: “You just get it or you don't, there's not much in the middle.” “Pink Flamingos” gained national distribution and a following on the arthouse circuit. Cherished by midnight moviegoers, the movie ran for years in New York and Los Angeles.

“Female Trouble” and “Desperate Living” reinforced Waters' outlaw reputation with their satirical skewering of middle-class suburban values. Waters ridiculed bourgeois manners, showing in the credits sequence a cooked rat on a fancy dinner table. After seeing “Female Touble,” which spotlights Divine in a dual role, as a fame-seeking criminal and as the criminal's illicit welder-lover, critic Rex Reed is reported to have groaned: “Where do these people come from Where do they go when the sun goes down”

The problem with “Desperate Living” was that every character was insane, and there was nobody for the audience to identify with. Waters then realized that his humor was funnier when it was put in context, when Divine (or another eccentric character) is placed next to a straight person. In “Dirty Shame,” Sylvia is placed among a variety of sex addicts, who are contrasted as a group with a variety of hypocritical and prudish characters.

Waters came closer to the mainstream with the musical comedy “Hairspray,” for which he altered his style considerably. Rated PG, the film was suitable family fare, despite the weird hairdos. But more than a nostalgic romp filled with ratted hairdos and goofy hits, “Hairspray” revealed Waters' incendiary politics of style. For Waters, hair was politics. When Tracy (Ricki Lake) is radicalized by the all-white policy, she doesn't join the Weatherman, she starts ironing her hair. “When the straight-hair fashion first hit our neighborhood, it caused a panic,” Waters recalled. “Your whole values changed. If you ironed your hair, you became a hippie. If you kept your teased hair, you got married at 20 and had four kids.”

“Cry-Baby” was an equally sweet-natured story of teen rebels and distraught parents. It centers on a good girl (Amy Locane) torn between her pristine roots and a black-leathered Elvis-type hunk (Johnny Depp). Less focused or funny than “Hairspray,” the film was a commercial failure.

Waters then made the comedy “Serial Mom,” which reflected his and audiences' affection for TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet. Juxtaposing bloody murders with Beaver backgrounds, the film is both a satire of and ode to TV sitcoms. For some, the movie was a compromise between Waters' early gross-outs and a new, cleaner look, but it became his most commercial and accessible film. In courting mainstream audiences, Waters softened his jabs and played it safe, perhaps too safe. Critics thought that Waters showed too much restraint due to the film's larger budget and the presence of a major star, Kathleen Turner. Fans complained that Waters began to lose the subversive sensibility that had marked his underground pictures. And he himself disclosed that, “In the old days, I wanted to make people nervous about what they were laughing at. In “Serial Mom,” there's a stream of good hearty laughs but the nervousness is missing from the humor.”

A closer look at his recent work shows that, like David Lynch and the Coen brothers, Waters is not really a subversive filmmaker because he shares most of the bourgeois values he satirizes. And unlike Albert Brooks, Waters is not an enraged comic because deep down he wishes life were simpler. Waters' sensibility over the past decade is a product of taste as well as economics. Throughout his career, he had to walk a fine line. “I'm certainly not going to make a Hollywood movie that will never be shown,” he said, “but at the same time, I don't calculate, I write what I think is funny, and I don't censor myself.”

To appreciate the merits of “Dirty Shame,” it's important to remember that it follows “Cecil B.DeMented,” a satire of a megalomaniac punk-cult director (Stephen Dorff), who kidnaps a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffith) and uses her to wage a guerilla campaign against Hollywood's homogenized fare. There was no anger in the humor, no character to root for, and the film's terrorists seemed more interested in cinema than in action. Arguably Waters' weakest work, “Cecil B.DeMented” was so hermetic and untouched by reality that it hardly had reason to exist. The movie was a vast disappointment, both artistically and commercially.

In “Dirty Shame,” Waters goes back to his roots, to his fascination with “the things that are forbidden and are part of the glory of being raised a Catholic.” Being Catholic, he once said, “makes you more theatrical, and the sex is always better cause it's dirty.” Like the early work, “Dirty Shame” thrives on exaggeration, but it's not a gross-out movie for the sake of gross-out. Waters' goal is to make people laugh first. And while his films avoid overt political statements, they are not devoid of ideas. “I always have something to say, but I never get on a soapbox. The only way I can change how anybody thinks is to make them laugh. If I start preaching, they'll walk out.”

Testing the limits of taste, “Dirty Shame” satirizes Hollywood's ideals of glamour (notice the “criminally enlarged” buxom of Caprice, Sylvia's daughter) and the ideals of hipness and sexiness, as held by both liberals and conservatives. Given that every imaginable sexual activity is depicted, the NC-17 rating is understandable, from the perspective of the Rating Board. However, unlike most NC-17 movies, it's the language and ideas, not the visuals, that are audacious. Notice the bawdy songs and their double-entendre lyrics and titles: The Pussy Cat Song, Hump-a Baby, Tony's Got Hot Nuts, Itchy Twitchy Spot.

The plot of “Dirty Shame” is flimsy, a loose string that exists primarily to join together as many sex maniacs and sexual proclivities as possible. The head injuries of a cult of sex addicts prompts each one of them to give free rein to their particular brain of perversion: a family of gay “bears,” a policeman who's an “adult baby,” and so on. And structurally, “Dirty Shame” is a mess; the film falls apart in its last reel. But we don't go to a Waters film to experience a well-plotted narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Nor do we expect to witness a refined style by way of polished production values. Vincent Peranio's design for the blue-collar suburbia is suitably tawdry, and the digital work seems deliberately cheesy. The screen is always busy with sex-related buzzwords projected in big colorful letters, archival inserts of various sex activities, psychedelic images.

“Dirty Shame” may not be as outrageous or satisfying as we want it to be, but the film should be supported and embraced. We simply owe it to John Waters, a filmmaker of undeniable historical importance who three decades ago waged a revolutionary war that forever changed the face of American pop culture.