Waters, John: Shorts and Early Films (Part 2)

Please Read Part 1 

Waters, John: Pope of Trash and Camp–Complete Retrospective


mondo_trasho_john_waters_posterJohn Waters’ first short, the 17 minutes black-and-white “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” was made when he was in high school.  Shot on the roof of his parents’ house, the tale concerns the interracial affair between a white woman named Mona, played by his childhood friend Mary Vivian Pearce, and a black man.  The man woos the lady by carrying her around in a trash can.  He later chooses a Ku Klux Klan man to perform their wedding ceremony.  The Klansman on the chimney is like an angelic figure, representing Waters’ first exploration of a sacred symbol of Catholicism.  A girl with a wild hair and a male in drag are also on the roof. Mona is dressed in a long bridal gown, and the train of her dress is carried by a child. The black man emerges from his can, and people eat wedding cake, as the Klansman descends. At the end, Mona performs a sexy dance, “bodie green,” while Waters’ real-life mother plays “God Bless America” on the piano.

“Hag in a Black Leather Jacket” was not released theatrically, but it was shown several times in a “beatnik” coffee house. In later years, it would be included in Waters’ traveling photography exhibit. This short introduced a character that would become a recurrent figure in Waters’ work, usually played by Divine: a woman who’s trapped in a bad situation that’s beyond her control and is brutally tormented.

NYU for Five Minutes

Waters enrolled at New York University (NYU), but as he later recalled: “I was there for about five minutes. I don’t know what I was thinking. I went to one class and they kept talking about “Potemkin” (Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece, aka as “Battleship Potemkin”), and that isn’t what I wanted to talk about. I had just gone to see ‘Olga’s House of Shame.’ That was what I was more into.” Made in 1964, “Olga’s House of Shame” is the third in a sexploitation series starring Audrey Campbell. It was helmed by the hack director Joseph P. Mawra and produced by George Weiss, who also was behind Ed Woods’ notorious feature, “Glen or Glenda.” A surprise hit, the trilogy paved the way for the hard-edged sex films of the 1960s and the psycho-stalker films of the 1970s.

The only reason Waters went to NYU was to be able to live in Manhattan, as he recalled:”I only went to one class, but I lived in the dorm and went to movies every day and all day.” During that time, he saw four or five pictures a day, starting in the morning and then just keep going. He attended legit movie theaters, but also places like St. Mark’s Church. It was then that he saw Andy Warhol’s “strange” films, the work of the Kuchar brothers, Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” and Jean Genet’s “Un Chant d’Ámour,” a film that influenced in one way or another all five directors profiled in this book. The New York days were heaven on earth: He did lots of drugs and socialized with the Warhol crowd, though mostly its fringe people. They would take amphetamine and listen to Maria Callas records all night.

Waters has credited as significant influences on his sensibility the Kuchar brothers, the gay German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the American filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the Italian maestro Federico Fellini. Waters derived joy and pleasure from high-brow “art” films as well as sleazy exploitation films: “I love both Ingmar Bergman and ‘I Dismember Mama.”

In 1966, Waters and some friends were caught smoking marijuana on the campus grounds, which led to his expulsion from NYU. Waters returned to Baltimore, where he completed two shorts, “Roman Candles” and “Eat Your Make-up.” Composed of three 8mm films, shot in color and shown simultaneously, “Roman Candles” introduced several Dreamland regulars (known as Dreamlanders), including David Lochary, Mink Stole, Pat Moran, and Divine. Maelcum Soul exerted strong influence on Divine in style and make-up–the hairdo, the big eyebrows, the red wig. Multiple images, which at first seem random, depict all kinds of bizarre lifestyles, playing off each other while juxtaposed with split-second shots from old horror flicks. Acts involving religious mockery (Maelcum dressed as a nun), drug-taking, and weird sex emphasize the absurd and the provocative. The focus again is on victimized and tortured women. For instance, Mary Vivian Pearce is attacked with an electric fan, and a man in black leather beats another woman. The short concludes with a montage showing one actor photographing Mona Montgomery and another one in drag riding a motorcycle. In a shocking reference to Kennedy’s assassination, David Lochary fires a shotgun and there is even an image of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. To accomplish greater impact, the wildly bizarre images are accompanied by nostalgic Shangri-Las tunes.

Eat Your Makeup

In 1967, Waters made Eat Your Makeup,” a 45-minute short in black-and white, shot in 16 mm. It follows a couple of perverse gangsters (played by David Lochary and Maelcum Soul) as they kidnap women and chain them. The three captives (Marina Melin, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Mona Montgomery) grovel for food, but the only thing they are given to eat is cheap make-up. Chained to a freestanding wall, the women are then forced to model before jeering crowds until they drop dead—literally. It is the first and last Waters film in which the evil group that exploits innocent others win at the end. In later Waters films, the villains always lose, and the misfits who, comfortable with their deviance, always win, albeit after suffering and struggle.

Most of the crude and tasteless images concern organized religion. A wicked couple and a vicious dog stalk Marina (wearing a peekaboo dress) as she emerges from church, and then fingers her rosary. When the bishop intones the sacraments, Divine fantasizes herself as a Jackie Kennedy and Howard Gruber as a JFK. They ride joyously in an open car waving to cheering crowds. When a shot is fired, Howard slumps over, and Divine (in pink dress) climbs over the back of the car. The sequence ends with Divine’s figure fading back to reality. After Marina dies on the runway and the vicious people depart, a man in cavalry uniform puts flowers on her body, and she comes back to life as a fairy princess.

In his shorts, as in his features, several prominent themes emerged: America as an image-conscious and media-saturated society, the use of fables and fairytales in deformed and distorted ways to comment on contemporary culture, and, of course, championing what can be called the aesthetics of trash through crass and shocking vulgarity.

Downtown Role Models

Though Waters deserves credit for his outrageous and gross-out features, he did not operate in a social or artistic void. In the mid to late 1960s, the Underground Cinema in Downtown New York was booming with new voices and radical visions by the likes of Jack Smith, Andy Warhol (and the Factory), Paul Morrissey, and others. These revolutionary artists paved the way for a whole cohort of young and audacious filmmakers such as Waters.

Born in 1932 in Columbus Ohio, Jack Smith was a pioneer of underground cinema based on his contribution to a new kind of performance art.  One of the first proponents of the aesthetics of camp, Smith used low-budgets to make eccentric features heavily influenced by Hollywood kitsch.  Creating costumes, Smith was involved with John Vaccaro, founder of The Playhouse of The Ridiculous, whose disregard for conventional theater influenced his ideas. Smith’s style also influenced the work of Andy Warhol.  Interestingly, Vaccaro and Smith denied at the time that their sexual orientation had anything to do with their distinctive artistic sensibility.

Smith’s most notorious production, “Flaming Features” in 1962, was a satire of Hollywood B-movies and a tribute to the actress Maria Montez, who starred in such pictures.  Since the authorities considered some scenes to be pornographic, the movie was confiscated at its premiere.  “Flaming Features” was subsequently banned, but it didn’t disappear.  Though not shown publicly, the movie gained notoriety when footage was screened during Congressional hearings, and the right-wing politician Strom Thurmond mentioned it in his anti-porn speeches.

Nearly a decade older than Waters, Paul Morrissey (born in 1938) is best known for his association with Andy Warhol and The Factory. “Flesh,” Morrissey’s first production for Warhol in 1968, centers on a bisexual played by Joe Dallesandro. Emotionally affectless but exuding natural charm, Dallesandro had previously starred in other Warhol films, such as “The Loves of Ondine” and “Lonesome Cowboys,” but it’s “Flesh” that made him a cult figure, in and out of the gay world. “Flesh” also featured the debut of other performers who would become Warhol superstars, Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling.

As the tale starts, Gerry (Geraldine Smith) kicks her boyfriend Joe out of bed, insisting that he goes out on the streets to make some money, which is needed for abortion by her girlfriend (Patti DÁrbanville). During a long day of activities, Joe encounters various clients, including an artist (Maurice Bradell) who wishes to draw him, and a gymnast named Louis Waldon. Shot on location in Manhattan (33rd Street, to be exact), “Flesh” shows Joe’s socializing with other hustlers (one played by his real-life brother), instructing tricks of the trade to a new hustler (Barry Brown), and spending time with his baby son. “Flesh” concludes with Joe in bed with Geraldine Smith and Patti D’Arbanville. After stripping Joe to his notorious genitalia, the women get more excited by each other, and the bored Joe simply falls asleep. Dallesandro, Candy Darling, and Jackie Curtis were later immortalized in Lou Reed’s song, “Walk of the Wild Side.” Unusually explicit in its graphic sexuality, “Flesh” became notorious (a cause celebre), when it was confiscated by the police during early showings.

The other films, “Trash” and “Heat,” in what became known as a trilogy, also gained immediate cult status, due to their sexual audacity and taboo-breaking. Though the two filmmakers are linked together, Morrissey differed from Warhol in his aesthetics. Warhol’s films are known for their non-narrative nature, lengthy and endless takes, drugs-fueled improvisations, and casually amateurish production values in lighting and sound. In contrast, Morrissey deployed more traditional strategies and more polished technical values. The acting in Morrissey’s films is also better, which may explain their relatively greater commercial appeal.

Made for the low budget of $25, 000, “Trash” (aka “Andy Warhol’s Trash”) was directed and written by Morrissey in 1970. Starring Dallesandro, transsexual Holly Woodlawn, and Jane Forth, the film depicts intravenous drug use, frontal nudity, both male and female, and graphic sex. Holly Woodlawn made her debut in this film, as did Jane Forth, a 17-year-old model who shortly thereafter appeared on the cover of Look magazine. The film also features Warhol superstars Andrea Feldman and Geri Miller. The episodic plot, set over one day, follows the heroin addict Dallesandro in his “holy quest” to score more drugs. Joe is observed overdosing, and attempting to fool a gay welfare agent into approving methadone treatment by asking his girlfriend Holly to fake pregnancy. Holly and the other women are sexually frustrated by Joe’s recurrent impotence, despite his well endowment, which is the main reason why Dallesandro became an attraction in the first place.

The trilogy’s third and most accessible panel, “Heat” in 1972, stars Dallesandro, Sylvia Miles, and Andrea Feldman. An unemployed former child star supporting himself as a hustler in Los Angeles, Joey Davis (Dallesandro) uses sex to get his landlady to reduce his rent. Sally Todd (Sylvia Miles, then best known for playing a prostitute in the initially X-rated Oscar-winner “Midnight Cowboy”), plays a former Hollywood starlet, who tries to help Joey revive his career, but her status (which is dubious) proves useless. Adding color to the tale is Sally’s psychotic daughter, Jessica (Feldman), who complicates the relationship between her mom and the emotionally-numb Joey. In his conception, Morrissey intended the film to be a parody of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic, “Sunset Boulevard,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Career Phases

Waters’ career can be divided into three significant phases. The first phase, by far the most important one, consists of the gross-out shorts and trash trilogy, culminating in “Female Trouble” (1974), his best film in my view, and “Desperate Living” (1977). The second phase begins in 1980 with the transitional “Polyester” (1980), an unsuccessful hybrid, and includes his most popular satires and accessible farces, “Hairspray” (1988) and “Serial Mom” (1994), which served as the closing night of the Cannes Film Fest, the most important film event in the world. The third and weakest phase, signaling artistic decline and commercially disappointing features, begins with “Pecker” (1998) and ends with “A Dirty Shame” (2004), which unfortunately is his latest (and last?) movie.