by Daniel Hirshleifer
The man who brought us Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, and Hairspray took some time to show off a new print of an earlier film, Female Trouble, at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. After the show, he sat down with Kevin Thomas for a little Q&A. dOc reviewer Daniel Hirshleifer was there to see the film in all its trashy glory.
I didn't get interested in John Waters the way most other people did. My first exposure to him was actually through his 1998 film, Pecker. After that, I went through his movies in reverse chronological order (thanks to New Line Cinema's puzzling marketing decision to release their two-packs that way). So after Pecker came Serial Mom, then Hairspray, then Polyester and Desperate Living. Through seeing these movies, I began to learn about Waters' famous actors, like Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and Divine, and the unique style of his earlier films. Since the last two films New Line released were Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, I hadn't seen either one when they screened a new print of Female Trouble at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Becoming an ever-larger fan, I decided to check it out.
Let me preface this by saying that seeing any movie at the Cinematheque is an event. The Cinematheque resides in the historic Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, which is a very impressive piece of architecture. And the theater itself is state-of-the-art, with some of the best picture and sound I've seen anywhere in the country. Even as a volunteer there, my sense of awe and joy is not diminished. So as I arrived, standing amongst giant columns and stone façades, I was surprised to see that someone had set up tables kust outside the doors. Only once had I seen this happen, and that was when a director signed his books after a showing. Excited, I told myself not to get my hopes up, that way they cannot be quashed. However, I did notice the woman in front of me had a copy of a Polyester poster. My hopes were confirmed when I saw people come out and begin to unload books and DVDs. I ran over and bought two books, one a collection of screenplays, and the other Waters' autobiography. Then my friend and I went inside.
We decided to sit four rows away from the screen, so as to be close to John during the Q&A. Looking around, I noticed people wearing costumes and other interesting clothing, and it was fun to see who had the most outrageous costume. Eventually even that got boring, and I read some of Waters' autobiography (the man is just as funny on paper as he is on film, and perhaps more palatable to those who find his films over-the-top). In due time, Dennis Bartok of the Cinematheque came out and introduced Waters, who said we were about to see the full, uncut version, which was almost impossible to find previously. He also said that this new print is the best the movie can ever be expected to look, "But", he assured us, "Don't worry, the film still looks bad!" He finished by saying that Female Trouble is his favorite of the early movies, and we were treated to one of the great experiences of my life.
Now, I had seen Polyesterand Desperate Living, so I knew Divine and I knew Waters' early style. But as Waters says in the Polyester commentary, Divine was playing an unusual role for the time: a good, Christian woman. So I had never seen the infamous Divine, the Divine who ate dog poop, the Divine who was raped by a lobster. But as I watched, the theme music started, and there she was! Or, at least, there was a drawing of her in the credits. It didn't matter, as the whole audience burst into applause (Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and John also got their fair share of applause). I sat enraptured as Divine attacked her parents on Christmas for buying the wrong shoes, had sex with herself as a man, joined an elite hair salon, and more. It was an enlightening experience. To see people gleefully engaging in such outrageous acts was not just hilarious but liberating. And hilarious it was. I've never laughed so hard at anything in my entire life. Divine's insane modeling run through the streets of downtown Baltimore or her trampoline act have to be seen to be believed, and once seen, will never be forgotten, along with Mink Stole's "auto accident" scene and Edith Massey in skin-tight leather.
Dennis Bartok came back on and introduced veteran film reviewer, Kevin Thomas, who took the stage, and then introduced Waters himself, who came up and sat down with him. Waters, who has spent years on the college lecture circuit, told plenty of stories about the crew and the reception the film got, and how he couldn't try to upstage Pink Flamingos for its follow-up, as that would have amounted to career suicide. He also talked about having his mother see the film at a special retrospective; apparently everyone in the audience turned to see her reaction after every shocking moment, making her very uncomfortable. Questions were taken from the audience. Someone asked if he would ever make movies outside of Baltimore. Waters said Baltimore gave him inspiration, citing the example of seeing some girl who was wearing a shirt open so as to show off her new belly-button ring, even though it was infected and pus-covered. "She still wanted to show it off!" John exclaimed with a rueful smile. Another audience member asked if his pre-Flamingos films would be released on DVD, and Waters said no, due to music right problems and other things (as far as I know, Multiple Maniacs is available on VHS, but anything before that is harder to find). Someone asked if Waters was "really a lesbian." He seemed a little surprised by the question at first, but then smiled and said, "Sometimes, yes, it's true." Someone else mentioned how good Michael Potter was as Gator, and Waters referred again to his mother, saying that after seeing it, she's asked, "That's not the kind of man you like, is it?" He paused and then blurted out, "I lied and said, 'No.'" As to whether he had any new projects lined up, he said his next one would be about blue-collar sex addicts in Baltimore trying to become respectable.
After the Q&A ended, everyone filed out to have the director sign their various items of memorabilia. As we stood in line, a Divine imitator walked around and took pictures with anyone who so desired. The line moved at a pretty swift rate and quite quickly I found myself right in front of the man, watching him trying to find the best way to sign the collection of screenplays. In the short time I had before him, I managed to get out, "I've seen a lot of your films, and I have to say that this is the funniest film I've ever seen by... anyone." He thanked me for my kind words with visible pleasure, and as I went home I felt a blanket of trashy warmth flow over me, and when I fell asleep that night my dreams were absolutely... divine.