Of all the dubious titles awarded him -- "The Sultan of Sleaze," "The Baron of Bad Taste," and so forth -- filmmaker John Waters prefers "The Pope of Trash." Born in Baltimore to an upper-middle-class Catholic family, Waters has always been fascinated (obsessed, actually) with violence and gore. He claims that the biggest rush of his childhood occurred when he found dried blood on the squashed remains of a derelict automobile (he also claims to have used binoculars to watch X-rated movies at his local drive-in).
For his 17th birthday, Waters was given an 8mm camera. Wasting no time, he gathered together a group of his like-minded chums -- including obese high-school classmate Harris Milstead, better known as female impersonator Divine -- into a repertory troupe called the Dreamland Players, then began churning out his own films. Unlike other teenaged amateurs whose first films consist of warmed-over Godzilla movies and stop-motion GI Joe dolls, Waters' oeuvre was the basest, most vomit-inducing form of poor taste. His avowed purpose in life was to smash every middle-class value that his uptight Baltimore brethren held dear. After completing such early short-subject gems as Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup!, Waters would screen his films in rented church basements, heralding their showings by blanketing the town with mimeographed invitations.
Borrowing 2,000 dollars from his father, Waters put together his first feature film, Mondo Trasho, in 1969 -- and was arrested on the eve of its premiere on a charge of "conspiracy to commit indecent exposure" (say what?). As in all of his films, Mondo Trasho pokes fun at its offensiveness even while wallowing in it. In 1972, Waters outdid himself with his midnight-movie masterpiece Pink Flamingos (lensed on a reported budget of 10,000 dollars), wherein faithful Dreamland players Divine, Mink Stole, and David Lochary vie for the title of "World's Filthiest Person" (Divine wins by a mile and a furlong by ingesting a handful of doggy doo-doo). The film went on to become known as one of the most revolting movies of all time, as well as a timeless cult classic.
Waters finally got into first-run theaters with Polyester (1981), which not only featured a mainstream actor (Tab Hunter) but revived the old promotional trick of handing out scratch-'n'-sniff cards to the patrons. The director then backed off from filmmaking for about six years, writing witty, perceptive articles for such publications as National Lampoon and teaching courses in film humor to prison inmates. He returned with Hairspray (1988), a 1950s piece set in Baltimore which, despite Waters' claim that he prides himself in the fact that his work has "no socially redeeming value," carries a strong and well-articulated plea for racial tolerance (Waters' star in Hairspray was future talk show host Ricki Lake, who played Divine's daughter).
With the exception of Mink Stole, most of Waters' stock company have vanished from his later films; in their stead are such pop-culture icons as Johnny Depp, Pia Zadora, Deborah Harry, Troy Donahue, Iggy Pop, Sonny Bono, and even Patty Hearst, whom Waters once described as "The Lindbergh Baby who lived." Indeed, the director had even managed to accumulate enough respectability over the years that his 1994 Serial Mom starred no less than Kathleen Turner. Though comparatively highly budgeted, the film displays the same energetic, class-clown tackiness as Waters' earliest, cheapest films. His next effort, the 1998 film Pecker, brought him a little further into the mainstream -- or at least into respectable arthouses everywhere. The story of a young Baltimore photographer (Edward Furlong) who becomes a reluctant art-world darling, Pecker managed to be surprisingly sweet while retaining the usual Waters trademarks, such as amiable dysfunction, public copulation, and casually graphic shots of genitalia. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to win wide praise. The praise leveled at the film mirrored the director's real-life ascent into relative respectability: although he continued to dress and comport himself like a potential child molester, Waters matriculated from "fringie" to one of Baltimore's leading citizens.
When audiences learned that Waters' next project was to be a film concerning a renegade director who kidnaps a top Hollywood starlet in order to force her to act in his latest feature, advance word no doubt had audiences recalling such Waters classics as Multiple Maniacs. Edgier than Pecker but lacking the sharp satire of Serial Mom (and sadly lacking the sleazy-listening tunes that highlighted his early efforts), Cecil B. Demented ultimately fell somewhere in the middle of trash cinema purgatory; though it certainly spat in the face of traditional mainstream cinema values, it still wasn't quite outrageous enough to be truly effective. While Cecil B. Demented may not have been the film that once again found Waters winning back his "Prince of Puke" crown (that award would likely have gone to Takashi Miike at that point) it was never dull and certainly showed that the spark was still there and that Waters still had a few tricks up his sleeve. For his next effort, entitled A Dirty Shame, Waters rounded up an impressive cast that included the likes of Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, and Selma Blair. Though A Dirty Shame failed to make any big waves at the box-office, Waters' fans did manage to get a few smutty laughs (as long as they didn't catch the butchered "Neuter Version") from this lighthearted tale of sexual debauchery. Three years later, the director got to feed his love for true crime as host of 'Til Death Do Us Part -- a morbid look at unions that ended in murder.
The wit, wisdom, and philosophy of John Waters has been distilled in his books Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (1981) and Crackpot: The Obsession of John Waters (1986). Furthermore, those wanting additional insight into the director's outlook would do well to check out Divine Trash, the acclaimed 1998 documentary about Waters' life. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi