My introduction to Baltimore, when I arrived there in 1988 to begin my undergraduate studies at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, included a crash course in the films of John Waters. One of my professors frequently invited students to his home for home-cooked meals, stimulating conversation, and, oftentimes, movies. It was during these soirees that I and several of my classmates developed a taste for Waters’ work.
In his 1995 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste (Thunder’s Mouth Press), Waters wrote: “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about.”
I hadn’t, to that point in my life, thought much about whose work might have set an all-but-insurmountable bar in a genre I probably believed was reserved for accidental pioneers and lucky hacks. It hadn’t dawned on me (to put it another way) that lowbrow had a high priest – an apt turn of phrase, I think, given Waters’ career-long evisceration of all that the Catholic Church stands for.
Pink Flamingos (1972) was probably the first John Waters film I experienced. A description of the movie on the Internet Movie Database website (IMDb.com) reads: “Notorious Baltimore criminal and underground figure Divine goes up against Connie & Raymond Marble, a sleazy married couple who make a passionate attempt to humiliate her and seize her tabloid-given title as ‘The Filthiest Person Alive.’”
It is worth including here an excerpt from Divine’s bio at IMDb, which reads: “Originally born Harris Glen Milstead just after the end of WWII, Baltimore’s most outrageous resident eventually became the international icon of bad taste cinema, as the always shocking and highly entertaining transvestite performer, Divine.”
Pink Flamingos was, for me, the gateway to Polyester (1981). With those two films alone, Waters reached the apex of lowbrow, an accomplishment he revels in by way of his one-man show This Filthy World, which I saw recently at the Garde Arts Center in New London.
Not long after I first became familiar with his work, Waters’ Cry-Baby (1990) introduced a much larger audience to the filmmaker’s delightfully shameless sense of humor. The film, which stars Johnny Depp, was also the vehicle for a friend’s serendipitous big-screen debut/swan song (a classmate and fellow percussionist had a small part as the drummer in the talent show scene).
While I’d been aware that Hairspray and Cry-Baby had been adapted for Broadway (the former to great acclaim) and that Waters had made more movies and authored several books, I hadn’t followed his career all that closely. Apart from watching Cry-Baby with a friend about a year ago and seeing the filmmaker on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, it had been many years since I’d indulged myself in Waters’ films. Still, I remained appreciative of his inimitable cinematic contributions to the extent that I made plans to see his one-man show as soon as I saw it advertised.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about that performance was that it was devoid of any evidence that Waters’ imagination had become less twisted over time. I took comfort, for example, in hearing him talk about his desire to make a delightfully irreverent sequel to The Wizard of Oz. (I’ll let you find out what Waters’ plot would look like.)
Waters’ performance reminded me that he redefined lowbrow, whereas the above-mentioned accidental pioneers and lucky hacks have merely been defined by it.
David A. Brensilver is the editor of The Arts Paper. This is his opinion.