An Appreciation of…John Waters (1946 – present)

Well, this has been a piece I’ve been itching to write for over a year now, but never really got the chance to, mostly because I was terrified – I love John Waters, and I think he’s one of the greatest independent filmmakers of all time. However, he is truly a divisive figure in film history, and that is because he is a filmmaker who pushed himself and his casts to do some very controversial actions on film, and his repertoire of regular actors were a group of misfits and freaks, compromising old cat ladies, adult film stars, faded icons and yes, even a real-life felon or two. However, it is the person who Waters is, and the heart behind his films that make him so beloved.

I want to start off with a disclaimer – this is not a piece that will defend Pink Flamingos. I think Pink Flamingos is an interesting film, at the very least, and while I did watch it, it was less of an entertainment experience, and more of an experience overall, one that I don’t particularly want to revisit – so please don’t think that my reason for writing this is to be a Pink Flamingos apologist, even though I think it is one of the most important films ever made. Here is why – it is a film that helped shape the cinema verite style of independent filmmaking, where we see the fictional lives of fictional characters doing outrageous and strange things. It also formed what I consider to be one of the finest forms of film anarchy, where Waters just pushed this truly disgusting story and these despicable characters to the point where we just couldn’t help but either puke or feel absolutely endeared to them. On the basis of just making his actors do these despicable and terrible things, such as killing live chickens or eating dog poop, is just a way to show how Waters was one of the most gutsy filmmakers to ever live, and what kind of amateur filmmaker, in their debut film, makes something so gross and controversial and expects to have a career afterwards? John Waters is, and he was lucky enough that his film was understood enough as being a satirical piece more than a serious film, and that he was simply trying to deconstruct the notion of filmmaking at the time, and he managed to get funding for his next films, surprisingly. It truly is one of the strangest stories in all of cinema. Anyway, that is all I will speak about Pink Flamingos, because unlike many people, I do see that there is another side to Waters.

Now there are controversial films and filmmakers – Human Centipede, Salo, A Serbian Film – why now why is John Waters in that group of filmmakers who are seen less as directors and more as guardians of nasty, terrible and unwatchable trash? Its a question I can’t answer, because I don’t really believe he belongs there. What I love most about Waters is the heart that flows through all his films – this isn’t a man trying to be controversial, this is a man trying to show the side of society that we never see. There are people in the real world that are mirror images of Waters’ characters. Nymphomaniacs, 300 pound drag queens, obsessive photographers and many others. If you’ve ever seen any of Waters’ interviews, you’ll know that his inspiration is drawn from so many real-life sources, and I don’t find it difficult to believe that every single character in one of his films was based on a real person he had encountered sometime in his life.

If Woody Allen made New York glamorous and portrayed it as an intellectually cosmopolitan city, then surely John Waters can stand in the exact same esteem for his little slice of heaven, Baltimore. Setting every single one of his films in that adorable hamlet of trashiness and quirky characters is a remarkable way of adding a level of realism to his films. That isn’t to say there aren’t weird misfits in every city in the world, but Waters grew up in Baltimore, being inspired by all these strange and wonderful people. He makes it clear that while these characters may be endearing for being misfits and unconventional heroes, but they aren’t global misfits, they are the misfits exclusive to Baltimore. One can’t say Waters paints a positive picture of the town, but he doesn’t necessarily portray it negatively either – he shows us the city he grew up in, a small and quirky place with colourful characters. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find people like his characters, he just chose to show them as the heroes, and not just the comic relief, which is why he is such a brilliant filmmaker.

As per tradition, here are the essential John Waters films you should seek out. I am omitting his more controversial ones, mainly because I think they are an acquired taste, and perhaps not the most suitable for everyone. However, if your stomach is strong enough, and you want an unforgettable (alternative description: disturbing), seek out Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble or Desperate Living. If not, you can’t go wrong with these endearing, edgy and wonderful films

  1. Hairspray (1988). Who would’ve though the greatest teen film of all time (or one of them), would be made by one of the most controversial directors of all time? Pink Flamingos might be Waters’ most well-known film, but Hairspray is in no uncertain terms his best film – campy, funny and so much fun, it is honestly a truly wonderful film, and one of the first times Waters made a film anyone can watch. If you haven’t seen it, do it – its absolutely wonderful!
  2. Polyester (1981). If you want to see the real John Waters, but want to forgo his controversial films, you can easily compromise by seeing Polyester. It retains Waters’ controversial ability to tell strange stories and make something edgy, but it is relatively tame. It isn’t as fun as Hairspray, but it is a much cleaner, much more appropriate version of Waters’ earlier films, and something truly very funny, but also very strange, if you want something like that, you can’t go wrong with this.
  3. Serial Mom (1994). I had so much fun watching this film. Like I said above, Pink Flamingos is his most famous film , Hairspray is his best film and then Serial Mom is my favorite of his films. It has the tone of a fun, accessible comedy – and it has a huge star in Kathleen Turner in the lead role. It devolves into a messy, hilarious dark comedy about murder and pure gore, and it is a delight to watch. It is intensely crazy and strangely endearing, but it is a great film regardless.
  4. Cecil B. DeMented (1998). A great concept and a memorable performance by the collective cast, led by Melanie Griffith, makes Cecil B. DeMented a fun, campy horror-comedy and Hollywood satire. It may be Waters’ weakest film, but it is highly original and tremendously fun, and a great piece of edgy social commentary.
  5. This Filthy World (2006). Not technically a Waters film, it is instead a documentary/one-man show that stars Waters, where he talks about his life, his inspirations and his career. This film was necessary to my love of Waters, because it humanized him in a way – he wasn’t this nefariously sinister filmmaker, making controversial films – he was just a human, just like any of us, with hopes and dreams. While I adore Waters, it is less for his films and more for his brilliant storytelling abilities, both in his amazing books and in his interviews and one-man shows. This is a revealing and honest portrayal of Waters and his life, told in his own words. If you want to see a new side to the filmmaker, watch this. It is tremendous fun…

John Waters is a very special artist – he made some revolting films, but he also made some amazing ones, and etched his way into film history. Despite his adoration for bad taste, and his moniker “The Pope of Trash”, John is a true class act, and a wonderfully witty and intelligent filmmaker who has left his mark on cinema. It seems, as of writing this, that he hasn’t made a new film in eleven years, and might not make another one…I hope he comes back for a glorious return, because cinema doesn’t only demand John Waters, it needs him to ensure the survival of anarchic cinema and progression of independent films. He is an important filmmaker, and I am truly an admirer of him, just because he’s such a strange, interesting man. Honestly, the only type of film that John Waters would fit into is one of his own, and that is why he is so unique.


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