It was William S. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch and other cozy bedtime stories, who once memorably proclaimed that John Waters was "the pope of trash." This was lofty praise indeed -- coming as it did from one of the most fascinatingly warped imaginations of the past millennium -- but Waters had more than earned the title. As the Baltimore boy behind such delightfully vile confections as Desperate Living and Pink Flamingos, Waters brought an almost religious fervor to the pursuit of absolute cinematic nastiness. Pink Flamingos, for instance, featured that notorious scene in which Waters' muse, the tubby transvestite known as Divine, gave new meaning to the phrase "shit-eating grin" when she/he quite literally and enthusiastically ate dog shit onscreen. (And this was actual poo-poo, mind you, not some chocolate simulacrum cooked up by a special-effects lab.) Excerpts from the film were once screened during an obscenity trial for a porno movie, as a desperate but inspired effort by the defense to make the porn movie look tame by comparison. Waters' early films weren't simply gross, they were a calculated, gleefully depraved affront to, well . . . everything, really.
This week, in conjunction with the exhibit "John Waters: Change of Life" (see stories elsewhere in this issue), the Orange County Museum of Art kicks off a festival of Waters' work, featuring four films chosen seemingly at random and presented in no particular order. All of them are worth cringing through.
Like Michael Jordan
After seeing Waters' exhibit,
Rebecca Schoenkopf urges
him to stick to filmmaking
interviews Waters The show's debut picture, 1988's Hairspray, was Waters' 11th film, made two decades into his career. By the late '80s Waters felt he'd run out of taboos to shatter and longed to escape the underground scene; at the time, he compared cult success to jerking off. And so he made the most shocking move of his career: he went mainstream. Hairspray was his "breakout" picture, a cheery teen musical only slightly more twisted than your average Nickelodeon movie. It was a big pile of kooky fun that introduced us to the new and frankly far less interesting Waters we would get to know in the '90s.
Next week we jump back to 1981's Polyester, the last of Waters' raunchy early films. Divine is, well, divine as Francine Fishpaw, a desperate housewife (Teri Hatcher she ain't) with a wildly dysfunctional family and a heart athrob for drive-in owner Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter). Originally presented in "Odorama," with audience members using scratch 'n' sniff cards to experience the film's olfactory horrors right along with the heroine, this thing stinks as good now as it did back in the Reagan era.
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The following week we jump ahead into the '90s (getting dizzy yet?) for Serial Mom, starring Kathleen Turner as the titular homicidal matriarch. It's an intriguing mess, but it's minor Waters, and frankly it's unfortunate one of his superior films isn't getting this kind of showcase. The festival closes Dec. 1 with 1998's Pecker, starring Edward Furlong as an aspiring photographer and Christina Ricci as his girlfriend. The salty title aside, this is easily Waters' tamest work; it's a winning, warm-hearted comic drama that teeters on the edge of cliche without ever falling in. (This is Waters, after all.) It was the last of the director's "nice" '90s pictures, before 2000's Cecil B. DeMented signaled his intention to get back to where he belonged and start making degenerate little comedies again. (I don't imagine that picture's gerbil porn would have found a welcoming audience among OCMA's patrons.)
Beginning Dec. 8, the museum will present John Waters' Flick Picks, featuring the cheesy movies that inspired him. The 1968 Liz Taylor bomb Boom is followed by 1980's yuletide slasher picture You Better Watch Out (just in time for Christmas) and wraps up with Mervyn LeRoy's 1956 horror show The Bad Seed, starring Patty McCormack as one of filmdom's great demon children.
Finally, in January, the two film fests hop in bed for a night of sweaty fun, with a double feature of Douglas Sirk's 1955 swooning melodrama All That Heaven Allows and Waters' own 1974 atrocity Female Trouble. Divine stars as Dawn Davenport, a harpy who could devour the Serial Mom in one gulp. This is far and away the best and most reprehensible of the Waters films screening at OCMA, but all those other movies should serve to tide you over pretty well until the new year.
ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122; WWW.OCMA.NET. HAIRSPRAY SCREENS THURS., NOV. 3, 7 P.M.; CHECK WEBSITE FOR FOLLOW-UP SHOW INFO. FREE.