February 2010

Arts & Letters

Divine intervention

By Peter Conrad
John Waters at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. © Alan Stevens/Flickr
John Waters

Australia’s girdling oceans used to serve as a prophylactic, our defence against the infectious depravity of the northern hemisphere. The Customs Act 1901 fiercely preserved our innocence; during my adolescence in the late 1960s I made an impatient inventory of the prohibited books and films I intended to catch up with as soon as I got overseas. Nowadays culture spreads through the ether like a global pandemic, bypassing the barricades of censorship. This month, writer–director John Waters – whose most infamous film, Pink Flamingos, was banned here in 1972 – will arrive in Australia to perform his hilariously indecent one-man show This Filthy World.

In 1973 the Whitlam government cleared the list of books proscribed by the Customs Act 1901, but the wowsers retained control of film censorship. Pink Flamingos was only grudgingly licensed “for restricted exhibition” in 1984, when its proud distributor designed a poster that promised “IT IS DISGUSTING”. For good or ill, the slogan told the truth. The film, populated by a gaggle of freaks and ogres unearthed by Waters in his native Baltimore, is a stomach-churning scatfest. The elephantine transvestite Divine – bulging out of her frilled and spangled gowns, her eyebrows extended into inky lightning bolts, her blonde mane erupting from atop her shaved scalp – lives in a collapsed trailer and feeds her degenerate brood with a shop-lifted steak that she tenderises between her torrid thighs. Her mother, an amorphous hag in a bra and girdle, lolls in an infant’s crib gobbling eggs; her son copulates in a backyard shed, using a flustered, squawking chook as a dildo. Craving fame at any price, Divine boasts of being “the filthiest person alive”, only to have her claim challenged by a pair of fascist beauticians, one of whom attaches a string of cocktail sausages to his floppy penis before flaunting it at schoolgirls in a park. Divine captures the pretenders, tars and feathers them, then executes them on live television. Absconding from the law at the end of the film, she pauses for a snack. Squatting in the gutter beside a constipated terrier, she waits for it to deposit a pyramid of oven-fresh poop, then scoops up a handful and gobbles it down, licking her lips in satiation.

Surrealism made grossing us out a legitimate aesthetic aim; nausea, for Sartre, was the logical response to the viscous vileness of our organic life. After Buñuel’s slashed eyeball in Un chien andalou (1929) or Meret Oppenheim’s photograph of a fur-lined teacup nearly 50 years earlier, we can hardly object to Divine’s faecal treat, or to the yodelling anal sphincter that lip-synchs a song at her birthday party. In Buñuel’s L’âge d’or, a female erotomaniac sucks the alabaster toe of a statue; more inventively and more outrageously, Divine gives a blow job to the house inhabited by her rivals. She laps the furniture and slobbers on the banisters, leaving behind her a secretion as intimate as the hormone squirted out by excited dogs.

In 1972, these “offensive acts” (as the Australian Censorship Board called them) amounted to a manifesto for a new kind of counterculture, different from the liberated bliss of the Aquarian 1960s. A return to nature, proposed by the hippies in Hair when they camp out in Central Park, was hardly an option for Waters. A character in Desperate Living (1977) shudders as she drives through the woods and berates the trees for stealing her oxygen: “I want cement covering every blade of grass in this nation!” Pink Flamingos surveys an America that is not only fallen, but trampled, trashed, besmeared with turds. The young Waters preferred gore and grotesquerie to beauty; elated by the murderous rampages of Charles Manson’s gang, he extolled violence, which was revolution by other means. When Divine is asked about her political beliefs, she snaps “Kill everyone now!” then cackles with maenadic delight.

Having been born on the comfortable outskirts of Baltimore, Waters could easily have ignored the wasteland of trailer parks, thrift shops and seedy dives in which Pink Flamingos is set. But although his parents indulged him and subsidised his earliest films, he admired the kids who greased their quiffs, wore crotch-compressing blue jeans and ostentatiously spat in the street. To use the tribal terminology of Cry-Baby (1990), he came from a family of Squares, but aspired to be a delinquent Drape. His role model was Patty Hearst, the heiress, socialite, urban guerrilla and bank robber, who appears – ironically cast as an icon of matronly virtue – in many of his films: with the help of her Symbionese Liberation Army kidnappers, she committed the ultimate act of social treason.

Andy Warhol, the child of poor immigrants in the ethnic ghetto of Pittsburgh, fantasised about escaping to affluent, glamorous Manhattan. He climbed out of the underground; Waters, anxious for social demotion, descended into it. The different routes they took are evident in the contrasting ways they use the figure of Jackie Kennedy. Warhol revered her as a tragedy queen and made her one of his superstars. The downwardly mobile Waters had no such deference: in 1967, he restaged JFK’s assassination for his film Eat Your Makeup, with Divine playing an ungainly, overweight Jackie. More recently, he dressed a dime-store Jackie O doll in the scarlet costume Divine wears in Pink Flamingos, even handing it the gun she uses to kill her hostages.

Waters tells the same autobiographical story in all his films: wan, constipated WASPs succumb to marauders from the ghetto or the slums. In Female Trouble (1974), Divine rejects her respectable parents, topples their Christmas tree and stomps off to cavort as a go-go girl in a bar for drooling seniors. In Hairspray (1988), an older and even portlier Divine – now prissily defined by an aide to the Governor of Maryland as “upper lower class” – encourages her frumpy daughter to gatecrash a dance contest monopolised by richer, snottier teens. Ten years later in Pecker, a photographer, whose subject is Baltimore’s lowlife, refuses to be patronised by Manhattan dealers and curators, and defiantly clings to his old, ugly neighbourhood. Having spurned the middle class, Waters derides the pretensions of those who desire to join it. In Polyester (1981), Edith Massey is an elderly cleaner who decides, despite her toothless decrepitude and her waddling load of fat, to launch herself as a debutante, while Tab Hunter is the arriviste owner of a drive-in who programs arty triple bills by Marguerite Duras and serves oysters and champagne instead of burgers and soda at the refreshments stand.

In Desperate Living, Waters constructs an alternative to the leafy suburb where he grew up: Mortville is a shantytown cobbled together from refuse, a lair for outlaws and renegades ruled by a madly capricious dominatrix whose enforcers are a squad of leatherboys. Cecil B. DeMented (2000) contains another of his model communities. This time it’s a gutted factory converted into a makeshift film studio, a place where fantasies can run riot and the auteur theory sponsors a sadistic abuse of power. Cecil B. DeMented struts in militaristic boots and issues orders with the aid of a bullwhip. His lesbian director of photography calls herself Pam Peckinpah, and a vampirish make-up artist – doing her best to drain blood from the faces of the actors – has Kenneth Anger’s name tattooed on her chest.

As if detaching himself from his parental heritage weren’t enough, Waters even flirts with the possibility of secession from the sober, industrious United States. Baltimore is a southern city, and the Drapes in Cry-Baby unrepentantly replay the American Civil War: the hillbilly matriarch wears a Johnny Reb cap, and their hideout is decorated with the Confederate flag.

With his spivvy moustache and emaciated body, Waters has fashioned a sinister, devious persona for himself. In This Filthy World he emerges from a confessional box, though the mournful wheezing of an organ and the urns of flowers suggest that he may be doing his vaudeville act in a funeral parlour: he’s either a slightly too dapper mortician who takes liberties with the cadavers, or a priest you wouldn’t want to encounter in the vestry.

Squalor is his chosen weapon against puritanical America. He adores the body’s output of ooze. “I couldn’t wait to be an adolescent so I could get pimples,” he says in his book Shock Value (1981). Once the pustules sprouted he squeezed them, like Debbie Harry popping her daughter’s zit in Hairspray; his photographic assemblages include an array of acne-pocked faces, with pimples as inverse beauty spots. Waters is also a connoisseur of body parts that art usually keeps discreetly out of sight. Elaborately displayed inside a border of velvet curtains, the orifices in his composite photograph Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot pucker and pout, wink like eyes or gape alarmingly like nether mouths. As he explains in The Filthy World, he draws the line only at what gay argot refers to as “blossoms”: anal openings that have been distended by a speculum for sexual play, or fisted so often that they unfurl like pink flowers rather than clenching tight.

Waters is at his best when he makes you want to look away. What he spies on is obscene, but these are Freudian primal scenes, forbidden reveries projected onto the screens behind our shuttered eyes. In Desperate Living we have a privileged glimpse of Magna Mater gestating the world. A blubbery woman, quite mythologically hefty, orders her female bedmate “Eat it, baby!” and lies back to enjoy her orgasm; the spectacle resembles an earthquake in a vat of chocolate mousse. There’s a heretical riff on Genesis in Pink Flamingos when Edith Massey, gnawing shells and sucking up yolk, asks where eggs come from. Divine outlines her own version of our origins. “From little chickens, Mama” she purrs. “They lay them and we eat them.” She stresses cannibalism not creation; hatching is no part of the cycle. Elsewhere in the same film, a cross-dressing man vigorously jerks off, decants the sperm into a syringe, then uses the tube to inseminate a kidnapped girl. Anything rather than go through the dreary motions prescribed by nature!

In Female Trouble we see Divine rape herself, a feat accomplished by pairing the imaginary female with her male original. The sacred monster’s twin halves come together in a muddy ditch on Christmas morning; I’m not sure what I find hardest to forget – Divine’s fluffy slippers poking the air, or the brown-streaked underpants of her male alter ego as his chubby buttocks pump up and down. She subsequently gives birth on a dented settee, reaching down to extract from between her legs a brand-new infant (rushed from the maternity ward to the film set by its obliging mother). Divine then chews on the umbilical cord, actually a daisy-chain of condoms stuffed with liver paste.

Growing older, Waters has had to watch from the sidelines as others conduct this kind of erotic experimentation. He’s no longer exactly in the swing: This Filthy World contains snide asides about the gay fads of anal bleaching, tea-bagging (which involves banging your partner’s face with your balls) and helicoptering (in which an erection becomes a baton, doling out punishment like the blade of a chopper). With a wistful grimace, he admits to being “gaily incorrect”.

He may have outlived his youthful manias – or perhaps those obsessions were never quite as deviant as they seemed. Serial Mom (1994) exposes an affinity between his gratuitous outrages and the conformism of the suburbs: Kathleen Turner slaughters neighbours who don’t floss their teeth or separate waste for recycling or rewind rental videos. Hers is the crusade of a moralist, for whom poor hygiene and bad manners are capital crimes. While Waters the satirist once dreamed of being a mass murderer like Charles Manson or the Reverend Jim Jones (who persuaded a thousand acolytes to swallow a libation of poisoned Kool-Aid in Guyana in 1978), a prim internal censor persuaded him to transform carnage into comedy and punished his fanciful infractions. In Hairspray he cast himself as a repressive shrink who straitjackets a white girl to separate her from her black boyfriend and re-educates her using a cattle prod. There may even have been a self-mortifying purpose to the course Waters taught to inmates at a Maryland prison, where he screened the films he called “my crimes”. In his book Crackpot (1987) he writes, “I loved going to jail so much it got embarrassing.” Was he hoping to scare himself straight?

The dissident director in Cecil B. DeMented rails that “Hollywood stole our sex and co-opted our violence.” Hollywood eventually co-opted Waters, enticing him out of the underground with bigger budgets, persuading him to ingratiate with audiences rather than disturb them. In Pink Flamingos he used a protesting chicken as a sex toy before beheading it, but in A Dirty Shame (2004) the squirrel squashed by Tracey Ullman’s car is an incorporeal ghost with pixels where its entrails ought to be. The befouled underpants from Female Trouble give way to a clinical discussion of detergents at the laundromat in Pecker. Waters found a role in Cry-Baby for Traci Lords, an underage porn star who was wanted for questioning by the FBI. Born Nora Kuzma, she adopted a professional name that jeered at Tracy Lord, the hoity-toity patrician played by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story; Waters surely delighted in this travesty of a WASP goddess. The studio, however, required him to sanitise Traci’s character, and the would-be vixen turns out to be a simpering virgin.

As the disillusioned Pecker retreats to Baltimore, a sarcastic New Yorker offers “a toast to the end of irony!” When irony relaxes its guard, gooey sentimentalism takes over. The happy ending in Polyester is a sickly fragrance dispensed by Divine from an aerosol can, which covers up the stench of rotting corpses in her driveway; the hearty, fuzzy happy endings of Pecker and Cry-Baby actually expect to make us feel better about the world. Thanks to the Broadway adaptation of Hairspray and the Hollywood remake with John Travolta, America now finds Waters lovable, not repellent, which must be at once gratifying and dismaying. Whenever he attempts to resume his excoriation of the country, he’s warned off by a sanctimonious paranoia that is the legacy of September 11. Reissuing Crackpot in 2003, he wondered about the appropriateness of a hijacking joke, and in This Filthy World he fidgets as he tries to disarm our nervy insecurity. “What gay people have to do is use humour as terrorism,” he remarks; in the same performance, recorded in New York in 2006, he also salutes Traci Lords as “a sexual terrorist”. But Al Qaeda’s suicide bombers have aims far beyond teasing and mocking, and they postpone consummation until the afterlife, when they expect to be pleasured by troops of celestial nymphs.

With the way ahead unclear, Waters is marking time with his antipodean detour. He once said “I’ll go anywhere”, adding that he even accepted an invitation to Iceland in mid-winter. Australia was unready for him in 1972. In the Australia of 2010 – a more worldly-wise place, not so easy to shock – he may look sadly belated, risking the putdown he overheard a New York friend deliver at a premiere: “Limousines are soooo September tenth!” All the same, he ought to be welcomed. Art has a mission to offend, which is why the French decadents set out to “épater le bourgeois” by imbibing hashish, opium and absinthe. Dog shit is a democratic substitute for those mind-altering potions: legal, cheap and unlikely to be addictive.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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