If John Waters has a message for us – a contested notion, it would appear – it is that bad taste is not the mere absence of good taste. Bad taste, as exemplified in the Waters oeuvre, operates as a definite hierarchy, with a defined – if not refined – aesthetic. As Waters himself said, there is a distinction to be made between good bad taste and bad bad taste. In his ‘mondo trasho’, replete with bodily fluids, drag queens, incest and bestiality, low replaces high and the trashoisie replaces the bourgeoisie. And over the mess and the noise and the reek and the wrong, Waters reigns supreme.
Three films from the ‘psycho-ward’ days, as he so intimately refers to them, graced the screen at the Barbican’s Trash Trilogy. The weekend’s trash-in-triplicate is not to be confused with the book, Trash Trio: Three Screenplays, which includes screenplays of Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and Flamingos Forever: this is an impossible line-up, owing to the fact that Flamingos Forever was never made into a film. Apparently, Pink Flamingos did its job too well, overflowing with incredible crassness – enough for a sequel to require a series of unconscionable reversals of action and subversion. Indeed, the story of Divine, working toward her goal to be the filthiest person alive from the confines of her white trash trailer hide-out, pushes more than a few visceral buttons. Her archenemies, who assert a right to the title, are a wiry, bright-haired couple selling drugs to school children to fund the kidnapping and impregnation of young women, whose babies, once they’ve come to term in a dingy cavelike basement, are sold to wealthy lesbian couples. When Divine invades their household and, after having slobbered on every surface imaginable, performs oral incest with her son, the house rejects the couple, and Divine, triumphant, kills them on TV. Her mother’s insatiable appetite for eggs and her son’s bestial performances are no match for the woman herself: at the end of the film, as icing on the cake, one might say, she eats canine excrement.
Female Trouble furthers this competition of the low, this striving for the bottom, with a project engineered by the owners of a beauty parlour to show that crime makes people beautiful. They choose as their object of experimentation, of course, the lovely Divine. A criminal in her own right, Divine becomes an altogether different type of beauty than we would expect: obese and abrasive, she adds a newly scarred face to her cache of star qualities. Caging her neighbour and driving her daughter first to her estranged father, then to the Hare Krishnas, Divine herself ends up on death row for running amok with a rifle at her debut show. Sprinkled with invective against hippies, disgust with children, and jabs at artsy and gay types, the film evokes an over-the-top laughter from any audience. When Divine belatedly ‘aborts’ her fourteen year-old daughter, people cheer her on. What would Waters do without her?
Desperate Living is the answer. Divine was touring during production, and Waters had to give the role, written for her, to Mink Stole. The other members of Waters standard cast shine brilliantly in Mortville, a land constructed completely out of rubbish. The oddly medieval hamlet ruled by an evil queen reflects certain unequal economic relations in larger society, albeit in a more heterotopic space. The citizens of Mortville are the excluded of society: criminals, polysexuals and nudists inhabit the temporary shelters of the makeshift town. Of the three films screened, this one comes closest to camp in its setting and narrative. But is it camp? Andrew Ross calls camp that which is primarily concerned with reconstituting history’s trash as treasure (1). Some see Waters as low camp, but camp is cleaner, camp is ironic, camp is, to a large extent, highbrow, tapping into metonymy to bring about subtle ironic modifications in awareness. Waters’ films deal not with the trash of history, but the trash of the present: undigested and indigestible refuse; human waste. Waters levels the playing field at the bottom, with no ironic twists. ‘Real exploitation and real trash never uses irony, because the audience it’s made for knows you’re laughing at them – and you are,’ says Waters. ‘Satire or irony is elitist’ (2). Waters plants himself firmly in trash, a culture that died when pornography became legal and when bodies were purportedly recontextualised in a space of ‘the sexual’, where class and other social factors seemed to fade into the background.
Perhaps bad taste can thus be mapped along the contours of the body, or at least our relationship to it. The difference between Playboy and Hustler pretty much sums it up: some things are pretty, pink, distant and delicious; others are fat, putrid, close-up and clumsy. Poor taste, in its double-sense, suggests the class-specificity of bad taste: good bad taste is reserved for the underclass; in Waters films, this class is specifically white trash. By exaggerating all that is low, marginal and underexpressed in reality, Waters creates a subculture to which people aspire.
This is not to say that Waters himself follows the imperatives of bad taste in his personal life. ‘To understand bad taste’, says Waters in his book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, ‘one must have very good taste’ (3). Indeed, breaking the taboos of taste takes an intricate knowledge of taste hierarchies and the relative positioning of people and things in them. In this sense, Waters sees bad taste as liberating people from the shackles of accepted hierarchies. He doesn’t see trash as something to use as a weapon, or to make fun of people with, and always tries to involve objects of affection in his jokes. The huge roles he delegates to gay culture, drag aesthetics and his own hometown of Baltimore attest to this – they are all things he loves, and knows best how to critique.
Waters films are very funny. He is a master of tightly packed unthinkable narrative, and the ‘short’ comedy that proliferates throughout is right on. There is never a silent cinema when Divine is onscreen, and the humour has a purposeful effect. ‘Comedy is how you change people’s opinions’, says Waters. ‘If you can make somebody laugh, they are disarmed and they listen to you’ (4). With such subversive material as Waters chooses to depict, one can only hope that laughter and a bit of shock value will leave people more open to accepting that the characters onscreen might be worthy of their aspirations.
1) Andrew Ross, ‘Uses of Camp’, in No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, London and New York, Routledge, 1989, p151; cited in Daniel Mudie Cunningham, John Waters, in Senses of Cinema, 2003. The following argumentation runs counter to Cunningham, who finds Waters to be camp.
2) John Waters, Filth 101: An Open Discussion with John Waters, European Graduate School Lecture, 2001.
3 ) John Waters, Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, New York, Delta, 1981, p2.
4) John Waters, Intro to Film Terrorism: An Open Discussion with John Waters, European Graduate School Lecture, 2000.