This week, the Logan Theatre is showing the musical comedy Hairspray, exploitation legend John Waters’s crossover hit. Waters, of course, is known for his ultratrashy, down and dirty comedies, shot guerilla-style on the streets of Baltimore and often featuring drag queens and miscreants in the cast. But he’s enjoyed as much if not more success in the mainstream, where his campy style jells perfectly with Hollywood gaudiness. I’m wouldn’t call myself a Waters devotee, but I’m drawn to the brazen and outright confrontational nature of his early films. Conversely, I find some of his later work—Hairspray included—relatively toothless. That’s not to say I think he lost his edge when he moved on to bigger budgets—I agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum when he says Hairspray expanded the director’s appeal without compromising his vision—but I love the 16-millimeter grit of the early work, as well as Waters’s ability to produce results out of slapdash, ramshackle clusterfucks. Such is the poetry of all guerrilla cinema, but when you add Waters’s vulgar, transgressive sensibilities, the outcome is doubly unique. You can find my five favorite John Waters films after the jump.
5. Serial Mom (1994) Kathleen Turner’s career-best performance is the primary draw for this comedy, which finds Waters satirizing conservative wholesomeness and America’s obsession with true-crime theater. It’s one of the director’s more accessible films, yet it’s still a wholly personal effort.
4. Pecker (1998) Not the most bawdy Waters film, but completely pleasant nonetheless. It’s usually described as the director’s attempt to make a mainstream movie, as he’d done with Hairspray, but I’ve always considered it his way of bending the mainstream to meet his personal style, a la David Lynch with The Straight Story. Either way, there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a Waters film, if only because the queer Baltimore milieu is once again so expertly drawn.
3. Multiple Maniacs (1970) The director’s most scathing film, and the one that features perhaps his most obscene sequence, the infamous “rosary bead” scene. Shock value aside, the satire here is irresistible, and the Catholic Church is just one of many victims. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his capsule, the mainstream and counterculture are skewered in equal measure, indicative of the director’s sardonic way of coping with the failed dreams of the 1960s. Not available on DVD, but there are ways of tracking it down . . .
2. Female Trouble (1974) For a while, this was one of the director’s more difficult films to see, but despite being generally unavailable for decades, its reputation as one of his best films stood strong. Suitably lurid, the film offers a twisted yet blisteringly honest look at the allure of criminality, a pet theme for Waters that’s expertly explored here. Divine, Waters’s most famous collaborator, pulls double duty here, playing a male character and a female character, and in the film’s most famous scene essentially “fucks herself.”
1. Pink Flamingos (1972) Among the most famous entries in the shock-cinema canon and the key example of the aforementioned “Baltimore aesthetic,” this pitch-black comedy is usually the first stop for the uninitiated. Waters not only refuses to glamorize poverty but strives to deglamorize the very idea of glamor, so much that the film becomes a critique of materialism as much as an exercise in trash aestheticism. As the director Gus Van Sant once wrote, “It’s all part of the lowball-punk-fuck-it-who-cares-and-who’s-gonna-know-anyway ground rules of the Baltimore aesthetic.”