Divine Trash at The Astor

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As trashy as some of his films are, John Waters knows how to provoke a reaction from his audience, whether positive or negative. Being a pioneer of pushing the boundaries of taste, he made some truly memorable and experimental films early on in his career, some of which even by today’s brazen standards are considered gross and far out.

But this man showed us that anyone with an idea—no matter how depraved—could pick up a movie camera and make something great. Not great in the traditional sense; he was never going to win an Oscar or gain the respect of the wider film community, but great in the sense that our deep, dark guilty pleasures are something that we put a lot of worth in: they give us joy and provide us with something that we find hard to obtain anywhere else.

Though one could say that Waters’ films are anything but joyful (other words people have substituted in the past have been: sickening, incestuous filth), there is a glee in each of his films that he revels in, the freaks that he portrays are not distant, isolated or studied coldly, he gets right up close and personal with them, there is a deep fondness ingrained in everything his camera captures.

Though his films shifted from trashy to kitschy during the mid-80s, and got tamer as the years wore on (with the exception of his last film few films, particularly A Dirty Shame, in which he proved that he still has the power to shock), he never lost that fondness and warmth he showed all the characters in his films.

Over a period of a few days, The Astor Theatre is turning into down-town Baltimore to host a John Waters-a-thon, and here is a quick run-down of the films:

Female Trouble (1974) & Polyester (1981) October 14th 7.30pm

Spoilt, petulant child Dawn Davenport (Divine) blows up on Christmas day when she doesn’t get a pair of cha-cha heels that she really wants. She then runs away from home and turns to a life of crime. Though not as great as some of Waters other trash-outings, Female Trouble is just as hysterical and energetic. Features a scene in which Divine is raped by Glen Milstead (Divine’s birth name and alter-ego) using trick-photography. Also features a great theme-song written by Waters and sung by Divine.

Using the gimmick of ‘Odorama’—a process that utilises a smell-card during segments of the film, which I hear has been resurrected for Rodriguez’s latest instalment of Spy KidsPolyester was Waters’ first attempt at something a little less trashy and a little more refined. Just a little, though.

Poor housewife (Divine, of course) has dreams of a better life without her pornographer husband, slut daughter and weirdo son. When the opportunity presents itself in the form of handsome Todd (Tab Hunter), it seems too good to be true. And it is.

Sure, it’s gimmicky and as melodramatic as a soap opera, but Divine’s performance is less over-the-top, and it’s a little more polished and precisely made than his previous films. You can see that Waters’ eye has become keener, his style clearer, and the trajectory of the rest of his career in gestation.

Pink Flamingos (1972) & A Dirty Shame (2004) October 15th 7.30pm
Waters’ magnum opus is about Babs Johnson, the self-proclaimed filthiest person alive. Living with her family in a caravan in the middle of a field in Baltimore, Babs’ title of filthiest person alive is contested by Connie and Raymond Marble—a pair of colourful-haired freaks who kidnap women, impregnate them then sell their babies to lesbian couples—Babs has to hit back hard if she wants to keep what is hers. And she proves to everyone that her title will never be usurped.

Disgusting and truly shocking at times, it’ll be a cold day in hell when another film comes along that provokes as much of a reaction as Pink Flamingos has continued to do over the years. It’s brilliant.

A Dirty Shame was a real return to form for Waters in my eyes. Tracy Ullman’s character Sylvia leads a quiet, moral life. She works at a convenient store, is married to a handsome if dull fellow (Chris Issak), and has a huge-faked-titted daughter (Selma Blair) that she is trying to keep on the straight and narrow. One day she has an accident, receives a concussion and wakes up a sex-crazed nympho. Enter sexual-healer Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), who takes her and an underground group of sexual liberationists in Baltimore on a journey of sexual discovery.

A story of liberation versus repression, this film is almost a comment on the reaction Waters’ films have continually received over the years, and sadly shows how little the world has progressed in that time.

Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990) & Divine Trash (1998) October 16th from 2pm

Before it was reinvented as a Broadway musical then turned into a musical-feature-film starring a cross-dressing John Travolta, Hairspray was a fun and inoffensive 60s style dance film starring a young Ricky Lake, in which her character Tracy Turnblad gains fame on a TV dance show and fights for hers and everyone else’s right to party without things like segregation killing their buzz. Lighter than his previous films, this one makes up for it with a heart-felt if idealistic message.

Continuing with the retro theme, John Waters cast Johnny Depp as a young greaser who falls in love with a square girl in Cry-Baby. The two star-crossed lovers encounter difficulties in the form of their social groups, families and pasts, but they end up… well, you see where this is going. As with Hairspray, it’s candy-coloured and sugary, but Cry-Baby has a really likeable cast and a fun, unabashed vibe. It’s entertaining viewing.

I saw Steve Yeager’s great retrospective documentary on Waters’ career and his cultural significance, Divine Trash, late one night on SBS when I was sixteen, and I credit it with introducing me to his brilliance. With interviews from the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi, as well as Waters own participation in the doco, it is a fascinating play-by-play account of the man’s extremely peculiar career. Also features ancient footage of interviews with the cast from his films at the time of production and some great behind the scenes stuff from Pink Flamingos.

It’s a real shame that Desperate Living isn’t being played in this line-up. Track that one down if want to see more and prefer his trashy, disturbing films over his later lolly-pop kitsch.

For full session times at information visit: www.astor-theatre.com

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