John Waters: King of Camp and Auteur of Cult Trash

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Wearing lovingly mocking monikers such as “King of Camp,” “Baron of Bad Taste,” or “Pope of Trash” with pride and a pencil-thin mustache, filmmaker John Waters is an icon of queer cinema. His signature stylistic mark permeates every frame of his transgressive cult classics — often low-budget black comedies set in his native Baltimore and featuring recurring cast and crew from his Dreamland Productions. Waters’ gritty do-it-yourself aesthetic manifests itself in his filmmaking approach: frequently writes, directs, produces, photographs, and edits his own works.

Pink Flamingos is considered by many to be Waters’ magnum opus, his masterpiece of trash. - New Line Cinema

Waters’ darkly comedic work is deeply intertwined with queerness. He has long focused his films on people on the margins and pushes back against the confines of heteronormative society. His films explore the abject and transgressive, the people and ideas cast out of the mainstream. Underdogs, outsiders, weirdos, and self-described filth are not only featured in the films but are the protagonists. Drag queen and countercultural icon Divine stars in many of Waters’ works, including Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974), in which Divine plays the double role of Dawn Davenport and Earl Peterson. The films’ plotlines frequently revolve around sex, crime, or some combination of both, blurring the boundary between right and wrong or beautiful and ugly, or between good taste and bad taste. In Pink Flamingos, Divine plays a criminal who lives under the name of Babs Johnson and is widely known as “the filthiest person alive” — though rivals Connie and Raymond Marble are constantly trying to steal this title from her by proving their own filth. Babs secures her title in part by hacking up police with a meat cleaver and eating them. Multiple Maniac’s Lady Divine also goes on a murder spree, while Dawn Davenport gets set to the electric chair for strangling someone. All of their acts are outrageous, flamboyant, and over-the-top, creating sensationalized and sensational stories of blood and lust for flesh.

Despite the horrific nature of some of the crimes, the films never take the murders too seriously. As Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious.” Waters does just that-dethroning the serious stuffiness of the suburban bourgeoisie to take his place as the rightful king of camp. He constantly destabilizes and dismantles typical standards of beauty or propriety. In Hairspray (1988), Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad dances her way onto the Corny Collins Show. Tracy subverts the expectations of the atmosphere of racism and fatphobia that wants to bar anyone not white and skinny from the show, and finds herself via the social upheavals of the 1960s. Even though the main relationships in the film are heterosexual, queerness and camp pervade each frame.  Divine plays Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, and the film is deeply concerned with transgressing boundaries and making forbidden spaces accessible to those deemed “other.” After achieving fame on the show, Tracy declares that “now all of Baltimore will know I’m big, blonde, and beautiful!” The bright color palette, big hair, and inherent campiness of a musical all show that being different is something to celebrate.

Divine (left) and Ricki Lake (right) star as Edna and Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray and share messages of body positivity and racial acceptance. - Palace Pictures

As one character says in Female Trouble: “The world of heterosexual is a sick and boring life,” while Waters’ queer camp aesthetic, where everything is done to excess, is anything but boring. Female Trouble parodies beauty standards and creates its own vision of female representation and queer aesthetics through chameleonic makeup transformations of Divine. Teenager Dawn Davenport (played by Divine) doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas, and runs away from home. She becomes pregnant after being raped by the man who picks her up hitchhiking (played by Divine out of drag), and eventually, she becomes a “crime model.” “We have a theory that crime enhances one’s beauty,” Dawn is told; “The worse the crime gets, the more ravishing one becomes. We want you to prove us right.” Lowliness, depravity, and criminality can be beautiful in Waters’ world. Later, Dawn Davenport has acid thrown on her face in a vicious attack, but the scene of removing the bandages in the hospital becomes a triumphant unveiling complete with a photographer. Her face is likened to the Mona Lisa, and the whole absurd scene is said to be “just like an art opening” — camp aesthetics are celebrated, and low culture is deemed just as worthy of attention as high culture, and perhaps even more so.

In addition to parodying ideas about what is beautiful, Waters’ work is never afraid to magnify ugliness, dirtiness, and filth. Multiple Maniacs, which its posters dub a “celluloid atrocity,” begins with an emcee introducing a sideshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion. He calls it “the sleaziest show on Earth,” filled with “real actual filth who have been carefully screened in order to present to you the most flagrant violations of natural law known to man.” Waters revels in the revolting and grotesque, celebrates the off-putting and depraved, and exalts the twisted and perverted. Many of his scenes offer strong hits of shock value to enraptured audiences. Highlights include a reenactment of Stations of the Cross set in counterpoint to a lesbian sex scene in a church; a sexual assault involving a giant lobster; and Divine consuming dog droppings or shooting up liquid eyeliner.

Female Trouble‘s Dawn Davenport (center) becomes even more beautiful to her fans with every crime she commits. -Criterion

Waters and his characters do not care about conforming or being proper. His work redefines what “taste” means, and what classifies a film as “good” or “bad.” Just as his protagonists often exist on the fringes of their communities, Waters’ films exist on the fringe of Hollywood — made with extremely low budgets and rough textures. Yet that only further reinforces the whole against-the-grain approach of his unique brand of outsider art. He provides voices on-screen to queer communities, outcasts, and pariahs, exposing parts of society or facets of the rebellious gay Baltimore familiar to him. Watch any one of his films filled with dirt and drag, sex and sequins, filth and feathers,, and it’s easy to say that it is all utterly ludicrous trash — but it’s beautiful gilded trash, the trash that we cannot help but be drawn to like flies.


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