Our review of Very Crudely Yours: The John Waters Collection, published August 22nd, 2005, is also available.
"The world of heterosexual is a sick and boring life!"—Aunt Ida (Edith Massey)
Billed as "a new high in low taste," John Waters' portrait of a bad girl gone…well, psychotic, is the Citizen Kane of trash cinema.
Facts of the Case
Even from her youth in 1960 Baltimore, Dawn Davenport (Divine) was destined for greatness. A defiant hair-hopper (the evil twin of Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad perhaps?), Dawn eats a meatball sandwich in the middle of a pop quiz in class, smokes in the ladies' room, and does not care if she fails school. In fact, she would love to flunk out. All she really wants is a pair of cha-cha heels for Christmas.
But when her parents deny her such an obvious tribute to her greatness, she runs away from home, has sex with a stranger (Divine as a man, driving a real Edsel!), gets pregnant, and delivers the baby by herself on a dirty couch.
Thus begins Dawn Davenport's criminal career. It is a career that will defy all propriety, convention, and logic. Beware the wrath of a woman scorned!
You might recall a discussion we had in my Deep Focus column on scare films and the "behavior offensive" of American educators in the 1950s and '60s. John Waters must have watched a lot of those movies in school. Consider "A Date with Your Family," in which young (white, middle class) kids were admonished to keep their emotions in check at the dinner table, make pleasant small talk, and behave more or less like robots in order to keep family discipline. Then watch Female Trouble: Dawn refuses to feed her own daughter Taffy (Mink Stole), so Taffy throws the spaghetti Dawn intends to serve to her guests (how déclassé!) against the wall—so Dawn hits her with a chair!
Add to that the fact that Mink Stole is clearly too old to play fourteen—but then aren't movies and television always trying to pass off adults in the parts of teens? When Dawn looks at her and deadpans, "For fourteen, you don't look so good," Waters makes it clear that we are all in on the joke. Check out Taffy's fun game of "Car Accident," an homage to grotesque auto safety films. Every "don't" from years of school indoctrination is thwarted with hysterical abandon in Female Trouble, from the importance of safety in shop class (Dawn's husband Gator (Michael Potter) uses his favorite tools during sex) to the perils of drug addiction (Dawn is lured into her life of crime when she starts mainlining liquid eyeliner).
The result is a hilarious send-up of codes of behavior in America, a critique of our cultural obsession with beauty and fame that rivals Citizen Kane for its timeliness and perceptiveness.
No, I'm not kidding.
Both Female Trouble and Citizen Kane chronicle the rise and fall of a quintessentially American figure. Dawn Davenport is a typical lower middle-class Baltimore kid, frustrated by school, misunderstood by her parents, but with the desire to becomes something greater. Granted, her only outlet for greatness is through crime and exhibitionism, as she spends the 1960s stripping, hooking, and rolling drunks, she and her comrades wearing nets over their hairdos instead of stockings over their faces. The great breakthrough comes when Dawn is taken in by the pretentious Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), who want to channel her aggression into "an experiment in beauty and crime."
This fusion of beauty and crime smacks of Jean Genet, although I doubt Waters meant such an "artsy" interpretation (although he admits on the commentary track to reading Genet). But just like Genet, Waters relishes the rebelliousness of trash, the underground of cultural counterfeits—the Dashers as would-be Warhols, Dawn herself as a drag-queen Liz Taylor—that feel more real than the commercialized and glossy surface of "proper" society. Dawn's entire world seems fake in so many ways, from her delusions of grandeur to the low-budget acid burn makeup Divine has to sport through the film's second half. When Dawn chops off the villainous Aunt Ida's hand with an axe, the cheap effect makes Herschell Gordon Lewis look like a PBS surgery documentary. But underneath the shoddy production values and stiff acting lies a deeper truth: this is America from the inside.
Both Waters' film and Kane are joyously experimental, created by artists who seem complete unaware of what they cannot do on film, and so they try everything. For Orson Welles, this means appropriating all the tools of stagecraft and European film technique and challenging the rules of traditional filmmaking. Of course, Kane is such an over-the-top display of technique that is smacks of an artistic immaturity Welles would later overcome. Oddly, Waters comes to Female Trouble already having pushed the limits of his trademark style at the expense of storytelling. Female Trouble then becomes his first completely successful film: it constantly surprises with lurid invention while actually having a story that comments on American society itself.
And like Citizen Kane, Waters' film was reviled by the mainstream in its own time, but can now be understood against the backdrop of the social forces that produced it: the pressures of middle class life, the cult of beauty, and the allure of the fashionable outlaw—all hallmarks of the media-saturated, war-traumatized, post-conformist 1960s.
But Orson Welles never would have had the balls to put Divine in a see-through wedding dress with fake female genitalia. Or a corpulent Edith Massey in a leather S&M outfit, pleading with her hairdresser nephew to turn gay. Or Divine molesting fish.
And Orson Welles, as brilliant as he was, never seemed to enjoy filmmaking as much as John Waters. The commentary track for Female Trouble is filled with funny stories and reminiscences. This film is understandably Waters' favorite, and he relishes telling tales of his Baltimore childhood and remembering the contributions of friends who participated in the film. Influenced by Buñuel and the Warhol Factory, he admits that his artistic techniques in those days consisted of capturing "ultimate reality." And like his idols, Waters portrays reality through a funhouse mirror: a reflection of the soul of America, if not its surface appearance. What makes a film like Female Trouble work so well, and certainly what makes me laugh, is the sense that everyone involved in the film is having so much fun making it. There is an infectious sense of joy to Waters' subversive agenda—he works hard to create a trashy, shocking effect, but it is never mean-spirited. The lurid underbelly of society (listen for his stories on the commentary track of attending the Manson trial) seems to amuse Waters. He still laughs at his own movies. Watching a John Waters film is like attending a party with your wackiest friends, the ones who always defy convention and yet are always eager to buy you a beer and joke about it later.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While there is little discernable difference between the new stereo surround remix and the original mono track (given the cheap production values), there are serious problems with the transfer on this restored edition. The dirt and specks on the print are to be expected, and probably enhance the trashy feel of the film, but the transfer suffers from serious artifacting and scan lines at several points in the film. As is usual for them, New Line sent the two discs that make up this latest John Waters double feature without their final packaging, on "test discs" only. As a result, I have no listing for the film's aspect ratio or whether this is an anamorphic transfer—and being a "test disc," I wonder if the shoddy transfer is a beta copy that I am meant to send feedback about. Well, here is my feedback: you screwed up, New Line. Fix this disc before it hits the streets.
Female Trouble is probably going to offend most people. In fact, it is supposed to offend most people. But at heart, it is really quite sweet in its joyous, populist trash aesthetic. And it is very funny. And paired up with the trash classic Pink Flamingos in a double feature for only $30, it is (assuming the transfer gets fixed before this streets) a great way to freak out your square friends. And isn't that worth a look?
New Line is issued a fine by the court for technical violations. John Waters is set free to cause plenty more trouble. And Dawn Davenport gets the electric chair—the bitch was asking for it anyway.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary Track with John Waters
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