The best box set of the year? Very Crudely Yours is a treasure trove of John Waters' inspired trash, and Judge Bill Gibron is happy to be the one wallowing around in it.
Our reviews of A Dirty Shame (published June 14th, 2005), Female Trouble (published September 26th, 2001), Hairspray (1988) (published May 22nd, 2001), Hairspray (1988) (Blu-ray) (published March 19th, 2014), Hairspray (2007) (Blu-ray) (published November 20th, 2007), Hairspray (2007) (published November 13th, 2007), Pecker (published May 22nd, 2001), Pink Flamingos (published September 26th, 2001), and Polyester / Desperate Living (published August 16th, 2001) are also available.
"Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!"—Divine, Pink Flamingos
Once upon a time, John Waters was the Jesus of Cool. He was, and still continues to be, the blasphemous god of the gross out. He made his name initially by getting a drag queen to eat dogshit on camera, and parlayed that blatant publicity stunt into a fascinating career filled with magical, mesmerizing movies. And he did it without the help of the mainstream. In an era (the '70s) where auteurism was championed as the cinematic equivalent of the Beatles, Waters and his wicked collaborators at Dreamland Studios became the Velvet Underground. With a penchant for provocative, puerile subject matter, and a group of friends willing to do anything to make his vision come to life, the writer/director's demented DIY spirit set the groundwork for the emergent indie scene, created the midnight movie, drove punks' penchant for provocation, and rewrote the rules on how to be a cinematic success.
Now, nearly four decades after he began his journey into the celluloid cesspool, Waters is finally getting some manner of due. New Line Cinema, long a champion of the artist, is releasing a near-definitive box set which follows the filmmaker's career, from his first major success (1972's Pink Flamingos) to his most recent slice of endearing indignation (2004's A Dirty Shame). In between we get glimpses of the spirited social commentary and downright insane sense of humor that made Waters a beloved belittler of modern morays. If you love the man and his moviemaking madness, this is a definitive collection (albeit one that treads heavily on dreaded double-dip territory). If you've always been curious about Waters and his pencil-thin perversity, Very Crudely Yours is a great place to start. You get his best works, his most accessible films, and a couple of buried treasures that have often paled in comparison to their far more famous brethren.
Facts of the Case
Unlike the previous releases of these titles, New Line opts against combining two films into a single cardboard keepcase dynamic. Instead, each film is now offered in its own full-sized DVD container. There are seven films and a separate bonus features disc in this set, representing 32 years in John Waters' crazy, confounding career. Certainly there are some gaps (no early films, a few major studio MIAs), but the overall content here is sensational. Looking at the plots of each film individually, you start to get the idea of Waters' warped sensibilities. Let's begin with his most famous—and scandalous—film:
• Pink Flamingos (1972)
• Female Trouble (1974)
• Desperate Living (1977)
• Polyester (1981)
• Hairspray (1988)
• Pecker (1998)
• A Dirty Shame (2004)
There is also an eighth disc in this set, an official DVD release that originally came as part of a special offer. New Line once allowed anyone who bought the original double-packs a chance to redeem their proof of purchases for something called The John Waters Scrapbook. Presenting a timeline look at Waters' life and career, we are treated to film clips, outtakes, EPK pieces, audio interviews, documentary featurettes, and a wealth of personal and promotional photos. For this one mammoth presentation alone, the set is worth the price of digital admission.
When looking over his entire career, it is easy to categorize John Waters and the movies he's made. The first three legitimate films in his ouevre (discounting Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, Eat Your Makeup, and The Diane Linkletter Story) are all works of experimental cinema. While all have some manner of narrative, Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos represent the avant-garde end of the filmmaker's canon. With success came Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester—his trilogy of takes on suburbia and the Establishment lifestyle. Hairspray and Crybaby are his nostalgic nods to substantive "straight" influences from the past (Baltimore's Buddy Deane Show and Juvenile Delinquent films), while Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented, and A Dirty Shame make up his "Loves and Obsessions" series, covering such personal fascinations as crime/trials, the art world, independent filmmaking, and sexual perversion. No other moviemaker has been as daring with his subject matter, or as free with his or her subconscious. Waters wears his idiosyncratic ideas out on his sleeve for everyone to witness, and he's not beyond beating you over the head with them to get his point across.
As an auteur, Waters is a genius. But from a cinematic standpoint, his films are rather plain. His camerawork is stagy, and his shot selection runs the gamut from wide to medium to close, and back again (he would get better as his budgets, and his crews, grew). Indeed, Waters is a much better writer than visualist. His scripts are witty and filled with well-honed vitriol. You can literally hear Waters' giggling as his characters utter their classic, quotable lines. It should come as no surprise then that Waters has maintained a successful second career as an essayist (the compendium of his best, Crackpot, is wonderful). He penned a fabulous memoir (Shock Value) and plays cultural critic to a nation not necessarily eager to hear his often biting comments. It is the verbal imagery that remains with someone after seeing a John Waters film. Sure, the gross-out gags leave an impression, but they aren't as lasting as some of the statements made by his half-mad players. If anything, a Waters' film reminds you that, sometimes, a movie is as much an aural medium as an optical one.
There is not a bad movie in this set. Certainly, some rise above others, and this box contains all three of Waters' genuine masterworks. Yet there is something to be gained from each and every film here. Waters loads his narratives with eccentric elements, insular asides and outright attacks on what he sees as conservative conformity and bullying. Waters wants nothing to do with normalcy and the everyday. Instead, his narratives exist in a weird bizarro plane where crimes are calling cards, conventionality is cursed, and surreal self-expression becomes the definitive statement of individual freedom. It is inherent in Waters' work that liberty and personal choice are championed. He himself is so out of step with the rest of the social fabric that his personal pleats and wrinkles are right on the surface, and he'll be damned if anyone tries to limit or criticize him for them. When viewed in this light, his oeuvre becomes a celebration of diversity and a primer for eccentricity. Even from his very first films, Waters wanted to remain on the outside looking around. If you wanted to join him, fantastic. If not, it was your cultural loss.
Each film deserves a more in-depth look, since they do represent steps in Waters' entertainment evolution. How fitting it is then that one of his most timeless is the place where we start:
This is the film that all the hard work and homemade moviemaking delivered, a demented comedy that defecates on everything the '60s stood for, and then allows the drag queen in the lead to eat in, right on camera. With one simple 100-minute spectacle, John Waters invented the gross-out comedy, the midnight movie, and outsider cinema. Pink Flamingos is exploitation filtered through a fan's flawed notions of glamour and notoriety. It's an excuse for excess and a rant against what another John (Lydon) would call "free love hippy shite." Though it has foundations in the Manson Family (as do most of Waters' films), the growing tabloid nature of entertainment (yes, even in 1972) and the subjectivity of scandal, this is still perhaps Waters' most personal film (second only to Hairspray for oddly similar reasons). It incorporates his entire soiled psyche, mixed up and muddled with drugs and defiance, and poured out over ideas that he finds incredibly funny. It's the closest you will come to knowing this often unknowable enigma short of lopping off his head and feasting on the gooey goodness located within. Even then you may be left with more mess than mystery solved.
In essence, Pink Flamingos is an incredibly twisted game of cinematic one-upmanship. Waters is purposefully playing with his audience, offering more and more audacious antics to his plot, characters, and situations to see just how much you can take. Sure, there is something seditious and comical about the infamous "singing anus," or the "crotch shoplifting" scene. And when Divine walks down the main street in Baltimore throwing grand glamour fits, the reactions from the puzzled passersby model those of any viewing audience. True to his tenets, Flamingos was Waters' exercise in filth, in that it wants to bring as many repugnant and redolent social issues to the forefront as possible. Instead of peace and love, this filmmaker celebrated piss and vomit. Flamingos presents a place where transsexuals flash flashers, where butlers impregnate kidnapped hitchhikers, and psychotic old ladies screech their unhealthy adoration of eggs. With all it has influenced, no one has managed to top Waters' nightmare nod to the American dream. And three decades later, it's hard to imagine that anyone could.
As his second certifiable masterpiece, Waters decides to take on the growing cult of public personality by marrying his fixation with classic Hollywood trash ala Douglas Sirk with the increasing public fascination with true crime. The result is a movie that masquerades as a melodrama, but actually becomes a true comic gem. Female Trouble is Waters first real "film" in every one of the traditional senses. He sets up a linear plot, walking us through the horrible, hard-knock life of his heroine Dawn Davenport, and then peppers said story with his usual passions and insights. Told in episodic fashion (complete with tacky title cards), it proved that Waters could work within the confines of the traditional narrative form. Before, his films always had the kind of clothes-hanger plots made famous by porno and exploitation. They had the most basic of premises upon which all kinds of chaos could be crafted. But Female Trouble relies on its story for its momentum as well as its merriment. Without the rise up and flame out of our heroine, we'd never experience many of the movie's most hilarious ideals.
This is also the first time when Waters' main muse, Divine, finally came into her own as an actress. Before, she was shock value, a big blousy man in Elizabeth Taylor tatters hoping to overwhelm the audience with her audacity. Here, Divine is Dawn Davenport, a true fictional creation on par with the other long-suffering heroines of the films Waters is riffing on. Her exchanges with daughter Taffy (the always amazing Mink Stole) are priceless, and when Divine does a derivation of her infamous stage act for the film—involving a trampoline, contemptible claims, and lots and lots of fish tossing—we feel it is part of Dawn's demented nature, not just another cinematic stunt. Perhaps the best part of the entire story centers around the subplot involving Dawn's husband, Gator and his overbearing Aunt Ida. Edith Massey's pro-gay rants are amazing, and she delivers them with such good-natured cheer that you want her nephew to go Nancy just to make her happy. Combined with the other fine performances and Waters' own private peculiarities, Female Trouble stands along side Pink Flamingos as a sure sign of this director's depth and talent.
Without Divine (who could not appear because of a long-standing contractual commitment to star in a stage show), Waters was left to fill a major void in his Dreamland company. In addition, longtime friend and frequent co-star David Lochery had recently died of an overdose. The resulting gaps are apparent in Desperate Living, a movie that feels like three separate films fused together. The first and the second are fantastic. Mink Stole, as perhaps the most hilarious insane person ever to scream across the silver screen, drives the domestic drama. Along with overweight maid Grizelda (the equally riotous Jean Hill) , the first 15 minutes of this movie absolutely sizzle with sensational subversion. And once we meet Mole and "his/her" gal pal Muffy St. Jacques, we are equally intrigued. Susan Lowe is sensational, adding a real depth of anxiety and obsession to her dyke lesbian character.
The notion of Mortville, however, is a little hard to get a handle on. Waters obviously wants to create a kind of anti-fairytale kingdom, a place where fantasy is flushed and dreams die the death of a thousand screams. But aside from Edith Massey's masterful turn as Queen Charlotta, the whole repellent realm makes little sense. Though the name is derived from "mortified," it is hard to understand what nudists and leathermen have to do with such a concept. Also odd is the inclusion of Waters' first certified famous face into the mix. As said before, Desperate Living was without a few of the Dreamlanders, and Waters resorted to stunt casting—the purposeful positioning of a known celebrity into his whacked-out world of weirdness—to compliment his company. As the newbie of the group, flamboyant burlesque queen Liz Renay is actually pretty good, giving a certain tired authority to her role of housewife turned outcast. That being said, this is still an exceptional film, one fully in tune with the times it was made. Waters' intent was to make a homosexual heterosexual sudser, and he more or less succeeds, though it's better in some places than others.
Along with the film that followed it, Polyester remains one of the true oddball gems in Waters' oeuvre. More famous for its William Castle-inspired gimmick, "Odorama," (nothing more than a card filled with scratch and sniff spots), and casting of former teen idol Tab Hunter and punk rocker Stiv Bators than anything that happens on screen, this silly suburban soap opera is often overlooked when Waters is discussed. On the surface, it's not hard to see why. Polyester may be one of the few times when Waters tried to expand his cinematic language at the expense of his usual verbal variety. Aside from Lu-Lu's laughable lines about dancing for the boys during lunch period, we don't get a lot of memorable quotes. Also, Divine's character (Francine Fishpaw) is a real downer, a depressed, put-upon alcoholic who never quite achieves the redemption (or revenge) we are hoping for. Even when her harried life seems to turn out fine, we've not had a chance to wallow in Francine's fetidness. So her salvation seems superficial.
Still, Waters can't make a bad movie, and Polyester still has its fair share of sensational moments. For the last time in Waters' world, Edith Massey makes an appearance, playing the crackpot character of servant-turned-debutante Cuddles. Her proto-preppy outfits and broken French pronunciations are just a few of the humor highlights we witness whenever she appears onscreen. Equally interesting is Bators, who undermines his tough guy image by playing one of the most battered bullies around. The rest of the cast is able (including Hunter, who seems just a little too clued in on the jokes for this kind of film), but Waters' writing kind of lets them down. Instead of really exploring the porn world (Francine's husband runs the local adult theater), Waters goes back to the camp and kitsch potboiler well once again. Thankfully, this will be the last time for a while that the director relies on such Tinseltown trappings to tell his story. Polyester is perhaps the lesser film here, but in a canon as creative as Waters', that is faint damnation, nothing more.
Hairspray will always be that moment in the John Waters' canon when fans and casual observers looked at the final film and gave a collective sigh of "huh?" It was rated PG. It did not contain graphic language, sleazy sexual content, or outright human depravity. It offered a sweet, nostalgic look back at Waters' childhood, to a time when the filmmaker was obsessed with the clean teens that danced on the local Buddy Deane Show. And it was nearly a musical in presentation. Anyone who knows the man, however, can see how Hairspray is the silver lining surrounding a demented dark cloud like Pink Flamingos. In fact, it's the material that dictated the direction the film would take, just as it does in all of Waters' works. Hairspray could not be a carbon copy of early Dreamland. It also couldn't mix wistfulness with wantonness without having the whole project implode. Instead, Waters decided to play it straight, and deliver a delightful, timeless tale of personal perseverance and social acceptance.
Hairspray as a film is as much about race as it is dated dance moves. It highlights hate as much as hair. As the young and old version of the same female archetype, Divine and Ricki Lake let feminism and empowerment seep into the stereotypes they embody (funny fat girl and frumpy fishwife, respectively). It is interesting to note that Waters never makes fun of overweight people in his films. Instead, he presents them like he does any other member of a minority. In Hairspray, pretty white people are insensitive, prejudiced trash, while outsiders, both racial and social, are far more in tune with their sense of self. They come across as happy and determined, more intelligent and insightful than their crass Caucasian counterparts. Perhaps what throws off Waters' fans the most is the feel-good nature of the film. This is a movie where good is rewarded, evil is rejected, and happy endings replace ambiguous, sometimes awkward finales. Certainly Waters would argue that all his films end on an upbeat note. But this is the first time the joy seems genuine, not just perversely plastered on.
After two trips back in time, Waters stepped directly into the present for Pecker, perhaps his most underrated movie. Many people don't "get" this film, mainly because it seems so slight in its storytelling. At heart, Pecker is just about a boy who becomes a famous outsider artist—and then rejects it for a real life with family and friends. In some ways, Pecker is Hairspray with Kodak film stock, or Crybaby without the juvenile delinquency angle. It does mark Waters' return into written brilliance, since the script here is loaded with amazingly memorable lines. Whenever you can have characters championing naked vagina, or arguing over the place that straight/gay oral activities have in their life, you know you're back on track. And yet Waters is continuing his ascent out of the gutters with this film, a rise he began during Polyester. He is still using all the idiosyncratic ideas in his head to fuel his fun, and the movie is loaded with enough nods to the filmmaker's real-life past (shoplifting, photography) to feel almost autobiographical. But just like Woody Allen working outside of NYC, Waters is treading outside his usual unusualness.
Many may not know that Waters is himself an artist. His work consists of photo montages made up of images captured from old films. Waters takes snapshots of scenes, and then organizes them chronologically to try and tell a story. He is well known for these pieces, and has had several successful shows around the country. So this is less of an attack on the art world, and more of an endearing chiding of some of the realm's "ridiculous" ideas. Like Hairspray, there are a greater number of acting professionals than friends in the cast, and the juxtaposition is just plain odd. Seeing famous Dreamlanders like Mary Vivian Pierce, Susan Lowe, and Mink Stole in nothing more than cameos is initially disheartening. But Waters is attempting to take his message to the masses. He wants everyday people to embrace his semi-shocking ways, and knows that celebrity sells ideas a lot better than burnt-out ex-delinquents who are now entering middle age (no matter how magical they are). Though it can appear that Waters has lost some of his edge, he is regaining his skill with a script. And when it comes to this filmmaker's features, words are more important than wackiness.
A Dirty Shame
"Don't call it a comeback," to quote a certain rapper loved by the
ladies. A Dirty Shame is not a "return to form" or a
"revisiting of Waters' divine, demented days." Instead, this is a
cinematic report card, a prospectus on where Waters sees his purpose
post-millennium. After taking the entire indie scene to task in Cecil B.
Demented (which few saw as the outright rejection that the filmmaker
intended it to be) , Waters wants to move back to his own personal obsessions.
He also understands that, at his age, what was once situated so far out in left
field that it couldn't be seen with regular entertainment glasses is now part of
the nightly lineup on MTV. Therefore, he is not out to rewrite the rulebook for
those who only get it partly right in the first place. Instead, the Godfather of
Gross is here to show the wannabes how it's done, and he delivers another near
masterwork in the process.
After watching all seven films in this box set, you certainly get the feeling you've delved deep into John Waters' way-out subconscious. You also sense that you've seen something more than just his movies. Because his efforts are so thick, so fully packed with the principles and proclivities he enjoys, Very Crudely Yours feels like an audio/visual autobiography, an illustrated look at Waters particular propensities complete with music, scripts, and camera angles. Waters is a wonder with accompaniment (comparable with Scorsese or Tarantino in this arena—maybe more so), and his films are wall-to-wall with familiar and far-out examples of his own personal hit parade. His desire to court controversy has led him to some odd casting choices (teen porn pariah Traci Lords, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst) , but the films that result are still real reflections of what Water finds interesting. The end result is a ragtag collection of elements that fuse into a fascinating, funny, and fervent love letter to the endearing power of cinema. It was movies that first inspired the director to dive behind the camera. And nearly 40 years later, it's film that keeps him young and very vital. John Waters is an American treasure, and Very Crudely Yours is proof of such a lofty, long-in-coming position.
It's a given that considering their age, the early Waters movies would look the worse for wear as part of this all encompassing set. Everything here except Desperate Living is offered in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The Mortville fable is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, as that was how it was originally shot and framed. A Dirty Shame, Pecker, and Hairspray are pristine and near-perfect, with nice color correction and strong details. Polyester is a little muddy, as is Female Trouble. Pink Flamingos looks beautifully low budget, especially in the outdoor scenes. Grain and sprocket stuttering abounds. Living loses a little here and there, but really stands along with Polyester as a purely professional-looking film.
On the audio side, the sonics also improve with the years. A stereo remix of
Flamingos makes the music sound incredible, but the dialogue is still
tinny and flat. The same applies to Female Trouble. Desperate
Living is in Mono only, and every other title has a Dolby Digital 5.1
Surround mix to compliment its original stereo elements. Of course, the more
current you get, the more immersive the experience is. The final three films in
the set—Hairspray, Pecker, and A Dirty Shame sound
the best, as professional engineering keeps the music and the dialogue from
crashing into and canceling out each other.
As for his alternate narratives, it is easy to declare that John Waters
gives good context. Over the course of seven tracks, nearly 11 hours of film,
Waters is an unstoppable wealth of information. He remembers almost everything
from his films, and offers his insights with wit, style, and a sense of purpose.
He feels the need to explain himself, to get the point across that his messy
moviemaking often misses. He loves to praise his cast and gossip about the
reaction his actors got from neighbors and city dwellers, and even explains many
of the mistakes that occurred along the way. He's never tangential, always
focused, and filled to bursting with amazing stories. Having the ability to own
Waters' films and his feelings about them is priceless. It makes Very
Crudely Yours a must-own artifact of modern indie cinema.
There is so much here to discuss that there's no practical way to address it all. For those interested, this is one of the best bonus DVDs ever. Here is a full list of all the extras on the disc: Waters' family home movies; Audio interviews with Divine and Edith Massey; Video interviews on Waters' career and canon with Peter Koper, Pat Moran, Sue Lowe, Morris Martick, Steve Yeager, Liz Renay, Dennis Dermody, Vincent Peranio, Rachel Talalay, Brook Yeaton, and Bob Adams; outtakes from Dorothy, The Kansas City Pot Head; theatrical trailers; behind-the-scenes footage, rehearsals, and interviews from Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble (provided by Steve Yeager); deleted scene from Female Trouble; A Love Letter to Edie documentary; Take Off TV feature; Local Boston TV feature; Below San Francisco TV interview; Get To Know… Baltimore TV news Interview; Original Hairspray featurette; Q&A with original Buddy Deane Show dancers Linda and Gene Snyder; Hairspray Reunion episode from The Ricki Lake Show (excerpt); The Making of Pecker featurette; The Sundance Channel's Conversations in World Cinema episode with John Waters.
It must be odd for Waters to look back on his career and see how far he, and his beloved cinema, have come. He started out as the most underground of agitators, his films either banned outright or left to play in church basements. Gradually, his irreverent brand of humor hit enough nerves to get him out of the cellar, and into the late-night slot at the local Bijou. Again, notoriety and publicity compelled him further into the mainstream, and soon he was setting as many trends as he was following. By the time Polyester rolled around, he was nearly legitimate. But true mainstream acceptance wouldn't arrive until Hairspray, Crybaby, and Serial Mom proved he was more than just the proud Prince of Puke. Now, a film like A Dirty Shame seems tame by South Park standards, as the humor of outrageousness, vulgarity, and the patently absurd is currently all the rage. Yet Waters is much more than that. His scripts sing with uncommon brilliance, and he certainly has a snide attitude when it comes to normal society. But today, everyone thinks they're an outsider, so where does a true interloper reside? The fringes are full after all. The answer, oddly enough, is right on top of the pile, exactly where he belongs. Here's hoping there's another 40 years in Waters' wicked oeuvre. Without him, where would future generations get their comedic guidance?
Not guilty on all eight counts. John Waters and Very Crudely Yours are free to go.
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