Tag Archives: Divine

Female Trouble (1974): My kind of Xmas

(sorry for the ads)

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John Waters: Conversations with Filmmakers ed. James Egan

“I’ve always wanted to sell out. The problem is that nobody wanted to buy me.”

I’m a die-hard John Waters fan, and for those of you poor lost souls who don’t know the name, he’s a renegade filmmaker who pioneered Trash Cinema or “Outlaw Cinema”  and earned the name the Pope of Trash while making some of the most outrageous films in the history of film. To quote John Waters: “You see bad taste to me is entertainment.” Are the film titles Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs, and Female Trouble familiar to you? Well if not, what are you waiting for? Dash down to the nearest film rental location and grab some copies. Expect to find them with the porno because the people who judge such things don’t have a clue about what they’re looking at (I’ve also found Benny Hill in the porno section).

Years ago, the film critic Rex Reed, after watching one of my favourites, Female Trouble, made an immortal quote which is the quintessential response to a John Waters film :

Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?

To address Rex’s quote, unfortunately there are laws and there are also opinions, and when John Waters, a man whose film characters blazenly “seem to revel in a fringe existence,” began his cinematic career using a camera bought by his grandmother for his 17th birthday, he made a number of underground/cult films which appealed to a minority audience and never hit the mainstream. Working in his home town of Baltimore with a handful of actors/friends known as the Dreamlanders (Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey), John outraged just about everybody in America. While John seems to be fascinated by unusual casting (such as Patti Hearst, Iggy Pop and Traci Lords), in more recent years, his  films have included other, more mainstream stars such as Kathleen Turner and Johnny Depp. I went to see Serial Mom and watched people leave the cinema in droves muttering disgust as the door slammed on the way out. Hilarious! They’d come to see Kathleen Turner and had no idea what a John Waters film was all about.

People seem to either love or hate John Waters’ films, and naturally, I’m in the former group. I came across John’s films at a period in my life when I desperately needed to see another side of life, and John showed me the underbelly of American culture through his films which featured characters who were perfectly comfortable being trashy, slutty, filthy, coarse and disgusting. In fact Waters single-handedly raised low-lifes to a new level of art:

What’s more, they [the films] view with undisguised relish the grisly depredations of weirdos, misfits, and rejects of every stripe: love-sick transsexuals, warty lesbians,  gleeful mass-murderers, black-market baby salesmen, psychopathic drag queens–the very scum of humanity. Aesthetically, they seek to elevate, by imitation, the most despicable examples: gore movies, skin flicks, soap operas, the society pages of Violent World, the National Enquirer, and Sleazoid Express. With the ten Most Wanted list as their social register, and Frederick’s of Hollywood as their Yves St. Laurent, these movies dedicate themselves to all that decent men abhor. (from David Chute’s interview Still Waters)

John Waters is an important figure in my life–someone to whom I have a large debt of gratitude for mental liberation. Don’t expect me to be rational on the subject of John Waters, and this goes to explain why I own all his available films, all his books (including several autographed copies), and all his CDs. He’s my guru–someone whose world vision matches my own–except for the issue of the Manson family, and on that topic we come to a parting of the ways.

But enough. What of the book?

The University of Mississippi Press has an Interview with Filmmakers series, and I was ecstatic to see John Waters added to the list. About time, I grumbled as I requested a review copy from Netgalley. Editor James Egan begins with an intro explaining that he’s known John Waters for over thirty-seven years, and he goes on to describe their first meeting:

The streets were foggy and empty as we made our way to a bar light hanging on a converted eighteenth century waterfront warehouse, You could hear the loud music blasting from within. I entered and encountered a scene right out of a Pasolini film. At the center of the smoke-filled room was the Egg Man, Paul Swift, completely naked and playing pool with fellow Dreamlander David Lochary. Leaning against the pool table with her back to me was a thin woman with beautiful straight black hair down to her waist wearing stilettos. When she turned around to look at me, I was stunned: she was actually a very ugly man.

I felt my brain twist trying to comprehend what I was seeing and then I felt a sudden sickness in my stomach. Before I could flee, Margaret grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bar to buy her a drink. There leaning on the corner of the bar was John Waters, twenty-seven-years old, surrounded by a coterie of admirers, puffing on a Kool cigarette and looking more like a young David Niven than the Prince of Puke.

The earliest article is from The Baltimore Evening Sun from 1965, and many interviews are from the 70s. Since the interviews discuss John Waters’ film career, there are, naturally a few cross-over points, but the essential thing here is that we see an incredible overview of Waters’ life–from John in his 20s up to the last interview in the collection when he’s 65. He discusses his very first films made with a camera given to him on his 17th birthday by his grandmother, his university life at NYU which was aborted when he was expelled, and his  incomplete projects such as “an underground version of  The Wizard of Oz to be called Dorothy, the Kansas City Pothead.”  There’s a vast range of information here, including a filmography, the films that most influenced him (the Kuchar brothers, Russ Meyer, Kenneth Anger, Herschell Gordon Lewis), his film budgets (Pink Flamingos cost $12,000 and that “includes the car”) what he looks for in actors (including those who’ve turned him down), and even a home tour.  I particularly enjoyed John’s descriptions of working in a Provincetown book shop whose owner believed “the customer was always wrong.” The more recent interviews cover where he’ll be buried, the subject of gay marriage, the difficulty (impossibility) of funding independent film, and the question that lingers over John Waters’ career … has he sold out?

The interviews have a range of tone, and this is due in part to the dating of the interviews but also to the person doing the interviewing. One of the later interviews, for example, is conducted by Todd Solondz, a film director whose work has created no small amount of controversy, and there’s a previously unpublished interview conducted by James Egan (the book’s editor) in 2o10. The final interview in the collection was conducted in 2011 by Everett Lewis. There’s a treasure trove of quotes here, and I’ve included just a few:

John Waters on the Worst Film Ever:

But the worst movie I’ve seen in my whole life was Rocky. I needed a vomit bag watching that.

John Waters on controversy:

A lot of people were upset that we put the baby in the refrigerator. Well, it wasn’t like we had chilled it for a week; it was only in there for a few seconds.

John Waters on film:

I secretly think Patch Adams is as extreme a movie as Pink Flamingos, in that it scared me. I almost had a nervous breakdown watching it.

John Waters on film budget:

It’s been thirty years since 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, which really cost no money because the leading lady stole the film.

John Waters on Original Sin:

I believe in everybody minding their own business, and I believe everybody’s born innocent.

John Waters on the difficulty of not looking normal:

But the problem was no one would ever let me in their house, because I had real long hair and looked weird

John Waters on politics:

The liberals are the easiest people to offend–although I guess I’m a liberal

John Waters on meta-meaning:

People are always trying to read stuff into my films, but I never said there was any message.

John Waters on his film characters:

Most people in my films are rotten people–they’re not nice or sympathetic characters. Especially in Female Trouble, I don’t think there is any person in the whole movie that has a decent bone in their body.

Joh Waters on censorship:

What can you say about the censor board? There’s not a person that could enjoy films that could see any reason for it. I can’t see any way to defend it from any level. The only kind of censorship that should be effective is don’t go if you don’t like it.

I think something must really be the matter with anyone who would take a job as a censor.

Jon Waters on creative film funding:

On a bicycle I sold diet pills that I’d gotten from Dr. Hiebert. I sold them to friends. It wasn’t that I was a major dealer, but it was once the only way to raise money for underground movies.

John Waters on Divine:

Divine was obsessed with Christmas, really wanted a christmas tree , so they sawed down a decorated one growing on someone’s lawn.

John Waters on watching television:

If you watch TV all the time, you might as well be a heroin addict; it’s the same thing.

John Waters on being gay:

I’ve always been out. I’ve never said I wasn’t gay, but people never have the nerve to ask me.

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Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley

If Leigh came to your house and saw something he didn’t like he would throw it out the window.”

I stumbled upon some photos of Leigh Bowery by pure accident, and I immediately knew that this Australian avant-garde performance artist/club promoter/costume designer was heavily influenced by Divine and John Waters. I then came across a bio of Bowery written by his long-time friend, Sue Tilley, so I decided to read it and discover whether or not the Divine-Leigh Bowery connection existed. And to break the suspense, yes, Bowery was influenced by Divine and John Waters, so for fans of Trash Cinema, or for those who appreciate Bad Taste, this book is an interesting read which further endorses Waters’ influence outside of Baltimore. Yes people, he’s polluting the whole planet!

But back to Leigh Bowery….

Bowery was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and died of AIDS in 1994. This disease stripped the world of so many talented people. Freddie Mercury comes to mind, and Leigh Bowery was yet another immensely talented individual who could have accomplished so much more if he’d had the time.

This brutally honest, and sometimes raw, memoir is written by Leigh’s close friend, Sue Tilley. Tilley was on the scene when 19-year-old Leigh, armed with a portable sewing machine, moved from Melbourne, Australia to London in 1980. Leigh was seeking glamour, excitement, and a “career in design”  and he found all these things–although not instantly–in the London club scene by way of  a detour at Burger King. Tilley describes the influences on Leigh’s attitudes, including Divine: “the brilliant drag actor and singer, who was to be a great influence for the rest of his life.”

An exceptional aspect of the memoir is Tilley’s no-holds barred look at  Leigh Bowery. They were best friends, and clearly Sue has a strong attachment to this larger-than-life Australian, but at no point does Tilley sugar-coat her view. We see the positive: his creativity, his humour and his zest for life, and the negative: stealing from Burger King, shoplifting, and the treatment of his ‘slaves’.

Tilley describes the various fashion trends:New Romantics, Hard Times, & Glam as well as numerous notables from the 80s London club scene, including Scarlett Bordello and Steve Strange. The club scene at White Trash, ChaChas, Heaven and Asylum is detailed, and Leigh was such a natural presence at the clubs that he was approached by club entrepreneur Tony Gordon to be “the public face” of a club which opened in 1985. The club was named Taboo “because it epitomized everything Leigh loved.” The club doorman, Mark Vaultier, would hold a mirror in front of the faces of would–be club entrants and ask: “Would you let yourself in?”

To quote an article from Alix Sharkey, Taboo was :

London’s sleaziest, campest and bitchiest club of the moment which is stuffed with designers, stylists, models, students, dregs and the hopefully hip, lurching through the lasers and snarfing up amyl. The coolest geezer in here is wearing Bodymap tights and, yup, platform soles. A sudden rush for the toilets could only mean that a camera crew had arrived and were filming, nothing less would penetrate this narcissistic air of self-absorption.

The book is not strictly chronological, and some of it is organised thematically (Home, Dance, Art, Hospital), and the result is a well-considered blend of the personal and the professional–including Leigh’s cottaging exploits and his favourite public toilets. When it came to sex, he preferred toilets to homes:

Very occasionally Leigh would go back to men’s houses but he never really enjoyed it–it just confirmed the dreariness of most people’s lives and their complete lack of taste in home furnishings.

Leigh comes to life in anecdotes–one example is the way he told such outrageous lies that no one knew whether or not he was telling the truth:

Typically, Leigh would tell the most heinous lies. He once told me that Brad Branson, an American photographer who I knew in passing, had been on holiday in Ibiza, caught a terrible tropical disease and dropped dead. I was very shocked at this because it seemed such a strange thing to happen. A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in my little cashier’s booth at Industria and then suddenly Brad Branson came down the stairs. I nearly jumped out of my skin and screeched ‘I thought you were dead.’ I still don’t know why I believed the story because after ten years I should have realised what a liar Leigh was but I didn’t think that even he could make up stories that bad.

Leigh’s playfulness and transgressive sense of humour seep through the pages, and for this reader at least, reading the book, gave a clear sense of knowing this adventurous character:

When Leigh was asked by somebody on what occasions he lied, he replied, ‘On what occasions do I breathe!’ At least he was honest that once. Because Leigh told such terrible lies, sometimes people didn’t believe the truth. He once told Cerith that Les Child was working in the gay sauna in Covent Garden making sandwiches for the snack bar. Cerith couldn’t believe that as talented a dancer as Les would be doing such a job. So when he bumped into Les several months later and asked him how things were going he was completely gobsmacked when he replied ‘Fine, girl, I’m not making the sandwiches any more.’

So even when Leigh told the truth, the truth had a strangely comic result….Obviously for author Sue Tilley, the creator of this touching, tragic and funny memoir,  it’s impossible to forget Leigh Bowery. He was … simply … one of a kind.

For images of Leigh and his work, here’s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hASjFX7CVsQ

Review copy read on my kindle courtesy of Open Road media via Netgalley

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