Young John Waters, circa 1972.
Manhattan's Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center has been home to many terrific retrospectives that I've had the distinct pleasure to attend over the years, and last night was the opening evening of the first complete retrospective of the films of John Waters (which, I might add, saw several nights of its program completely sold out online in a matter of moments after tickets went on sale). I've been a slave to Waters's films since I saw the infamous (and fucking hilarious) PINK FLAMINGOS (1972) while still in high school. The film's warped and offensive sense of humor, incredibly twisted content, and in-your-face celebration of its outsider protagonists had a seismic effect on my development as a person and I unequivocally consider seeing that movie to be a life-changing experience. It also instantly rendered Waters my favorite living director and I subsequently went on to see every one of his movies, so I naturally had an interest in experiencing his rare, seldom-seen short film works. Never released on any home video format and only periodically screened when Waters had the whim to do so for friends or as limited part of a film series or art show, these early efforts have been the source of great curiosity among the Waters faithful, so their inclusion in the Lincoln Center retrospective is a joyous occasion indeed. The films are apparently no longer extant in their original 16mm prints but they have been preserved in digital form (presumably transferred from archival videotapes), allowing for them to be shown on the huge flatscreen TV in Lincoln Center's amphitheater.
I arrived early and picked up my pre-ordered ticket for the sold-out 6:30pm screening of FEMALE TROUBLE and then made my way across the street from the Walter Reade Theater to the amphitheater. The screening of the shorts was at 4pm and free to the public, and every seat was filled by the time the lights dimmed. Here's what transpired, and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by what I got.
HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET (1964) 17 minutes
MONDO TRASHO (1969), the film is rough around the edges — very rough, an aspect not at all helped by the dodgy video transfer — but briskly-paced and amusing. It also definitely already has the signature feel and trashy aesthetic of Waters's later work. Oh, and it should also be noted that there is neither a hag nor a black leather jacket to be found anywhere in this film.
ROMAN CANDLES (1966) 40 minutes
Freshly kicked out of NYU film school and influenced by Andy Warhol's CHELSEA GIRLS (1966), Waters aped Warhol's split-screen technique, only going it one better by intending its three free-form non-narratives to be projected onto a trio of individual screens. The result as seen on video at Lincoln Center was a screen composed of two upper tiers of imagery atop a third, with each running a series of unconnected clips and stock footage, including snippets from EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958) and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). It's dizzying and somewhat headache-inducing if one tries to follow each tier at once, but it's impressively well-constructed and never boring (which, frankly, I expected it to be), unlike many short films that bear the mark of film school influences.
EAT YOUR MAKEUP (1968) 45 minutes
The short opens with an anguished young woman crawling across sand dunes toward a shirtless young man while she repeatedly screams, "Makeup! Makeup!!! Makeup!!!"— an hilariously overwrought performance that elicited gales of laughter from the theater audience — until the mysterious man throws her a plate full of beauty products that she greedily devours. Following the credits, the short shifts location to a Baltimore park where a crazed-looking black-clad woman (Maelcum Soul) has her underlings kidnap young women off the street and take them into the woods, where they are forced to wear ridiculous outfits and repeatedly stalk a bargain basement outdoor catwalk until they model themselves to death for the amusement of a drugged-up and violent throng of spectators. The crazed modeling is periodically interrupted by the models being force-fed makeup, and diversions into fantasy and other odd attractions in what is revealed to be a boardwalk-like setup. The fantasy comes in when a wigless drag queen, played by a seventeen-year-old Divine, arrives to chat with the black-clad mistress of ceremonies and imagines herself as Jackie Kennedy riding and waving in the ill-fated motorcade as canned laughter brainlessly guffaws on the soundtrack. The sheer balls/bad taste of doing such a sequence even five years after the real-life event that shocked the nation and the world screamed Waters, and it was amazing to see something so intentionally transgressive and offensive so early in his catalog.
Dangerous filmmaking: a parodic reenactment of the Kennedy assassination — with a laugh track, no less — some five years after the dire real-life event and featuring an obese teenage Divine in drag as the First Lady. I'm amazed Waters and company were not tracked down and stoned to death for this at the time.
The boardwalk element includes a Horror House ride (whose signage proudly proclaims "It'll make you sick") that drives a patron to terrified, shrieking apoplexy and apparent death with its depictions of mundane and wholesome suburban life and American values, and would be harkened back to and inverted for the "Cavalcade of Perversion" in MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970). It all wraps up with a "happy" ending cribbed from a mashup of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty's stories, and is once again accented from start to finish with music Waters didn't bother to get the rights to use. Of the three shorts, I would name EAT YOUR MAKEUP as the most accessible of the lot and the one where Waters's later tropes first begin to coalesce.
Totally worth paying to watch yet kindly screened by Lincoln Center at no cost to the audience, the three early Waters films are a must-see for Waters fans, provided you're lucky enough to have the opportunity to catch them. Waters has stated that they will never be made available on home video because obtaining the music rights would be prohibitive, and also, reportedly, because they are simply too embryonic and relatively crude when compared what came later. I get where he's coming from when it comes to their stylistic/aesthetic primitiveness, as he is a filmmaker whose growth in assuredness and skill is visibly trackable on a film-by-film basis, but it would still be nice to have the shorts readily available for scholarly perusal and also to make Waters completists happy. Too bad about the damned music rights, though.