Female Trouble is the centerpiece of John Waters’ golden age

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Playing July 23-29 at The Grand Illusion Cinema


John Waters has made a career out of skull-fucking suburban complacency (two cars, two kids, a mortgage, and the right shoes means everybody’s fine). His vision of the counter-culture is violent, grotesque, and abject. His vision of mainstream culture isn’t much different.

Waters’ early works, the ’70s era trinity of schlock-and-shock films Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977), were designed to gross out pissed off hipsters during midnight screenings in Baltimore’s seedy underground scene, the exact disaffected outliers who inspired him. But even Waters couldn’t have imagined where it would all lead 35 years later. Though the infamous director is a bit more subtle these days, rest assured he’s as dangerous as ever (his new book, Role Models, is about the unseemly cadre who have created the beast with hollow eyes that somehow sparkle and a pencil mustache enhanced with Maybelline mascara). As much as we may long for the utterly insane bravado that infused the early films, we’d hate him if he was still doing it. It also means taking another look at the old movies is like meeting your first love again after 35 years (if your first love was a shit-eating prostitute with rotted teeth and a murderous streak).

For me, Female Trouble has always seemed like the little bear’s porridge: it’s just right, the centerpiece of the Waters âge d’or de déchets. While I love all three films, I find Pink Flamingos purposefully troublesome with little regard to, well, anything else. The gross-out factor becomes central, sensational, and self conscious. It’s Waters as the P.T. Barnum of wretch. Desperate Living is a bit untied, sliding into a nightmare landscape where, of course, anything can happen.

But Female Trouble is real. Sure, the gross stuff is there and it’s sensational and the characters are extreme, but the whole affair is more grounded in the real milieu of American disparity, anguish, and broken dreams, the world suburbia so vehemently denies. If Dawn Davenport had just received those damn cha cha heels for Christmas, everything might have ended differently (now that’s a disappointment WASPy folks can identify with). If Dawn Davenport hadn’t left home a troubled teenager and ridden in cars with strangers, everything might have ended differently. If Dawn Davenport hadn’t fallen in with the wrong crowd of tawdry faux elitists and faggy beauty shop fashionistas, everything might have ended differently. Female Trouble is a cautionary tale as old as the various incarnations of Goldilocks and the message is still about the crowd you hang with and the doors you open.

With Female Trouble, Waters either turns mainstream culture inside-out or fills it full of hot air, alternating between inversion and hyperbole as easily as I switch my Facebook profile picture. Some of us know for certain that it is us up there on the screen and we aren’t looking too pretty. Some of us are scared as hell this may, in fact, be the case. Regardless of how you come to Waters’ party, you’ll be a bit different as you leave (cowards and social ostriches who refuse to attend the soiree aren’t worthy of discussion).

I try to keep in mind that Waters never intended, or could have dreamed, that suburban kids would be watching these films in mundane 5,000 square foot McMansions as the millennium turned. On the contrary, these films were intended to be elaborate (and disgusting) in-jokes for the edgier members of American culture, the misfits and visionaries who found ’70s era middleclass life even more frightening (and disgusting) than anything Waters could dream up. Sadly, counter-culture denizens shouldn’t expect to keep art like this to themselves. The films of John Waters’ golden age of trash have most certainly seeped into the mainstream in 2010 and I’m sure John giggles every time he cashes a royalty check from a Broadway production or Netflix. However, even if we aren’t as shocked as we were the first time around, Female Trouble still packs a punch.

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