Before Cecil B. Demented arrived at the local theater for a short run, I had never seen a John Waters film. I know that none of his earlier films ever showed in the rural communities that I lived in previously, or I would have been one of the weirdoes in the audience. Because I had heard so much about Waters' subversive humor and had thoroughly enjoyed Cecil B. Demented, I had to pick up a copy of Steve Yeager's documentary Divine Trash.
After watching the collection of clips, interviews, and the reaction of America's last film censor in Divine Trash, I've been inspired to check a number of Waters' works subsequently. I laughed so much at film censor Mary Avara's horrific recollections of the blasphemous Multiple Maniacs (with its rosary-beaded Divine rape scene) that I figure the film has to be a hoot. The poor censor was absolutely beside herself trying to express her disgust for that film. And how can you not laugh at a movie that has a 300-pound transvestite getting raped by a giant lobster?
Whether you see Waters as one of the most influential independent filmmakers (along with John Cassavetes and John Sayles), see him as the Baltimore version of Andy Warhol, or see him as the creator of the most offensive trash imaginable, Divine Trash is well worth examining. Yeager's movie deserves the Filmmakers Trophy it won at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and is the most entertaining documentary I've seen that wasn't created by Errol Morris.
We get an excellent overview of John Waters' life, his love of film, and his works from his first film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), to Pecker (1998), in which we see a glimpse of the filming process. No matter what you think of Waters, Divine Trash reveals the impish fun that John Waters has in making his films, and his obsessive nature to communicate his vision.
He continues to act as the master puppeteer with his entourage of actors, and freely acknowledges the influence of Howdy Doody on his life. His parents actually took him to New York City to be a member of the Peanut Gallery. Waters fondly recalls how much he loved the experience even though Buffalo Bob treated him badly.
His parents also recall the early days when their 10-year-old son would put on elaborate puppet shows to earn money. They also reveal how young John Waters always had "different" tastes than "normal" kids, as he was more fascinated with the wicked witches and villains than the heroes in The Wizard of Oz and Disney cartoons.
No doubt that Waters aims to shock, but he meticulously works on his films. Some times he may have gone over the top, but Divine Trash should even be palatable to people who don't agree with his vision. On the other hand, fans and people who enjoy offbeat independent cinema will enjoy multiple showings of this documentary.
Among the gems:
1) As a child, Waters would sneak out to watch B-movies through binoculars at the drive-in.
2) Waters' parents understood their young son well enough to take him to a junkyard to view smashed cars, but they have never seen Pink Flamingos.
3) Waters is a charmer. He was able to enlist two unlikely helpers for his early films: a conservative film processor and an Episcopal priest.
4) Waters attended NYU for about 5 minutes, but he preferred Olga's House of Shame over Potemkin and dropped out.
5) Waters is one of the few people who saw most of the one-time showing of Warhol's famous 24-hour-long movie of the Empire State Building.
6) One man declares that John Waters' films cannot be pornography, because you would have to be a really sick dude to masturbate to any of his work.
7) The 300-pound transvestite Divine was an inspired cross between Clarabell the Clown and Jayne Mansfield.
8) The Baltimore police aren't that smart. They never caught Divine with the naked hitchhiker during the guerilla shooting of Mondo Trasho.
9) Mondo Trasho was shot without a script, and Waters thinks that his 90-minute film really has 20 worthwhile minutes.
10) Pink Flamingos was shot on a budget of $200.
11) That famous dog-poop scene at the end of Pink Flamingos was no special effect! Divine followed that poodle around for 30 minutes waiting for it to do its duty.
There's a lot more in store for those who check out Divine Trash. I can't think of a more informative and illuminating way to capture the essence of the man that David O. Russell calls the "godfather of social satire and underground filmmaking." Just watching the clips of Divine doing her traditional flamboyant walks makes Divine Trash worth watching.
Add to the mix all the film clips, the behind-the-scenes look at Divine following the infamous Pink Flamingos dog around the alley, interviews with various weird people and relatives associated with the film, and the innocent hilarity of the Maryland censor, and you've got a winning documentary. I know that most people would never admit to wanting to see a John Waters film, but Divine Trash is tastefully constructed, so most people won't be grossed out.
There's even a poignant moment in Divine Trash, in which Divine's mother describes her son. She obviously loves him and is clearly bewildered how his life could have ended up being so publicly bizarre. Of course Divine will forever be associated with John Waters, who declares that Divine is his "Elizabeth Taylor" and that he will not attempt to replace Divine with another similar character.
Divine Trash informs and entertains. Waters fans will love it, while the curious will find it revealing. I'm not as convinced as the filmmaker seems to be about the influence that Waters has had on the cinema, but this documentary will certainly supply you with enough information to decide whether you want to wade into Waters' world of weirdoes.