Divine is Dawn Davenport in John Waters's Female Trouble. Photo by Bruce Moore © New Line Cinema.
Get ready for some of the “filthiest people alive” heading once again to the big screen. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will celebrate legendary director and personality John Waters's five decades in filmmaking with a complete retrospective, the first in the United States. The event, titled Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?, will be comprised of his 12 features, including Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Polyester, Hairspray, Serial Mom, and his first two, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, which introduced the world to his iconic muse Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead). The series will kick off with a special opening-night presentation of Female Trouble (1974) followed by a discussion with John Waters and critic J. Hoberman. That same evening, Waters will introduce his 1994 feature, Serial Mom.
The series, spotlighting the director/author/comedian/satirist takes place at the Film Society September 5-14, will also include Waters's rarely seen early shorts Eat Your Makeup, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, and Roman Candles, showing for free. Additionally, the famous “Scent-tastic Odorama” cards will be distributed prior to the start of Polyester, screening later in the series, so audiences can scratch-and-sniff throughout the film, smelling what they see on screen. A special “Celluloid Atrocity Night!” will showcase rare 16mm prints of Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, along with the early short The Diane Linkletter Story, and will include a conversation with critic Dennis Dermody and the director. Waters has also compiled a group of films—from British domestic melodramas to Hollywood horrors—that will screen as part of the series and that he says, “I'm jealous I didn't make.”
In his 50-year career, Waters has created one of the most influential and beloved bodies of work in all of American cinema. His first six features are enduring staples of the midnight-movie circuit: maniacal exercises in high-camp shock humor, each with the emotional pitch of an opera and content that wouldn’t be out of place in a psychological text on sexual fetishes. Roger Ebert famously gave Pink Flamingos (in which its star Divine ate actual dog poop) “zero stars,” exclaiming in his review: “I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos, because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object.” Fitting, considering that Waters himself once said: “If someone vomits, it’s like a standing ovation.”
His next six projects, made with bigger budgets and more well-known stars, are a refining of Waters's style as he burrows deeper into his favorite film genres, though they unmistakably represent attempts to subvert Hollywood from within. The crossover success of one of these movies, Hairspray, went on to inspire both a hit Broadway musical and a film remake of the musical. Waters is also an accomplished writer and photographer. His recent New York Times best-selling book, Carsick, chronicles his solo hitchhiking adventure across the country.
John Waters dropping off 16mm prints of his early works at the Film Society. Photo by Eugene Hernandez.
John Waters commented about the retrospective: “Are you kidding? I’m beyond excited! It took me 50 years to claw my way up from the cinematic gutters of Baltimore to Lincoln Center. Finally I’m filthy and respectable!”
Added Dennis Lim, the Film Society’s Director of Programming: “A lifelong provocateur and by now a national treasure, John Waters is a singular, even prophetic figure within not only American cinema but also the broader landscape of American popular culture. From his early underground sensations to his subversive work within the mainstream, no filmmaker has done as much to blur and challenge the distinctions between high and low culture, and between good and bad taste. To mark the 50th anniversary of his first film, the short Hag in a Black Leather Jacket—made when he was only 18—we are very proud to present this complete retrospective of his work, and also to have John, a world-class cinephile, curate a sidebar of films he wishes he’d made.”
A brief biography released today from the Film Society follows:
“Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1946, Waters honed his eye for the bizarre, beautiful, and eccentric through films like The Wizard of Oz and the photography of Diane Arbus. Additionally, he cites Federico Fellini, Russ Meyer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Andy Warhol as key influences. He started shooting 8mm and 16mm shorts in the 1960s with a band of local friends in the Baltimore suburbs, and his films of the 1970s and 1980s featured a troupe of actors known as the Dreamlanders, which included David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey, and, most famously, the immortal Divine. As he graduated to bigger budgets, his repertory grew to include the diverse likes of Tab Hunter, Patty Hearst, and Traci Lords, alongside Hollywood stars like Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith, Tracey Ullman, and Johnny Knoxville.
On top of their oft-discussed self-conscious irony and thematic obsessions (sex, celebrity, social exclusion), Waters’s movies are also odes to the rhythm and texture of life in Baltimore and improbably tender visions of domestic communities held together by their own unsentimental, idiosyncratic forms of affection. One of the characters in Multiple Maniacs, turning to his current object of desire, perhaps best sums up the spirit of Waters’s life and work: “I love you so fucking much I could shit.”
Tickets to “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” and “Movies I'm Jealous I Didn't Make” will go on sale Thursday, August 14.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, Debbie Harry, Divine, and Ricki Lake in John Waters's Hairspray. Photo by Henny Garfunkel, © New Line Cinema
“Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?”
Female Trouble (Opening Night)
John Waters, USA, 1974, 35mm, 89m
Waters’s hysterical, full-throated assault on celebrity culture pivots on an unforgettable performance by Divine as Dawn Davenport, a runaway teen who falls into a life of petty thievery only to becomes a media icon with the help of a pair of sexually repressed, upper-crust hairdressers. Divine called Female Trouble his favorite of his own films, and it’s not hard to see why: everything about the film, from the theme song down, is marked by his electric, gender-defying presence. (He also plays the male truck driver who, in one of the movie’s most grotesque scenes, knocks Dawn up.) But it’s the couple, played by David Lochary (“we rarely eat any form of noodle”) and Mary Vivian Pearce (“spare me your anatomy”), who become both the chief targets of Waters’s satire and, with their theory of beauty’s relationship to transgression and crime, improbable mouthpieces for his filmmaking philosophy. With memorable turns by Mink Stole as Dawn’s ill-fated daughter and Edith Massey as their hot-blooded next-door neighbor.
September 5, 6:30pm (Discussion with John Waters and critic J. Hoberman)
September 10, 9:00pm
Cecil B. Demented
John Waters, USA, 2000, 35mm, 87m
“We ain’t got no budget,” goes a line in the tongue-in-cheek hip-hop theme song to Waters’s freewheeling attack on the Hollywood star system. Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffith star as, respectively, the leader of a guerrilla band of horny misfit filmmakers (the Sprocket Holes), and the A-list Hollywood star they kidnap and coerce, Patty Hearst–style, into a string of terrorist activities. (Hearst, in fact, had a cameo in the film, her fourth for Waters.) With its awards-show abduction scene, its passages of movie-theater mayhem, and its bloody penultimate sequence—a shootout on the set of a Forrest Gump sequel—Cecil B. Demented is Waters’s most extreme and sustained attempt to bite the hand that once fed him.
September 12, 7:00pm (Discussion with John Waters)
John Waters, USA, 1990, 35mm, 85m
Johnny Depp—already a teen icon for playing the lead on TV’s 21 Jump Street—appears as the titular bad-boy hero of Waters’s raucous, exuberant salute to the teen rock ’n’ roll films of the 1950s. What Hairspray had done for the message movie, Cry-Baby did for the likes of Rebel Without a Cause and Jailhouse Rock, with Depp playing a parentless, leather-jacketed “drape” (think “greaser”) bent on edging out his high school’s leading square for the affections of a beautiful, conflicted good girl (Amy Locane)—she too, in a typical Waters twist, orphaned under bizarre circumstances. Even when playing it soft, Waters never plays it straight, and Cry-Baby, for all its affectionate evocations of Baltimore’s past, continues the director’s fascination with the way people transform themselves (often grotesquely) for the sake of social acceptance, recognition, and fame. With supporting turns by Polly Bergen, Joe Dallesandro, Troy Donahue, Joey Heatherton, Traci Lords, Susan Tyrrell, and Iggy Pop.
September 13, 3:00pm
September 14, 8:00pm
John Waters, USA, 1977, 35mm, 90m
Mortville—the fictional setting of Waters’s mid-career masterpiece—is a dangerous place. Ruled by a despotic queen (Edith Massey) and her small army of leathered-up Nazi enforcers, overrun with ruin, dilapidation, and decay, and populated by a motley crew of outlaws and outcasts, it’s a vision of what the world might look like if Waters were God. When two runaways, a mentally unstable suburban housewife (Mink Stole) and her obese maid (Jean Hill), disrupt the town’s already unstable balance of power, chaos and revolution ensue. Amateur sex-change-operation reversals, attempts at biological warfare, cross-dressing highway patrolmen, butch-lesbian wrestlers, frozen babies, and nudist-colony digressions: Waters’s first feature made without Divine or David Lochary—the latter passed away the year of the film’s release—is a catalogue of horrors that veers between comedy and disgust, or, as Waters himself described it, “a fairy tale for fucked-up children.”
September 7, 6:30pm
A Dirty Shame
John Waters, USA, 2004, 35mm, 89m
After taking on the suburban melodrama, the message picture, and the rock ’n’ roll film, Waters tried his hand at making an old-fashioned sexploitation movie (the kind, he recalled, that “all the nuns told him he would go to hell” for watching). Tracey Ullman plays a frigid housewife who suffers a concussion that fills her with a sudden, extreme sexual appetite. Most of the movie’s characters—including a voracious sex-addicted mechanic (Johnny Knoxville) and a go-go dancer with breasts the size of life rafts (Selma Blair)—follow suit, each developing their own peculiar (and, according to Waters, entirely genuine) fetish. A Dirty Shame has the encyclopedic, freak-show flair of Waters’s earlier movies, coupled with the nostalgic tinge of his recent work—a fitting balance for the director’s last completed film to date.
September 13, 5:00pm
Alicia Witt in John Waters's Cecil B. Demented. Photo by Abbot Genser, courtesy of Artic Prod/Ice Cap Prod/Canal+.
John Waters, USA, 1988, 35mm, 92m
After spending six films and 20 years overturning the principles and conventions of his middle-class Catholic upbringing, Waters made this affectionate, PG-rated tribute to growing up in early-1960s Baltimore—and promptly became a crossover sensation. A bundle of narratives centered around Tracy (Ricki Lake), a heavyset teenager who dances a mean Limbo Rock, and her fight to integrate a local TV dance show—inspired by the real-life The Buddy Deane Show, which ended its run in 1964 after a series of NAACP protests—Hairspray proudly carried over the sharp-edged, often self-incriminating irony of Waters’s earlier films. The movie’s tone, on the other hand, was warmer, gentler, and more reflective than those movies ever would have allowed. What seemed like a new beginning for Waters turned out to be a farewell for Divine, whose dual role as both Tracy’s mom and the TV station’s bigoted owner was his final screen performance.
September 7, 4:30pm
John Waters, USA, 1998, 35mm, 87m
Waters’s send-up of the New York art world is also a loving, detailed portrait of working-class life in Baltimore—where Waters, by the time of Pecker’s production, had become a bona fide local hero—and a sort-of allegory for his own rise to fame. Edward Furlong plays an irrepressible teen photographer whose grainy snapshots of local outcasts unexpectedly make him and his girlfriend (Christina Ricci) heroes of the Manhattan cognoscenti (among them Cindy Sherman, playing herself). Whitney exhibits and magazine cover offers follow, but Pecker, in the end, stays true to his roots—in this case, his sister’s gay strip club and his grandmother’s talking statue of the Virgin Mary. At the time of its making, Pecker, despite Waters’s public protests to the contrary, was likely the closest he had come to expressing his own attitude toward the Hollywood system that embraced him.
September 14, 4:00pm
Margie Holland in John Waters's Eat Your Makeup. Captured Film Still © Dreamland Productions.
John Waters, USA, 1972, 35mm, 93m
“I am not giving a star rating to Pink Flamingos,” Roger Ebert wrote of Waters’s most controversial film, “because stars simply seem not to apply. It should be considered not as a film but as a fact, or perhaps as an object.” The movie’s long lineup of abuses—bestiality, indecent public exposure, cannibalism, sexual violence, forced impregnation, incest, castration, and, in the movie’s infamous finale, on-screen coprophagia—made it an instant sensation on the midnight-movie circuit. But the story of ferocious trailer-park resident Babs Johnson (Divine) and her quest to upstage her neighbors as the “filthiest person alive” is, at its heart, a warped celebration of community and a showcase for Waters’s particular brand of pitch-black humor. The result is a classic of transgressive cinema, less a scream against convention than a gleeful laugh in its face.
September 13, 9:15pm
September 14, 6:00pm
John Waters, USA, 1981, 86m
For his typically subversive take on the Hollywood melodrama, Waters shifted his focus from Baltimore’s urban crannies to its middle-class suburbs. Divine—in his penultimate performance for Waters—plays a sharp-nosed suburban housewife caught between the demands of her philandering porn-hawking husband, her go-go dancer daughter, and her glue-sniffing son, a foot-fetishist wanted for mangling the toes of a series of women. Her only solace is in the company of her old friend Cuddles (Edith Massey) and in her new covert romance with the dashing art-house movie theater owner Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter, a Hollywood star whose old-fashioned good looks make him hilariously—and pointedly—out of place among Waters’s Dreamlanders). Presented in Odorama, a system Waters devised in which theatergoers were handed scratch-and-sniff cards to use during the film, Polyester is a key transitional film in Waters’s career, and a pivotal entry in the history of the sordid-suburbia black comedy. (Todd Solondz, eat your heart out!).
Audience members will each receive a free rare ODORAMA card to scratch and sniff their way through the film.
September 6, 7:30 pm
John Waters, USA, 1994, 35mm, 95m
In this scathing suburban satire—a kind of spiritual sequel to Polyester—Waters continued to develop his interest in unorthodox, tight-knit domestic groups, his obsession with the connections between cruelty, criminality, and fame, and his deep feeling for the closeness of humor to disgust. Serial Mom, like its immediate predecessors, was another polished Hollywood production, but with a harsher MPAA rating than Hairspray or Cry-Baby to go along with its edgier premise: a conscientious mother of two (Kathleen Turner, in a rafter-shaking performance) casually takes up serial murder out of a combination of boredom and mild irradiation at perceived slights and faux pas. The result is one of Waters’s most sustained critiques of a world in which life is supposedly safe and secure—unless, that is, you wear white shoes after Labor Day.
September 5, 9:15pm (Introduction by John Waters)
September 6, 3:00pm
Mary Garlington, Divine, and Ken King in rehearsal for John Waters's Polyester. Photo by Larry Dean © New Line Cinema.
Celluloid Atrocity Night!
Join us for a once-in-a-lifetime evening as John Waters presents his first two features, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, along with early short The Diane Linkletter Story, all on 16mm. These exceedingly rare prints are from Waters's personal collection, and probably screening for the last time ever! Waters will be joined onstage for a conversation with critic Dennis Dermody.
John Waters, USA, 1970, 16mm, 90m
Poised between the grimy black-and-white chaos of Mondo Trasho and the fierce, demented intelligence of Pink Flamingos, Waters’s second feature is an equal-opportunity assault on conventional morality and the virtues of hippiedom. Divine is the haughty proprietress of a traveling freak show—“Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions”—that exists as little more than an excuse for her and her lover (David Lochary) to rob and kill their bourgeois patrons. When her partner turns against her, she embarks on a dark night (and day) of the soul that includes a confrontation with the National Guard, a burst of cannibalism, a giant lobster, and a vision of the Stations of the Cross as only Waters could film them. For all its outré sacrileges, Multiple Maniacs ultimately arrives at its own kind of religious ecstasy.
The Diane Linkletter Story
John Waters, USA, 1970, 10m
The day after conservative radio host and TV celebrity Art Linkletter’s 20-year-old daughter committed suicide, Waters whipped up—“by accident,” he later said—this improvised, deliciously nasty satire of the girl’s final days, with David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce as the victim’s fretful parents.
John Waters, USA, 1969, 16mm, 95m
Waters’s first feature—a ragged, nearly dialogue-free fable shot guerrilla-style in the streets, alleyways, and immediate surroundings of Baltimore for just over $2,000—introduced moviegoers to his recurring company of players and caught his singular trash-opera style in full bloom. A mysterious blonde (Mary Vivian Pearce) passes through a series of nightmarish encounters with (among others) a foot fetishist, a diva with questionable driving skills seeking salvation (Divine), a topless tap dancer, a hacksaw-wielding mad scientist and his sickness-prone nurse, and, eventually, the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a soundtrack of 1950s pop songs, traditional liturgical music, bells, whistles, moans, gossip, and prayers. Mondo Trasho’s plot setup comes from a rich tradition of grimy women-in-trouble cult films, from Daughter of Horror to Carnival of Souls, but its skewed comic sensibility is all Waters’s own.
September 11, 7:00pm (followed by a conversation between John Waters and Dennis Dermody)
Shorts Program (Free and open to the public.)
Eat Your Makeup
John Waters, USA, 1968, digital projection, 45m
Maelcum Soul—“the Kiki of Baltimore”—plays a governess who kidnaps young women and forces them to model themselves to death. Waters’ first narrative short, also includes a 21-year old Divine doing his best Jackie Kennedy impersonation in a startling reenactment of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Hag in a Black Leather Jacket
John Waters, USA, 1964, digital projection, 17m
In Waters’s first short—shot on stolen 8mm film for $30 on his parents’ rooftop when he was still a teenager, and screened precisely once after its completion—a wedding ceremony between an African-American man and a white ballerina performed by a Ku Klux Klan minister takes a turn for the surreal.
John Waters, USA, 1966, digital projection, 40m
Under the influence of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Waters designed this free-form, disruptive collage of image and sound to be triple-projected on three screens side by side. Roman Candles found Waters, then fresh out of film school, testing out a handful of techniques he’d refine in his first two features, not to mention working for the first time with many of the actors—Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce—who were constant presences in his life and work.
September 5, 4:00pm
September 6, 5:00pm and 9:30pm
September 7, 6:30pm and 8:30pm
September 11, 5:00pm
Roger Michell's The Mother. Photo courtesy of BBC/Free Range Films/The Kobal Collection /Ivan Kyncl.
John Waters Presents: “Movies I'm Jealous I Didn't Make”
“Here they are—eight extreme, astoundingly perverse, darkly funny, and, most importantly, supremely surprising films that turn me green with envy. Every day I feel inadequate thinking of these fanatically obsessive, ludicrously sexual, unfathomably criminal, melodramatically misguided cinematic gems. Why oh why can’t I make films like these—ones that jolted me out of all cinematic lethargy? Exploitation, art, horror? There’s no such thing as genre when you’ve slipped to the other side of cinema-sanity. See for yourself the movies that drove me beyond the pale of normal movie madness. Jealousy over other directors’ careers is a terrible thing to waste.” —John Waters
Before I Forget
Jacques Nolot, France, 2007, 35mm, 108m
French with English subtitles
This wonderfully depressing movie about an older HIV-positive man is brave, funny, gayly incorrect, and smart as a whip. The shitting-in-your-pants-when-you-try-to-go-out-cruising scene is one I will never be able to shake.
September 14, 1:45pm
David Cronenberg, Canada/UK, 1996, 35mm, 100m
A hilariously brilliant and erotic movie about car crashes and the sexual cultists who fetishize them.
September 13, 7:00pm
James Wong, USA/Canada, 2000, 35mm, 98m
I’m a sucker for plane-crash scenes, and the opening of this “you can’t cheat death” nail-biter was so suspenseful and horrifying that it spawned four sequels (all good, too!). You’ll never tell anyone to “have a safe flight” again.
September 12, 9:30pm (introduction by John Waters)
William Friedkin, USA, 2011, 35mm, 102m
The best Russ Meyer film of the decade—only it’s directed by an 80-year-old William Friedkin, proving the adage “old chickens make good soup.” Gina Gershon, your performance here shocked me raw!
September 7, 8:30pm
Roger Michell, USA, 2003, 35mm, 112m
A recently widowed grandmother turns horny and has a secret affair with her daughter’s much younger, loutish boyfriend (played by pre-Bond Daniel Craig). Gerontophilia never seemed so exciting.
September 6, 5:00pm
Mai Zetterling, Sweden, 1966, 35mm, 105m
Swedish with English subtitles
The Swedish art shocker that made board member Shirley Temple Black quit the San Francisco International Film Festival in protest over their refusal to pull it from the screening schedule.
September 6, 9:30pm
Of Unknown Origin
George P. Cosmatos, Canada/USA, 1983, 35mm, 88m
The best rat movie ever. Period. End of discussion.
September 10, 7:00pm
Alain Cavalier, France, 1986, 35mm, 94m
French with English subtitles
The insane life of nutcase Saint Theresa, told in a haunting, minimalist way. Yes, she was in love with Jesus—but does that make her a bad person? Catholic lunacy at its most disturbing.
September 7, 2:30pm