dir. John Waters

The last few days I’ve been on a bit of a John Waters kick, one of those happy phases with just about anything where you want to step back and take the plunge through someone’s work again when it’s someone you really like a lot but haven’t revisited in a while — it’s always nice when the good feelings are reconfirmed rather than leaving you going, “What did I like in this again?”

Happily Waters’s sense of humor was something I’ve loved since I first encountered his work (yep, Pink Flamingos, like so many others — though I did know that final scene was coming), and while there aren’t any of films of his I’ve seen that I hate, I definitely have to agree with Waters’s own conclusion on the DVD commentary that Female Trouble is the best of his early films, in some ways marking the end of an era. David Lochary would be dead in three years, his thin, striking looks and weirdly elegant voice would be gone forever, while Divine’s next appearance would be in Polyester, with cinematography and production values much different than that of Waters’s scrape-by beginnings. Also, the dialogue consisting of ranted speeches wouldn’t make it beyond Desperate Living.

So there was summation of technique and approach in Female Trouble, but also some stronger showcasing all around than ever — Divine, for the first time, played a character with a history and a past, the whole movie being the tracing of Dawn Davenport’s…well, not so much a rise and fall as it is an existence, from being one of the bad girls in high school to dying, in the throes of insanity, on the electric chair. It’d be tempting to call her entire character a grotesque like the immortal Babs Johnson, but instead Dawn Davenport is much like Polyester‘s Francine Fishpaw, somebody recognizable, however melodramatic, at the start who turns into a grotesque by the end. And as with so many of Waters’s characters, her change and transformation is anything but a sorrow — the movie simmers with barely-disguised glee at all the trashiness of her situation, not an indictment of her but just a celebration of the world and universe that Waters creates.

And what a world! Not only does Davenport literally fuck herself (thanks to Divine playing a dual role as a sleazy auto-body worker), but hairdressers dictate social status in a way that Vidal Sassoon could have only dreamed of, aggressive aunts desperately urge their wastrel nephews to turn gay (instead he stays straight…but enjoys having hardware with him during the act), a bride wears a wedding dress showing, to quote Waters, “full bush,” and the worst thing a daughter can do to upset a fashion-obsessed mother who’s turning into a killer is to turn into a Hare Krishna devotee.

Then of course there’s the core of the film, the cross-combination of ugliness as beauty, of crime as art, of death as the most creative thing possible and as the culmination of a career. Waters’s ability to live in his own world while sharply observing that around him, to create an America that isn’t always our America but isn’t that far removed at all, shines here — friend Arthur and I were talking the other day on the phone, I mentioned rewatching this and he (not to my surprise at all) called it one of his favorite all time films, noting among other things how predictive it seemed over time on questions of media coverage, on criminals as stars in the TV age and beyond, how Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino did their own version of it with Natural Born Killers twenty years later but how it ended up nowhere near as funny. (Or arguably as unsettling — the closing shot and sound of Divine in the chair is flat out disturbing.)

And damn is it funny and creepy all at once — perhaps nowhere more so when Divine as Davenport, head shaved except for the proto-punk mohawk towering high, makeup reaching back to her ears, face scarred from acid, concludes her show business debut rant with the barely controlled shriek of “I blew Richard Speck! And I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!”