Steve Yeager’s 1998 documentary on perennial provocateur John Waters begins with the future director as a young and already bent puppeteer, and culminates with an extended behind-the-scenes look at the making of his magnum opus, Pink Flamingos (1972).
Yeager uses an interesting array of talking heads, with luminaries including Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley mixed in with such Waters veterans as Mink Stole and Edith Massey, and has enough previously unseen (or rarely seen) footage to give a fresh slant to what might seem to many a familiar story. He’s also careful to put Waters into context, as heir to both commercial schlockmeisters William Castle and underground film figures Andy Warhol and the Kuchar Brothers.
Inevitably, there’s a glorifying aspect to all this – Waters himself has said it would be a good film to show at his funeral – which overrides any coherent critique of the director’s oeuvre, especially when the main dissenting voice is the whacked-out Mary Avara, who chaired the Maryland Censor Board back then.
Anyway, a large part of Waters’ creepy charm is the way he deflects any serious inquiry, insisting that Pink Flamingos, rather than being a strategic assault from the mind of an intrinsic misfit, was merely the result of smoking lots and lots of pot. And the way he characterizes Flamingos’ infamous dogshit-eating scene as "a magic day in our happy young lives."
The shit-eater, of course, was Divine, without whom Waters’ early work would be certainly less interesting if not nearly unwatchable. Waters realizes how central Divine was to his early success and at the end of Yeager’s film pays him this typically unsentimental but fond tribute: "He was an actor who started his career (playing) a homicidal maniac and ended it playing a loving mother, which is a pretty good stretch, especially when you’re a 300-pound man."
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].