John Waters has become an icon of those with eclectic tastes. Waters is a fascinating personality and artist whose fame as an iconoclast may at last have surpassed his fame as a filmmaker. He’s written a number of bestselling books based almost entirely on his style and personality. Film is almost secondary to who John Waters has become in popular culture. This is not to say that his movies are or should be forgotten, it’s more an indication of how the art of John Waters has evolved.
Waters began making movies in the late 1960’s in his beloved hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.
With his group brassy, over the top pals, Waters set out to make the kinds of movies that he and his friends wanted to see, if not audiences at large. His 1972 breakthrough movie, Pink Flamingos set the tone for the John Waters aesthetic of low budget shock with largely transgressive themes of deviant behavior and sexuality.
To give the uninitiated a sense of John Waters, Pink Flamingos is best remembered for star, Divine, a wild-eyed drag queen, part Norma Desmond part nightmare, eating dog feces. This wasn’t just a gag either, it was a part of the plot which found Waters’ characters competing for the title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ and featured numerous variations of fetishes both disturbing and fascinating.
Is Pink Flamingos a comedy? I believe people are intended to laugh in some portions of the movie but honestly, the movie is more about dropping jaws than guffaws. In that same vein, Waters’ Pink Flamingos follow-up, 1974’s Female Trouble isn’t a comedy either but a series of transgressions that you may or may not react to with a mixture of awe or horror depending on your disposition. Female Trouble is now the subject of a Criterion Collection release beginning today, June 26th, 2018.
Female Trouble stars Divine as Dawn Davenport, a High School dropout turned criminal and mother of an illegitimate daughter. Dawn is a terrible person desperately seeking fame and fortune while engaging in sex, crime and whatever impulse that happens through her reckless mind. When Dawn meets the owners of a hair salon who have a fetish regarding taking pictures of women in the midst of committing crimes, she finds her purpose in life as their model.
That is sort of a description of the plot of Female Trouble but that doesn’t begin to explain what is going on in this movie. There is a plot and a little bit of structure but, for the most part, Female Trouble a series of shrill, shrieking arguments between Dawn and her family and friends and her enemies, especially her eventual mother in law, Aunt Ida played by Edith Massey as a nightmare come to life.
Mink Stole plays Dawn’s daughter Taffy and she more than matches the shrill shrieks of Dawn in their numerous squabbles. Taffy has a fetish for staging elaborate car accidents in the family living room, that is when she isn’t castigating her mother for her criminal lifestyle. It’s hinted that Taffy has been kept in a state of perpetual adolescence and Mink Stole is disturbingly good at getting to the heart of an almost entirely unsocialized young adult.
The most striking and lasting element of Female Trouble isn’t that it is funny or even how remarkably transgressive or horrifying it is as the movie tramples on modern morality. Rather, the lasting element of the film is how it presaged our fame obsessed culture. A version of Dawn Davenport wouldn’t feel out of place on a modern reality show with her gross behavior fitting in on anything from Cops to the Real Housewives franchise.
Divine’s performance could be a parody of numerous modern reality show characters despite the fact that she existed before reality television. Divine himself passed away in 1988, well before he could have seen what came after in the fame-seeking world of reality television. Dawn’s sweaty, desperate desire to be in front a camera, to be adored by someone, anyone, is a trait that would be required of any performer wishing to satirize modern reality television.
Despite Female Trouble featuring a photo camera rather than video or TV cameras, the same ugly, impulsive neediness is still in play in this character as would be in the future with reality TV stars. That Dawn is also disfigured in an acid attack and ends the movie with a killing spree and a trip to the electric chair all while bulbs flash, either for real or in her mind, only serves to create a broad template satire of the horrific lengths a hypothetical reality star could go to.
It’s as if John Waters could see into the future and satirize it. That’s a rather remarkable legacy for a movie that is otherwise a whirlwind of NC-17 rated chaos. Don’t go into Female Trouble seeking a conventional film with three act structure and familiar, comforting, character arcs. Female Trouble is simply one transgressively trashy scene after another that builds one audacious scene after another into a wildfire of chaos and insanity until Dawn’s cartoon death sends everyone home with a strikingly dark comic visual.
Female Trouble is available beginning today as part of the Criterion Collection and features a newly restored print, directly from John Waters’ own collection, along with deleted scenes, commentary, interviews with the people involved in the making of the movie, and most importantly, the involvement of Waters himself who lends his colorful persona to all of the features of this new collection.