John Waters Went There
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Published in: May-June 2024 issue.

Pope of Trash
Edited by Jenny He and Dara Jaffe
DelMonico Books. 255 pages, $59.95

IN THE SUMMER OF 1981, my father took me and my brother to see a double feature of two John Waters movies: Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos. I was fourteen, and my brother was three years older. My family had recently seen Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert review Pink Flamingos on their weekly TV show, and when my father learned that two Waters films were playing at the Nickelodeon Theater in Boston, he decided to take me and my brother to see them. My mother was not a fan of art films and declined to join us, perhaps wisely.

             Female Trouble (1974) was shown first, and this campy tale of juvenile delinquent Dawn Davenport’s journey from teenage runaway to hideously disfigured and murderous performance artist appealed to my budding (but still closeted) gay sensibilities. As a fourteen-year-old gay boy, I was thrilled to see the titanic and terrifying drag queen Divine play a Catholic school girl, and the eccentric Baltimore actress Edith Massey strut around in a lace-up leather catsuit and Frederick’s of Hollywood heels. But despite its gory ending and freaky sex scenes, Female Trouble still didn’t quite prepare me for Pink Flamingos (1972), the second film that day. Technically a comedy, Pink Flamingos is also an onslaught of shocking imagery. Two people kill a live chicken on-screen by crushing it between their bodies during sex. A creepy manservant masturbates into his hand, and then uses a syringe to impregnate women imprisoned in a pit with his semen. The protagonist, played by Divine, fellates her adult son as he moans “Oh, Mama, I should have known you’d be better than anyone.” And, most famously, after tarring and feathering her enemies and executing them with a gun, Divine eats actual dog excrement, rolling it around on her tongue like a delicious treat. All of these atrocities were performed by nonprofessional actors in cheap, garish costumes, delivering their lines in loud, declamatory style.

            I suppose some parents would have grabbed their kids and walked out, but my father didn’t. He had driven us all the way into the city and paid for our tickets. No cinematic atrocities could outweigh those sunk costs. We sat through both movies, back to back, but there was little conversation in the car ride home. I think we were all in shock at what we had seen.

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Peter Muise is author of Legends and Lore of the North Shore (2014) and Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts (2021).