The Trash Collector: On John Waters’s Imperfect Cinema

By Theresa LinNovember 8, 2023

The Trash Collector: On John Waters’s Imperfect Cinema

John Waters: Pope of Trash

WHILE NOT MUCH has changed about John Waters or his films in the 50 years since he first introduced audiences to his eccentric cast of “Dreamlanders” (steered by Divine, a drag queen who envisioned herself more like Godzilla terrorizing a city than a beauty icon), what has changed is the Academy of Motion Pictures’ appetite for the morally ambiguous and the aesthetically uneven. This past September, the Academy opened the first comprehensive museum exhibition dedicated to the 77-year-old writer-director and his contributions to film. In many ways, the Academy’s recognition of Waters is unexpected; he has never been nominated for an Oscar, and his films belong to a long-standing tradition of what filmmaker Julio García Espinosa once termed “imperfect cinema,” which rejects the very elitism that the Academy represents. Yet the exhibition, John Waters: Pope of Trash, celebrates Waters’s films precisely for their imperfection in the hope that they might rouse us from our conditioning to pedantic art and release us to embrace the bleak and strange.

If Waters’s films resist educating their audience, it is only because the director himself finds instruction boring. Earlier this year, when asked for his thoughts about Drag Story Hour, a nonprofit initiative created by Michelle Tea in which drag performers read to children at public libraries with the goal of promoting representation, Waters described his bemusement to Raleigh’s News & Observer: “I just picture little Billy coming home from school and Dad saying ‘How was school today?’ […] and he says ‘Oh, Little Miss Hot Mess taught me how to put on bottom lashes!’ Get it girl!” Certainly, the dangerous and false notion of drag queens grooming children demands address—and perhaps, in his same position, I would have described DSH as important, or at the very least innocuous—but what Waters instinctively understands is that edification will not come from him. There are the admirers of his work and there are the maligners (all of whose criticism Waters has meticulously archived in a personal scrapbook for his own enjoyment), neither of whom would benefit from his explanation. Instead, the task of amusing oneself and others preserves the possibility of joy, the first thing that seems to go during political firestorms.

Waters is Waters because he does not seek to enforce his worldview; he simply aims to live it. Waters’s four shorts and 12 feature-length films circle various of his aesthetic and thematic fixations—infamy, outsiders, suburbia, middle-class domesticity, courtrooms and crimes, and the pageantry of Catholicism. For Waters, who was raised Catholic and attended parochial school, there has always been a sexual undercurrent to the church’s theatricality—in its iconography and its confessionals, in the act of kneeling, and in the darkness of the sanctuary. Thus, when Divine seeks spiritual guidance before an altar in Multiple Maniacs (1970), Waters quickly undercuts the pious moment to play out his lurid associations. A stranger (played by Mink Stole) approaches Divine in her pew and begins aggressively pleasuring her with a strand of rosary beads. Waters provokes religious convention, exploring his morbid curiosity to the end. By centering taboos in his films, Waters seeks to exorcize their hold over him. “I thought that I would get it out of my system,” he comments in his Criterion-released director’s cut of the movie. Sometimes, though, even cinema is no match for the power of private imagination: “I don’t think it did.”

What is so wrong with laughing at the illicit? Waters’s films suggest that we confront compulsions not through sublimation or even rationalization, but through playful embrace. “I make films of things I love, not hate,” Waters explained during a recent press panel at the Academy Museum. He engages his subjects with earnestness as well as humor, a significant feature of which is the absence of irony. “Irony is snobbery in a way,” he said at the same press panel. At first, this is surprising to hear from Waters, since his work seems especially ironic. (The entire conceit of his 1994 film Serial Mom is that a suburban housewife secretly murders those who do not live up to her moral standards, including wearing white after Labor Day.) But upon closer consideration, perhaps the particular type of irony that Waters avoids in his art is that of disparagement, only engaging ideas to criticize or distance them. In urging that humor be free of irony, what Waters is really suggesting is that we preserve the possibility to feel love for what we should hate. Such humor not only draws out our latent, ineffable thoughts, but calls in our opposition as well. “If we can get our enemies to laugh,” says Waters, “we can get them to listen.”

Waters’s distinction between admiration and degradation, truth and obscenity, may not be so evident for some audiences for whom the salacious church scene is inherently blasphemous. “Unsurprisingly, Waters’s films were a point of contention for the Maryland State Board of Censors,” writes co-curator Jenny He in the Academy Museum’s exhibition catalog. “The Board’s lead censor, Mary Avara, once said that the mere mention of Waters’s name made her mouth feel dirty.” Still, Waters can laugh at this too. Alluding to the nudity laws that were especially restrictive against representations of homosexual sex in film, he comments on the Criterion edition of Multiple Maniacs: “We were making fun of what would horrify people that they hadn’t made up laws against yet, and the rosary job certainly was that.” He has called Avara his greatest press agent for the free publicity their legendary clashes generated. “Before Female Trouble (1974) was approved to screen publicly in Maryland, Waters was forced to cut a cunnilingus scene from his only print and had to pay the board $16 for his trouble,” Jenny He writes. Nearly 50 years later, he’s still kept the receipt.

Perhaps one of Waters’s most unlikely supporters remains the Academy itself. Waters’s early films, shot in the front yard of his family’s Baltimore home and financed by meager loans from his parents, possess a DIY shagginess. While written and performed with theatrical determination (cast members recited dozens of pages of dialogue in single takes, as if staging a play), they were the simple and peculiar products of a coterie of oddballs who, before they were the Dreamlanders, were Waters’s oldest family friends and fellow Baltimore misfits. This homegrown feeling is showcased in the exhibition catalog, which weaves together cast members’ biographies and recollections like tender, handwritten entries in a high school yearbook. We see Waters’s collaborators, from set designers to location scouts to principal actors, and how they must have looked to him through his 16mm camera, rendered in the glimmering moments of their becoming, when everything was still play, when everyone was at the height of their dreaming.

Waters, without irony, is simply happy to be alive to participate in the Academy’s celebration of his work. He recalls his late parents, who had always supported his creativity despite sometimes not understanding it, and the Dreamlanders who have already passed, including actors Harris Glenn Milstead (Divine) and David Lochary, whom he counted among his dearest friends. The Academy’s acknowledgment of Waters’s work is in some ways reminiscent of the legacy of Andy Warhol, the “Pope of Pop,” who similarly personified the counterculture in the 1960s before his art was embraced by the mainstream. (Warhol was a great admirer of Waters’s films and insisted they be shown to Federico Fellini.) But rather than reexamine icons of American culture, Waters holds up its trash. He asks what it means to sit with it. To tolerate it. To fully implicate ourselves within it, instead of vilifying or “othering” it. To love it, even. In reinvigorating William Burroughs’s honorific for Waters as the “Pope of Trash,” exhibition co-curator Dara Jaffe suggests that the way we should embrace the filmmaker is by attempting his way of seeing the world, by acknowledging the beauty in the grotesque, the filth in respectability, and, conversely, the respectability in filth. “The filmmaker […] should place his role as revolutionary or aspiring revolutionary above all else,” writes García Espinosa. In doing so, he will “truly [be] letting a thousand different flowers bloom.” I think of the cabal of weirdos watching Waters’s films and the unparalleled delight they must feel sensing that, at last, someone else sees the world as they do.

Waters may be the Pope of Trash but only insofar as he is a trash collector. He still spends hours every morning reading articles in some 20 newspapers, everything from The New York Times to tabloids to trade papers. “Don’t look away from the trash, engage with it,” says Waters. He gathers stories that fascinate him, which he later transmutes in his art. (In 1981’s Polyester, for example, Divine’s juvenile-delinquent son is sent to reform school for the fetish crime of foot stomping, a detail inspired by real-life news stories clipped and saved by Waters: “Foot Stomper Released—Insanity” reads a 1977 Baltimore Chronicle article that is featured in the movie.) What makes the experience of watching Waters’s films unsettling for some, then, is not necessarily their individual elements but the way everything from the culturally taboo to the surreal to the grotesque and outright violent coalesces in a single, heightened dimension, as in a cubist painting.

Waters’s films do not possess framing stories or portals that distinguish a fantastic world from a “real” one in the way that Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz (a formative film for Waters) assure viewers of a transition into dream vision. Without an explicit sense of the story’s premise, we continually devise the rules of Waters’s filmic universe for ourselves as we watch. Relatedly, just as we begin to get a handle on some character’s viewpoint—say, for instance, Divine’s conviction, in Female Trouble, that there is no worse fate than being straight—a series of disturbing conceits (forcible intercourse with a pair of plyers, facial mutilation with acid, a cult of beauticians that photographs women committing crimes) serves to divorce viewers once again from any recognizable world.

The result of moving from one absurdity to another is that the viewer can no longer apply their own sense of propriety or morality to the actions of Waters’s characters. What would normally be considered outrageous is made matter-of-fact. This is not to say that Waters’s worlds are bereft of any sense of right and wrong but rather that his sordid contexts demand a different code of ethics than the ones we normally rely on. All of this can feel extremely disorienting, if not maddening. Waters never offers clarification of his (fever) dream logic, such as when Dorothy clicks her sparkling heels and is returned to Kansas. In fact, there is only a ratcheting-up of revulsion. Multiple Maniacs famously concludes with Divine getting raped by a giant lobster.

That said, the closest we get to a framing device in a John Waters film is the opening scene of Multiple Maniacs, Waters’s second feature-length work, which begins with a traveling sideshow called “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.” The scene presents a thesis for Waters’s entire oeuvre, which is perhaps why the scene is so often invoked in discussions of his works. A ringmaster parts a curtain into a makeshift tent, which might as well be the curtain to the Theatre of the Absurd (a genre, named by critic Martin Esslin, that greatly influenced Waters). Inside is a bicycle-seat licker, a vomit eater, a man recovering from a heroin addiction, “two actual queers kissing.” The ringleader urges a group of “straights”—bespectacled, well-dressed, neatly coiffed suburbanites—to enter the sideshow. Throughout his career—from 1972’s Pink Flamingos (one of the first midnight movies, a time slot Waters actually fought for, sensing its mythologizing quality) to 1988’s Hairspray (a film he considers his most radical, in spite, or perhaps because, of its PG rating)—Waters’s basic approach has been the same all along: an invitation that we step inside his bizarro world.

If you decide to do so, you might require one of the complimentary “Pink Phlegm-ingo” barf bags that were provided to moviegoers when the film originally screened in theaters over 50 years ago. You might also find it all just as Waters intended—surprisingly and perfectly amusing.


Theresa Lin received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where she was awarded the De Alba Fellowship by Writing Program faculty for an excerpt of her novel. She is currently completing her manuscript and is represented by Janklow & Nesbit.

LARB Contributor

Theresa Lin received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University, where she was awarded the De Alba Fellowship for an excerpt of her novel. She is currently completing her manuscript and is represented by Janklow and Nesbit. She lectures at the Cooper Union and has previously taught at Fordham, Rutgers, and Columbia. Her writing has been featured in RacquetOh ReaderStorm CellarTruthoutSmart Set, and Random Sample Review, among others.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!