Friday, September 07, 2007

Hairspray, John Waters, 1988
Polyester, John Waters, 1981
Desperate Living, John Waters, 1977

Every summer, the Alamo Drafthouse, a Texas theater chain (and perhaps my favorite theater chain in existence), hosts a film series called the Rolling Roadshow, wherein a giant inflatable screen tours the country, showing movies in the spots that inspired them (i.e. North By Northwest at Mt. Rushmore, Escape From Alcatraz at Alcatraz Island, Close Encounters at Devil’s Tower, WY, and so on).

The closest stop to New York on the 2007 roster was a John Waters marathon in Baltimore, which I interpreted as a sign that I was destined for a road trip. My love for all things Waters started in high school when I saw Pecker and nearly fell out of my seat laughing as Memama proclaimed, "You're a mother, and a virgin, and you're all mine!" I was soon introduced to Pink Flamingos, despite the warnings I received from the introducer, and was hooked. Since then I’ve managed to see every single John Waters movie, especially thanks to the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2004 exhibit, “John Waters: Change of Life,” which included continuous screenings of Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup.

And thus, I set off for Baltimore on Friday morning, with my boyfriend, Dave, and best friend, Jessica, who was also present for my first viewing of Pink Flamingos nearly ten years ago. (Around the same time, we began shooting a movie that was never finished called Roadkill, which was very much influenced by early Waters films, right down to the experience of rushing to finish a scene before cops arrived).

Somewhat disappointingly, the crowd was kind of sparse—not empty, but not nearly as packed as I had expected. Perhaps Baltimorians hear enough about John Waters that a marathon of outdoor movies isn’t quite as exciting as I think it is (or maybe the average person is generally less apt to care about the same things that I do). I think (or hope) it might have been more widely attended if there were scheduled themed activities, like the Repo Man scavenger hunt, the Deliverance tube ride, and other Roadshow events of summers past.

In lieu of such aforementioned activities, we decided to conduct our own tour of John Waters' Baltimore before the event. Our first stop, naturally, was the Prospect Hill Cemetery in the suburb of Towson, Maryland, the final resting place of Divine. Sadly, the headstone is rather defaced, covered in lipstick kisses and graffiti, none of which is very creative (if I were so compelled to leave a semi-permanent mark on someone’s grave, I hope I’d come up something a little better than “fucking fierce”). We paid our respects and left him some eyeliner, as a nice gift seemed more appropriate than tagging his headstone.

We also made a quick drive-by past the “Dreamland Studios backlot,” aka John Waters’ childhood home, located in a charming little neighborhood in the suburb of Lutherville. The house that occupies the address we were going by is a large building, adjacent to a huge lawn with picnic tables, resembling more of a bed and breakfast or unique apartment complex then a single-family home. (I loved the giant stuffed animal sitting on the front porch.) I don’t even know if his parents still live there (judging by the appearance of the grounds, I’d guess not), but it was interesting to see the origins of our beloved director.

The following day we took a walk past the Marbles’ residence in Pink Flamingos (and the house that Waters owned and lived in at the time of the filming), located near Johns Hopkins University. It seems that the current residents are well aware of what took place in their home in years past, hence the lawn ornaments and pink patio furniture in front of the house (either that or it’s a mighty awesome coincidence). We then took a detour to the corner where Divine ate dog shit, which is also in a hip
little neighborhood slightly west of downtown, populated by coffee shops and book stores. While this might not come as a surprise to some, I found it interesting that these early Waters haunts all seem to be located in the few nice areas of the city. I had expected to be taken into grittier locales, which makes me feel uncomfortably similar to Patty Hearst’s character in Pecker (“I want to see lowlife—show me 'down and dirty'!”). I also don’t know what these neighborhoods looked like 30 years ago—at the screening, longtime Dreamlander Pat Moran pointed out that the park that booted the Roadshow was once frequented by hustlers.

Shockingly—well, to me, at least—the event was moved to another location at the last minute, because the administrators of Wyman Park, where it had initially been scheduled, decided that the content of the films was too scandalous for the park’s patrons. The new location, Middle Branch Park in South Baltimore, was in a more rundown area; I guess the city doesn’t care about sheltering those residents as much—perhaps all too appropriate to one of the themes of Hairspray. There were a lot of families in attendance, some hanging in until the very end, which I loved to see—in particular, the two little kids who rode up on their bikes, bought a Badass Cinema blanket (it was pretty cold out, as you might be able tell by the photo), and seemed to be totally loving the experience. They left after Hairspray, but it was probably past their bedtime, so who can blame them?

The movies in the screening gradually got raunchier, which was probably the strategy—if you stick around until 2 a.m., you’re likelier more of a die-hard fan than someone who happened to be walking by and got curious about the free movie in the park. (The lineup originally included Pink Flamingos as the fourth feature, but it was cut due to concerns about noise restrictions. This saddened me a little, but I was likewise thankful to get to sleep earlier than I was expecting to.) The night began with the family-friendly Hairspray, Waters’ tribute to rock n roll “before the Beatles ruined it,” alive with pimply-faced teenagers with foot-high hairdos doing dances like “The Roach” and “The Madison.” While this might be one of his tamest films, his distinct style of humor and trademark filth are still present—for instance, the scene when Amber Von Tussle’s mother assists her in popping a zit, accompanied by over-the-top sound effects.

Right now it seems as though a mention of the remake is inevitable, but I've been striving to ignore it on principle (although not to much success, since I felt compelled to mention it just now). As with most remakes, it's completely unnecessary, and can't possibly capture the feeling of the original—moreover, the still images I've seen of John Travolta in drag are disturbing.

I already wrote a bit about Polyester when I saw it in Austin in June. While there are many great things about this movie, Edith Massey as Cuddles Kovinsky, the cleaning lady who inherited a huge sum of money, is unquestionably the highlight. Whether she’s complaining about all the lowly commoners (“God I wish I lived in Connecticut!”), impatiently waiting for her monocled chauffeur Heinz to open the limo door (“Hurry, Heinz, hurry!”), or practicing her detective work by flipping up her collar and hiding behind a tree (which barely begins to camouflage her), it’s a brilliant, endearing performance that only she could have accomplished. As before, I received an Odorama card, but this time decided not to use it, in an attempt to save this bit of ephemera (I’m a terrible packrat when it comes to saving movie ticket stubs, pamphlets, and other little scraps). Unfortunately, the card still stinks, even without the scratching and sniffing—maybe if I laminate it, that’ll seal in some of the odors (but let’s face, it I’m not going to do that).

Desperate Living is one of my favorite Waters films, next to Female Trouble. Except for Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, it’s the only one of the early films that Divine does not appear in, which gives the rest of the Dreamlanders a chance to exercise their style and flair for the dramatic. Mink Stole is great as Peggy Gravel, the wiry, insanely right-wing, anxiety-stricken housewife—her breakdown in the beginning of the film, in which she mistakes a fly ball accidentally sailing through her bedroom window for an assassination attempt, finds her son and daughter playing doctor and wails, “the children are having sex!”, and scolds the unfortunate sloppy dialer who calls her house ("How can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life? I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!”), is hilarious. (She can’t, however, outdo the cop with a fetish for women’s undergarments.)

Waters’ love for Disney villains is plainly apparent in this movie, as Peggy gradually transforms from hysterical to diabolical, later seen in a tight black outfit while stirring a cauldron full of rabies (yes, rabies). The wicked Queen Carlotta, whose tyrannical reign over the town of Mortville is rued by all of its residents, also echoes the evil queens of movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (except she's much dirtier). Mortville, by the way, is a kind of shantytown for the desperate, the downtrodden, and the out of place (Peggy and her maid, Grizelda, take up residence there after Grizelda accidentally kills Peggy's husband by sitting on him). It’s not too much of a stretch to find parallels between Mortvillians and Dreamlanders—without their evil queen, Mortville is a kind of paradise for freaks and misfits, a joyous haven of filth.

We met Susan Lowe, who played Mole, at the screening (she parked next to us). While I’d seen footage of how she looked offscreen, it was still a shocking contrast from her onscreen persona as Mole, the extremely butch lesbian with scars (and moles) on her face.

Seeing these movies in their natural habitat while surrounding myself with Baltimore culture and character enriched the experience, better capturing the feeling of the films than watching them on a TV in my living room might havewhich, I suppose, is the whole point of the Rolling Roadshow.