Trash Heap of History

Making it big: Director John Waters on the set of Pecker

In Bad Taste: The John Waters Story
Independent Film Channel, Friday at 7 p.m.

Every John Waters movie, from the silliest to the sassiest, cradles at least one moment of joyous, guffaw-inducing effrontery. That drag queen of the midnight movies, Pink Flamingos (1972), presents not a coherent story so much as a series of such gleeful geek-outs. In Female Trouble (1974), perhaps Waters's best, Divine as enraged suburban teen Dawn Davenport gets to brain her mother with the Christmas tree. The awesome Serial Mom (1994) proffers a delightfully tenacious liver-on-a-stick. Even Cry Baby (1990), with its worn-through "squares vs. hoods" satire, features a sweetly straight Patty Hearst chirping the F-word. Unfortunately, the rudest bit of In Bad Taste: The John Waters Story is a Forrest Gump dis delivered by the subject himself: True, it's a funny line, but it ain't no singing asshole.

In Bad Taste actually represents a second take on Waters by director Steve Yeager, a Baltimore friend for three decades; Yeager's first, Divine Trash, won the Filmmakers Trophy for Best Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. That film concentrated on the rail-thin director's formative years, hanging with a gang of eccentric Baltimore drug fiends and splicing together make-hate-not-love epics on the cheap. The IFC-sponsored In Bad Taste covers Waters's post-Pink Flamingos notoriety right on up to the camera-flashing premiere of last year's Pecker. Maybe because it follows the money--i.e., Waters's gradual mainstreaming and beyond-cult success--In Bad Taste exudes the comfortable smugness of a proven speculator. This doc is neither trashy nor divine.

Yeager's film can be fascinating, though--if only for how it inadvertently illustrates the difference between "good bad taste" and "bad bad taste" so central to Waters's sensibility. The former, as Waters explains here, "[turns] bad taste around so it actually becomes good taste, because of humor and hopefully wit and looking at things with a new kind of respect. Bad bad just stupidity and offensiveness without being clever." Lining up on the side of the stupid and offensive, then: the fawning accolades of Hollywood talking heads Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner, and Steve Buscemi; a noxiously smooth and super-meaningful saxophone theme; and, worst of all, Michael and Jane Stern, celebrated trend-mongers of Irony, who weigh in with cultural analysis so bland, thick, and absent of any cerebral nutrition that they might as well be spewing dog turds.

Yeager at least has the sense to goose the overweening babble with pin-sharp Waters commentary. After the Sterns gobble on about the Martha Stewart satire inherent in Kathleen Turner's Serial Mom killer, Waters notes that the doyenne of do-it-yourself homemaking wasn't much of a player in 1992 and '93, when that movie was made. Besides, he says, he likes her cookbooks. Turner herself goes into an ecstatic rant about the same film's critique of modern fame: Cut to Waters, who ponders prettily, then declares: "I think both Serial Mom and Female Trouble were basically very different variations on the same point--that people look better under arrest."

Of course, Waters has a habit of puncturing any high-flying theories about his films; as he claimed in his essay collection Shock Value, "I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value." This isn't humility or even perversity, really. It's manipulation. You can't sneak, say, a message of sexual and racial tolerance into a trash movie and admit it: The vaunted trashiness--the fun--will disappear (which is one reason that the overtly anti-segregationist Hairspray wasn't nearly as giddy as Female Trouble). Waters's cool glibness is a pleasure In Bad Taste might've acknowledged--and then cut through, to encourage Waters toward a more incisive view of his efforts. As it is, Waters relents only once, addressing Divine's sudden and premature death in 1988. "That's when I became an adult," he discloses. But what does he mean by "adult"? And how is he different as an "adult" filmmaker? This doc doesn't say.

Instead, there's a lot of vague chatter about necessary change--about keeping up with times and trends. You wouldn't know from Yeager that Waters adores hip hop ("Because it makes me laugh, and it has energy and anger... And it gets on white people's nerves") or that he realized Cry Baby completely baffled contemporary teens (both admissions in John G. Ives's book John Waters). You don't learn in what way exactly the erstwhile "Prince of Puke" believes his films have changed--or how those changes were negotiated within the in-crowd of advisors, actors, and designers Waters has worked with since he was 18 or 19. (These folks, incidentally, offer the most trenchant commentary here.) Instead, you see a feverish young man turn into an honored middle-aged man, and a young man's rebellions turn into history. Given Serial Mom's vitality, I don't think John Waters has nothing shocking to say anymore. But In Bad Taste thinks so: And it buries him with respect.

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