Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: John Waters
Why it’s daunting: Even though two of John Waters’ movies have been turned into Broadway musicals, including the breakout hit Hairspray, and even though your mom probably knows Waters’ name, his work still carries the whiff of the forbidden. Why? Because after Hairspray,
Possible gateway: Polyester (1981)
Why: Waters has changed with the times, sort of. His underground films gave way to more mainstream efforts as he picked up directorial skills and started using recognizable actors and not just his friends. There’s more craft in later Waters movies like Pecker, and less reliance on shock value. And yet the sensibility and obsessions (not to mention the Baltimore settings) remain much the same: Hairspray and Pink Flamingos share an affinity with misfits and a notion that even freaks deserve a shot at happiness, whether it’s a chance to dance on The Corny Collins Show, or the right to claim the title of “the filthiest people alive.”
Released in 1981 with a shocking-at-the-time R-rating, Polyester splits the difference between Waters’ earlier cult movies and his later mainstream work. A melodrama that touches on everything from punk rock to abortion to pornography, the film stars Divine as Francine Fishpaw, a put-upon alcoholic housewife dealing with a cheating husband, a knocked-up daughter, and a delinquent son. To the rescue comes aging matinee idol Tab Hunter. But Divine eventually discovers that her new romance has problems of its own.
Filled with as much outrage as Waters could squeeze into an R-rated movie, Polyester uses a weirdly heartfelt story to ground his gift for offending every sort of sensibility. Divine gives a delightfully over-the-top performance as her character goes through enough tribulations to fill a season of Desperate Housewives, if Desperate Housewives dared to feature dialogue like this justification for an abortion: “One day it’ll rip me open, and it’ll be there in my life ready to rob me of every bit of fun I deserve to have!” Waters’ movies can rightly be called “camp,” but they smuggle barbs most other movies bearing that label would never touch. Plus, it’s in Odorama, a process that let the original moviegoers—and now the owners of the DVD—scratch and sniff smells matching what they see on the screen. (Which isn’t always a good idea.)
Next steps: From there, you can go forward or backward, depending on your taste. There’s good stuff on either side of the divide. If backward, don’t miss Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, two movies obsessed with crime, beauty, and the perverted ways they get tangled up. They both feature Waters’ talented and game Baltimore friends, collectively known as the Dreamlanders, in front of and behind the camera, and the both take place in worlds visualized by production designer Vincent Peranio, who later applied his eye for creating lived-in environments to the Baltimore-set shows Homicide and The Wire. The Divine-free Desperate Living is for initiates only, but worthwhile. It’s weirder and in many ways more extreme than any other film in Waters’ filmography, as if Waters started to realize he was running out of ways to shock the midnight-movie crowd and had to find a larger audience. Still, none of these films are for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
Going forward, try Hairspray (sadly, Waters’ last film with the late Divine), the similarly multiplex-friendly Cry Baby, in which Johnny Depp plays a sensitive juvenile delinquent, and Serial Mom, starring Kathleen Turner as a swell suburban mother who takes up killing. Really, apart from the weirdly lifeless Cecil B. DeMented, Waters’ later films are all pretty good, and 2004’s A Dirty Shame—a joyfully smutty, yet still kind of sweet, return to NC-17 territory—doesn’t deserve the bad rap it’s gotten.
Where not to start: Again, Cecil B. DeMented doesn’t really go anywhere. And Waters’ pre-Pink Flamingos features—Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs—are kind of a slog, though the latter features Divine getting raped by a giant lobster. If nothing else, Waters always delivers images you won’t find anywhere else.