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FILM CORNER - John Waters: The Underground Pope of Trash Flicks

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

During the 1960s to the 1970s, a young independent filmmaker and his friends were making his own movies within the City of Baltimore. The films he made with them were considered as "underground cinema," which were low-budget films that featured certain styles or tones that were not seen in mainstream cinema. However, a few of his films that he made changed the way of cinema forever, bringing in subject matter that were, at the time, considered shocking to be seen on the big screen.

This filmmaker was none other than John Waters.

Last week, I briefly mentioned Waters as one of the filmmakers who had to deal with the Maryland State Board of Censors. Despite having to deal with censorship with his films, the films of John Waters have been considered trash by mainstream audiences (especially his early work, but treasure to both cult audiences and filmmakers who enjoy his work.

Like most filmmakers, Waters was inspired to make films based on the movies and television shows he used to watch. Despite being raised as a Roman Catholic, Waters would sneak out to see films that were considered obscene, violent, and offensive (especially the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis). After getting his first camera, he began to create his first short films featuring his friends, whom were called the Dreamlanders. One of the biggest stars of the Dreamlanders was Harris Glenn Milstead, a drag performer who went by the stage name, Divine.

After shooting several shorts, he began to shoot feature films. His first feature, Mondo Trasho, was a story that was based around popular music cues (with the majority of the music that Waters grew up listening to). After he made his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, he eventually made the film that brought him and the Dreamlanders into the controversial spotlight: Pink Flamingos.

Just like several of his other early works, Pink Flamingos was a shock-factor comedy film, which contained both over-the-top violence and sexual content, about two different families fighting for the title for the "Filthiest People Alive." At the time of its release, it was either banned or censored in several regions in the world. However, the film gained a cult following when it was included as a midnight movie at the Elgin Theatre in New York.

In his later years, Waters began creating films aimed more for mainstream audiences, including his 1988 family film, Hairspray (which was later adaptated into the Tony-award winning Broadway musical of the same name). After the release of A Dirty Shame in 2004, Waters went on to writing books and doing stand-up comedy shows based around his life.

Along the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Ralph Bakshi, Waters was one of the filmmakers who inspired me to create the films that I always aim to make. His influence on underground independent filmmaking is still seen today with both beginning, amateur filmmakers all the way up to the professionals who eventually become involved with Hollywood.

On more about John Waters, I highly recommend the documentary, Divine Trash, or his stand-up comedy DVD, This Filthy World. As for his films, the majority of them are available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray, but I would advise to do your research on whatever film you plan to watch as the content that may be in them (specifically Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, A Dirty Shame, and especially Pink Flamingos) may not be suitable for those with a weak stomach or the faint at heart. If you do plan on watching these particular films, a barf bag may be needed.

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