John Waters was completely ahead of his time. To so many people, he’s still the epitome of transgressive cinema, trashy and shocking for shock’s sake, but this is a reductive way of regarding his work.He was utterly prescient, a kind of prophet, if you like.
Take 1970’s Female Trouble. Dawn Davenport, magnificently portrayed by Divine as the spoilt brat gone rogue, exemplified the performance art that followed. bouncing on a trampoline and hurling fish at the audience, long before Ann Liv Young and her Mermaid Show did the exact same thing decades later, albeit with a paddling pool. And her shooting into the audience after the grand speech, culminating in the “who wants to die for art?” moment, predated the same antics by Sid Vicious in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle by a few years.
Lizzo et al are totems of body positivity in 2022, advocating for the representation of larger bodies, differently abled bodies and so on. Yet Waters’ 1988 breakthrough mainstream hit, Hairspray, saw both Waters muse Divine and newcomer Rikki Lake declaring that larger women could be gorgeous and dance their asses off, contrary to stereotypes of being unfit.
Meanwhile, the storyline also focused on racial integration.Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle is the ultimate in lovable matriarchs, drawing together black and white kids who loved to dance but were being segregated by the outdated reactionary media.
This is why it has endured and continues to pack out theatres, these days in a different format as an almost unrecognisable family musical.
Above all though, I think Waters’ aesthetic was the most prescient factor. Mink Stole and David Lochary”s bright orange and bright blue hair, respectively, dyed using food colouring, must have been truly outrageous in 1972 when Pink Flamingos was released, regardless of the myriad ways that the film caused offence.
“Mumblecore? We were all about screamcore”, quipped Waters recently. Indeed so. Thank goodness for the badass that is John Waters, and his ever present penchant for good, bad taste.