Where's the dog-shit?

Pope of Trash must be the first museum show in history that leaves visitors pondering the absence of canine faeces. "The first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to John Waters’s moviemaking, exploring his process, themes, and unmatched style" runs for nearly an entire year at the cavernous Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum in Los Angeles and is an exhaustive survey of the professional transgressor's six-decade career(s) to date. 

The one conspicuously glaring omission: there is zero mention of what Film Comment in 1981 dubbed "the single most outrageous sequence in movie history." This is the still-notorious finale of Waters' third feature-length opus Pink Flamingos (1972) in which Babs Johnson — played by Waters' immortal acteur fétiche Divine — confirms their status as the filthiest person alive by swallowing the freshly-deposited droppings of a poodle. 

As Waters commented 20 years later: "[my] best ending of all was Pink Flamingos, because it made the rest of the movie meaningless as to whether people liked it or not. When they left, they had to tell someone about it... J.Hoberman said it best; he said it sent me to show-business heaven. It was the ultimate hype. And it was the most commercial thing I ever did."

The hype paid off in spades (or rather shit-shovels). Generally accepted as the second real midnight-movie in US cult cinema history, Pink Flamingos emulated the first (Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo) via a marathon run at New York's arthouse-oriented Elgin Theater.

It played 95 profitable weeks from 1973 to 1975 after having been picked up — following strenuously persistent campaigning from Waters himself — by Bob Shaye's distribution company New Line. (The following year Pink Flamingos would begin its unlikely but steady path to institutional respectability via the [New York] Museum of Modern Art's "salute to American humor.")

Pink Flamingos (1972) by John Waters. Courtesy of the artist.

Despite being several thousand miles away from Baltimore — Waters' home city, and famously the location where all of his films have been shot — Los Angeles would prove an even more receptive territory for Pink Flamingos: it was programmed at least one day a week at the Nuart Theatre for an entire decade.   Half a century later, the love affair between Waters and LA would be quite literally cemented when he unveiled his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — no coincidence that this should be located at the entrance to Larry Edmunds' cinema-devoted bookshop, Waters having always been a vocally evangelical bibliophile.

The ceremony took place the day after the Academy Museum exhibition opened. And while Waters is still (somewhat surprisingly) lacking either a competitive Oscar nomination or an honorary Academy Award, the general vibe was that this perennial outsider — who next April will enter his 80th year — had finally been formally welcomed into the movie industry pantheon.

As David Thomson noted in The Biographical Dictionary of Cinema — where Waters somewhat incongruously nestles between macho icons Denzel Washington and John Wayne: "He has achieved a great deal, becoming a recognisable cultural icon way beyond Baltimore, and being generally endearing. But it's noticeable that he has mellowed as he's grown older, which is another way of pointing to the variety of ploys the America mainstream has of muffling the downright offensive."

It is to Waters' credit, then, that the poodle-excrement climax of Pink Flamingos should still exude sufficient toxicity to be — shall we say — brushed under the carpet by the show's curators Jenny He and Dara Jaffe, who reportedly toiled four years on what they assert to be the first proper museum exhibition focusing mainly on Waters' filmmaking (there have been previous shows concentrating on his visual art and photography, most recently Indecent Exposure at the Wexner Center in Ohio in 2019.)

Opened in 2021 on the busy corner of Fairfax and Wilshire Boulevards (next door to the popular Los Angeles County Museum of Art, aka LACMA) the grandiose Academy Museum — widely derided in the city as something of a white elephant — is clearly intended as a destination for all the family. I observed no shortage of minors on the afternoon of my visit. 

So even though the entrance to the Waters show is adorned with a carefully-worded disclaimer — "This exhibition contains nudity, strong language, vomiting and sexual and violent content that may be disturbing to some individuals. If you have questions or concerns, please speak with a Visitor Experience Associate" — Divine's on-screen antics are evidently still seen as excessively strong meat for youthful stomachs and eyes.   Those bold enough to enter the exhibition are immediately immersed in what the curators acknowledge to be a "reverential" treatment of a cultural figure long famed for his "irreverence." The first room is a kind of parodic church environment, in which patrons sit on wooden pews (rigged up to impart mild electrical shocks in tribute to Waters huckster-auteur hero William Castle) and watch a rapid-fire montage of clips from his dozen features.

Stained-glass-effect portraits of a half-dozen of his stars — including, of course, Divine — are grouped along one wall; inches away, Waters himself is pictorially imagined in priestly garb via 'oil and metallic leaf on wood' by artist Amanda Maccagnan.

Raised as a Catholic by his devout (Canadian-born) mother Patricia but long since lapsed, Waters has frequently and gleefully blasphemed against and lampooned that particular faith in his work; religious terminology and motifs thoroughly permeate the exhibition from its title on down ("Pope of Trash" being the epithet legendarily bestowed upon Waters in 1986 by no less an eminence William S Burroughs — himself something of an unholy pontiff figure). And much of it is hidden in plain sight: the name "Divine" for example.

But while organised religion invariably endures exceedingly rough satirical treatment in his pictures, Waters has often found favour among its practitioners: they even, surprisingly, gave him crucial leg-ups in the very early days. As the endearingly lo-fi hand-written posters in the exhibition’s second room remind, his first features Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970) rather amazingly had their world premieres at Baltimore's Emanuel Church and First Unitarian Church respectively. 

As Waters quipped in his still-in-print 1981 quasi-autobiography Shock Value — available at the Academy Museum gift shop for $20 (plus 7% California sales-tax) — "anything to get young people into a church, I guess."

That seemingly throwaway comment could also be applied to the exhibition, in which myriad props and pieces of memorabilia — nearly all of them from Waters' private collection, either borrowed from his own residences or his archive at Connecticut's Wesleyan University, a now-secular establishment founded in 1831 by the Methodist Episcopal Church —  are displayed like religious relics. 

An innocuous wooden armrest from the Elgin — with a metal plaque marking the first year in the run of Pink Flamingos — here presented in a glass case might as well be a fragment of the True Cross. A few feet away is a more elaborate wooden artefact: the actual (non-functioning) electric chair in which Divine defiantly meets their maker at the end of Female Trouble (1974).

Such items give little real insight into Waters' creative process; but then again, the exhibition is much more concerned with Waters as a cultural phenomenon. His filmmaking influences (Castle, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Russ Meyer, the Kuchar brothers, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Pasolini, Kenneth Anger) are only cursorily included. A video essay putting his work into queer and transgressive cinematic context is somewhat insultingly shunted away into a separate mini-gallery ("Outside the Mainstream"), which most patrons may not even realise is part of the exhibition. 

Instead, a full room is devoted to frocks and costumes from the film with which Waters is most closely associated by "mainstream" audiences — Hairspray (1988), whose cultural status has been reinforced by a successful 2007 remake (on which Waters only served as co-producer and consultant) based on its 2002 reinvention as a stage musical. Another room in the exhibition encourages dancing, with participant-visitors beamed into a version of the set via old-school TV trickery.

Hairspray (1988) by John Waters. Courtesy of the artist.

While not necessarily his best film per se (I personally much prefer his relatively gentle art world satire Pecker [1998]) Hairspray was in many ways the zenith of Waters' directorial oeuvre. It would be his final collaboration with Divine, who died aged 42 shortly after the premiere; as has been often remarked, Divine was always the best thing about John Waters' films.   Hairspray proved his last money-maker in what had been up until then a series of highly profitable enterprises: Cry-Baby (1990), Serial Mom (1994), Pecker (1998), Cecil B Demented (2000) and A Dirty Shame (2004) all flopped or bombed at the box-office — yes, his last hit was released when Ronald Reagan was still in the White House — and it's now 20 years since a new Waters film has seen the light of day. 

[IndieWire report, April 8th, 2024: "Well, after a flurry of rumors, Aubrey Plaza is officially cast in John Waters‘ first film in 20 years: “Liarmouth.” Waters will write and direct the “feel-bad romance” adapted from his novel of the same name."]

Perhaps for this reason, funding for Liarmouth has up to now proved hard to come by — an ironic state of affairs, given how smoothly Waters and his collaborator/producer Pat Moran climbed the financing ladder for more than two decades. Right up until Cry-Baby, each of Waters' features had cost more money than all of their predecessors combined. 

The budget for Pink Flamingos was a measly $12,000, which still works out as less than $85,000 at 2024 rates — picking it up for national release would prove a financial bonanza for New Line. Half a century later, distributor Bob Shaye helped return the favour: he, his wife Eva and their Four Friends Foundation are credited with "major funding" of the exhibition.

In the 20 years since A Dirty Shame, Waters has been anything but idle: what may be dubbed his "post-cinematic career" is amply chronicled in the exhibition's final room proper — we exit through a mini gift shop, of course. 

Waters has maintained an extremely high public profile via countless contributions to documentaries on cultural themes (where he's invariably the most articulate and entertaining commentator), best-selling books, popular lecture-tours, appearances on TV (including The Simpsons) and in film. Waters terms such exposure "fame maintenance," and the overriding impression of Pope of Trash is that Waters has always been both fame-maker and filmmaker.

According to Divine, the way Waters persuaded them to perform the poodle-crap scene in Pink Flamingos was by taking them aside and saying, "Look, I want to be famous, and you want to be famous. The time has come to stop fooling around."

For a kid growing up in the suburban (or at the time rather rural) environs of 1950s Baltimore, the desire for exposure and renown, whether via fame or notoriety — interesting how those two terms are now mistakenly used interchangeably by so many in the USA (and increasingly beyond) — evidently burned brightly. 

In the mid-1960s becoming a rock-and-roll star was not really an option for weedy, musically-ungifted Waters; with easy access to 8mm and 16mm cameras, a bunch of willing pals (which would become the "Dreamland" ensemble) and a nascently hungry counterculture audience, filmmaking presented itself as a possible route out of obscurity.

Compare Waters with the other prominent American directors born in 1946 — David Lynch (January), Paul Schrader (July), Oliver Stone (September), Joe Dante (November), Steven Spielberg (December). While none of these, with the exception of Dante, exactly fights shy of publicity, Waters is the only one for whom filmmaking seems like a means to an end rather than an end in itself. 

Indeed he's right up there among the most recognisable filmmakers in the US — alongside Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese — leaving aside director/actors like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone (the latter yet another from that rich 1946 vintage, alongside a record three American presidents).

And while Waters' cinematic oeuvre looks somewhat trifling when placed alongside that of, say, Lynch (as Jonathan Rosenbaum put it, "Waters was never more than an engaging amateur... he was more producer/entrepreneur than director/artist"), in terms of self-promotion Waters has perhaps had no real peer since Phineas T Barnum himself.  

The exhibition , while it may at first glance seem an incongruous honour, thus makes perfect sense in terms of Waters' desire to spread his name as far and wide as possible. As he asked in the first paragraph of Shock Value: "Can trash ever become respectable?" One of his most-quoted lines, from 1982: "I've always tried to sell out, since 1966, just nobody bought me."  Speaking about Polyester (1981), whose $320,000 budget equates to $1m today, he commented "I wanted to be able to reach a wider audience, not because I wanted to make a million bucks, but because I wanted to infect them."   But infect them with what? Examining Waters' impact over the 50 years since Pink Flamingos made him a national and international figure confirms that — notwithstanding the genuinely punk-DIY sensibility of his early works — he has been a strikingly consistent mouthpiece promoting tolerance, progressive values and benignly practical liberalism.

Waters has put the thoroughly working-class city of Baltimore on the map — a place which generally makes the national news headlines only for the worst of reasons. The big nationwide story on the day I attended the show was the catastrophic collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge at the entrance to the port. 

The fact that Key wrote the text of the American national anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and the bridge fell at a time when Waters' fellow "forty-sixer" Donald Trump was narrowly the bookies' favourite to regain the White House via an election less than a year away, was received as an omen in more superstitious quarters…

In an era of strident, even hysterically reactionary politics in the US and further afield, Waters is a necessary reminder of a very different strain of American society. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have had their lives significantly changed for the better via exposure to his films, books and interviews — mainly (but by no means exclusively) among young LGBTQ+ individuals coming to terms with their sexuality, often in hostile environments. 

Concepts of gender-fluidity and the associated rise of non-binary identities — liberating developments in the last few years — have arisen, in part, from the questioning and loosening of cultural mores which Waters has always practised and about which he has always used his public profile to be very vocal. (The exhibition notes [via slightly odd wording] that in 2020 "the Baltimore Museum of Art names its new gender-neutral bathrooms after Waters - at his request - after a promised major donation of artworks.")

If some money also happens to be made along the way? Tant mieux. "I think all of us were beginning to realize that we were closet capitalists at heart," recalls Waters of the time when the Pink Flamingos box office receipts were flowing in over the transom. And while the dog-shit spectacle is pointedly excluded from the "artistic" celebration upstairs, down on the ground floor commerce does find a way.

Nestled alongside DVDs of selections from Waters' back catalogue ($39.95 each), a disappointingly tasteful grey sweater ($65), a basic 'Greetings From Baltimore MD' baseball cap ($28) and the $59.95 coffee table hardback published alongside the exhibition ("Blasphemy? A miracle? Both, I hope," ponders the honoree in his foreword), we find 'Buster's Dog Poop.'

Manufactured by  Bigmouth, Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska this is neither an actual turd nor a Waters show tie-in, rather a handily camouflaged commercial receptacle: "With true-to-life texture, size, and coloring, no one will ever know that underside is a backup key for your house, garage, or shed." Yours for just $19.95, plus tax.

Neil Young is a critic and curator based in Vienna.

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