On Friday, Beth and I attended a showing of three of John Waters’ early short films at the Lincoln Center Film Society in Manhattan. This was part of a series celebrating Waters’ fifty years as a filmmaker. He’s been appearing to introduce some of the films, but he didn’t for this one, which might be why the event was free. These movies were interesting to see, and it was easy to notice certain elements that Waters would reuse in his later films. As Beth said, however, there was little to no dialogue in them, and she thinks the dialogue is the best part of his movies. All three had music playing constantly, which is apparently part of the reason it would be difficult for them to have a commercial release. Some of the songs are ones Waters would reuse in other films. The first of the three shorts, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, is a bit of surrealism that Waters filmed in and around his parents’ house, about a mixed-race wedding presided over by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was released in 1964, and I have to wonder if the term “hag” to mean a woman who hangs around gay men existed back then. The next one, Roman Candles, was a series of images on a divided screen. The screen was actually divided into four parts, but one of them was always blank. Was that done intentionally to mess with the viewer, or was it not intended to be projected that way? It was apparently intended to be played on three projectors at the same time, and I don’t know if that’s what the Lincoln Center did. I don’t remember too much about this one, but I do remember one of the images being a cat licking a sandwich, something our cat has been known to do.
My favorite of the three was Eat Your Makeup, which featured a sadistic lady exhibiting captured women to audiences, including a priest. There was a carnival style to it, including both a haunted house where participants were pushed around in a shopping cart, and a ride that consisted of strapping a person into a chair and moving it around. These things very much reminded me of a story Waters likes to tell about the haunted house he had in his parents’ garage, where he would kick people in the butt and spray them with a fire extinguisher, and apparently many of them came back for more. The film also included the assassination of John F. Kennedy, with Divine playing Jackie.
Speaking of Divine (whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead), just tonight we watched a documentary about him, I Am Divine, which Beth helped to fund. See, there’s her name, right under the word “perverts.”
It was a generally positive piece, detailing how a guy who was bullied and generally not accepted in his youth managed to achieve a moderate level of success basically by doing whatever he could to entertain. On the other hand, the fact that he died young, and not long after getting some of his best reviews with Hairspray. While sadly typecast, the character he often played was a fascinating mix: funny, scary, and strangely charismatic at the same time. Waters talked about how the drag scene back when Divine got started was largely skinny guys dressing as starlet types, and Divine helped to infuse some humor into it. Of course, there’s also the pantomime tradition of female impersonators, but there it was usually supposed to be inherently funny that a man was dressed as a woman. Divine and the parts he played were more about character humor, and didn’t make the fact that he was a fat guy in drag the joke. He definitely sounds like someone who would have been cool to know.
Going back to last night (since I’m going thematically rather than chronologically), we watched another film on YouTube, Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. This is basically a follow-up to A Christmas Story, with different actors but many of the same characters, and with Jean Shepherd narrating. He also makes a cameo as Ralph’s first boss, described as a cross between Rasputin and the Woflman, although the narrator admits that this was probably his imagination. This seems surprisingly obscure considering how popular A Christmas Story is, and while obviously anything involving Christmas has much more marketability, I hadn’t even heard of this one until Beth mentioned watching it on the Disney Channel as a kid. It’s much the same style of humor, with Shepherd’s dry but epic and intellectual storytelling accompanying fairly mundane events, in this case Ralph’s family going on vacation to a lake. Beth is currently reading one of Shepherd’s books and loving it. We also discussed a bit how this and National Lampoon’s Vacation might have been two of her favorite childhood movies because the family vacation was an experience she never had.