American filmmaker John Waters (1946) is known for his cult independent movies most frequently referred to as trash films. And Harris Glenn Milstead (1945-1988) is an American actor, performer and famous drag queen better known by his stage name Lady Divine or just Divine. Put them both together and discover one of the most provoking and daring cinema tandems ever seen on the screen. They redefined underground, independent, trash and LGBT films and, last but not the least, drag culture.
The so called “Pope of Trash” directed and Divine starred in some of most bizarre films cinema history has ever seen – Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Hairspray (1988) to name a few. Together with “Dreamlanders” – an acting troupe from Baltimore – Divine performed in all of them. This crazy bunch is inseparable with John Waters persona, as well as alternative cinema scene.
Both of them are originated in Baltimore. Waters and Divine met there in the mid-sixtees. Both of them dwelled into the underground scene soon enough starting to work together. Water’s first shorts Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) and Roman Candles (1966) shook the underground art scene. However, his first feature-length films, namely, Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs really put his name on the horizon as one of the most distinguished underground and independent filmmakers. At the time he was often compared to Andy Warhol but Waters strongly disagreed, saying that there is no resemblance because his movies had plot and created characters (contradictory to Warhol who observed and shot his art circle companions).
So what constitutes a classical Waters’ and Divine’s film? Well, to generally sum up, violence, exploitation, perversion, sex, (very) dark humour and devoid of morality. Sentences like “The sleaziest show on earth”; “Divine- The Filthiest Person Alive” and “A new high in low taste” proudly introduce these films, setting the tone of what to anticipate. Still… these taglines are only a mere introduction into the unexpected world John Waters has created. Together with Divine they set new levels of shock and made a mockery of society norms and political correctness.
Another thing about Waters films – they are purely independent. He founded his own production company “Dreamland Productions” (that’s where the term “Dreamlanders” comes from). Budget was extremely scarce and a full script often non-existent.
Divine is hysterically hilarious and terribly monstrous. Simultaneously. She is a terrorist. For instance, Multiple Maniacs is about a group of criminals pretending to have performances, while actually the shows are just a disguise of homicides and robberies. Pink Flamingo is about two families competing for the title “the filthiest person alive” while Female Trouble revolves around the premise that crime makes person beautiful.
Exquisitely bad taste
Water’s films fit into B-film, exploitation and trash film shelves. Usually trash films are made with a miniscule budget; they are infantile, hyperbolic and often repelling.
What if (or “maybe”) one cannot have a bad taste without knowing what is good taste and what are the laws to break in order to go against good taste. Sometimes the border separating good and bad taste is just that blurry. And what if it’s marked by B-movies? Waters films are not completely considered as B – they are walking their own path and they have marked film history in a unique way.
We could assume that people liking these films are not quite intelligent. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Research conducted by German scholars in 2016 suggest that people, who enjoy trash films view it as an ironical viewing experience and, moreover, while taking a look in their film lists, great cinema classics are found side by side B-films. When conventional, commercial, mainstream cinema (and even cinema classics) fail to surprise one might feel, that everything is already seen, why not turn to “trash”?!
When tastelessness meets style, new genre emerges. In 1964 Susan Sontag wrote an essay titled “Notes on Camp” where she defines Camp as a certain kind of aestheticism that has little to do with beauty, rather it is a stylization. Everything that is campy is artificial, not natural. “The essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: the artifice and exaggeration. […] Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” Sontag wrote, later adding that “there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.” Waters and Divine is a duo that embraces it like no one else before.
Freaks and society outcasts
The title of Multiple Maniacs already suggests what we will be dealing with. However, that can be considered as a gentle easing into the colourful palette of Water’s characters: religious whore, lady obsessed with eggs, giant lobster, terrorist Divine, couple of villains and others.
Waters doesn’t look down at these freaks – he cherishes and values their weird traits (and perverted deviations). Director mocks elitism, conventional filmmaking, as well as the prude and conservative society.
Divine was one of the society outcasts. Glenn Milstead remained that way even after becoming “Divine”. Throughout school years he was mocked by being too corpulent and too feminine. Milstead did not fit in provincial Baltimore, nor society. Waters played a huge part in constructing his image – he crowned her as Divine and he encouraged Milstead to embrace this character with all its visual and personal features. However, Milstead always felt split between being Glen and acting as Divine. He wanted to be seen as a serious character actor, not a transsexual or a woman.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
A niche of film buffs still appreciate a good bad film and an exquisitely trashy one. When James Franco’s movie The Disaster Artist (2017) came out, film lovers and critics once again revisited the inspiration source of Franco’s film – The Room (2003), which has been named as the best bad movie ever made. Even “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”. So… why don’t we engage in a guilty pleasure by watching some B-film or a trash piece?! John Waters films starring Divine is a good start. Jim Jarmusch himself has said that these movies gave him the courage of realising some of his most outrageous ideas. In the documentary Divine Trash (1998) he stated that there really are no limits – even the most daring films will find its audience.
It is worth paying a visit to Hôtel de Ville – until 28th September the city hall is hosting an exposition “Champs d’Amours” on the history of LGBT films. The co-host is Cinémathèque Française and the entrance is free of charge. Moreover, the poster features Divine and is an insightful homage to Waters.