Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Female Trouble (1974)

John Waters' Female Trouble looks like shit, but it has the best defense for looking like shit of any crummy looking movie in history. The film is about a troubled woman named Dawn Davenport (Divine) who, over the course of the movie, goes from delinquent teenager to deranged mass murderer. A great deal of her transformation is engineered by Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce) who run Baltimore's most exclusive hair salon (the fetishes than inspired Hairspray were already bubbling beneath the surface, you see). The Dashers are obsessed with beauty but, as they find Divine to be the most beautiful woman on Earth (especially after her face gets splashed with acid), theirs is a somewhat idiosyncratic view of glamour. So the movie isn't ugly: it's beautiful in the same way that Divine's hideously scarred face is.

Female Trouble shows Waters in the transition from gonzo filmmaker to one of suburban America's most underappreciated satirists. The plot is still speckled with freakouts — I think my favorite would be Dawn's absurd stage show which includes bouncing on a trampoline and then sitting in a vat of fish which she proceeds to shove down her throat, in her crotch, and at the audience — but there's a much better and much funnier story here than in Pink Flamingos. The acting is better too, though some vintage posters online advertise — some might say threaten — performances from "THE PINK FLAMINGOS GANG" as if they were going to come to the theater with knives and molatov cocktails.

Dawn's metamorphosis is slow and organic and it begins when her parents don't get her cha cha heels for Christmas. Nice girls don't wear cha cha heels they reason, but Dawn, who's already shown her wicked ways by eating an enormous submarine sandwich in the middle of high school English, has had enough. She trashes her parents' Christmas tree, beats them up ("Not on Christmas!" her dear mother cries as she gets throttled) and storms out of the house. Dawn hitches for a ride and is part-sexually-assaulted, part-driven-to-ecstasy by the grungy scumbag who picks her up; in a classic Waters touch, Divine plays both roles in and out of drag. Knocked up and without any money or a man (she delivers the baby herself on her couch, cutting the umbilical cord herself with her teeth!) she tries to be a good mother, but it's just not her style. "I've locked her in her room, I've beat her with the car aerial. Nothing changes her. It's HARD being a loving mother!" she moans. Poor Divine. Soon she's fallen in with the Dashers, and after the acid in the face and liquid eyeliner in her veins, she is well on her way to unleashing her true, crazed, beauticious potential (Divine is particularly good in the role, especially by the end of the film when Dawn seems legitimately and certifiably insane).

He's derided for his complete lack of technical skills and that's fair (to a degree), but Waters has never gotten his due as a genuinely talented writer. For my money, few alive craft funnier dialogue than Waters, a fact I think gets overlooked because a lot of times the outlandish characters reading the lines overshadow what they're saying (or perhaps audiences are just too disgusted to pay close attention). Female Trouble's quote page on IMDb is a great read and really showcases Waters' grim sense of humor. Dawn's husband Gator (Michael Potter) shames his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey, the "egg lady" from Pink Flamingos) by daring to reveal his dark sexual secret: he's straight. She pleads with him to be gay; she'd be so much happier if he was, "The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!" she cries. If anything, Waters' storyline about celebrity and beauty (inspired largely by the Manson family, who Waters was fascinated by) is even more potent and hilarious today. Dawn Davenport was the prototype for the crazy reality TV star. She would have auditioned for American Idol, proudly stunk of the joint, punched Simon in the face, and then crapped on the floor.

Yeah so the movie looks like shit. So what? Hell in Pink Flamingos they ate shit, so why even attempt to gussy the proceedings up? During his midnight movie period, the lack of a visual style was equal parts defense mechanism (to keep the "neuters," as Waters would later name them, away) and provocation. The content is geared to shock, dismay, and upset; the terrible camera work is all part of it. Why would Waters want to look like every other movie anyway? The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.

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