"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The Pope of Trash,” “the Prince of Puke,” “the P.T. Barnum of Scatology,” “the Sultan of Sleaze,” “the Baron of Bad Taste.” These are the words that have been used to describe John Waters, and for him, this has been the language of love (particularly coming from such luminaries as William Burroughs, who conferred upon him the pontiff remark). “I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value,” Waters has said, and even if in his last few films, socially redeeming values have been working their way into the mangy proceedings, at the very least there is — and always has been — Waters’ wickedly ironic and deeply queer sensibility, firmly in place.
He is nearly as famous for his persona as for the films he’s directed. With his pencil-thin mustache and his clean-cut look of suit and skinny tie, like some demented ’50s high school guidance counselor, he’s appeared frequently on TV talk shows, in movies and as a guest voice on “The Simpsons.” But mostly, of course, there are the movies. Waters’ place in movie history is such that you only need to hear his name to see the picture reeling in your head. You might imagine bodily fluids (both animal and human), rats, roaches and “actors” with bad skin and missing teeth. You might look back fondly on a 350-pound transvestite sensation named Divine. You might also think of deliciously ludicrous dialogue:
Or you might think of your college days; at least I do. Generation after generation of us has delighted in being grossed out by the ultimate gross-out flick, the “Citizen Kane” of crap, “Pink Flamingos.” I saw it once freshman year, and feel no need to see it again. For more than a few of us, it’s part of the nostalgia package of our lives — the quintessential midnight show, alongside “Dawn of the Dead,” and we’ll always remember Waters fondly for providing us, the young and defiantly unshockable, with the consummate gag memory: Divine rolling dog doo around in her mouth, and gagging herself. You wanna talk neo-realism, Roberto Rossellini? You can keep your exploration of the division of mind and spirit, Ingmar Bergman! Just give us Divine lifting her dress and shoving a steak down her underwear!
Waters has pursued a vision as singular as any American filmmaker. He has revitalized some of our big-time Hollywood stars (Kathleen Turner, Melanie Griffith), reintroduced us to the kitsch glory of others (Tab Hunter, Joe Delassandro, Joey Heatherton) and shown us a thing or two about some of the others we snidely thought we knew all about (Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, former teen porn queen Traci Lords), at the same time faithfully maintaining, into a third decade, his “repertory” of actors, a regular Royal Shakespeare Company of Raunch called the Dreamlanders. Though untimely death has caught up with many of the greats in his magnificent motley stable of thespians, we would be much poorer without Divine emblazoned in our collective pop-culture memory, alongside Edith (“Edie the Egg Lady”) Massey, David Lochary, Cookie Mueller and those still going strong — Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce.
Though it’s highly unlikely he will ever be honored at the Kennedy Center alongside, say, Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, Waters will always be loved as our most sublime schlockmeister. He is as American as John Ford and as tough-minded as Sam Peckinpah. His movies are far, far cries from cinematic works of art, but the best of them have as much kick as a Rogers and Astaire double feature. It’s been a long, nauseating haul, but Waters, in true pioneer spirit, has made it as an American icon.
John Waters was born in 1946, the oldest son of conservative Catholics, in Baltimore, the “hairdo capital of the world,” where all his films are made, and where Waters has proudly been a lifelong resident. (Baltimore’s mayor declared Feb. 7, 1985, “John Waters Day.”) The final chapter of “Shock Value,” his autobiography, is titled “Do You Have Parents?” and includes a picture of a droll Waters posing in the living room with Mom and Dad, who look as knowing as he does, as if all three of them are in on the joke. (At this point, they would have to be.)
Though he says he loves his parents very much, he has also acknowledged their utter mortification of him; it must have been a bitch to have your son spending his youth as an eternal truant, getting kicked out of the Catholic Youth Organization for lewd dancing, taking LSD and reading “anything published by Grove Press” (including Sade, Genet and Burroughs), as well as Freud’s case histories of abnormal psychology. And what parents wouldn’t blanch at having their son’s next-door-neighbor friend in their living room if that neighbor boy was Harris Glenn Milstead, who would soon be known to the world as Divine?
After terrorizing his parents with his teenage delinquent exploits, Waters deigned to briefly attend NYU, then was expelled for smoking pot. The university suggested to Waters’ parents that he undergo psychiatric treatment; instead, he started making movies.
It was actually his grandmother who, knowing that he was a movie fan, gave him, for his 17th birthday, his first camera, an 8 mm Brownie, and it was his father who bankrolled Waters’ initial efforts, including “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” “Eat Your Makeup,” “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs.” Local churches were somehow conned into providing their hallowed halls as the locales for his first screenings. The fledgling filmmaker’s adventures included getting busted for “conspiracy to commit indecent exposure,” by filming a nude hitchhiker on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, his father’s alma mater, which even made the front page of Variety: “Balto Mondo Trasho in Campus Pincho of Its Figleaved Hero.” “Multiple Maniacs” was quickly picked up for a tour of midnight shows in 16 cities.
Then came “Pink Flamingos,” unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. “I’ve always tried to please and satisfy an audience that thinks they’ve seen everything. I try to force them to laugh at their own ability to still be shocked by something. This reaction has always been the reason I make movies … I like to think I make American comedies,” Waters wrote about “Pink Flamingos” in “Shock Value.” “Pink Flamingos” (first released in 1972, and splashily rereleased for its 25th anniversary) “is a very American film.” Billed as “an exercise in poor taste,” it deals, said Waters, with “very American subjects — competitiveness and war.”
Shot over a period of six months, one day a week, on a budget of $10,000, the movie is a cinefest of depravity: Babs Johnson (Divine) and her family, also known as the “Filthiest People Alive,” have their benignly disgusting existence shattered when they find themselves under attack by a rival couple, the Marbles, who seek to claim the title of “Filthiest People” for themselves. While the upstart Marbles are well on their way to legitimately claiming that distinction through such crimes as kidnapping young women, impregnating them and selling their babies to lesbian couples, they don’t stop there; the Marbles mount an offensive against Babs herself, sending her a turd in the mail and burning down her trailer home. Angered into aggressive retaliation, Babs and kin hunt down the Marbles, convict them of “assholism,” hold a press conference of the sleaziest newspapers and shoot them to death. In a final scene that cemented the reputation of Waters and Divine forever, Babs/Divine indeed proves herself the Queen of Filth by ingesting excrement freshly dropped from a dog.
“Surely one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made,” harrumphed Variety. Waters himself said that his favorite review came from the Detroit Free Press: “Like a septic tank explosion, it has to be seen to be believed.” In 1976, it was shown at Cannes, and exhibited all over the world, and the Museum of Modern Art included it in a Bicentennial Salute to American Humor.
Though Waters had once flirted with the idea of making a sequel, he admitted that such a “pure” vision cannot be touched: “It would have to end with Divine taking a shit and the dog eating it.” It is also his signature work. “Even if I discover a cure for cancer, the first line of my obituary is bound to mention that I once made a film where Divine eats dog shit. Which would be OK with me.”
Waters admitted that “Pink Flamingos” was a tough act to follow: “I knew that if I tried to top the shit-eating scene … I’d end up being 70 years old and making films about people eating designer colostomy bags.” Obsessed by the Manson family in particular, and violent crime in general, his next two movies, “Female Trouble” (1974) and “Desperate Living” (1977), satirically reflect his obsession with violence.
He decided that the theme of his next movie should be “crime is beauty.” A big fan of high-profile sensational murder trials, he befriended lifer Charles “Tex” Watson, the principal murderer of Sharon Tate (Watson has since found God), and the plot of “Female Trouble” spread “like cancer” in his mind.
“Female Trouble” concerns one Dawn Davenport (Divine), who follows a life of renegade crime that leads to her death by execution. It all starts with her running away from home as a juvenile delinquent and becoming impregnated by low-life Earl (also played by Divine). Dawn gives birth to Taffy (Mink Stole), who follows in her mother’s white-trash footsteps by killing her bastard father. Dawn meanwhile hooks up with hateful husband-and-wife beauticians Donna and Donald Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary), who turn her into such an object of beauty that she is scarred by a viciously jealous Edith Massey (“Here’s some acid in your face, motherfucker!”). They also exercise a diabolical, Manson-like mind control, goading her into joining their “crime is beauty” terror campaign.
“Female Trouble” is a perfect synthesis of Waters’ fascination with the origins of antisocial behavior manifesting itself into violent crime; the real-life insanity of the Mansons is turned into cinematic farce, with the sight of Divine mowing down members of her audience during her trampoline act in a nightclub, and ends uproariously, insanely, with Divine, face acid-ravaged and head shaved, bellowing her way into the electric chair.
“Desperate Living” starred Mink Stole as Peggy Gravel, a bitter bipolar housewife who goes on the lam with her 400-pound ex-maid Grizelda, after Grizelda, at Peggy’s hysterical instigation, sits on Peggy’s husband’s head and smothers him to death. Escaping to the hellacious town of Mortville, where criminals can evade the law but must endure the mercurial humiliations of the evil Queen Carlotta (Massey), Peggy and Grizelda shack up with Mo, a butch psychotic pre-op transsexual wrestler and his/her girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques. More perversions ensue, including those involving Princess Coo Coo (Pearce), the queen’s defiant daughter, who runs off with a janitor at the local nudist camp. He is gunned down by the queen’s leather-clad goons, and the princess is dragged back to the castle, where she inspires the wrath of her mother to such an extent that she is ordered gang-raped (“Take her and fuck her!” yells the queen with brain-damaged menace) and injected with rabies from a potion concocted by Peggy, who has become the princess’s hideous replacement. It all ends with the evil queen being deposed and eaten in a coup, and the criminals of Mortville dancing in celebration of their freedom.
The make-it-up-as-you-go-along quality of the plots adds to the fun. With “Polyester” (1981), Waters’ odiferous valentine to kitsch American cinema of the 1950s and ’60s, the story is the usual Waters pastiche of inanity, irony and low-brow wit: Francine Fishpaw (Divine) is the long-suffering wife of Elmer, who spends his time cheating on her with his secretary (Mink Stole) and devoting himself to pornography, and the mother of two delinquent children — a trampy daughter who hangs with punks, and a son who is a foot fetishist. To make matters even worse, her dog commits suicide by hanging itself on the refrigerator and leaving a note that reads “Goodbye Cruel World,” and her mother is a kleptomaniac who steals from her.
Poor, demoralized Francine descends into booze and obesity until one day she is rescued by Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), the polyester-wearing suave owner of an art-house drive-in that specializes in obscure Marguerite Duras movies. In roles that would have once been played in some B-grade 1950s Warner Brothers sudser by Joan Crawford and, well, Tab Hunter, Divine and Hunter light up — and stink up — the screen, and Waters advertised his movie in true schlock style as being filmed in “Odorama” — with scratch-and-sniff cards being passed out to each audience member before the movie.
“Polyester” was the last real John Waters exercise in poor taste, but was much more palatable than the previous films. In fact, its goofiness and retro quality was a sign of things to come from Waters. With the scratch-and-sniff cards polluting the audience’s olfactory nerves, Waters was seducing them into participating in their own debasement, to actively joining in the low-class antics being played out on the screen. What could be grosser than willingly sniffing Divine’s passing gas, even if it was only an incredible simulation? It was also a great gimmick, in the tradition of William Castle (` la “Mr. Sardonicus,” the 1961 film that allowed the audience to vote — or so it seemed — on the evil Sardonicus’ fate via something called the “Punishment Poll”), to involve the audience — or, at least, give the impression that the audience was being included.
Of course, the more accepted Waters became, the larger the budgets he received for his projects. Some might think that this took his edge away, but I think the later movies are actually the better ones — technically better, without question, cinematically more polished and immeasurably more watchable, with professional actors enhancing the proceedings, adding to the enjoyment. With “Polyester,” Waters seemed to be poised to break into mainstream acceptability, and with “Hairspray” (1988), his next film, he achieved it; it is a near-perfect synthesis of everything Waters has always reveled in, minus the debauchery.
“Hairspray” takes place in the early 1960s, when Jackie and Jack were in the White House, when foot-high bouffants were all the rage, when black soul filled white teenagers, and the tensions of the civil rights movement were just beginning to simmer. That’s all framework for a movie with Divine and Jerry Stiller as the parents of fat, bubbly Ricki Lake, who winds up on “The Corny Collins Show,” an “American Bandstand”-style program, wins the gorgeous guy and shows up the rich bitch daughter of deliciously hateful parents Sonny Bono and Deborah Harry. For many, it is his best film.
It was also a swan song for Harris Glenn Milstead, known to the world as Divine, who died in his sleep from a massive heart attack. His death ended one of the most deliriously attuned partnerships between star and director in the history of pop culture. Divine was indeed the heart of every Waters movie he appeared in, and with his death, Waters continued valiantly, and with great spirit, in the new, vastly more mainstream direction heralded by “Hairspray.” Suddenly, or not so suddenly, Waters was cool with the money boys, and provided there were no on-screen blow jobs or other such nastiness, he was given real budgets that reflected his accessibility.
With both “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby” (1990), Waters was more than playing it safe — he was being downright cutesy, indulging in his love of the kitsch of ’50s and ’60s America. But there is so much exuberance in these later movies that it never feels forced; his sweetness feels completely right. And, like Robert Altman, Waters has a great affection for his characters, or the actors — which, in his early movies, anyway, is basically the same thing. His characters are no longer repulsive, they’re endearing. The good faith extends to his actors as well; all of them now look good, as opposed to being made to look deliberately bad (of course now they’re well-known actors), and Waters has been indulging his pleasure in having ravishingly pretty boy lead players such as Johnny Depp, Edward Furlong and Stephen Dorff. “Cry-Baby” is a homage to bikers, bad girls and Elvis wannabes, and Depp is sensational in the title role.
Though “Serial Mom” (1994) was a disappointment, it did boast a rather nifty semi-comeback for Kathleen Turner, and one glorious scene in a courtroom where she unnerves her archenemy Mink Stole by opening and closing her legs in a hilarious parody of Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.” And about the only thing that’s naughty about “Pecker” (1999) is the title; Waters was using his notorious name recognition and a slang word to mischievous effect, but little Eddie Furlong’s dong is nowhere in sight (as it might have been in Waters’ mangy old glory days). Still, if Waters has gotten softer with age and success, he’s still true to his overall vision, which has always been the same: art in reverse, as Waters himself called it.
“Cecil B. DeMented,” due out this week, stars Dorff in the title role, an insane film director who kidnaps big-time movie star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forces her to be in his movie, an epic called “Raving Beauty.” If the movie is half as good as the title, Waters will have another hit of “Hairspray” proportions. But has success spoiled the Prince of Puke? Has he gone soft? He is now comfortably settled in his third decade of filmmaking, the point at which most movie directors go “mature” on us, tackling “big themes” and boring us senseless. Yet the only real evidence of Waters’ maturity can be found in still photographs of him directing Griffith, in which he wears half-glasses (the kind your dad might wear). If he is no longer the Pope of Trash, he’s at least the unholy father to a new generation of renegade moviemakers — our perverted papa.
Daniel Reitz, a frequent contributor to Salon, is a writer living in New York. His film "Urbania," based on his play, "Urban Folk Tales," will be released in August.More Daniel Reitz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)