John Waters at the Englert preview

A look into where you should begin with John Waters’ films before he comes to the Englert on Saturday.

Harry Westergaard, Arts Editor, Co-Copy Editor

John Waters will be at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, October 1st. Waters is known for his films, which are generally intentionally cheesy or campy, and have achieved a cult status. His run of films in the seventies became underground hits, and were known for being very raunchy. Waters had a tendency to try and push boundaries as far as they could go. His most popular film from this era, Pink Flamingos, had a very apt subtitle, An Exercise in Bad Taste. Going into the 80’s Waters began to tone it down, and his films became more mainstream. Despite this, they still retained his campy trademark.

If you have not seen any of Waters’ work, and want to catch up before he comes, never fear. I will give recommendations of his most notable work in film (as well as a television endeavor). I’ll start with one of his more mainstream successes, Hairspray. It’s Waters at his most toned-down state, with this nostalgic tale that takes place in the early 1960’s. It’s about Tracy Turnblad, an overweight girl who auditions for a local dance show, and (to everyone’s surprise) gets accepted and becomes a star. The film is a very fun, light hearted piece, but still highlights some issues that were a problem at the time, such as segregation. It never loses its charm when dealing with these topics, doing so with satire typical of Waters’ work. The cast is also great, which includes Waters regular Divine as two roles. Ricki Lake makes her debut as Tracy. Additionally, Debbie Harry (lead singer for Blondie, one of my personal favorite musical groups) stars as the antagonist’s mother and does a hilarious job, mostly due to her outrageous hair-do. Hairspray is a good place to get started with Waters, if you’re not as interested in his more obscure films. It’s currently available for streaming on Netflix.

However, if you think you can stand Water’s trademark gross-out films, then you could start with his biggest success from the era, Pink Flamingos. The film shared popularity with Eraserhead and Rocky Horror on the midnight movie circuit in the seventies. It tells the story of Divine (played by, well, Divine) as she competes with a couple for title of filthiest person alive. It pushes the boundaries in just about every way it can. The movie is full of bad language, nudity, and just about everything else you can dream up that is gross. The film was one of the earliest to receive an NC-17,also known as an X, rating on account of its excessive sexual imagery. The film is not for those easily disgusted, but the film should be seen as notable for a few reasons. It was a huge deal in the LGBT Community at the time because Divine, a drag queen, was in the lead role. It’s also probably not (to my knowledge at least) been topped as one of the filthiest films of all time.

Another notable work that Waters did was the voice of John, in the controversial Simpsons episode in 1997, Homer’s Phobia. The episode dealt with Homer’s disdain towards his new friend, John after finding out he’s gay. He fears that his homosexuality will infect Bart and turn him gay. The episodes deals with the theme in classic Simpsons style, it’s hilarious and yet still gets the point across effectively. While it might not seem that surprising by today’s standards, it was a huge deal to address issues of homophobia so overtly at the time. It’s a great episode, though not as alarming as it once was, it still hits home and is hilarious.
Waters has had a long and rich career. If you aren’t feeling his more odd seventies work, then you might enjoy his later eighties and nineties films. If you find the later stuff too mainstream and not edgy enough, you won’t be disappointed by his earlier work. Either way, you are sure to find something to enjoy. Tickets are still available for his Englert show.