John Waters, Films for all the family.

When I sat down to watch this movie with a teenage niece I knew that I was taking a chance. I had always been the uncle who brought something different along (though I also saw my share of  “family” entertainment, finally drawing a line in the sand & refusing to see “Spiceworld”). This was a John Waters film, at any time there may be an image which could traumatise an adult never mind a young girl.

I did not have to be worried. British kids have seen the American suburban high school experience in films and on TV. “Cry Baby”‘s quirky take on the 50s teen movie may be crude and stereotypical but the originals were lame and stereotypical. Waters’ brand of trashy cartoon camp, singing and dancing , nostalgia and warmth charmed my niece. She loved the movie. Just months later Johnny Depp was a new teen heartthrob after the dark outsider fairy tale “Edward Scissorhands”. Jemma put her friends on to “Cry Baby”, she already knew about this new handsome boy.

I liked the movie too. It was funny and the cast was a  great one. I could not help thinking though “What just happened ?”.

For years the films of John Waters had been a staple of the midnight movie programmes at the best cinema in London, the Ritzy in Brixton. They were filthy, outrageous, cheap, nasty and ,despite all this lovable. “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.” said Waters, but then he also said ” Sometimes I wish I was a woman, just so that I could get an abortion.” As we walked home through the empty South London streets it was not unusual for at least one of our company to bitch about the quality of our choice of entertainment. Let’s say he divided opinion and was an acquired taste in tastelessness.

I had two other nieces who were dance crazy. They danced in competitions at the weekend. They danced across a room and along the street. I loved hanging with Kelly and Charlene but they would make me watch “Dirty Dancing” and I would bloody hate it (movie snob…me ?). I have not only seen “Grease” too many times (once is too many), I have seen “Grease 2” more than once. Emboldened by the success of “Cry Baby”  and needing to not have to watch any of those 3 stinkers again I got a copy of the 1988 Waters movie “Hairspray”. A film about a young girl who danced her way through life, who wanted nothing more than to dance on the local teen pop TV show. The girls loved it from the cool opening song and credits. Tracy Turnblad (Rickie Lake) was a new screen heroine as she fought for integration on an early 60s Baltimore TV programme.

What the…? John Waters had become the go-to guy if I wanted to entertain my teenage nieces. I was not about to press “Pink Flamingoes” on them, let them make their own mistakes. I loved “Hairspray” too. There are few things better than watching and enjoying movies with children. Their sense of wonder is infectious. I got all the camp 60s references and Waters had retained, even over-emphasised, the sympathetic nature of his characters. The cast is B-movie stellar, Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, Pia Zadora & more. The two mothers, Debbie Harry (after “Videodrome”) and Divine (not a dog turd in sight) act their way out of their ludicrous wigs.

“Hairspray” became a Broadway musical and a Hollywood movie. I have avoided the 2007 film because I don’t really want to see what they have done to the original. (see also “The Producers”). I have also yet to fully forgive Michelle Pfeiffer for “Grease 2”. Kelly and Charlene are now fantastic women, (I bet Charl is still a dancing fool), I’m sure they know a lot more about the re-make than I do. I hope that they prefer the original version though.

I watched “Pecker” with Jemma, now all grown. Less of a genre movie, still with the dysfunctional family and still with the satire, this time on the art world. It is also very, very funny. Pecker (Edward Furlong) obsessively takes pictures of his family and his life. He is discovered and becomes the flavour of the month in the New York art world, hilarity ensues. Actually the fun is to be found in Pecker’s wonderfully deranged (but are they ?) family. In a Hollywood where sacks of nothing like Josh Hartnett are made into film stars Furlong must have been offered a lot of money for a lot of old rope. He is a fine actor who has resisted the star-making machinery.

The supporting cast is very strong. Christina Ricci was born to be in a Waters movie. Martha Plimpton is outstanding. Lili Taylor (Addiction, Short Cuts, High Fidelity) is always watchable. Mary Kay Place does that crazy mum thing that she does better than anyone. If you enjoyed “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Ghost World” then “Pecker” is a companion piece. If you enjoyed “Juno” then stay the hell away from me !

The later John Waters films can be said to be Waters-lite. The director showed aspects of life not always seen in American cinema. He had a view of humanity which accepts a wider range of normality than many others. If the eccentricities of the characters in his later films are less extreme that’s OK. The repetition of shock treatment cinema lessens its value (see the horror/slasher porn descendants of “Hostel”). If losing some of the trash aesthetic means that his benign view of a mad world can be shared and enjoyed with the young female members of my family then this is in its favour.