The Unread Library: John Waters and the Art of Reference

John Waters’ films incorporate my favourite kind of intertextuality: parody. His films are hyper-aware of the filmmaking industry and generally refer to famous mainstream films, albeit in bizarre ways. For those unfamiliar, Waters is a Baltimore born director and connoisseur of filth and cult cinema. His films balance crude with clever, and you either love them or absolutely hate them. There is no middle ground when it comes to Waters.

He is certainly one of my favourite directors, and a reason for that is because of the way he appreciates and rejects conventional Hollywood. Unlike a Tarantino picture, which references a film or recreates a shot to pay homage (or just steal), Waters’ has a more one-sided relationship with the things he references. His films take on so-called ‘sacred’ Hollywood archetypes, values, or people by changing their environment and making them seem more ludicrous or honest. Waters’ films thus act as a commentary on Hollywood, glorified Americana, and the movie industry.

What makes Waters’ approach unique, is that most of the time his intertextual style comes from a place of genuine affection or appreciation. By making a reference, Waters’ brings his work into comparison with earlier more popular and celebrated project. As a result, his films are a bit like Hollywood’s creepy friend, the one who says they know all kinds of secrets about Hollywood, but who Hollywood does not like to be associated with.

The characters in Waters’ films are always outsiders, and the same goes for his legacy in film. Both he and these figures operate outside of traditional Hollywood, and this outsider status allows them to talk about the dark underbelly of its culture and industry. It does this by exaggerating the thing or person it is referencing, sort of like a caricature. I find this rather refreshing, as his films discuss some truly dark things, those which other films are unwilling to focus on, let alone make fun of or punish in an exaggerated way.

For this post, I have chosen just a few examples which illustrate Waters’ commitment to intertextuality.

Pink Flamingos (1972)

This is certainly Waters’ most recognized film. It is intentionally disgusting, and not for those with a weak stomach. I would argue that this it Waters’ most divisive film because of one scene where Divine eats something (without spoiling) and proves she is the filthiest person alive.

There’s a lot to be said about the film, but I want to focus on Divine’s connection to Elizabeth Taylor and the “Girl Can’t Help It” scene. Divine and John Waters have suggested that Elizabeth Taylor was a large influence in Divine’s performance in Pink Flamingos. Waters has even referred to Divine as his Elizabeth Taylor, or his muse. This Elizabeth Taylor reference connects the old school Hollywood icon with the filth in Waters’ film. While Elizabeth Taylor is an Academy Award winning actress, this comparison implies that both she and Divine are equally talented. I would argue this is probably true, but it’s not something Hollywood would appreciate.

To model Divine off of Taylor says something about the way Waters’ film rejects traditional movie norms. This comparison is meant to be both infuriating and sincere, as Waters’ genuinely likes Elizabeth Taylor but he also likes this atypical type of film.  

One way to visualize Waters’ reference style is is to picture Waters and his team standing on the edge of a Hollywood lot, screaming obscenities, critiques, and praise at those inside. It is contradictory, but intentionally so.

The Little Richard sequence is another example of this reference style. We see Divine parading around Baltimore in a tight dress as confused Baltimoreans stop and stare. What makes this scene famous is its use of the song “Girl Can’t Help It”, which has a strong connection to mainstream Hollywood. The song was originally released in The Girl Can’t Help It, a 1956 musical comedy starring Jayne Mansfield. There is a scene in that film where Mansfield parades around the city as bystanders stop and admire her. By recreating this moment with Divine, Pink Flamingos shows two things. First, that it is aware of the legacy of this 1956 scene, and that it wants its audience to compare the two. Second, it demonstrates that Mansfield and Divine are both sex symbols, but just different versions of sex.

The scene ends with Divine taking a shit on the lawn of a nice house because, as the song suggests, “The Girl Can’t Help It”. Perhaps the same can be said of Waters’ intertextual style, as he can’t help but reference these older films, draw them into comparison, and then take a shit on them (in the most appreciative way possible).

Cry Baby (1990)

This is one of Waters most mainstream films because it includes less graphic and obscene material. It was the first Waters’ film I had ever seen, and it remains my favourite. It makes a lot of references to Elvis age films, like Jailhouse Rock (1957), but its biggest reference comes from one of its actors. This was Johnny Depp’s first project since 21 Jump Street, a show which had turned him into a Hollywood star and heartthrob. Cry Baby pokes fun at this reputation, as Depp plays a heartthrob, but an exaggerated and satirized version, implying that both he and Waters are very aware of the conventions associated with that status. Depp’s casting is just another way the film comments on Hollywood motifs, particularly those which it produced in the 1950’s, like star-crossed lovers.

Serial Mom (1994)

By 1994, Waters had made a name for himself, but maintained his earlier Pink Flamingo attitude. This film satirizes the suburban Mom cliché, but also takes it to a new extreme. The Mom in this film is willing to murder anyone to keep her house clean and her family happy. In other words, she has done what 50’s era propaganda told women to do, but she also made it her own. She loves horror films, swearing, and killing, but sees these as assets to help her ‘tidy house’ for her neighborhood.

The film refers to a few popular movies, particularly in its Annie sequence. I have no clue how they got the rights to song “Tomorrow”, but I am so glad that they did. The scene begins at a video rental store, where Mrs. Jensen enters to return her copy of Ghost Dad (1990), noting “I just love Bill Cosby”. It is very strange to hear that sentiment today, and the film seems to be aware of that somehow. It makes fun of that statement, as though this statement summarizes everything you need to know about Mrs. Jensen. She is focused on ‘so-called’ wholesome and mainstream media, but not interested in the underbelly to those things.

Mrs. Jensen also shouts at the employees for watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which she calls filth. Seeing as Waters has this relationship with the term filth, I think this line is very aware of itself. While Mrs. Jensen wants to watch the musical Annie, instead of ‘filth’, the film implies that Annie is filthy because it disguises its propaganda and ideology.

The reason Serial Mom kills Mrs. Jensen is because she disrespects film. Mrs. Jensen refuses to rewind the movie she is returning, and she insults the people who distribute movies, or the film workers. This is unforgivable, and why the film suggests that she deserves to die. It also why she is killed in such a memorable way. Serial Mom murders Mrs. Jensen as she is singing along to “The Sun Will Come Out”. In fact, Mrs. Jensen is beaten to death with her own pot roast, a symbol of suburban femininity.

What is interesting is that Serial Mom sings the final notes of the Annie song as she kills Mrs. Jensen. Although both she and the film have made fun of Annie, she still knows the lyrics. This implies that while Annie is dismissed in the movie, it is still respected as a movie. The real enemy in Serial Mom is not mainstream film, but the hypocritical people who support and produce this industry.

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

I could not make this list without mentioning Cecil B. Demented. There are so many meta moments in this film, as even its title refers to a Hollywood classic. Again, this film focuses on the movie making industry and suggests that it has been perverted, and not in a good way. Its commercialism and studio system has suppressed independent filmmaking for too long. Our culture has become too comfortable with nothing films, ones where the bad guy looses and there are no real stakes. Waters’ film suggests that although these fluffy films have become popular, Hollywood has not transformed into a wholesome place, it has just pretended that it has, and that is its real error. Not its subject, but its deception and the way it actively suppressed other voices and peoples.

In one scene, Cecil tells Honey Whitlock, the starlet he has kidnapped/cast in his anti-Hollywood film, that “Look, your Hollywood system stole our sex and co-opted our violence, so there’s nothing left for our kinds of movies, except this”. It is not that they used the same transgressive subject as Waters’ earlier projects, it is that they edited this subject into something mainstream, and never gave credit to where it was due. In other words, they did not play the same intertextual game that Waters’ films do.

Waters’ projects draw from a lot of other films, but they always give credit to these works. There is a genuine sincerity and parody which coexist in Waters’ intertextuality. Hollywood does not do the same, and Cecil B. Demented is essentially a hyper aware manifesto about the racist, sexist, and (worst still) boring powers which govern Hollywood and decide what gets to be seen and what does not. The film might be an exaggerated version of this debate, but its statement “Sabotage the cinema, and take back the screen” represents the war cry which Waters’ has been marshalling for his entire career.

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