John Waters’s Period Pieces as Punk Culture History Lessons

One of the most fascinating aspects of early John Waters pictures like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos is how at home they feel with punk culture despite being released well before punk even had a name. Waters’s early 70s freak shows arrived at a time when feel-good Free Love vibes dominated the counterculture, feeling completely out of step in their amoral nastiness & gleeful shock value chaos. The leopard print & leather costuming, bright hair dye, old cars, and return to straightforward rock n’ roll (as opposed to the era’s psychedelic folk & bloated arena rock) of Waters’s early films telegraphed & possibly influenced a lot of what the punk subculture would come to accept as identifiers & badges of dishonor in the years to follow. It’d be easy to think of Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos as being ahead of their time in that way, but a lot of those signifiers of tackiness & bad taste were actually deliberately old-fashioned & out of style holdovers from the 50s & 60s. Waters’s freak show atrocities were poor, degenerate weirdos, conspicuously out of step with the times & repurposing fashion from their parents’ closets and secondhand stores around Baltimore. Waters’s early films suggest that punk culture had existed long before it had a name; watching teen rebels in 1950s garb devour cops alive in Pink Flamingos and defile Catholic churches with blasphemous ass play in Multiple Maniacs bridges the gap between early rock n’ roll rebels & the punk era’s return to that nasty simplicity by skipping over hippie niceness entirely. When the director made his move into mainstream filmmaking with the period pieces Hairspray & Cry-Baby in the 1980s, he made that connection even more explicit, detailing the undercurrent of punk culture rebelliousness that’s always existed among teen outsiders & societal rejects.

Waters often cites Hairspray as the most subversive film of his career. The idea that the unapologetically queer director of some of the greatest shock value films of all time somehow made a massively popular PG-rated comedy about the evils of racism definitely feels like a provocateur getting away with something. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray recreates the American Bandstand era pop music mania of Waters’s youth both as a nexus of nostalgia for the time’s tacky fashions & as a platform to discuss the hypocrisy of cultural appropriation. The white teens of the film’s bygone suburbia structure their entire lives around dancing on television to black music, but refuse to integrate socially with actual black people. A baby-faced Ricki Lake stars as Waters’s chief rabble-rouser, who protests Baltimore’s local Bandstand knockoff (The Corny Collins Show) for failing to racially integrate beyond featuring black musicians as performers. This defiance (on top of her default outsider status for being heavier than other teen girls on the show) leads our hero down a back alley world of beatniks, hair hoppers, and black Baltimore teens she didn’t have prior access to at home with her worrisome parents (Divine & Jerry Stiller, history’s greatest power couple). Hairspray somewhat succumbs to the common Hollywood problem of glorifying white people for solving racism, but it also makes it clear that America’s worst monsters are smiling, white, suburban faces. As Edith Massey warns in Female Trouble, “The world of heterosexuals is a sick & boring life.” With the exception of the beatniks, whose portrayal’s even more cartoonish than the Roger Corman take in Bucket of Blood, teen counterculture is presented here as the sane alternative to the hideous norm. Hair hopper fashion is far from the signifiers of punk telegraphed in earlier Waters films, but it is equally garish and designed to outrage parents. The music may also be a much simpler, more soulful version of rock n’ roll, but it’s operating with the same rebellious spirit that punk aspired to echo as a disruption to hippie feel-goodery. Hairspray offers Waters’s tamest (and possibly most subversive) version of protopunk teen rebellion, but its historical sense of outrageous teen fashion & disgust with racial fascism are at least in line with punk ideology.

The punk undercurrent is much more immediately apparent in Hairspray‘s follow-up, Cry-Baby. Flipping the calendar back even further to the teen rebels of the 1950s, Cry-Baby is a movie musical pastiche of teen gang melodramas like The Wild One & Rebel Without a Cause (with a little Jailhouse Rick thrown in for good measure). Johnny Depp stars as the titular Cry-Baby, a teenage delinquent who constantly breaks laws to honor the lives of his dead criminal parents, but then cries for the evil things he has to do in their name. The leather jackets & straightforward rock n’ roll of Cry-Baby‘s world are a clear source of inspiration for punk’s barebones, no frills ethos. Although racism is certainly at play in suburban Baltimore’s hatred of its teen counterculture element, the movie distills its “squares” vs. “drapes” dichotomy by making teenage outsiders’ very existence the scourge that’s being targeted. When a young teenybopper dares to cross the social line dividing squares & drapes (becoming a “scrape” hybrid, according to Ricki Lake’s crony), she completes the transformation with a Bad Girl Beauty Makeover, which is very similar to the way young outsiders are inducted into punk culture with shaved heads, piercings, new names, etc. I’m not a huge fan of the songs performed during Cry-Baby‘s traditional movie musical numbers, but seeing the same mainstream production design from Hairspray being applied to a love letter to teenage delinquency in those moments of Hollywood Tradition feels like yet another subversive act on Waters’s part. Waters looks back to the Elvis musicals of his youth to draw a direct connection from the leather jacket rock n’ roll of that era to the protopunk outsider freaks he previously featured in his early Dreamlanders productions. He may have been ahead of the curve on punk culture, but he’s more than willing to provide historical context on why he wasn’t the first to get there.

Just in case you weren’t already clued in by the teenage delinquency and hair hopping social outrage of his two period pieces as punk culture history lessons, Waters also cast two punk icons in central roles in the films. In Hairspray, Debbie Harry features as the racist, uptight mother of one of the most popular dancers on The Corny Collins Show. Cry-Baby casts Iggy Pop as a wild-eyed societal outcast who never outgrew his rebellious teen spirit (not that he really stood much of a chance in avoiding that). Waters’s early 70s version of protopunk grime feels far less out of nowhere after the historical context laid down in these two period pieces, which is an invaluable history lesson on punk’s eternal spirit in teen awkwardness & angst, political or otherwise. More importantly, though, these two films allow Waters an opportunity to contrast the warmth & righteousness of those outsider communities with the grotesque horrors of straight, square suburbia. Polyester was an epiphanic moment in the filmmaker’s career where the aping of Douglas Sirk melodramas showed him the value of contrasting his societal freakshow outsiders with straight-laced, “normal” settings. Hairspray & Cry-Baby focused more intently on exposing these settings as hateful, destructive forces. By bringing his cavalcade of horrors to suburbia, Waters found a chance to emphasize how mainstream culture was so much worse, from the broken legal system to white women spouting hateful racism in the faces of black youth to the grotesque wet smacks of heterosexual teens making out (which is far more disgusting than watching Divine eat dog shit, to be honest). John Waters’s punk culture history lessons are not only a great reminder of the consistent presence of teenage delinquents & societal outcasts in modern American life, but also a necessary indictment of the hatefully homogenized culture those small scale rebels buck against with their mere existence. The great punchline to that joke, of course, is that the mainstream culture he skewered in those two titles ate up that shit & financially sealed his fate in filmmaking infamy. He not only profiled the evolution of punk spirit through the ages, but also sold that historical glorification to the very people who made punk politically & culturally necessary.

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “John Waters’s Period Pieces as Punk Culture History Lessons

  1. Pingback: The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World | Swampflix

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