Flamingos Forever: John Waters’s Unmade Superhero Epic

It’s been nearly two decades since John Waters’s last feature film, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that there will ever be another. And that’s okay. The Pope of Filth appears to be totally content in semi-retirement, where he continues to entertain as an author and a travelling orator without having to beg movie studios for budgetary pittances. If Waters never makes another film again, at least he went out a return to form in A Dirty Shame, an underrated career retrospective that bridges the gap between his early-career gross-outs and his late-career “mainstream” comedies. Still, as he is the single greatest filmmaker of all time, it’s fun to daydream about all ~the John Waters projects that could have been~ had his Hollywood Studio cashflow not dried up so suddenly. A Christmas-themed comedy called Fruitcake (potentially starring Johnny Knoxville & Parker Posey) was the most recent unmade John Waters project drifting around the ether, but here are several others besides: a Wizard of Oz spoof called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead, an ill-advised adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces, some unholy mutant titled Glamorpuss, etc. It’s difficult to speculate on any of these unmade projects with any clear detail beyond a basic elevator pitch, though, because they mostly pop up in media coverage as fun anecdotes in Waters’s bottomless repertoire of fun anecdotes. That is, with one major exception.

The closest one of John Waters’s unmade films ever came to production was in the mid-1980s, when the director was staging his unlikely transformation from arthouse reprobate to a household name. The 1988 paperback Trash Trio features collects three screenplays from John Waters’s “trash period”: Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and the unrealized sequel Flamingos Forever. In the intro to the book, Waters refers to Flamingos Forever as his “first abortion,” a “stillborn” project that failed to secure the proposed $600,000 budget it would’ve needed to reach the screen uncompromised. There were many roadblocks to Flamingos Forever‘s journey through the Hollywood System birth canal: clueless producers insisting on rewrites that included more Hot Babes, Divine’s dwindling enthusiasm for its various gross-out stunts, and, ultimately, the death of the irreplaceable Edith Massey. There was a brief window where Waters could have got the film off the ground under the infamously sleazy Troma Entertainment brand, but he held out for a better opportunity that never came. It’s probably for the best. I’m personally appreciative that Waters pressed on to new, subversive textures in works like Serial Mom and Cry-Baby rather than revisiting Pink Flamingos for a victory lap sequel. Still, reading the screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio all these years later is a total treat, as his authorial voice (as well as the mind-searing vocal performances of actors like Massey & Divine) is idiosyncratic enough that you can mentally picture the movie more or less exactly as it would have been had it not been quietly aborted decades ago.

Fifteen years after the events of Pink Flamingos, Divine and her cavalcade of perversions return to Baltimore to reclaim their title as the Filthiest Family Alive. In a beat-for-beat rehash of the previous film, Divine brags to the press about her wicked deeds, drawing unwanted attention from jealous members of the Marble clan, now led by the deceased Connie’s equally vile, child-snatching sister. Gross-out pranks and violent crimes ensue as the two families once again clash over Filth supremacy, with Divine ultimately (obviously) coming out on top. Of course, narrative doesn’t matter nearly as much in a John Waters film as the gross-out stunts & character quirks. While Flamingos Forever retreads a lot of familiar ground, it’s packs plenty of gags that would’ve been a scream if they were realized: the Filth family moving on up to an absurdly artificial Pee-wee’s Playhouse type compound, Divine carrying around Edie in a baby holster, a deranged performance of “The Hokey Pokey” (one of several gags that found its way into the A Dirty Shame), etc. It’s also a wildly offensive vision in the way that you’d expect from a Pink Flamingos sequel, including jokes involving blackface, necrophilia, children in drag and on heroin, and male rape. Even with the slightly-ballooned budget, it’s a trash-era John Waters screenplay through & through. No wonder producers were squeamish to back it.

To Flamingos Forever‘s credit, it does its best to escalate the filthy antics of its central cast to match the escalation of the proposed budget, especially when it comes to Divine. Amusingly, the screenplay recontextualizes Divine as a kind of filth superhero, an avenger of Bad Taste. As her war with the Marble clan heats up, Divine reveals previously unexplored superpowers that confirm her divinity: levitation, X-ray eyes, the production of flying turds (many, many flying turds). She also contrasts the heroic quality of her own filthy antics vs. the child-snatching stunts of the Marble clan, explaining in detail the difference between Good Filth & Bad Filth (the way Waters will walk you through the difference between High Camp & Low Camp in his essay work). Divine’s saga as a notorious murderess who kills because she loves attention from the press is already sketched out in a crude precursor to MCU-style sequential filmmaking across multiple loosely connected films: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, and Pink Flamingos. In Flamingos Forever, she would have solidified her stature as a filth superhero in that lineage, even providing a flashback superhero origin story for how she became so filthy (in stubborn opposition to her cleanliness-obsessed parents). Flamingos Forever would not have broken new narrative ground for Waters’s early Family of Weirdos character comedies, but it is amusing to consider how far it would have unintentionally pushed that familiar story into the modern territory of sequential superhero storytelling.

I’ve gradually come to peace with the realization that I’ll likely never see a new John Waters film again, a blow that’s been softened by several recent developments in his cinematic legacy: Waters’s newfound joy as an on-stage storyteller, The Criterion Collection’s wonderful restorations of his trash-era classics, the occasional opportunity to experience repertory screenings of his work with new audiences (which somehow always still inspires mid-film walk-outs all these decades later despite their notorious reputations). I’d also chalk up reading the unmade screenplay for Flamingos Forever in Trash Trio as a similar comfort. It was a delightful to watch an unmade John Waters film projected only in the run-down drive-in theater of my mind (an experience I wisely saved for a hurricane-related power outage), even if his work is always better with an audience – as all comedies are. The unlikely Superhero Sequel qualities of the screenplay only added to that novelty, as movies this unabashedly filthy rarely secure Superhero Movie budgets.

-Brandon Ledet

Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast: Mondo Trasho (1969) & Bootleg Drag

Welcome to Episode #105 of The Swampflix Podcast!  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss three dirt-cheap, no-budget films starring drag queens, starting with John Waters’s debut feature Mondo Trasho (1969).   Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Krewe Divine 2020

In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. We were later joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2020 excursion, our fourth year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
❤ Krewe Divine ❤

Krewe Divine Prayer Cards

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!

Today marks the fourth outing of Krewe Divine, Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe.  As part of our continued effort to pay tribute to the filthy divinity of John Waters’s own Dreamlanders crew with our annual costuming excursions, I made these “Catholic” prayer cards as this year’s throws.  Feel free to print & laminate them yourselves to pass around.  Spread the good word of Filth.  And, as always, eat shit!

Click through the images for full-size scans.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

-CC Chapman

The New Criterion Release of Polyester Stinks

John Waters is my favorite director (and maybe human being?) of all time, which means his work is difficult to introduce to the uninitiated without gushing an overwhelming flood of “Here, just watch all of it!” recommendations. Late-career suburban comedies like Serial Mom & Hairspray don’t convey the dirt-cheap D.I.Y. filmmaking context that makes his work exceptional within cinematic history, but early, scuzzier works like Desperate Living & Multiple Maniacs are likely to scare off most new audiences with their acidic depravity. 1981’s Polyester is perhaps the perfect gateway into Waters’s cheaply intoxicating oeuvre then, as it’s a middle ground between the professional-grade suburban invasion comedies of his career’s latter half and the gonzo free-for-all that preceded them. Waters may have upgraded his camera equipment & attention to craft in that debauched ode to Sirkian melodramas, but he had not yet fully shed his early catalog’s dedication to putrid filth, which you can clearly see in his insistence that his first foray into “mainstream” filmmaking carry a literal stench.

In homage to one of his artistic role models, Waters decided to enhance the Polyester experience with a William Castle-style gimmick of his own design: Odorama. Often mislabeled as a “Smell-o-Vision” Odorama was a cheeky attempt to engage audiences’ sense of smell along with the usual sights & sounds of cinema. Numbered prompts would appear onscreen throughout the film to signal to audiences in the theater to activate their patented Odorama cards: scratch & sniff activity cards dispensed at the box office to mimic the (often vile) stenches depicted onscreen. I’ve been lucky enough to see many of my favorite John Waters flicks on the big screen (which I encourage anyone interested in his work to do; they’ve invariably improved with an audience), but I’ve never had the good fortune of catching Polyester in a proper theatrical environment for the full William Castle treatment. However, I’ve now owned the film on two different home video formats—DVD & Blu-ray—that both provided their own house-made Odorama cards, to varying results.

The Odorama card that came with my DVD copy was mostly for display only. I suppose the card had a light suggestion of a smell to it, if I’m being charitable, but it mostly amounted to a hint of stale hairspray or an airduster can. There were many reasons to justify upgrading my copy of Polyester to the new Criterion Collection restoration on Blu-ray. It’s loaded with bonus materials, like feature-length commentaries & behind-the-scenes interviews; its vivid color saturation is essential to its Sirkian homage; its romance novel cover of Divine sharing a passionate embrace with Tab Hunter is itself a gorgeous work of art. Before you have time to fully soak in these more elegant pleasures, however, the most striking aspect of the film’s Criterion update announces itself: the Odorama card. As soon as you crack open the plastic casing for the Criterion Blu-ray, the pungent stench of Polyester greets you in a cloud of odorous chemicals. Unlike previous home video releases of the Odorama card, this latest nasal assault actually, genuinely reeks. It’s a wonderful thing.

I can’t report that the new & improved Odorama experience is perfect, nor am I old enough to compare it to the original theatrical release’s aromatic potency. Scratching & sniffing along with the film for the first time was a delightful novelty, but I will say my experience with individual prompts on the card led to mixed results. It was most effective in the earliest scenes, with the first few prompts on the card approximating their corresponding imagery: the perfume of a rose, the funk of a fart, the chemical ambush of amyl nitrate. From there, the results become much more muddled, with prompts 4-9 mixing into a single, amorphous chemical stench before the air-freshener fragrance of prompt 10 restores order to the exercise. For all I know, the original, theatrical Odorama cards had the same problem, since I imagine keeping these chemical odors separate & distinct on a single slice of cardboard is near impossible. The 4-9 stench-muddling could’ve also been an issue of user error; maybe I should’ve sniffed fresh cookies or coffee grinds between as a palette cleanser between prompts for a more vivid experience.

One thing is certain: the new Odorama cards falling just short of Smell-o-Vision perfection wasn’t for lack of trying. The Criterion Collection has documented its efforts in collaborating with Waters himself to deliver the best Odorama experience possible, explaining that they had to contract a Tennessee company named Print-a-Scent to simulate a wide enough range of smells to approximate the film’s . . . unique set of aromas: farts, old sneakers, skunk spray, etc. Although you may not be able to individually distinguish those stenches on the new & improved Odorama card, it’s undeniable that they have created something much more effective than the near-scentless DVD print that preceded it. Polyester is now undeniably the most pungent film in the Criterion Collection, adding to its values as a John Waters gateway drug & a subversive act of trashing up “mainstream” cinema. I can recommend it with a newfound air of intellectual superiority, sticking out my pinky as I pinch my nose.

Pictured: the new card next to the ancient DVD copy that’s on its way out my house.

-Brandon Ledet

Filth & Divinity at the Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel in downtown New Orleans is a very strange space. It’s a clean, trendy, expensive hotel I couldn’t possibly afford if I ever needed to spend a night in the CBD, but it’s still a facility I find myself utilizing fairly often. The fresh oysters in its seafood restaurant are refreshing & addictive; they have a decent coffee shop & bar; and, most importantly, it’s an abnormally comfortable place to mooch free Wi-Fi downtown – a service I abuse often. The most surreal experiences I have at the Ace, however, are when the building functions as an art space. Whether it’s a New Orleans Film Society screening, a brass band set, or a mixed media art instillation, it’s always strange to see the bougiest hipster-prone space in town play host to something that’s actually, genuinely cool. I had the most extreme art vs. venue dissonance I’ve ever experienced at the Ace just a couple weeks ago when the venue played host to a local drag show. Not only was it the kind of drag revue we’re used to seeing at dive bars & dimly lit cabarets in much cheaper corners of the city; it was also a show dedicated to the honor of a drag queen whose persona was the spiritual antithesis to the Ace Hotel’s upscale cleanliness: Divine.

As part of Harlequeen’s Honor Thy Mother series, the Ace Hotel played host to a local Divine Tribute Show drag revue in early May. Seven performers paid tribute to various milestones in Divine’s career throughout the show – lip-syncing to her disco hits, restaging scenes from her appearances in John Waters films, and – in one of the more inspired gags of the evening – reading beat poetry in her voice. It was a lovely evening in a pristine venue that was meant to honor a performer defined by Filth & Chaos. There was a dissociative effect between the vile acts being pantomimed onstage & the general chic, professional atmosphere of the venue. The show was cheap; the performers were consistent to the depravity they’d stage anywhere else in the city. Still, it was bizarre to step into a “late night” drag revue that was well-lit, punctual, relatively sober, and frequently disrupted by a straight-girl bridal party (okay, maybe that last part was fairly typical). The venue’s clean-cut hipsterdom was in sharp contrast to the various visions of Divine that graced the staged and smeared it in filth, which only made the experience more surreal. It was like the difference between seeing Divine rip through the trashier sets of early films like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos and the later films like Polyester & Hairspray where she irons clothes & pretends to be a suburban mom: it was almost even more perverse through the contrast.

Regardless of the ambiance, the performers did an excellent job paying tribute to Divine without stepping on each other’s heels in overlap or repetition. Tarah Cards & (Krewe Divine member) CeCe V DeMenthe did traditional lip-sync routines to Divine’s disco hits, but in entirely different tones; Cards filtered her interpretations of the original numbers through the Mink Stole temper tantrums of Female Trouble, while DeMenthe nailed the music video originals with impeccable accuracy in her attention to detail. DeDe Onassis & mistress of ceremonies Franky gently mocked the high-brow venue where the show was staged with the classic glamor of stage musicals & Torch Light singers, respectively. It was Mary Boy & Puddin’ Tain who really leaned into the absurdity of staging a Divine-themed drag show in the early-evening sobriety of the Ace Hotel, though. Puddin’ Tain’s first number was well behaved enough in a Lust in the Dust-themed foot fetish routine. It was her second number in a beatnik mutation of the classic Babs Johnson flamenco dress, now topped with a black sequin beret, that truly had the room in tears. Listening to her perform a beatnik poem about a meatball sub (in honor of Dawn Davenport) to a chorus of appreciative finger-snaps really felt like witnessing something special. For their part, Mary Boy went full carnival geek with two gross-out routines: First, a very literal homage to Eat Your Makeup. Then, a gag where they liquefied cash money in a blender and drank the contents in front of our horrified eyes. I’ve never been more hyper-aware of what I was watching and where I was watching it then I was in that moment.

You can see a picture of the full cast below (courtesy of Michael Meads) for reference, as well as a poster that includes a portrait I took of CeCe V DeMenthe in her first year “marching” with Krewe Divine. I don’t think either of those documents fully capture the absurdity of that evening though. For the full effect, I’d encourage you drop by the Ace hotel in the next time it sounds like they’re hosting something especially raunchy & uncouth in one of their various art venues (the next Honor Thy Mother event may even be a good start). Whether it’s a risqué art film, a series of nude photographs, or a drag show dedicated to the undisputed Queen of Filth, there’s something about that building’s buttoned-up, bright-eyed atmosphere that accentuates the depravity of art that does not belong there. It’s good to know they’re worthwhile for more than free Wi-Fi & a decent cup of cold brew, even if most of us could never afford to stay the night.

-Brandon Ledet

Krewe Divine 2019

In 2017, a few members of the Swampflix crew decided to finally grow up and get serious about Mardi Gras. We collectively shed our annual personal crises about what themes to include in our Fat Tuesday costuming by pooling our resources to pray at the altar of a single cinematic deity: Divine. Arguably the greatest drag queen of all time, Divine was the frequent collaborator & long-time muse of one of our favorite filmmakers, John Waters. Her influence on the pop culture landscape extends far beyond the Pope of Trash’s Dreamlanders era, however, emanating to as far-reaching places as the San Franciscan performers The Cockettes, the punkification of disco, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Our intent was to honor the Queen of Filth in all her fabulously fucked-up glory by maintaining a new Mardi Gras tradition in Krewe Divine, a costuming krewe meant to masquerade in the French Quarter on every Fat Tuesday into perpetuity.

Our initial krewe was a small group of Swampflix contributors: site co-founders Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas, regular contributor CC Chapman, and repeat podcast guest Virginia Ruth. Last year we were joined by local drag performer Ce Ce V DeMenthe, who frequently pays tribute to Divine in her performances. There’s no telling how Krewe Divine will expand or evolve from here as we do our best to honor the Queen of Filth in the future, but for now, enjoy some pictures from our 2019 excursion, our third year in operation as Swampflix’s official Mardi Gras krewe:

Eat shit!
Krewe Divine

Too Late or Too Soon? The Subtle Art of the Well-Timed Charles Manson Joke

Charles Manson is right up there with Adolf Hitler as a monstrous historical figure whose name is over-cited for easy, #edgy punchlines. The Manson Family murders obviously never came close to matching the body count or continued political atrocities resulting from Hitler & the Nazi Party, but there’s an easy shock value to Charles Manson’s sensationalist, highly-publicized crimes that makes his name just as frequent of a punchline. The joke, no matter how tasteless, has been run into the ground over decades of repetition in South Park episodes, Sam Kinison routines, and Marilyn Manson album titles to the point where it’s too old hat to be effectively offensive. There may have been some minor uproar after Quentin Tarantino’s recent announcement that he’ll be dramatizing the Manson Family murders in his signature tongue-in-cheek way with the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but most of the outrage surrounding the production has focused on the casting of known-abuser Emile Hirsch & Tarantino’s public statements making light of Roman Polanski’s rape charges. Outrage over his potentially glib treatment of the Sharon Tate murders has been put on the backburner as people address fresher wounds. Our Movie of the Month, the 2006 stop-motion musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, was similarly too late to the table to shatter any monocles with its own Charles Manson humor. There’s a performative transgression to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! that acts as if making light of Charles Manson & Sharon Tate was crossing a sealed taboo barrier never before addressed in comedy, despite decades of preceding shock-value art to the contrary. Like Tarantino’s still-in-production Manson movie, Live Freaky! Die Freaky! had to find other, less seemly ways to offend than relying simply on citing Charles Manson’s crimes in a humorous tone (namely through “ironic” misogyny & homophobia).

If timeliness is the key to a truly offensive Charles Manson joke, it’s doubtful that anyone could claim the honor more convincingly than John Waters. On the commentary track for the Criterion Collection release of his 1970 feature Multiple Maniacs, Waters explains the ways the developing account of the Sharon Tate murders changed the shape of the film during production, as the story was still playing out in the headlines. Early in the film, Divine teases her lover (played by David Lochary) by threatening to turn him into the police for killing Tate, even mocking the “P-I-G” carving in her stomach, a real-life detail. Waters explains, “When we shot this, they had not caught Charles Manson. No one knew who he was or anything about him.” Later in the film, Lochary says as much when he holds up an actual newspaper revealing Manson’s involvement in the Tate murder, absolving himself of the crimes Divine attempted to in pin on him, exclaiming, “I’ve never heard of these people!” That scene was quickly re-written the day the paper was printed, making for what has to be the earliest Charles Manson joke on celluloid. When John Waters & The Dreamlanders were joking about Charles Manson, the humor actually was transgressive, an effect that had only dulled & diluted by the time Live Freaky! Die Freaky! arrived over three decades later. When you read positive responses to Live Freaky! Die Freaky! online, they typically liken director John Roecker to Waters, saying his work is “in the comedy style of films like Pink Flamingos.” I’m not buying the comparison. The two directors may have overlapped in thematic territory & subject, but the timing of their arrival completely alters the effect & context of the material. When John Waters joked about The Manson Family murders it was a dangerous, culturally taboo act of true political transgression. By the time John Roecker did the same it was a hack bit that had lost all that impact through decades of dilution, like a kid playing dress-up as a Dangerous Artist.

It’s important to remember the cultural context in which John Waters was making his Charles Manson jokes. As he explains in it on the Multiple Maniacs commentary, the political upheaval of the late 60s countercultural made it feel as if the world were ending. Before turning to filmmaking, Waters poured his political angst into protesting, rioting, and writing for leftist mags. He describes his crew as being pissed-off, dysfunctional hippies who would later become punks & bikers – counterculture types who had not yet established their own niche. His filmmaking was an extension of that political unrest, using humor to both process the absurdity of a culture in chaos and “using humor as terrorism to embarrass your enemy.” When Waters jokes about The Weather Underground & killing cops in Multiple Maniacs, it’s coming from a real place of anger against the cops who arrested his crew while filming Mondo Trasho and added a homophobic slur to David Lochary’s name in their reports. When he jokes about Sharon Tate’s death, films anal lesbian acts involving rosary beads in a Catholic church, or *gasp* shows “two queers kissing like lovers on the lips!” in the film, he was bucking against very real constrictions of censorship, genuinely pushing the envelope of what was allowed by law. Censor boards in America attempted to shut the film down in outrage only for judges to shrug off the complaints because the acts were tasteless, but technically legal. When he sent prints to a Canadian distributor, border police confiscated & destroyed them, not waiting for a judge to weigh in on their legality. Roecker & Tarantino are only able to make their own tasteless Charles Manson jokes now because those censorship battles have already been won; as Waters explains it, “You can put anything in a movie now,” so that for-its-own-sake shock value no longer holds any political power. When hardcore pornography was legalized, Waters gave up trying to shock the censors and moved on to more narrative-focused works like Female Trouble & Polyester. Roecker & Tarantino are only playing with his broken, discarded toys that have been collecting dust in the attic for decades.

That’s not to say that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can’t or won’t find useful thematic material in the Manson Family murders. There’s no telling how that will pan out until we see the finished product. The dichotomy between the pointed political subversion of Multiple Maniacs and the pointless juvenile posturing of Live Freak! Die Freaky! does suggest that it will be a difficult task, however. John Waters snuck in his Manson Family humor when the wounds were still fresh and the topic was still taboo. John Roecker warns of what could happen when you pretend that same topic still has edge, despite it long having been made acceptable through repetition & familiarity.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, the stop-motion animated Charles Manson musical Live Freaky! Die Freaky!, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at the director’s follow-up, the Green Day documentary Heart Like a Hand Grenade.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast: Art House Herstory with CeCe V DeMenthe & Cosi (1996)

Welcome to Episode #65 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our sixty-fifth episode, Brandon & Britnee are joined by local drag performer CeCe V DeMenthe to discuss the ways the New Orleans art house & repertory cinema scene has changed since the 1970s. Britnee also makes Brandon watch the Australian opera dramedy Cosi (1996) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet