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Don’t Be (Too) Afraid of John Waters

ColourjwI had to laugh when I heard John Waters being interviewed on NPR this morning, giving his picks for movies worth renting on DVD. I was equally amused by how shocked the interviewer seemed to be at Waters’ relatively tame admissions (didn’t everyone play car crash when they were kids?), and at the notion of people trying to find some of the films Waters picked at their local Blockbuster. (For the record, Waters selected (Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965), Baadasssss! (2003), Final Destination 3 (2006), Wanda (1971), The Honeymoon Killers (1969), David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), Head-On (2004), and In A Glass Cage (1986). If the place where you rent has more than two of these, you should congratulate the owners.)

The one-time “Prince of Puke” (his own description), Waters succeeded beyond his wildest dreams when he decided to go mainstream, first with his original Hairspray in 1988 and much more lucratively with the Broadway adaptation and subsequent film remake. A lot of other viewers only know Waters as the maker of Cry-Baby, Johnny Depp’s first hit film. Is it possible that fans of these movies, or of Waters’ amusing interviews (that seems to be his primary career these days) don’t know about his past as the filmmaker who brought the underground into the mainstream via the back door of the midnight movie?

Then again, viewers might just be afraid to watch the movies on which Waters built his fame. I can’t say I blame them: you wouldn’t want to watch, say, Pink Flamingos without being properly prepared. So if you want to sample the other work of the man who, for better or worse, is one of the most influential American filmmakers of the 1970s, here’s the order in which I would suggest you approach them—if any one of these exceeds your limits, do not proceed!:

Polyester (1981)
Serial Mom (1994)
Female Trouble (1974)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Desperate Living (1977)

If after seeing those you want to be a completist, there’s also the cute but minor Pecker (1998), his most recent effort A Dirty Shame (2004 – make sure to get the NC-17 version!) and Cecil B. DeMented (2000). If you live near a really good video store, you might even be able to find copies of his first features Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970), but only on VHS—they’ve never been issued on DVD,

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