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John Waters' movies are comedies, but the exact nature of that comedy can be hard to pin down. The campy dialogue, clever wit, cheerful vulgarity, and wild art design are all extremely funny, and they work because they rest on a foundation of smart satire.
While Waters is undeniably an original talent, certain themes and influences recur in different periods. Waters' earliest movies deflate the American middle class lifestyle and Catholicism. The extreme, often surreal, satire in these works recalls such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel.
The 1970s back-to-back classics Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living emphasize themes of crime, marginalization, and social competition. These films recall Hollywood gangster and women-in-prison movies. They also satirically mirror the mainstream culture that would flee in terror from the films' characters.
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Waters' films, including Polyester and Serial Mom, take a swipe at women's social roles and the traditional family unit, with a liberal helping of crime thrown in. These films pay homage to Hollywood's golden age of melodramas and "women's pictures"—think Douglas Sirk.
Recent works like Pecker and Cecil B. Demented center around young men from Baltimore who insist on making art their own way. These films have a distinctly autobiographical feel, and the theme (less so the execution) recalls American mavericks like John Cassavettes.
Because his movies so often depict bizarre characters who do bizarre things, Waters has a reputation for gratuitous grossness.
But perceptive viewers will appreciate that Waters uses shock to jolt them out of apathy. Get past that initial shock and you'll find an intelligent, thoughtful, and just plain funny commentary about our screwy little world.
Case in point: Pink Flamingos, Waters' most notorious movie, which details the rivalry between two Baltimore crime families for the title of "Filthiest People Alive". Years later, Pink Flamingos still has the power to shock and disgust, but mainly to make you laugh really hard.
That's more than you can say about most movies, and it's part of what makes Waters an important filmmaker.
Waters has mellowed somewhat over time, as evidenced by cheerful works like Hairspray and Pecker. Not that he's lost his cutting edge; he's just wielding it a little more gently. (Although the recent Cecil B. Demented suggests that he may even be sharpening it again.)
See for yourself what makes John Waters
unique in American film history. Run down to your local video store and
enjoy a John Waters movie tonight!