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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Waters

Very few filmmakers have managed to transform the cinematic medium into a transgressive space like John Waters has. Known as the mighty ‘Pope of Trash’, Waters has translated his incredibly subversive vision of art into masterpieces such as Pink Flamingos which continue to shock and delight younger generations of audiences.

Born in Baltimore, Waters was fascinated by cinema from a very early age. In fact, he was so blown away by the 1953 film Lili when he was seven that he began to stage violent puppet productions of his own at the birthday parties of other children. Other classics like The Wizard of Oz opened Waters’ eyes to the endless potential of the cinematic medium which he has explored throughout his career.

Although Waters hasn’t been active as a director in the world of cinema for nearly two decades now, his legacy is simply remarkable. Through unforgettable projects such as the infamous Trash Trilogy, Waters introduced something special to the discourse of cinema and it remains just as effective even after all these years.

John Waters’ six definitive films:

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

The ’70s was instrumental in cementing Waters’ status as a cult figure in the landscape of independent cinema and Multiple Maniacs was the gem that kicked it all off. A unique black comedy, the film revolves around a group of travelling freaks who rob their audiences.

At the time of its release, some critics weren’t amused by the brutality and depravity on display in the film but those elements are now recognised as crucial parts of Waters’ vision. There is no better way to jump into Waters’ filmography than this spectacular work.

Pink Flamingos (1972)

One of the nastiest and most erotic films in existence, Pink Flamingos is a bonafide cult classic. Definitely among Waters’ most well-known works, the film is a glorious work that champions camp sensibilities while intelligently toying with all kinds of normative social and artistic conventions.

Ranging from incest to cannibalism and scat play, Pink Flamingos is an unflinching look at the life of “the filthiest person alive” – Divine. Through these highly volatile and repulsive frameworks, Waters manages to conduct a fascinating deconstruction of cinematic voyeurism.

Female Trouble (1974)

Another comedy masterpiece by Waters, Female Trouble is undoubtedly one of Waters’ finest cinematic achievements. It stars Waters’ muse – Divine – as a high school delinquent who embarks on a wild journey after her parents refuse to get her the Christmas gift she wants.

The shining center-piece of the Trash Trilogy, Female Trouble is a thoughtful critique of consumerist culture and the mainstream media’s treatment of crime. A striking examination of the human condition, this might just be Waters and Divine at their very best.

Polyester (1981)

A satirical treatment of American melodrama, Polyester explores the mythology of suburban life in the country during the early ’80s. Divine is fantastic as a Christian housewife whose middle class dream is destabilised by the actions of the people around her.

While her own life is funded by her husband’s porn theatre, she tries to deal with his infidelity as well as the juvenile delinquencies of her children who have their own problems. The central hypocrisies of suburbia are hilariously torn apart by an irreverent Waters.

Serial Mom (1994)

Serial Mom exists somewhere between the cult cinema of Waters and his later shift towards mainstream sensibilities because it manages to incorporate the best of both worlds. An extremely funny about a supposedly normal suburban housewife who is a total psychopath, Serial Mom was the favourite film of Waters’ mother.

“That’s because I think it is my best movie, in a weird way. And, I guess, a little bit of her is Serial Mom. I’ve inherited some of that stuff,” Waters explained. “I always said she meant well, Serial Mom, she wasn’t evil. She was just misdirected. Talk about reactionary! She overreacted to small, small displeasures.”

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

An interesting continuation of Waters’ filmmaking legacy, Cecil B. Demented is partially based on the famous kidnapping of Patricia Hearst. Melanie Griffith plays the role of an elitist Hollywood star who is kidnapped by terrorists and forced to star in their own cinematic project.

While the film was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, it is now being re-evaluated by younger audiences. A memorable critique of Hollywood and a true representation of Waters’ artistic convictions, Cecil B. Demented is a definitive statement by the auteur.