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Until recently, I'd only seen bits and pieces of two John Waters movies, and that was way back in 1981.

Image I'm told that I should consider myself lucky, to have witnessed his early "masterworks" in their native environs, an all-night grindhouse theater on 5th Avenue, where I happened to work at the time (hence seeing them as random scenes, while walking the aisles). But my main memory of the screenings takes place OUTSIDE the long-gone Aztec Theater...

Image During a double-feature showing of Pink Flamingos (1973) and Polyester (new at the time and showing in “Oderama,” with scratch-and-sniff libretto), a group of well over a dozen flamboyantly dressed men, most in drag, weren’t even in the theater yet when a violent battle erupted between them on the sidewalk.

Aztec manager Freddie Bantug always referred to it after that as “the fifteen f%ggt fight” (pardon the un-PC term, but it was 30 years ago), barely able to control his laughter every time it came up. It was an astonishingly cartoon sight and sound, all these guys screeching insults and flaming at their hottest, slapping each other and crying and pulling their wigs off, whacking each other with strappy shoes…it seemed to go on forever while we waited for the cops to come break it up.

The "fifteen f%ggt fight" is etched in my memory far more clearly than anything I saw in Pink Flamingos OR Polyester. In fact, I spent years trying to FORGET the images that DID flash on the Aztec's screen, most notably and notoriously the giant drag queen eating doggy poo...I mean, what irradiated strain of mutant devil weed were they SMOKING in Baltimore, to think THAT would qualify as "entertainment"?!

So it was with some trepidation that I recently programmed a John Waters DVD-a-thon, in order to see what (if anything) I've been missing out by avoiding the other/later movies made by that greasy looking crazy dude from Baltimore. The lineup: Cry-Baby, Hairspray, the musical Hairspray remake, and Cecil B. Demented.

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Cry-Baby (1990)

One of Johnny Depp’s first film roles finds him playing James Dean-like greaser Wade Walker, whose tendency to let a single tear trickle down his perfect cheekbones endears him to uptight square Allison (Amy Locane, six years before her nude horsey ride with Dennis Hopper in Carried Away).

As the first almost-mainstream Waters film I viewed, I was pleasantly surprised that nothing in the flick grossed me out. Well, other than the makeup on former underage porn star Traci Lords that made her look as if being viewed thru a half-melted film clip from Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!

As far as the overall setup and mood (Cool Kids VS Straights), the replication of ‘50s/60s juvenile delinquent films is actually fairly accurate, if told from the Elvis POV rather than that of “the man.”

"The good girls want him bad...the bad girls want him worse..."

Some of the music actually comes from the era depicted (Earl Bostic’s “Jungle Drums” f'r instance), tho most are rerouted thru Water cast members as more spoof than tribute, ala the prop-laden “Teenage Prayer” number.

Johnny Depp probably wouldn't be able to dance if you put a taser to his testicles, but he successfully evokes enough of an Elvis/Dean vibe to ring authentic and likeable, in both body and spoken language

Ricki “Hairspray” Lake turns up, as does cult queen Susan Tyrrell (Andy Warhol’s Bad, Forbidden Zone) and countless other examples of “stunt casting” (a term and practice Waters claims to have invented, which I suspect is true); Iggy Pop, Patty Hearst, and even actual former-juvie Hollywood stars like Troy Donahue, Joey Heatherton, and Ricky Nelson’s brother David.

All in all, a pleasant viewing. Onward thru the (Aquanet) fog ---

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Hairspray (1988)

Plump and lovable teen dancer Tracy Turnblad wants to be a regular on the Corny Collins Dance Show. Along the way, she discovers that negros can dance pretty well too, and that people shouldn’t be so mean to negros, prompting her to take on social causes like integration, at least of the TV dance floor.

Tracy's nemesis is the uptight former dance queen of the program, Amber VonTussle, whose parents taught her that she should never mix her whites with coloreds. Both dancers aspire to be crowned Miss Auto Show 1963.

The stunt casting here gets downright distracting: Sonny Bono, Pia Zadora, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller, sheez, it was like a reunion of every person ever to appear on Battle of the Network Stars.

I was scared to see that gigantic man-broad Divine turn up again as Tracy's masculine mommy, but this time he didn't send me running from the room. In fact, I became curious enough to check out more of his stuff, including an episode of the TV anthology Tales From the Darkside that indicates Waters may have been misusing the actor all along, perhaps making him famous as a freak but ignoring (or at least diluting) his actual performer potential.

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Hairspray (2007)

The musical remake of Hairspray turned out to be that most rare of Hollywood creatures - a remake as good as or better than the original!! Until recently, about the only instance of this that came to mind was The Thing: the original was fine, but the remake was quite good on its own, maybe even better, with a first class script and cast.

The original Waters movie was adapted as a Broadway musical, and the newer film was based on that, tho there are nods to the original movie (Rikki Lake even turns up near the end). John Travolta took on the Divine role, and it may be my favorite Travolta performance ever; he even does some singing and dancing in the female fat suit!

I understand the music in the movie version was different than the Broadway show, with some songs cut and new ones added. But, having just watched the original, I was quite surprised at how much I liked the remake. Waters himself was involved a bit (tho I think it's the only movie he's worked on outside Baltimore).

I'm still humming some of the tunes, and I can't wait to drop film quotes into casual conversations like "I wish EVERY day was Negro Day!"

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Cecil B. Demented (2000) totally caught me by surprise, being one of the coolest anti-Hollywood movies I've seen since rediscovering the nearly forgotten Donald Sutherland gem Day of the Locust.

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Alicia Witt is a porn star turned revolutionary, joining crazed auteur director Cecil in kidnapping (and re-educating, IE brainwashing) an actual Hollywood A-Lister, played by actual FORMER Hollywood movie star, Melanie Griffith.

United with a communal group of likeminded indie filmmakers who dub themselves Sprocket Holes, they battle horrible Hollywood dreck like Gump Again and Patch Adams: The Directors Cut by shooting their own indie masterpiece guerilla style, showing up unexpected and unannounced all over L.A. to film.

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The closing sequence at a particularly demented and violent drive-in theater screening rocks in a way not seen since Boris Karloff used his senior citizen cane to knock out a drive-in sniper in Targets.

John Waters continues his slow and steady seduction of the mainstream with the first half of the movie, only to reward its arousal by slamming a giant butt plug thru the finale. How many ways can one director demonstrate how much they hate the Hollywood machine, by mimicking it with all the jaded "devotion" of porn parody?

Yes, Mr. Waters, we know you love to hate us. You have since you made us sit thru the giant drag queen eating dog poo.

But, jeez, won't you ever make a movie that doesn't glorify suicidal sociopaths to the point of murder junkie fetishism?

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"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" -- Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters. This detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc., including interviews with operators, vintage local movie ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...

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Comments

Jay Allen Sanford July 18, 2011 @ 9:15 p.m.

Picked up Waters' Pecker today (why do I get the feeling I'm not the first person to utter that sentence?) - I'll add my POV to this page once I get a chance to screen. Should I be afraid???

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