Part biopic of Baltimore's enfant terrible/shockmeister John Waters, part chronicle of the making of the notorious "Pink Flamingos," which catapulted drag queen Divine to the limelight, "Divine Trash" is an interesting, informative docu that surveys in its background three decades of non-mainstream and avant-garde cinema.

Part biopic of Baltimore’s enfant terrible/shockmeister John Waters, part chronicle of the making of the notorious “Pink Flamingos,” which catapulted drag queen Divine to the limelight, “Divine Trash” is an interesting, informative docu that surveys in its background three decades of non-mainstream and avant-garde cinema. Commercially, Steve Yeager’s docu, which won the 1998 Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance, could get a PR boost from the release of Waters’ new comedy, “Pecker,” later this year, but main audience still rests with his loyal fans, who might even learn a fact or two about the iconic filmmaker, a maverick artist congenitally devoted to breaking the mold and shattering bourgeois precepts.

A loving grandmother gave Waters his first camera when he was a teenager growing up in Baltimore. At the age of 12, he began voraciously reading Jonas Mekas’ Village Voice column and Variety. Water’s film education consisted of foreign-language classics, horror flicks, the underground cinema of Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers. He showed early proclivity for the weird and the macabre, always identifying with the villain rather than the hero.

Docu’s structure is a bit diffuse: There’s no point of view or analytic center, just a collection of interviews, some more illuminating than others. Nonetheless, viewers will get a view of Divine’s life, along with useful background about the making of “Pink Flamingos.” For Waters, Divine (Glenn Milstead) was a combo of Jane Mansfield and Clarabell the clown, “a lowbrow version of ’50s glamour.” He perceived Divine as “the Godzilla of drag queens, a drag terrorist, designed to shock both gays and straights,” but Divine considered himself an actor first and foremost, not a drag queen.

In interviews with helmer Yeager, Waters’ and Divine’s parents indicate that they have never seen “Pink Flamingos,” and have no intention of doing so. On the other hand, former Warhol director Paul Morrissey observes that “Pink Flamingos” “makes jokes out of every societal taboo.”

Waters emphasizes that he was not trying to send messages or “say anything, just give people shock value for their money’s worth.” By his, and others’, admission, he’s a control freak. Waters meticulously rehearsed and shot his films; contrary to popular notion, he has avoided improvisational methods in his work. From the beginning, Waters proved a master of marketing, taking active part in designing posters and promoting “Flamingos,” which went on to become a cult classic and watershed in the history of alternative cinema.

Among the film’s most interesting aspects is a consideration of the context in which Waters worked and flourished. His outrageous films coincided with, and arguably benefited from, several ’70s trends: classic European art films, porno chic and exploitation fare. Later, a whole generation of filmmakers was influenced by Waters’ sensibility — Jim Jarmusch, for one, who claims he learned from Waters’ example “that it was OK to make films my own way.”

After watching “Divine Trash,” Waters’ reaction, reflecting his idiosyncratic humor, was allegedly, “It would be a great film to show at my funeral.”

Divine Trash

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 1998.

Production

A Stratosphere release of a Divine Trash production. Produced by Cindy Miller, Steve Yeager. Executive producers, Caroline Kaplan, Jonathan Sehring, Tim Kahoe, Brooks Moore, Thomas W. Yeager. Directed by Steve Yeager.

With

John Waters, Jeanine Basinger, Steve Buscemi, Patricia Hearst, Ken Jacobs, Jim Jarmusch, George and Mike Kuchar, Herschell Gorgon Lewis, Jonas Mekas, Paul Morrissey, Mary Vivian Pearce, Robert Shaye, Mink Stole, John and Patricia Waters.
Camera (b&w/color), Jeff Atkinson, Jim Harris, Yeager; additional photography, John Kavanaugh, Sheila Smith; editors, Terry Campbell, Kahoe, Yeager; music, Dan Barto; sound (Dolby), Barto, Ted Ayd, Campbell, Harris, Bill Kaplan, Bill Porter; historical consultant, Kevin Heffernan. (Also in South by Southwest Film Festival.) Running time: 105 MIN.
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