Waters's Formative Years: 1964-68by Nick Stillman
Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,
Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup
New Museum of Contemporary Art
John Waters admitted in an interview in these pages last month that it’s something of a hook for the New Museum to show his three early short films dating from 1964-68 at the John Waters: Change of Life retrospective of his visual art at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Although Waters has been showing photo and mixed media pieces consistently since 1995, it’s his films that made him famous and that continue to inspire a cult devotion from fans.
But Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles, and Eat Your Makeup, the three early films showing at the New Museum, are not simply important archival footage clarifying more recent work. Rather, they expose The Pope of Trash’s teenage phase as Catholic patriotic pop visionary, who offhandedly used appropriation strategies well before Baudrillardian theory legitimized them. It’s not that the visual art wouldn’t make sense without the movies— each clarifies the other. The crass Americana, trend worship, and presentation of radically countercultural (even by counterculture standards) lifestyles in these three early films represent a real stamp of uniqueness and show that the things that interested Waters when he was seventeen have stuck with him to this day.
Waters made these three films when he was 17 to 21-years-old, during the relative infancy of television, and thus this new venue for mass-market advertising and product placement. Coke is thus drank to the sound of water down the drain, "Leader of the Pack" plays loudly, candy bars are gobbled up, early Waters superstar Maelcum Soul chats on a lipstick-red phone, and there’s lots of big hair, lots of makeup. As Waters says during the DVD audio commentary of Female Trouble, hyper-aggressive fashion signified rebelliousness in ’60s and ’70s Baltimore, where all of Waters’s early films are based. The higher the hair, the more extreme the makeup, the less you probably had to talk about with mom and dad.
Everyone who’s seen an Andy Warhol movie will tell you they’re not much fun to sit through. Watching a static shot of the Empire State Building for eight straight hours may spark some ideas, but it’s a long eight hours. Waters’s early, mid-length films are similar. Narrative is hinted at, but usually exploded, and ultimately, mocked. Camerawork is, well, "amateurish." But all three are unbridled, very American Pop art, made right in the thick of Pop’s rise as a legit American art form to challenge the grave seriousness of postwar Abstract Expressionism. Like Warhol and a whole contemporary generation of video artists, Waters embraces the boring in these movies. One "plot" is allegorical, another doesn’t really exist, and another is straight-up silly.
Hag in a Black Leather Jacket was shot in 1964 when Waters was a high school senior living with his parents. All harsh close-ups, crude montage, and shaky camerawork, Hag is hardcore experimental juvenilia— with big hair. Big makeup, too. Waters marks his territory in the self-created "beauty parody" genre, as derelicts with ambiguous roles prance around with pronounced eyeliner, painted lips, and lots of jewelry. Plot particulars are debatable, beginning with an unflattering shot of the underside of a U.S. flag-wearing woman’s chin accompanied by a lot of coughing on the soundtrack. Soon after she orgiastically boogies to the piano bars of "God Bless America." It becomes clear that a white woman is dating a perpetually smiling black man, whom she later stuffs into a trashcan and stores in the backseat of a car. A suicide jumper plotline unexpectedly develops. The jumper stands thoughtfully on the chimney of a suburban-looking house, wearing something like a KKK hood and attracting a sizeable, adoring crowd. Later the jumper (now safe and sound) gives a cake to the couple and a wedding ensues. The cake is eaten, naturally, off the hood of a car, which the (now [Born Again?]cross-bearing) jumper later mounts and sits on the hood of— a post-suicidal, Christian KKK hood ornament. While it’s probably not the most iconic of the three, Hag may be the easiest to watch, and is certainly the most gleeful. Waters’s junk nonsense universe is completely content with its own dysfunction and totally certain of its perverse logic.
Post-Hag is obviously when Waters encountered Warhol’s films, and 1966’s Roman Candles cribs a hearty dose of Chelsea Girls, made by Warhol in the same year. The screen is separated into four squares, three of them with montage imagery that doesn’t necessarily relate any narrative way, one of them blank. For the first time, Waters uses color. Warholian in every way, Roman Candles concentrates on complete image overload, with portraits of bohème hipsters being cool: tying off and shooting up, listening to hip music, smoking pot, and talking on the phone. There’s even an unsubtle Warhol shout-out when a blonde poses dryly for a screen test while on another channel a dude enjoys his high. Early in the film, Mary Vivian Pierce remarks, "I still believe my son Lee Harvey Oswald is innocent." The comment hints at Roman Candles’ general theme— media dominance and the resultant (or unrelated?) rejection of middle-class values by Waters and his surrounding group of friends and collaborators in Baltimore.
The film starts with a radio announcement advocating that shoppers buy wigs, a message from the world of unnecessary products and vanity items that Waters’ image-obsessed characters always seek to escape, yet are inextricably and inevitably intertwined with. While it may be the homogenizing forces of capitalism they’re rejecting, pop culture depends on and is a child of capitalism, revealing their bohemian escapism as paradoxical. Waters is clearly interested in glamour as dictated and decided by the media, but also in the abject, or the "opposite of beauty," as David Lochary would shriek in Female Trouble when he sees Little Taffy decked out in full Hare Krishna gear. While the Roman Candles kids look hip and cool, Waters reserves long shots for people puking and harsh close-ups of fleshy double chins.
Where Roman Candles hints at abjection and grotesquerie, Eat Your Makeup (1968) goes all the way with it, and is the most obvious precursor to early iconic Waters classics. Eat Your Makeup also makes use of extended allegory, which Waters consistently employed as an early narrative device, most effectively with his witty critique of government as transmitted through Edith Massey’s Queen Carlotta in Desperate Living and the total reversal of traditional American notions of good and bad in both Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. The opening shot is a woman crawling through desert sand (actually Waters’s parents’ lawn), desperately repeating "Makeup? Makeup!" A shirtless guy looks on disinterestedly, and the woman tugs at his pants, begging for makeup. He appeases her with a plate of makeup, which she greedily devours. The makeup-seeker is a model, and along with three other models (one with a Warhol hairstyle), is captured by the evil couple of David Lochary and Maelcum Soul. The models are forced to eat makeup and model themselves to death. A catwalk is constructed in the middle of the woods and there they strut. Photos snap. Catholics incongruously perform the wafer ritual. A plate of makeup is served and the models hungrily gobble it up, while the crowd indulges in the fetish of watching beautiful women eat. The crowd is always there, inflicting verbal and physical abuse to the models. The torture devolves into carnivalesque slapstick weirdness. The models continue to model pointlessly, and a doll is destroyed to the tune of "99 Bottles of Beer," which agonizingly is counted all the way down to 88.
Punctuating Eat Your Makeup is a scene where Waters openly alludes to a specific political event for the first time in his films. An androgynous, 17-year-old Divine is sitting around reading Screen Stars magazine and drifts into a daydream. She is (a slightly overweight) Jackie O and by her side is a faux JFK, in a car with the top off, driving slowly down the street in obvious emulation of November 22, 1963 when JFK was shot in Dallas. The scene is boring— for a long time they wave mindlessly at the nonexistent crowd until JFK is suddenly and graphically shot in an impressively faithful rendition of the Zapruder film of the assassination. Like Warhol, Waters’s relationship to celebrity culture, fashion, the media, and products is ambiguous, neither celebrated nor discouraged, just part of life. A then-burgeoning symbol of pop culture— makeup— is focused on and exploded, conclusions optional. Eat Your Makeup edges closer to the zenith that Waters would achieve throughout the ’70s: examining USA rebel culture on its own symbolic, materialist, and nonsensical terms.
To view more images from the New Museum's digital archive, visit: archive.newmuseum.org.