Aunt Ida and her nephew Gater are having a serious talk about lifestyle choices, and on a cursory listen her words sound familiar — all the expected cliches are in place.
But then: “I’d be so proud if you … had a nice beautician boyfriend. I’d never have to worry,” she says with concern in her eyes. “I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”
This scene is from John Waters’ seminal work, “Female Trouble,” and it is one of the more warm-and-fuzzy moments in the writer-director’s subversive filmography.
While academia is filled with scholars like Judith Butler and Bell Hooks who offer thoughtful prose theories about queerness, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s John Waters retrospective, running from Sept. 5 to Sept. 14, offers a decidedly less polite alternative. Waters — an NYU alumnus, albeit one of many artists who dropped out after just two months — keeps things plainspoken, satirical and, most of all, honest.
With 10 whole days of filth, this is much more than a standard midnight screening of Waters’ cult classic “Pink Flamingos.” The extravaganza covers everything from Waters’ gritty, early independents (“Mondo Trasho,” “Eat Your Makeup”) to his mainstream breakthroughs (“Cry-Baby,” “Hairspray”).
The retrospective feels well-timed. While Waters has not released a new film since 2004’s “A Dirty Shame,” he has been prolific over the last year. In June, Waters released a new book called “Carsick,” which chronicles his journey hitchhiking across the United States. This past year also saw the release of “I Am Divine,” a documentary that profiles Waters’ muse and best known troupe member, the drag queen Divine.
Divine will be well-represented at the Lincoln Center retrospective. She is particularly known for her roles in transgressive films, like the aforementioned “Female Trouble.” In this film, Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a juvenile delinquent-turned-guerrilla performance artist. Those looking for a safer Divine/Waters classic can see her in “Hairspray,” playing the role of Baltimore mother Edna Turnblad — the same character Harvey Fierstein later played in the Broadway version of the musical.
Waters’ films are often called “gay classics,” but that is not exactly accurate. On multiple occasions, Waters has said his are films for people who are “outcasts from their own minority.” These are quintessentially queer films, mocking tropes, clichés and any semblance of mainstream society. They revel in ironic fun rather than just gay pride.
And now viewers, too, can join in on the filthy humor that runs throughout Waters’ oeuvre. Viewers are asked to set aside their inhibitions for a moment and join Aunt Ida in her sentiment: being different is not equivalent — it’s far better.
Jake Folsom is a staff writer. Email him at [email protected]