The ranting war of wills between the Johnsons and the wanna-be Marbles is a childlike mantra: "I'm the filthiest person alive!" "No--I am!" It's The Battle of Algiers in a sandbox, with the participants hurling feces at each other and the audience. And the finale--with Divine scarfing down dog shit to the lilting strains of Patti Page's "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?"--elevates outrage to mythic levels.
John Waters' incendiary celluloid bomb, lobbed into theaters in the early 1970s, caused just the kind of havoc he envisioned. Screams of hilarity and outrage--walkouts and dismissals in disgust. After bloodying his hands with stabs at cinema like Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, it was time to get serious‹a full assault. Rounding up his "Dreamland" troupe--the 300-lb. Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Channing Wilroy, scenic designer Vince Peranio, and makeup artist Van Smith (jokingly referred to as "the ugly expert")--Waters devised the simplistic plot: a war between two factions for the dubious distinction "Filthiest Person Alive" as a framework to systematically smash screen taboos and unleash his crackpot, acerbic view of the world. Divine became Babs Johnson, garishly made up, her hair shaved back and colored orange, squeezed into a tight dress and tottering on Spring-O-Laters-Anita Ekberg as Clarabelle, Jayne Mansfield as a Manson girl, Ma Kettle by way of Ma Barker. Babs is on the run with her outlaw family-the Harlow-haired voyeuristic daughter Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce); her chicken-fucking hillbilly son Crackers (Danny Mills); and her mentally ill, egg-obsessed mother, Edie (Edith Massey), who spends her days in a playpen wearing a bra and girdle-Baby Doll fused with Mrs. Joyboy from The Loved One.
Living out in the woods in Phoenix, Maryland in a mobile home, basking in the fame of being crowned "The Filthiest Person Alive" by the tabloid press, her title is challenged by a jealous Baltimore couple--the Mercurochrome-haired harridan Connie (Mink Stole) and blue-tressed Raymond Marble (David Lochary). Their struggle to wrest this mantle away includes kidnapping hitchhikers, impregnating them by their "rather fertile" servant Chan (Channing Wilroy), and selling the babies to lesbian couples, using the money to front an inner-city heroin ring. Overlaid with scratchy rock'n'roll 45s from Waters' encyclopedic collection, the movie piles shock upon shock--sex with beheaded chickens, singing sphincters, cannibalism--but the affronts are done with a hilarious, infantile joyfulness. Time has done little to dilute the joys and terrors of the film. What was intended as an assault on the hippie and bourgeois gay sensibilities of the '70s feels even more applicable in the conservative '90s. While the punk movement appropriated the extreme hair colors, everything else in the film still startles with its unique look and attitude. Waters' go-for-broke spirit bleeds through every frame; comic and angry, it established what became his signature: characters outside the norm of society, who exaggerate and flaunt their flaws and triumph at the end. It is not a surprise it influenced untold scores of edgy, would-be filmmakers. Audiences bonded with the renegade spirit. For many, myself included, it was a light in the dark--scary, funny, outrageous, and a defiant call to arms.
-- Dennis Dermody
Dennis Dermody is a film critic for Paper magazine.