While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
“A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’” A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it. A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song. In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic.
Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised.
Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera. And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history. Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!”
In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy.
His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest. The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn.
His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies. His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot. People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people.
Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition.
John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”. Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume.
The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance.
He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia.
In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos. Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses.
It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.
Poornima writes in:My husband recently stumbled across an HBO series called Deadwood in the library. It’s a television series set in the Black Hills (Sioux Country – Dakotas and Wyoming) around 1876 and features a whole assortment of historically famous/notorious characters including Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.I was wondering if you or your readers could direct us to some good historical fiction set in the period that captures the essence of Deadwood and the frontier spirit. It’s quite a fascinating aspect of American history.Your interest in historical fiction in the same line as HBO’s Deadwood brings Larry McMurtry to mind first. I’d be very surprised if David Milch, Deadwood’s creator, hadn’t read McMurtry. McMurtry’s historical fiction about the American West – Lonesome Dove, Anything for Billy, The Streets of Laredo – is wonderful, and besides sharing Deadwood’s historical milieu, it also shares its tone, that wonderful mix of emotional intensity, brutality, tenderness and humor.The book of McMurtry’s that has the most explicit overlap with Deadwood is Buffalo Girls. This novel intertwines the stories of several different figures whose lives coincide with the winding down of the Wild West. Calamity Jane – so wonderfully portrayed by Robin Weigert in Deadwood – is one of these characters. McMurtry’s stuff is historically responsible but it is also, as was Deadwood, clearly enchanted with the old West and interested in its mythic, larger-than-life personalities. Anything For Billy, which takes Billy the Kid as its protagonist, tells his life from the perspective of an Eastern businessman/writer of dime-novels.Willa Cather’s novels too might be of interest. Quite a lot of them are also set at moments of shift from wildness and lawlessness to “civilization” in various parts of North America. Death Comes to the Archbishop, one of my favorites, describes the settling of what is now New Mexico by French Catholic missionaries. Cather also offers fictionalized legends of the American West – Kit Carson figures in Death, for example. I also really like Shadows on the Rock, which is about the settling of Quebec. Cather’s work is a bit more lyrical and literary than McMurtry’s but, depending on your mood, they can be more satisfying for this.I also have two cinematic recommendations: One is an indie Western called The Ballad of Little Jo. It tells the story of a wealthy nineteenth-century society woman who flees the East and her family, disguises herself as a man and lives as a cowboy in the West. That’s if you’re interested in other artistic depictions of women in the West.A final recommendation is HBO’s Rome. I know that historically this is rather far afield but, apparently, David Milch originally imagined what became Deadwood as set in Rome at the time of Caesar. Such a show, however – Rome – was already in production when he pitched his idea and so he shifted the setting to nineteenth century Dakota territory. Though not Deadwood’s equal (I think Deadwood possibly the finest television show ever made), Rome shares something of Deadwood’s interest in lawlessness, or a different version of law – a more Hobbesian vision of human society in which power and aggression and ambition have more of a role to play.Also recommended by The Millions for fans of Deadwood:The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg ClarkMost of the books by Cormac McCarthyWelcome to Hard Times by E.L. Doctorow (mood: brutal)Charles Portis’ wonderful True Grit (mood: deadpan)Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (mood: dreamlike)Oakley Hall’s Warlock
I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.
I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.
The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.
The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.
Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,
I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.
Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”
The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.
Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,
No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.
The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.
Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr