Friday, July 24, 2020

Mondo Trasho

Mondo Trasho
YouTube viewing

It took fifty years or so, but the world has caught up with John Waters. Just turn on your TV and you’ll realize there can no longer be any doubt. Whether or not that’s a good thing, well, that’s up to you to decide... but I will say this:

As an artist, no matter who you are or where you come from, no matter what your intentions are—whether you wanna provoke or shock with your art or whether you wanna create beauty, however you perceive it, or whether you just wanna make a million dollars and retire to the south of France—you’re never, ever gonna please everybody, and attempting to try is an exercise in futility.

It’s something I wish I could remember more often. I struggle with the conservative mores I was brought up in, and at times I’ve wanted to push my art further, whether it’s my visual art or my writing, as I alluded to recently. To embrace “trash,” to find virtue in modes of expression that run far left of center and to be open about it, takes guts, because even in 2020, there’s gonna be somebody ready to hang you for it.

I suspect Waters realized this a long time ago.

Waters was raised Catholic in the suburbs of Baltimore. (Did he ever cross paths with Barry Levinson, I wonder? Waters is only four years younger.) His tastes in movies and pop culture in general ran mostly towards violence and gore, such as Punch and Judy puppets—the Leslie Caron film Lili made him a big fan of puppetry—but he also had an appreciation for art and beauty. The Wizard of Oz was one of the first films he ever saw, and one with which he still identifies. He talks about it here.

At some point someone put a 8mm camera in his hand and he decided to make movies. He went to NYU and made a few shorts featuring his Baltimore friends, who evolved into an ongoing repertory called the Dreamlanders, after Waters’ production company. Among this group included a hairdresser named Glenn Milstead. He liked to dress in drag, and in Waters’ films, first his shorts and later his features, he got the opportunity to act out his fantasies as the force of nature Waters dubbed Divine.

I can’t say I’ve had much experience with drag queens outside of a Pride parade. The one time I dressed like a woman was for a summer camp performance, and it was quite innocent. A part of me can see how it might be fun to do for a movie, or a concert, perhaps, but to do it in real life? I think I’ll pass, thanks. The documentary Paris is Burning gave me some insight as to why queens dress the way they do.

Has there been anyone in cinema like Divine, before or since? She (I’m not sure how to refer to Divine, so since her roles in Waters’ films were female, and I have to pick a pronoun, I’ll stick to “she” and “her”) was large, to put it kindly, not any kind of trained actor, and not what one would call photogenic—yet through sheer force of will, and the guidance of her friend Waters, she made herself a movie star, a bizarro-world Mae West. This, in many ways, was and is what the spirit of underground cinema is about.

Way back in 1969, though, she was just another one of Waters’ crazy friends who was willing to appear in his movies. With a mere $2100, Waters filmed around Baltimore guerilla-style, including Johns Hopkins University (and got in Dutch with the cops for shooting a nude scene there) and made a film called Mondo Trasho.

It’s not exactly a silent film (though I’m classifying it as one); there are brief snippets of dialogue, but the audio track is mostly a mixtape of Waters’ favorite music: the Shangri-Las, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, classical music, opera, the Oz soundtrack, and so forth, cut in such a way as to comment on the action—and no, of course he didn’t obtain the rights for any of it. (Did he get the idea from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising? I’ll bet he did.)

Dreamlander Mary Vivian Pierce, who was part of the cast of every single Waters film, including the shorts (her scenes in Cry-Baby were cut), is a chick who gets hit by Divine in her car and then the movie becomes one long odyssey of Divine trying to figure out what to do with her. It’s recognizable as a John Waters film—foot fetishes, topless dancing, grotesque amputations—and you can see hints of his future films here and there, and the mixtape soundtrack is really cool, but even Waters admits it’s a short that got dragged out too long.

There were a bunch of 60s and 70s films with “mondo” in the title. Apparently, and I didn’t know this, it refers to shocking exploitation films, sometimes done faux-documentary style. “Mondo” means world in Italian. Death is often a common theme; Divine’s character dies (I think) at the end of Trasho. It started with an Italian film called Mondo Cane (AKA A Dog’s Life) in 1962. It’s definitely the kind of thing Waters would’ve been aware of at the time.

Waters is not for everybody. I’m not sure if he’s for me, though I have seen many of his films. He stuck to his guns, though, and made the kinds of movies he wanted to see, but couldn’t. You have to admire that kind of attitude.


  1. Water's aesthetic and mine do not mesh, but I've always admired that stick-to-his-guns attitude regarding his creations.

  2. Twenty years ago, when I was in video retail and saw his films for the first time, they really did feel shockingly fresh and outrageous, but I don’t think they were meant to be a template. ((shrugs))


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