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Taking in the Trash: Filmmaker John Waters (left), seen with actors Divine, Danny Mills and Mary Vivian Pearce, is the subject of 'Divine Trash,' a documentary about his early career.

When We Were Kinks

'Divine Trash' is the ultimate John Waters documentary

Two of the most important milestones in the history of independent cinema occurred in the Maryland woods, nearly 30 years apart. The Blair Witch Project is easily recalled, but the better film was made in that annus horribilus 1972, in a frozen wilderness outside of Baltimore. This film was a horror story of its own about extreme behavior, but in John Waters' Pink Flamingos, at least you got to see the witch. Her name was Divine.

John Pierson, one of the interviewees in the documentary Divine Trash, says that American independent film in the '70s consisted of three Johns--John Cassevetes, John Sayles and John Waters. Divine Trash follows Waters, the most consistently entertaining of the three, from childhood to the national distribution of his most notorious and outrageous film, Pink Flamingos.

Divine Trash is the last and best word on the Potentate of Puke. Steve Yeager's documentary has the deeply researched, painstaking interviews you expect in a documentary about a big-name director like John Ford or Frank Capra.

Yeagar was present at the creation of Pink Flamingos and interviewed Waters on the set. We can see the contrast between Waters, today's genial elder statesman, and the young smart-assed lad in wraparound shades. Interviewees remember Waters' ambition and showmanship, which started with grisly puppet shows when he was a child in suburban Lutherville, Md.

One of the advantages Waters enjoyed by popping up in the 1960s is that there was something chic about art in that era. Amazingly, Yeager finds the pastor who let the young Waters exhibit films in his suburban Maryland church. The reverend mentions that lots of slumming society women turned up to see what underground movie-making was all about. Yeager wittily cuts to the scene of the Cavalcade of Perversions in Waters' Multiple Maniacs, in which a number of white-shoed and -gloved Baltimore Junior League types jostle each other to see a freak show: "See two actual queers kissing each other like lovers on the lips!" barks David Lochary, later Waters' star in Pink Flamingos.

Yeager make a good case that Multiple Maniacs (1970) is really Waters' most offensive work, and how neglected it is. There's a sexual/religious fantasy sequence that takes place in a church, which includes Waters' memorable version of the Crucifixion of our Lord. (No Renaissance artist had such an amazing skid-row rabble as Waters displays here, jeering at our Lord on a Maryland bridle path standing in for the Via Dolorosa.)

Divine Trash also explores Waters' milieu in a overview of underground filmmakers Robert Frank, Andy Warhol, Jack Smith and losng-time San Franciscan George Kuchar, who is also interviewed.

Yeager even tracks down the contortionist in Pink Flamingos whose anus horribilus did a karaoke to "Surfin' Bird" (by the Trashmen, appropriately enough). The man in question stays anonymous--perhaps unsure of what the statute of limitations is for displaying his butthole in public.

Happily, Yeager found Waters' old antagonist is still alive. Mary Avara, chairwoman of the Maryland Censor Board, is now in her 80s, and the memory of Waters--it's one of those many moments that would be too rich in a fictional movie--causes her to finger the cross around her neck and pray. She has her own rating for his movies, "RT, for Real Trash!" she exclaims.

Today, Waters works at the edge of the mainstream, and his film Pecker was displayed--maybe not for long, but displayed--at multiplexes. Summing up Waters' work over the years, Steve Buscemi says, "He made you believe in and care for these misfits."

Where does one look for reflection of Waters' quality today? In Gregg Araki? In Harmony Korine? in Vincent Gallo? None of them are compassionate filmmakers, and all are makers of masochistic films about how the world grinds you down and there's no help for it. (It's the doleful Cassavetes influence on today's underground.) As good as The Blair Witch Project is, it is also about suffering. Something the avant garde could use is the humor and humanism of John Waters--and the killer rebel spirit that inflames his people .

Divine Trash plays through Feb. 24 at the Roxie Theater.

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From the February 21, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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