Divine comedy

I should probably get this out of the way: Until this weekend, I had never seen a John Waters film. This, apparently, is a very big deal. In my defense, Waters’ oeuvre can be daunting for the uninitiated. His career has spanned 40 years and engenders the kind of cultish devotion that tends to alienate us neophytes. Cult classics are decidedly less appealing when you’re not in the cult.

Although Waters’ 1974 film “Female Trouble” purports to be the second installment in the so-called “Trash Trilogy,” it doesn’t concern itself with backstory or continuity. Thankfully, the film can be appreciated as a standalone entity—an unabashedly absurd, frequently vexing and oddly enjoyable film. Newbies and die-hards alike can enjoy “Female Trouble”—starring Waters’ standby Divine and the rest of his Baltimore cohort, the Dreamlanders—this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5th Avenue Cinema.

The plot of “Female Trouble,” as it were, is vast and convoluted on paper but almost inconsequential on screen.

Our heroine, Dawn Davenport (Divine), begins the film in high school, where she is a failing student and general miscreant. On Christmas morning, a bad present causes Dawn to run away from home. She is picked up by a man in an Edsel while hitchhiking. The man, Earl Peterson, is also played by Divine. He rapes her on a pile of dirty mattresses. It’s a tricky scene, primarily because it’s unclear if Dawn consents initially, and because Divine is humping Divine on a dirty mattress.

She gets pregnant and delivers the baby herself on a sofa (not forgetting to sever the umbilical cord with her teeth, of course). She calls Earl Peterson and says, “You made love to me Christmas morning. I’m pregnant, and I want money.” This series of events brings us to the 14-minute mark. Yes, “Female Trouble” manages to pack at least 17 soap-opera plot devices into act one.

After this narrative whiplash, “Female Trouble” settles into its story. Dawn now lives in Baltimore with her daughter, Taffy, and works as a petty criminal: “I’m a thief and a shit-kicker, and I’d like to be famous.” Her ticket to fame, as she sees it, is through Mr. and Mrs. Dasher, two upper-class aesthetes who believe that crime is beautiful. They want to photograph Dawn, whose criminal misbehavior they find gorgeous and exhilarating. “Are you a thief?” Mr. Dasher asks Dawn upon meeting her. “Yes, I am,” Divine states matter-of-factly. “Not as much as I used to be, but I still rob houses.”

The slightly-askew worldview of “Female Trouble” is frequently compelling, often because the viewer has literally zero idea what the next scene has in store. The film lacks cohesion, yes, but it feels nit-picky even to point that out. Waters’ film is such unadulterated camp that judging it on its cinematic merits seems wrongheaded. “Camp is wholly aesthetic,” Susan Sontag wrote in her classic 1968 piece, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” “It incarnates a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality,’ of irony over tragedy.”

Above all else, it is Waters’ unrelenting irony that keeps “Female Trouble” from transcending its absurdity and becoming genuinely fine. In fact, the overabundance of irony guts the movie of whatever heart or soul it might have had, which is probably the point.

In the “Female Trouble” universe, style is everything, and the movie feels as self-conscious and self-satisfied as an impeccably curated Tumblr page. This level of irony is distancing to a viewer, which is too bad: “Female Trouble” has a lot to say, especially when it comes to sexuality and social norms. Here, the irony feels pointed and sagacious rather than showy and superfluous.

Waters’ ironic point-of-view succeeds in one scene by maintaining the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness but adding a dash of social commentary to give the irony more heft. Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) is sitting with her nephew Gator (Michael Nelson) and is trying to find him a mate, preferably a gay one. “The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life,” Aunt Ida tells Gator, hoping to convince him that heterosexuality is wrong and that he should really meet a nice boy. “I like queers, but I don’t dig their equipment,” Gator replies. Cut to five minutes later, when straight-as-an-arrow Gator meets a nice girl, Dawn, who is of course Divine, who is of course a man named Harris Glenn Milstead.

As Aunt Ida says: “If they’re smart, they’re queer, and if they’re dumb, they’re straight.”

The Portland Vanguard, 01.12.12. Link: http://psuvanguard.com/arts/divine-comedy/

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