“To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about,” John Waters wrote years ago.
Hairspray, the new sickly sweet movie musical based on the sugar-coated Broadway show based on his 1988 film, misses the point of the vicious, wink-and-nudge camp that made his early films stand out. This giddy reinterpretation —in which he was involved —aims to placate even the most fervent fundy deep in the heart of Kansas.
The first version was itself a confectionary departure for the so-called “Prince of Puke.” Tracy Turnblad, a fat Baltimore teen in the early 60s, overcomes racism, lookism, corporate greed and media manipulation when she becomes the unlikely star of a local TV dance show.
But the original starred Divine —moviedom’s greatest female impersonator since Mae West —playing the pivotal part of Tracy’s mom. Divine anchored the antics, reminding us that the whole movie was really one big drag show.
Here, John Travolta reprises Divine’s role, shooting instead for a realistic portrayal that the film’s premise can’t support. The result —one over-the-top, goody-two-shoes musical number after another —raised my blood sugar to a dangerous level.
I walked in healthy and walked out diabetic. Well almost. Luckily, they got me to Emergency just in time to save my yelping pancreas.
As a handsome young intern slowly insinuated his needle to prevent toxic schlock from setting in, I found myself taking a trip down memory lane. Which, in my case, is a dark albeit flatteringly lit alley whose shadows are peopled by an assortment of shifty characters up to no good.
Like my first boyfriend.
It was the summer of 1973. I had just turned 15. He was 20. When we weren’t fucking, he sullied me with art cinema.
Fellini, Visconti or Pasolini usually filled the bill. Then one night Barry took me to see a double feature of two shocking films that had reviewers spewing bile and the counterculture all atwitter. Even better, that weren’t Italian.
One was Night of the Living Dead. The other was Pink Flamingos. Human flesh-eating zombies and dogshit-eating drag queens; what more could an impressionable teenaged boy could ask for?
Both were —are —transgressive satires of consumer culture. They blew modern middle-class American social values to smithereens, offending the status quo big time.
The outrageous queer sensibility of Pink Flamingos was particularly profound.
Divine, who looks like a drag mutant, goes all out to defend her title as “The Filthiest Person Alive” when she faces competition from an evil couple (Mink Stole and David Lochary), who abduct female hitchhikers, impregnate them, sell their babies to lesbian couples, and use the money to front dealers that sell heroin in inner-city elementary schools.
I saw the future flash before my eyes, more explosive than 9/11. This was light years before Quentin Tarantino and his grindhouse gang.
Flamingos director Waters had been making films since his student days in the mid-’60s, such as Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Eat Your Makeup. Flamingos was followed by Female Trouble; Divine playing a supermodel and mass murderer who ends up frying in the electric chair.
Waters joined my growing pantheon of queer role models, gay male writers and filmmakers of the mid-20th century who pushed the boundaries of acceptability to the breaking point.
A few months earlier, in Grade 9, I stumbled across a couple of books in the school library that set my cultural revolution in motion: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and The White Paper by Jean Cocteau. (This was a hip alternative school.)
Capote published his 1948 coming of age novel when he was only 24. The back jacket photo of him posing seductively on a divan created a scandal. Cocteau’s 1928 novella was an unabashed celebration of youthful homoerotica.
Waters, Capote and Cocteau were outsiders, homosexuals whose unacceptable social status gave them a unique perspective of society’s hypocrisies and absurdities. And class systems.
Today, the so-called mainstreaming of gay culture has resulted in either an inoffensive brand of people-pleasing camp and melodrama in TV shows and movies depicting homos who lack both money problems and class-consciousness, or lifestyle promotion.
Home decor and fashion programs featuring gay guys hawking trends? Glossy gay lifestyle mags? That’s not acceptance, that’s advertising.
Queers, like blacks, used to be at the margin and therefore the vanguard of critical cultural expression in North America.
Allen Ginsberg, who died 10 years ago, was arguably the most influential among them. In 1956, he published Howl. Raw, ranting and revolutionary, the 20th century’s most famous poem upset the applecart of postwar morality and materialism, “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism.”
Howl talked about cock. It talked about drugs. It talked about “the negro street.” It was a great big fart in public, and it smelled like jazz. It also got Ginsberg into a whole bunch of trouble, and the book was briefly banned for being obscene.
The reaction to Howl was almost a carbon copy of the response to Leaves of Grass, published a hundred years earlier.
Written by that most man-loving of men, Walt Whitman, the greatest American poem of all time was deemed obscene. The publisher was threatened with prosecution and the book was banned in many parts of the US.
Consequently, sales soared, as they did for Howl.
The pinheads who appoint themselves as arbiters of public morality never get it. Shakespeare said it best in The Merchant of Venice: “truth will out.”
Ginsberg’s compatriot, bi writer William Burroughs (Junky, Naked Lunch) pointed out that artists, not politicians, are the real architects of change.
Writers top the heap. That’s why surveillance and censorship form the first line of attack when a government wants to suppress public discourse or dissent.
It’s why I’ve never sided with queers who invoke boycotts of popular culture. You know, the people who wanted to ban Eminem’s music because it isn’t nice. Or who picket movies like Cruising or Basic Instinct, and denounce drag queens and leathermen, because they give us a bad reputation and reinforce perceptions that we’re immoral.
You either have freedom of speech or you don’t. Besides, morality is relative. It depends on where you stand.
“In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis,” the great epigrammatist Quentin Crisp wrote decades ago.
That’s hardly the same as dashing to the middle and trying to fit in, hoping that the deception holds.
Crisp, who had the gall to swan through London in the ’20s and ’30s wearing rouge and lipstick, held his ground his entire life, not once wavering. Ginsberg didn’t waver either. The ban on Howl was lifted when a judge declared the poem to possess redeeming social importance.
Jean Genet was another queer writer who recognized his rightful place on the margins, shocking society with his candour. In and out of prison his entire life, the author of Our Lady of the Flowers, Querelle and A Thief’s Journal revelled in the demimonde of queens and criminals. Genet’s plays The Maids, The Blacks and The Balcony use role-playing —drag —to explore themes of power and class; just like SM playtime.
“To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance,” he wrote.
The Canadian playwright and drag queen John Herbert echoed Genet in his 1967 play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a racy prison drama based on his own experiences in jail, where he was repeatedly beaten and raped.
Critics called it disgusting. “The art of washing our dirty linen in the neighbour’s yard,” one reviewer said of the play.
Nonetheless, Fortune and Men’s Eyes became one of the most successful and important plays in the annals of Canadian theatre. So did the Quebecois drama Hosanna.
I was involved in theatre throughout high school, so plays were another powerful influence.
I saw Michel Tremblay’s play when I was 17. Hosanna is about a drag queen whose world crumbles when she realizes that she has deceived herself into believing that others accept her, when they don’t even want her. Tremblay was talking about post-Quiet Revolution Quebec, but being queer gave him the vocabulary.
Bad boy playwright Joe Orton was another of my adolescent role models. Not only was he queer, he was punk before punk, and his cocky plays like Entertaining Mister Sloane helped to define the swinging London of the 1960s.
“The kind of people who always go on about whether a thing is in good taste invariably have very bad taste,” wrote Orton.
I mustn’t forget Tennessee Williams.
In 1948, the same year that Capote unveiled Other Voices, Other Rooms, Williams unveiled A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, starring a young Marlon Brando. (Brando’s tight T-shirt, which was considered underwear, titillated audiences. Titillation turned to shock when it was ripped off.)
In this and other plays such as The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Williams’ outsider status as a homosexual allowed for a perspective that resulted in some of the most incisive insights into male and female identity in modern literature.
“All good art is an indiscretion,” he wrote.
On the heels of Howl, Ginsberg gave the world his poem America. Long before pink triangles and rainbow flags, he wrote, “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”
I have a feeling that Hairspray would dislocate Ginsberg’s shoulder, from throwing his hands up in exasperation. It represents a Watered-down version of queer identity, white-washed (and I do mean white) for the very mass consumption that the works of all my aforementioned heroes criticized.
We should pay heed to the price we pay going from wild to mild, and it’s up to artists to point out the price tag.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”
In other words, when fags are good we’re very good, but when we’re bad we’re better.