“If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.”
A few weeks ago I taught Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) as part of a lesson on the advent of extreme gore in American cinema. In addition to providing context for why the film was made — Lewis only turned to gore because his stock in trade “nudie cuties” were now becoming standard fare in mainstream Hollywood films — I also went over the conventions of the gore film and the slasher film (Blood Feast is both) and screened clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper) and The Evil Dead (1981, Sam Raimi). Given my blood-soaked lecture I suppose that my students were primed for an evening of non-stop blood and terror when they attended the Blood Feast screening.
But as the first example of gore, Blood Feast is far more restrained than its generic descendents. Therefore, during our class discussion of the film one disappointed student raised his hand and complained, “You wrote a check that film couldn’t cash.” His classmates nodded in agreement. This reaction surprised me a bit: Blood Feast may be tame, but it still contains scenes in which a woman’s tongue is ripped out and a leg is severed. I left the classroom shaking my head and wondering about the state of today’s youth.
But as it turns out, it is possible to shock Generation Y. All it takes is a little poop eating.
For our week on camp and its relationship with trash cinema, we discussed some of the basic characteristics of the camp aesthetic described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay, “Notes on Camp” (1964), such as artifice, exaggerated sexuality and theatricality. We then related these characteristics to the work of John Waters, especially as they applied to his star and muse, the incomparable Divine. I also described Waters’ interest in the abject and bodily fluids (saliva, vomit, shit) and warned them that the film contained (unstaged) acts of felatio and coprophagia. But truly, is there any way to prepare students for a screening of Pink Flamingos?
Approximately 10 to 15 minutes into the film, not too long after Divine steals a piece of meat from a grocery store by shoving it under her tight lamé dress (all to the tune of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”), the same student who had complained about Blood Feast turned to me and said, “Okay, you didn’t oversell this one.” “Just you wait,” I replied, “There’s a lot more to come.”
There is a voyeur character in Pink Flamingos named Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce) who pleads with her beloved, Crackers (Danny Mills), to engage in ever kinkier sex for her viewing pleasure. “I’ve gotta see more than what I’ve already seen!” she whines. Crackers complies by incorporating two live chickens into his next “love making” session.
The viewing audience for Pink Flamingos is a lot like Cotton in that we too expect Waters to present ever more shocking images as the film goes on — every scene ups the ante. This goal is achieved by having the film’s narrative center on a group of scheming middle class poseurs, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary), attempting to wrest the title of “filthiest people alive” from Divine and her family. This leads to the breaking of all kinds of long-standing cultural taboos, including the big three: murder, cannibalism and incest. Of course, Divine does not engage in these acts to compete with the Marbles — she does these things because they are in her nature to do them. She is, indeed, the filthiest person alive.
The movie concludes with a kangaroo court trial of Connie and Raymond Marble, who are convicted of “assholism.” Divine tars and feathers the convicts, executes them in front of a crowd of gossip reporters, and then flees to Boise, Idaho with Crackers and Cotton.
At this point in the film my students were pretty shell shocked. They had watched an extended scene of passionate toe-sucking. They witnessed a singing asshole (literally) and a pre-operative transsexual flash her penis at the camera. But then came the film’s famous denoument. My students knew it was coming and yet, they were not prepared.
As the scene unfolded my students howled with disgust. But I was in the back of the room laughing so hard that tears were rolling down my face. “You’re enjoying this?” one incredulous student remarked, “What is wrong with you?” But this scene is funny. When Divine smiles at the camera with shit-covered teeth, the image is gag-inducing but it is also hilarious in its sheer defiance. It is the ultimate in juvenile high jinks. This image appeals to the 9-year-old in me.
The credits rolled and my students slowly filed out of the classroom, shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. Watching them go I realized that it is still possible to shock today’s youth. My hat goes off to you, Mr. Waters.
This fall I have the great privilege of teaching a course I have always wanted to teach, “Topics in Film Aesthetics: Trash Cinema and Taste.” Jeffrey Sconce has defined “trash cinema” as “less a distinct group of films than a particular reading protocol, a counter-aesthetic turned subcultural sensibility devoted to all manner of cultural detritus.” Would Sconce agree with the way I am defining trash cinema in my course? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, the term “trash” is a useful way to denote the broad and shifting category of “bad films” and as a method for getting students to discuss film aesthetics. We will watch films that have been maligned for their “bad” acting (Showgirls), “bad” taste (Pink Flamingos), “bad” subjects (Freaks), “bad” politics (El Topo) and just plain “badness” overall (Glen or Glenda?). We will discuss what qualities categorize a film alternately as “bad,” “low brow” or “cult” and how taste cultures and taste publics are established. Finally, we will discuss why certain films are believed to have “cultural capital” and why and how trash cinema rewrites the rules about which films are worth watching.
Every week I will discuss one of these films on this blog, my students’ reactions to them, and whether or not these films offer a useful way for undergraduates to discuss film aesthetics as a political, cultural, economic and social construct. This is also a good excuse for me to talk about some of my favorite films.
The first film the students will watch (during the week of 8/31) is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003). The film has been dubbed “the Citizen Kane of bad films” and has gained an impressive cult following in Los Angeles, where folks line up for midnight screenings. Last year Entertainment Weekly did a wonderful story about it, which is when I first became obsessed with it. The Room even has its own Rocky Horror Picture Show-like rituals.
Which brings me to why I am posting about this now: if anyone out there (are you out there?) is familiar with any of The Room‘s rituals (I know about the spoon throwing and the yelling of “Denny!” whenever that character appears), could you please share them here? My students and I would be most grateful.