Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Films of John Waters: Mondo Trasho (1969)

There's a tension at work in MONDO TRASHO: Waters the narrative filmmaker at odds with Waters the underground filmmaker. An example of defying formal expectations and conventions occurs with some seemingly insignificant scenes that seem to go on forever (Mary Vivian Pearce waiting for a bus, as Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" plays on the soundtrack in its entirety). Clearly we are in a very different world here than even something like PINK FLAMINGOS or FEMALE TROUBLE, with their emphasis on moving the story forward in each scene. But MONDO TRASHO is not concerned with plot. It's rather a series of vignettes strung together around the loose thread of the blonde bombshell (Pearce) and her extraordinarily dramatic day around Baltimore City.

Following the aforementioned bus sequence which opens the film, the Bombshell goes to the park, where she encounters a foot fetishist who proceeds to sexually assault her (while the Bombshell has a fantasy hallucination in which she imagines that she's Cinderella!) From there, she is struck by hitand-run driver Divine, distracted by the sight of an imagined nude hitchhiker (Mark Isherwood). Divine then takes the Bombshell to a mental hospital, where they witness a weird topless tap number performed by one of the inmates (Mink Stole), who is then raped by the other lunatics. Next, they find themselves in the laboratory of the deranged Dr. Coat Hanger (David Lochary), who grafts chicken feet on to the Bombshell's legs. Finally, Divine and the Bombshell end up in a pig sty, where Divine dies a garish death before a vision of the Virgin Mary appears to them.

This plot description is probably making the film sound more coherent than it actually is, however. MONDO TRASHO plays out something like a bad dream or hallucination, and indeed the plot structure in some ways seems to be influenced by THE WIZARD OF OZ, with its main character leaving her humdrum world and going on a strange journey with other characters she meets along the way (not as unlikely as it may sound, given Waters' love for that film). From what can be gleaned from accounts of Waters' first three short films (HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET, ROMAN CANDLES and EAT YOUR MAKEUP), MONDO TRASHO would seem to be an extension of the basic approach he took with those earlier films - loose narrative threads stringing together a series of episodes, infused with a less conventional approach to the storytelling than he would later pursue.

There's also the shock value. MONDO TRASHO's credits are superimposed over shots of a man, dressed in executioner's garb, cutting the heads off of chickens on a chopping block, whereupon their bodies proceed to flutter around for several seconds. All of this is shot in graphic closeup, with Waters assaulting the viewer with this disturbing imagery right out of the gate. But Waters seems less interested in the political implications of the material than earlier underground filmmakers. The shock value of MONDO TRASHO seems more geared toward pushing the envelope for what audiences will sit through rather than through making any kind of political statement. It is more akin to a carnival sideshow, in which the primary attraction is to indulge one's appetite for the shocking and taboo for its own sake.

Not that this is necessarily a criticism of the film, mind. Only that Waters was much more successful at this kind of thing in future endeavors, especially once he was able to incorporate his trademark dialogue to balance the shock with wit. As Waters has said, there's good bad taste, and bad bad taste, and in a recent interview made the point that for shock value to be truly effective it has to have wit. Watching MONDO TRASHO, one misses clever, hysterical dialogue and the casual, off-hand asides that make his films beginning with MULTIPLE MANIACS so memorable.

All that said, MONDO TRASHO is not as concerned with the gross-out factor as PINK FLAMINGOS, FEMALE TROUBLE or DESPERATE LIVING. Instead, Waters seems to be making a film that is intentionally jarring in its formal and aesthetic component, letting some scenes run far past any length that would seem necessary, and assaulting the viewer with one hallucinatory episode after the other. In every film after this one, he would move closer and closer toward conventional technique (with nods to classic Hollywood) and more formal polish. Indeed, Waters' mature work depends to a large degree on how successfully he is able to re-create the look and feel of the classical models which he is satirizing (Sirkian melodramas in POLYESTER, '50s rock musicals in CRY-BABY, and so on).

In this sense, MONDO TRASHO represents what I think is the end the first period of Waters' filmography. Without having the early shorts available for review, this can remain only conjecture, but I think it's a fair assessment based on the accounts of those early shorts as provided by Waters in his 1981 book Shock Value. If MONDO TRASHO is any indication, this first period reflects Waters working under a strong influence of the underground film aesthetic, almost as concerned with subverting form as much as with subverting sensibility.

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