Criterion Corner: Anti-Art and the Importance of Embracing Trash: Female Trouble (1974)

Nice girls don't wear Cha-Cha heels!

I am a connoisseur of exploitation/cult/trash films and the question I am asked most frequently is: "Why do you waste your time watching films like these?" The argument being that there are too many important classic films to watch and one mustn't waste their precious time on "lesser" films. My thought process on the concept of "trash" flicks is that, like any other genre of film, there are good ones and bad ones, and they can contribute interesting ideas about society and the way we perceive ourselves and others.

John Waters, who is arguably the king of transgressive film-making, has made an entire career out of exploring the profane and the disgusting. In his opus, Female Trouble (1974), he finds the perfect mix of shock humor and humanity, all led by his muse, the larger-than-life drag queen Divine. Divine is a force of nature in all of Waters' work, stomping his way through the scenes like a lipstick-smeared Godzilla, and he always commands every single bit of the viewer's attention. 

In Female Trouble, Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a troubled young woman living in Baltimore who has trouble fitting in with the restrictive rules of society. She runs away from home and gets sexually assaulted while trying to hitchhike out of town (by a man that Divine is portraying out of makeup) and subsequently becomes pregnant. The rest of the film follows Dawn's life as she climbs to dizzying heights and then eventually descends into depravity and insanity. This film takes a trip though all kinds of genres--from the troubled youth pictures of the '50s, all the way to the sleazy caged women exploitation films that were popular in the '70s. It's like a buffet of garbage!

Waters' films embody the concept of "anti-art" in that they are diametrically opposed to what most people consider "proper" film-making. He doesn't use actors, he makes movies with his friends. They don't have a budget to work with. His characters are not conventionally attractive and they usually have terrible personalities and are bereft of morals. The spaces they occupy are Dadaesque nightmares, a whirlwind of garish bright colors and clashing patterns, your grandma's house on acid. All of this is a breath of fresh air in the world of film, and even with the incredible amount of absurdity on display, these movies manage to feel more alive, more human, than other more traditionally made films. You cannot have art without anti-art, as they are two sides of the same coin, sustaining each other in a symbiosis.

A healthy appreciation of both low and high art gives one a balanced perspective that can enhance the understanding of both aspects. This is why I feel it is not a waste of time to investigate the ugly or the unappealing. Female Trouble uses this concept of the duality of ugliness and beauty in the characterization of Dawn. At one point in the film, Dawn gets acid thrown onto her face and is badly disfigured. After she recovers, she still applies makeup to her gnarled face, as a way to say "fuck you" to those who would dare imply she still isn't gorgeous. It is at this stage of the film that Dawn feels the most fulfilled and alive, as she has achieved a sort of stasis with her dual outward appearance. 

Everything about this film can be summed up in Dawn's final quote as she being put to death (speaking as a cipher for John Waters himself):

"Without you my career I couldn't have got this far! It was you that I murder for and it is you that I will die for! Please remember I love every fucking one of you!"

--Michelle Kisner