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John Waters: Change of Life

a review by Joe Blevins

INTRODUCTION
It's true: John Waters really DOES inspire his fans to do irresponsible things. I'm living proof. Recently, I took nearly a week off from work and travelled halfway across the country merely to see an exhibition of his artwork, mainly because the show, entitled Change of Life (currently running at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan) included three of his early 8mm films, unseen since the LBJ presidency. For as long as I've been a Waters devotee (over 10 years now), it has been my dream to see these films. I am by no means an extravagent or impulsive person, but this was something I knew I had to do. Any John Waters fan will be able to sympathize.

PART ONE - GETTING THERE IS NONE OF THE FUN
As a rule, I do not travel much. There are financial considerations, of course, but the main reason is that I simply am not suited to it. Oh, the spirit is adventurous enough, but the body remains stubborn. When I travel too far from home, my body cries out in protest. My digestive system, my complexion, and even my hair immediately begin to malfunction. After any journey of several days, I am a cranky, malnourished, exhausted, pockmarked, smelly, stubbly lump of humanity. The "recovery time" for even the briefest of vacations can last weeks. Add to this the fact that I am a terrible driver and have no innate sense of direction. I get lost easily and am quick to become frustrated and disoriented. I tend to lose things also -- things like tickets, keys, and printouts with reseveration confirmations.

But if I was going to see the exhibit, I would have to overcome all of these obstacles. One thing was clear: I was going to have to "idiot-proof" this trip. I wanted to have the smallest-possible margin of error. I would NOT let my own incompetence get in the way of seeing this exhibit. Luckily, I have a friend who lives in New Jersey and was very generously allowing me to crash on his couch for several days AND drive me to the exhibit (he wanted to go, too). He's a lot more practical than I am, and together we hashed out a plan:

1. Monday - May 15: I take a night train from Chicago to Philadelphia.

2. Tuesday - May 16: He picks me up in Philadelphia and drives me back to his apartment in New Jersey.

3. Wednesday - May 17: hang out.

4. Thursday - May 18: Drive to NYC to see the exhibit. Thursday's the best day because the New Musuem is open from noon to 8:00pm.

5. Friday - May 19: He drives me to the train station in Philadelphia, and I take a train back to Chicago.

Luckily enough, all of the above went exactly as planned. I'm so squeamish when it comes to traveling that I took a cab from my apartment to Chicago's Union Station and back again, so I wouldn't have to do ANY driving whatsoever. The cab rides were one of the biggest expenses of the trip, of course, but I figured I was saving so much by not having to get a hotel room that I could afford it.
What I hadn't considered was the reality of taking an Amtrak train from Chicago to Philadelphia. It's a very reasonable $72 each way, but it's twenty hours there and twenty hours back. These are twenty very long hours in fairly cramped conditions. It's no fun, and it seems to last forever. Some advice for anyone taking a similar trip:

1. Don't be a cheapskate like me. Splurge and get yourself a ticket for a sleeper car. Your legs will thank you.

2. If you do choose the coach car, sit on the aisle. Trust me. The view out the window sucks. Generally, trains go through the ugliest parts of America. You'll see a lot of factories, strip malls, trailer parks, and shabby neighborhoods. Graffiti hasn't changed since the 1980s, either.

3. If possible, bring things to eat and drink with you. The woefully-misnamed "Cafe Car" was closed most of the time, and all they sold were overpriced candy bars, canned beverages, and prepackaged snacks. I would have sold my immortal soul for a sack lunch.

4. BRING ENTERTAINMENT! You'll need it. Bring stuff to read. Bring a portable CD player and plenty of discs. If you have a laptop computer, by all means bring it along. There's a place to plug it into the wall if necessary. If you have one of those portable DVD players, bring that, too. Because the train jostles you around a bit, you probably won't be able to do much writing or drawing, I'm afraid.

The only "entertainment" offered by Amtrak was a horrible, horrible magazine called "Arrive." (However, this supremely boring magazine did have *one* useful tidbit of information. An article about cosmetic dentistry noted that Julia Roberts has an extremely rare 14-tooth smile. I meditated upon this later when I looked at John's piece entitled "Julia.")

Aesthetically, the train was unremarkable. On the trip to Philadelphia, I spent many hours staring at the headrest of the seat in front of me. I noticed that the pattern of the fabric resembled interlocking swastikas as drawn by Keith Haring. Yep, Keith Haring swastikas. Kind of a mixed message, I'd say.

5. Bring along your own pillow and possibly a blanket. Amtrak's pillows are tiny and useless, and it's frequently cold at night due to the doors between cars being constantly opened.

6. Study up on Zen meditation techniques, or do research on people who have been kept in "tiger cages" for years at a time.

7. The Amtrak employees I encountered were mostly rude, nasty, and unhelpful. Ignore them as much as possible. Keep reminding yourself that it's all about the ART!

The only highlight of the train trip was seeing the magnificent 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. A gorgeous, phyisically imposing structure, it was used in Brian DePalma's "Blow Out" and looks just as good in person.

PART TWO - THE SHOW AND THE MUSUEM
As I said, I am no driver. Luckily, my friend was. In addition to letting me crash on his couch, he braved the New York traffic to take me to the exhibit. It was about an hour's drive from New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. My friend had printed out directions from Map Quest or some such, and he found the New Museum of Contemporary Art without much trouble.

Parking was a bit of a challenge, of course. There are lots of places near the museum which advertise "PARKING" on large, handpainted signs. These places fill up quickly, though, and some looked less than reputable. We eventually found a place that looked legitimate enough only a few blocks away. We parked there from about noon to maybe 7:00 or so, and the cost was only $25, which I thought was quite reasonable. Out-of-town rube that I am, I would have been willing to pay much more.

My first-ever visit to New York City was kind of a let-down, despite the enormous hype the city has received. Granted, I only saw a few blocks of it, but this particular part of Manhattan was not picturesque, bizarre, or even interesting. The museum was on Broadway, but it was nothing like the song. The neon lights were not terribly bright, and everyone there was very ordinary-looking. There were no crazy people, scary-looking people, muggers, mobsters, or celebrities in sight. I was a little disappointed that no one tried to mug me or was even the slightest bit rude to me. The neighborhood surrounding the New Museum of Contemporary Art is dotted with futon stores (at least three on one block), fast food places, and the chain stores that are in every city in America. If I hadn't known better, I could have sworn I was in Pittsburgh. None of the buildings were higher than maybe four or five stories, and if New York is "the city that never sleeps," then it must have been taking a nap by about 5:00 or so.

"When are we going to see this Soho I've heard so much about?" I asked my friend.

"We've been walking through Soho for the last five minutes," he replied.

"Really? This is it?"

Oh well. Another expectation shattered.

The musuem itself, however, was beyond wonderful and easily justified the time and expense I incurred getting there. For a John Waters loyalist, attending this exhibit was like being at Disneyland. It's like being surrounded by all of your fondest hopes and dreams. The two women working at the front counter were friendly and welcoming, though they did pimp the "museum membership" to every customer. I explained I was from wayyyyy the heck out of town, and they seemed genuinely impressed. I gathered that not too many fans had made the pilgramage East. Anyhow, the admission was a measly six bucks. (That's exactly the amount of money Peggy Gravel had when she came to Mortville, weirdly enough.) When you pay, they give you this little tag to wear so you can come and go as you please all day. WARNING: THE LITTLE TAGS HAVE A TENDENCY TO FALL OFF. Both my friend and I lost our tags almost immediately. Luckily, the friendly ladies at the counter were very nice about giving us new tags.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art is really just one big main room (with three little rooms on the side) -- stark white walls and black floors, like basically all modern art museums. There was a "mezzanine" that didn't have much on it, and there was a basement with a store full of art books, posters, and various artistic sundries. You could buy most of JW's books, plus a souvenir t-shirt (with "FLOP" or "Scene Missing" on it) if you were so inclined.

If you've seen the book "Director's Cut" and the official "Change of Life" souvenir catalogue, you know what John Waters' photographs look like, so I won't waste time describing them to you. They look great in person, I'll say. I was suprised at how large "12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot" was. You'd have to have a mammoth couch to justify that kind of wall art in your home. The pieces which impressed me the most in person were:

* "Flop" (the large green pillow with the word "FLOP" embroidered on it)

* The JFK and Jackie-O dolls. I was soooooo tempted to swipe one.

* "Return to Sender" - the collage of envelopes addressed to long-dead or currently unreachable celebrities.

* The series of photos of John's private life: under his bed, in his refrigerator, etc. His VHS tape collection seems to run heavily towards the pornographic. There's also a tape labelled "Chuck Berry," which considering Mr. Berry's taste, might ALSO run to the pornographic.

* The amazing "Funny Face," which is HUGE and has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

The most frustrating piece is "Secret Movie," which is up on a huge white pedestal so you can't see what the title of the movie is. I thought maybe you could see it from the mezzanine, but it's too far away. SUGGESTION: TAKE HIGH-POWERED BINOCULARS WITH YOU AND CLIMB UP TO THE MEZZANINE. Who knows? Maybe it'll work. My friend noted that the picture is pretty curled up, though.

Picture-taking is NOT allowed inside the museum, but I managed to sneak a few snapshots anyway. The grizzled security guards at the NMoCA are pretty laid-back, but they'll politely tell you to put your camera away. They all had on the same uniform -- bright blue shirts and black pants -- and looked like old bluesmen dressed up for a "Star Trek" convention. The New Museum doesn't seem to attract a rough crowd, though. Everyone there was well-behaved and normal-looking, and the patrions represented a nice demographic mix of ages, races, and sexual orientations. It was like a Benetton ad, except for all the obscene artwork on the walls. There was even a perfect WASP family attending the show: Mom, Dad, sis, and junior. Junior looked to be about nine or ten. I can't imagine what his reaction to "Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot" was. Can you imagine seeing that with your PARENTS right there? I wonder who would be more embarrassed. But this family was getting along just fine, phenomonally functional. I wanted to follow them home, but my friend wouldn't hear of it.

Besides the art, there are a couple more goodies for JW fans. The three dimensional replica of John's living room is amazing. It was like seeing the Sistene Chapel ceiling. (A word to the wise: this exhibit photographs very well, but you didn't hear it from me.) You get to see highly detailed photos of John's bookshelves and bulletin board, and you can spend hours poring over the little details. You can finally see what Gobbles the Garbage Eating Goat looks like, for instance. Biggest revelation: John Waters listens to They Might Be Giants. I almost cried with joy when I found that out. The faux living room is accompanied by a HUGE tome containing the titles of EVERY book in John Waters' library. This is well worth studying and another item I was tempted to steal.

(NOTE: If you actually steal anything from this exhibit, you are guilty of Premeditated Assholism with Intent to Eat Shit in the First Degree. This is punishable by death in all 50 states, plus Canada.)

PART THREE - THE MOVIES & THE MUSIC THEREIN
Ahhhhh... the REAL reason I made the long voyage to New York City. I can now finally say that I have seen EVERYTHING in John Waters' official filmography. The movies are everything I was hoping they would be and MUCH MUCH more.

To those wondering about the watchability of these movies, I would say RELAX. If you enjoyed "Mondo Trasho" and "Multiple Maniacs," you'll find all three to be HIGHLY watchable and IMMENSELY enjoyable. (I know I'm overdoing the capital letters, but I can't help myself. I'm in a state of religious ecstasy) The New Museum has done a GREAT, GREAT job in presenting these fine films. Let me explain. As I said, the New Museum is basically one BIG white room with three little rooms off to the sides. Each of John's three movies is playing in its own room. There's a "Roman Candles" room, a "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" room, and an "Eat Your Makeup" room. The movies are playing continuously on fairly large screens. The picture and sound quality are not bad at all. I was pleasantly surprised. There's not much "seating" per se, just one wooden bench in each (mostly empty) room. There's a lot of open floor space, and all three movies have highly rockin' music, so I'd encourage visitors to get up and DANCE while they watch these movies. Or just sit on the floor and gaze up in amazement.

One of my fetishes as a John Waters fan is to try to track down the music in each movie. What follows is a list of songs I was able to identify.

MUSIC FROM "HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET:
* Sound effects: coughing, hacking
* "The Star Spangled Banner (off-key)" - Mrs. Waters
* "He's Sure the Boy I Love" - The Crystals
* "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" - Tchaikovsky
* "Mickey Mouse March" - The Mickey Mouse Club
* "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" - from "Mary Poppins"
* "Short Shorts" - The Royal Teens
* "Santa Claus is Back in Town" - Elvis Presley
* "She's Got It" - Little Richard
* "The Twelve Days of Christmas" - traditional
* "God Bless America (off-key)" - Mrs. Waters
* "Great Balls of Fire" - Jerry Lee Lewis
* "The Stripper" - David Rose
* "Mama, Look at Bubu" - Harry Belafonte
* "Leader of the Pack" - The Shangri-Las

MUSIC FROM "ROMAN CANDLES"
* A radio ad by Mr. Ray
* "You've Gotta Eat Your Spinach Baby" - Shirley Temple with Alice Faye and Jack Haley
* "Past, Present, and Future" - The Shangri-Las
* "Heartbreak Hotel" - Elvis Presley
* "Rip It Up" - Little Richard
* "Great Balls of Fire" - Jerry Lee Lewis
* "Somewhere Over the Rainbow (live)" - Judy Garland
* Interview with Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, proclaiming her son's innocence
* "Ubangi Stomp" - Warren Smith
* "My Son, My Son" - Vera Lynn
* "Red Hot" - Billy Riley and the Little Green Men
* An advertisement for a singer, possibly named Marion or Marilyn. The announcer talks about her "sensuous singing of song."
* A long excerpt from an R&B song, basically a recitation. While the band vamps, the female vocalist tells a story about how the only man she has ever loved married another woman. She talks about attending the wedding and how bad she felt watching him marry someone else.
* A song by Helen Kane I can't identify, but it's definitely Helen Kane. She's the entertainer who inspired Betty Boop.

MUSIC FROM "EAT YOUR MAKEUP"
(NOTE: This movie has less music than the other two because it features some of Waters' first wild-track dialogue. The words "Makeup! Makeup!" are repeated over and over during the first few minutes, and there's a long stretch in which Marina Melin can be heard praying the Rosary by saying the entire Hail Mary over and over and over again.)
* "Someday My Prince Will Come" - from "Snow White"
* "All I Have to Do is Dream" - The Everly Brothers
* "Rumble" - Link Wray
* "Live at the Apollo, 1962" - James Brown and the Famous Flames; Huge portions of this album are used throughout the movie. If you want the "Eat Your Makeup" soundtrack album, just get this on CD and you've got 75% of the music. The music from the introduction is used over and over, especially during the runway scenes. "Please Please Please" is used when a model is trying to run away. A big section of "Lost Someone" is also heard. (Side note: this album is essential. If you don't own it, go out and buy it.)
* "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" - traditional, but presented in a weird quasi-operatic arrangement that goes on for several minutes. It gets down somewhere into the 80s if I remember correctly.
* "Respect" - Aretha Franklin
* "Surfin' Bird" - The Trashmen (used in two other Waters movies)

Phew!
So now we've covered at least some of the wonderful music in these movies. But what of the movies themselves? I won't bore you with plot summaries. "Hag in a Black Leather Jacket" and "Eat Your Makeup" have vague narratives, while "Roman Candles" is completely plotless and abstract. It helps to read the descriptions given in the "Change of Life" book or in "American Originals: John Waters" by John Ives BEFORE you actually watch the movies. (The plot summaries are helpfully posted on the walls outside the "movie rooms" in the museum.) It also helps to sit through the movies a few times. You might as well. Heck, you came all that way to see them. They're pretty short, and they run on a continous loop as long as the museum is open. I sat through all of them multiple times, and I peeked into the "movie rooms" from time to time during the day.

What can I tell you about these movies? They all have a slow, dreamy quality and are quite poignant and weirdly naive, despite the violence and drug abuse. But what really surprised me is how FUNNY -- in the time-honored John Waters way -- they are. Waters is first and foremost one of America's great satirists and humorists, and his talent is clearly evident in these rather primitive early works. "Eat Your Makeup," especially, is a veritable laugh riot. But here are some random observations about each of the movies:

[WARNING: MULTIPLE SPOILERS!]

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT "HAG IN A BLACK LEATHER JACKET"

* The first sound you hear is someone coughing furiously. Is this supposed to be pothead humor?
* Great costumes all around, especially the American flag dress worn by a wedding guest. (Pat Moran?) The American flag is a recurrent visual motif in these movies.
* It took TWO ladders to get to the top of John's parents' house. Those are some brave actors!
* Possible Kuchar Brothers reference: A woman takes a bath fully dressed.
* Big laugh #1: The black groom climbs into a garbage can and his fiancee lugs him around.
* Big laugh #2: The groom throwing cake off top of house. It doesn't quite SPLAT properly on the ground. I'm sure Waters was disappointed, but there was no chance for a second take.
* Big laugh #3: As the wedding party drives away, the Ku Klux Klansman stands on the hood of the car. It's obvious the actor is having difficulty keeping his balance.
* The (supposedly accidental) double exposures give the film a ghostly feel. We get to see the opening credits again.
* The film is bookended by Mary Vivian Pearce "dancing" to the off-key piano stylings of John's mom. John really abuses the zoom lens and gets some EXTREME close-ups of MVP's face.
* As far as I can tell, there is no hag in a black leather jacket in this movie.
* The movie is unrated but would probably be PG. It's surreal but tame. There is some mild sexual innuendo, as when the heroine does a striptease in front of her boyfriend-to-be, but nothing happens.

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT "ROMAN CANDLES"
* This is the film in which the screen is divided into four quadrants, with one always blank. There's a mixture of B&W and color film, and the film has an eye-popping crazy quilt appearance.
* It's totally different than anything JW has made before or since. Not really a comedy, and there aren't any "big laughs," per se. Still in all, this was just maybe my favorite of the three films. It's an absolutely indispensible document of what John's life was like at the time and what all the Dreamlanders looked like when they were young.
* For counter-culture "bums," they look remarkably clean-cut and innocent. Oh, how things would change in just a few short years!
* JW loves to show people reading in his movies, and this one is no exception. There's a lingering shot of a young man reading some sort of underground publication called "FACE." David Lochary is shown reading "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to (I think) Mary Vivian Pearce, and there's a famous scene of Maelcum Soul and David leafing through "The Wizard of Oz."
* Most of the movie is just footage of John's friends hanging out and having a good time. You get to see Divine, Mink, Pat, David, etc. looking extremely young.
* Corresponding to John's love of novelty items and anything artificial, there's a memorable shot of a plastic fly.
* You want Christ imagery? OK, well there's someone dressed sorta like a Roman centurion at one point. There's also a scene with a nun (Maelcum) making out with priest (her real-life boyfriend). The priest has long hair and a beard, very Christ-like. There's an actual crucifix -- and an American flag -- right behind them.
* There's a nice picnic scene, presaging the one in "Polyester." At this picnic, someone tries to feed a hamburger (an Ameche's Powerhouse?) to a kitten. That same kitten is seen simultaneously in another quadrant. It's the only time that kind of thing happens. Generally, the quadrants have nothing whatsover to do with one another. In fact, while you're watching one, you might miss something in another. That's why this film, even more than the other two, needs to be seen repeatedly.
* Lots of traffic footage with brilliant green grass. I can't help but think of the Zapruder film when I see this.
* In the aforementioned traffic footage, Mary Vivian Pearce is wearing great sunglasses. There's some attempt at arty framing here, with MVP standing off-center and partially obscured.
* There is an absurd glamour running through all three of these films, but most especially in "Roman Candles." Mary Vivian Pearce is filmed like a fashion model and is quite stunning.
* Lots of "borrowed" footage, including a B&W Mighty Mouse cartoon and long clips from "The Creature Walks Among Us" and "The Undead." Weirdly the "Undead" and "Mighty Mouse" clips have subtitles. There's also newsreel footage of the pope, and I think it says that the Pope at the time "created the first Negro cardinal." One strange film clip has a Buckwheat-type child being pursued by a bear. The child's wig (hat?) flies off. This shot got a laugh from the museum crowd.
* A very effective shot involves a man removing his belt. You think it's going to be a striptease, but he's actually preparing to shoot up.
* More American flag imagery: It's hard to tell, but I think there's a shot of a guy writhing around on the floor on an American flag and coughing up blood.
* Another great costumes: a dress made of tin foil!
* The only attempt at "narrative" footage involves a bride forcing a bound-and-gagged groom to walk onto the railroad tracks at gunpoint. The bride's apparent accomplice is a biker type.
* There are Roman candles in the movie -- the religious type, not the firecrackers.
* If rated, the movie would receive an automatic R for drug use.
* Although it was (probably) my favorite, "Roman Candles" was the least-attended of the three films.

OBSERVATIONS ABOUT "EAT YOUR MAKEUP"
* If any film can be said to be the "hit" of the exhibit, it's this one. It's very funny, and it went over well with the audience. It was easily the best-attended of the three films.
* It's very close in tone and structure to "Mondo Trasho." It's maybe a little funnier and a little cruder. John was clearly headed toward longer narrative feature films when he made this. It represents a quantam leap forward in terms of storytelling sophistication.
* Again, I'll spare you a plot summary. You can find that elsewhere. I'll just point out the things I thought were memorable.
* The image of a woman crawling across the desert pleading for makeup instead of water reminded me of that scene from "Spaceballs" in which Princess Vespa demands, "Room service! Room service!"
* Marina Melin is great in this film. This is her best showcase, though she's also quite good as Shina the nudist in "Desprate Living." Here, she wears her "Story of O" dress and looks sensational.
* Maelcum Soul makes a great villainess. Her costume is impeccable. She and David Lochary make quite a couple -- an obvious inspiration for the Marbles and the Dashers in later Dreamland filsm.
* Divine's entrance is underscored with the song "Dream" by the Everly Brothers. Divi and Maelcum read books about Jackie Kennedy, which leads to the whole Zapruder fantasy sequence (surprisingly well-done). This material was greeted with uproarious laughter from the audience, especially when the dream ends and we see Divine sighing wistfully.
* The movie's best extended sequence involves a cheapskate Spook House, in which patrons are wheeled around in shopping carts. I wouldn't dare to spoil some of the laughs, but the things to watch for are: the skeleton dance, the "Scare O Chair," and the girl scout in front of (yes) an American flag. Those all got huge laughs. Funny, funny stuff. "Eat Your Makeup" qualifies as John's first great comedy.
* Weirdest sequence by far: Pat Moran (I think) smashing baby dolls to the tune of "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," then becoming seemingly remorseful. This goes on quite a while.
* Token blasphemy: a Bishop is seen attending the white-slavery "fashion show," plus giving Holy Communion and even standing in line at the kissing booth.
* If rated, the movie would probably get an R. It does feature some brief nudity and is the only one of the three that would really qualify as erotic.
* Yes, there are at least two scenes involving the eating of makeup.

CONCLUSION
Coming home after seeing all this was a bummer, a downer, and a drag all rolled into one. Heavily sedated, I at least managed to get SOME sleep aboard the train home as I returned to my drab life in Illinois. By the time I got to my apartment, I was down to my last three dollars in cash, insane with exhaustion, and smelling like Francis the Talking Mule probably did after a long day of shooting under hot studio lights.

But who cares? I was there. I saw "IT." And I'd do it again!

© 2004 Joe Blevins

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