Female Trouble

Studio: Criterion

Aug 08, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“I’ve got lots of trouble, female trouble,” croons John Waters muse Divine at the beginning of one of her greatest appearances, Female Trouble. John Waters, in conjunction with Divine, ahead of the game as far as meta commentaries on the role for women in both popular media and society more broadly. If much of his camp masterpieces zeroed in on a particular aesthetic, using its embracement of its position on the margins as a strength to garner cult appeal, each film was not without sharp observation. From Pink Flamingos defiance in the face of mannered and polite filmmaking, or living, to Hairspray’s mockery of institutional racism, Female Trouble would, in several ways, serve as a kind of blueprint (and arguably better iteration) of Serial Mom. An ironic biographical account of Dawn Davenport (Divine), Dawn goes from bad girl who doesn’t get her Cha Cha heels for Christmas to the subject of a bizarre photographer (David Lochary), to murderess and icon of the death penalty.

There’s always pleasure in a bit of artifice, and Female Trouble’s bright and saturated colors in its production design (by Vincent Peranio) and its cinematography (by Waters), openly jab at the florid hues of melodramas from the likes of Douglas Sirk and David Lean, turning its shades of purple, red, blue, and green into lurid decadence, a wine taste with a beer budget. We go from the pink lockers and mint green bathrooms of Dawn and her friends smoking (reminiscent of The Trouble with Angels) to a cage decked out in red, blisteringly shiny, with Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) trapped inside. (The Criterion Collection’s restoration is truly gorgeous.)

Effectively, Female Trouble makes for a good thesis statement about Waters' ouvre more broadly, revealing that the audience is caught somewhere between fascination and revulsion when it comes to women less inclined to be subservient. On the one hand, they can be transformed into iconography, the details of their body unnecessary; the title sequence is minimalist, stencil-like. Dawn’s mantra becomes, at the behest of Lochary’s Donald Dasher (self-proclaimed “fascist beautician”, with his wife Mary Vivian Pearce as Donna), “Crime is beauty”. Which is to say that beauty is social currency. Which is to say, We, as a culture, value the tawdry, the taboo, and the transgressive, when we don’t have to take the fall. It’s easy to either be disgusted and entranced by criminal women like Dawn, or mothers pushing their sons into being queers (Massey and Michael Potter), but, as Female Trouble’s plot swerves off the rails and makes no effort to return from its gaudy, hyperbolic soap operatic arcs, Waters continually finds value in unpacking how women, and perhaps the marginalized more broadly, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Really, as long as we have something to talk about. It’s people like Dawn who want to be talked about, and have a good grasp on how to make that happen and why it’s valuable, why crime is currency, why the grotesque is beautiful insofar as how one can profit off of it. Divine, and Waters’, self-awareness of this basically makes the act of transgression -- which would normally be punished in any Hays Code film -- a commodity and a ladder to the very fame that Dawn aspires to.

Female Trouble is arguably somewhat prophetic: even though the free press has adored the exploits of taboo busters before, in a post MTV Real World world, the cultural landscape has never enjoyed or made money off of transgression like it does now. As a matter of fact, it is self-cannibalizing, each platform competing with itself for the most shocking twist or turn in a ripped from the headlines story, social media giving an even stronger appearance of immediacy and “liveness”. After Honey Boo Boo, Teen Mom, The Bachelor, etc., a certain kind of transgression still holds as both aspirational and commodifiable, saint like and commercially viable.

The main difference between Female Trouble and the alleged trouble that occurs today is merely the elegance of Waters’ demented dialogue. His visual provocations are often in the spotlight, but monologues from his stars and lines like “The world of a heterosexual is a sick and boring life!” are potent and serpentine and poetic in their construction and delivery. However, the subjects still live at the intersection of vilification and worship. But were she to rise from the dead, Dawn would no doubt make a name for herself as an Instagram star, with an audience of millions in love with her selfie.

www.criterion.com/films/28704-female-trouble




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