Queerfest at FACT

Ahead of Queerfest at FACT, Amy Roberts appraises the influence on mainstream comedy of the Pope of Trash, John Waters…

Remember that Kevin Bacon trivia game where he was the Six Degrees Of Separation in Hollywood? The same logic applies to John Waters, only with the Six Degrees Of Separation of queer, camp and trash culture. Everything either leads to or from the great Pope Of Trash himself, from his influences (everything from Douglas Sirk Hollywood melodramas, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s provocative style and fondness for outsiders, to his lifelong fascinations with filth, delinquency and ‘white trash’ culture) to those he’s inspired and otherwise opened doors for.

Mini film festival Queerfest (now in it’s second year at FACT) is thrust from this idea. Last year it celebrated Waters’ career with a double bill of two of his most infamous films. This time around, the programme explores his influences and playful use of ironic humour.

Featured this year is an unmissable Valentines Day double bill (to hell with your sloppy rom-coms, Hollywood!) of camp classics Little Shop Of Horrors and Roger Corman’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. A perfect excuse, if ever there was one, to Frankenfurter it up to the cinema and bring some playfulness back to the holiday’s stale corporate ghost. As well as a special screening of Fassbinder’s Despair, most notable is a tribute to one of the most unsung heroes of underground cinema.

Queerfest curator Omar Kholeif explains: “Most important in this years festival is the special programme of the late, great George Kuchar. One of the most under-rated and prolific underground filmmakers, and perhaps one of Waters’ most obvious influences – we’ll be showing an award winning documentary about Kuchar and some of his most classic short films.” Kuchar sadly died in late 2011, and so the programme is also a touching “effort to commemorate his work”.

For those unfamiliar with Kuchar, this is an immeasurably valuable opportunity to be introduced and inspired by a fascinating character, who was die-hard in his passion for filmmaking on next to no budget. The Youtube generation of amateur auteurs uploading their own homemade shorts to the internet owe a great deal to Kuchar, who began life filming shorts on an 8mm camera with his twin brother, a cast of friends and neighbours, and incorporating props he found around the house.

Even as he grew in notoriety and began to gain respect from the art and film scene, his budget barely changed, proud and unshifting of his low-budget aesthetics. His depth of work ranges from the camp and the tawdry to sardonic, yet honest pastiches of 1950’s melodramas and B-movie horror, to intimate self-portraits such as The Weather Diaries – simplistic, but ultimately beguiling for their unflinching honesty and at times, bare vulnerability.

The term ‘Queer’ might seem to some, exclusive to sexual persuasion, but it’s actually a term far more accessible and inclusive, liberating to all in fact, especially in terms of what Queerfest has to offer for audiences. As Kholeif puts it, “The programme is for everybody, by Queer we’re alluding to something a little fun and different and out of the ordinary” – a quality glaringly obvious in Waters’ enduring influence on popular culture.

His body of work, primarily seen as something that only the gay scene could ‘understand’ or appreciate, has since been, quite rightly, embraced and celebrated by the mainstream. His love of bad taste humour, relentless in its brazen and delighted depictions of all manner of bodily functions and uncomfortably uproarious sex scenes, are now almost common-place in a range of comedic shlock.

“The programme is for everybody, by Queer we’re alluding to something a little fun and different and out of the ordinary”

From Farrelly Brothers gross out comedies, to the consistent horrors to be found in the Jackass movies (all 3 of which, unsurprisingly, feature in Waters’ top 100 favourite films), to the most recent ‘shitting yourself in a wedding dress’ scene from 2011’s Bridesmaids, bad taste has almost become a ubiquitous comedic device.

You can see it in his adoration of ‘white trash’ and his send-ups of naive, pearl-clutching middle class society. The camp executions of these recurring fascinations are precise and perfectly in step with Susan Sontag’s definition of camp (written in the same year as Waters’ first full length feature, Pink Flamingos, was released) as being “serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious…camp sees everything in quotation marks”; or as Waters’ said himself during his guest stint on The Simpsons, “It’s Camp! The tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic…”.

Something which production execs were surely hoping for (but didn’t quite nail) in the glut of reality television currently swamping our screens which set out to ‘realistically’ portray trash cultures in the shape of Jersey and Geordie Shore, and the unsettling and vapid excesses seen in Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Desperate Scousewives and TOWIE. Tragic and ludicrous, in equal amounts – not to mention the dodgy, melodramatic acting.

Most powerfully influential though, are surely his flat-out rejections of the mainstream – of gender norms and sexual politics – being one of the first filmmakers to eventually be celebrated by the mainstream who so proudly and brazenly celebrated gay and transgressive culture. Who can forget that scene in Female Trouble where Aunt Ida attempts to convince her nephew to “turn gay” because she’s worried that he’ll “work in an office, have children” and “celebrate wedding anniversaries”, before summing up with: “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life”.

The bravery of these statements in his films mustn’t be understated, especially when considering the era of their release – for instance, the sheer impudently bold image of recurring cast member (and Waters’ lifelong friend) Divine, a plus size drag queen often in skin tight body con and layers of thick make up – is one still jarring or threatening to a disconcerting amount of mainstream media, and the precious, right-wing public.

Even whilst promoting cult musical classic Hedwig And The Angry Inch (also being shown as part of this years Queerfest programme), John Cameron Mitchell faced objections from television executives from performing on Rosie O’Donnell’s chat show, and had his performance on the David Letterman Show edited so as not to reveal a finale of him ripping off his own wig, in an attempt to convince the audience that he “was a woman and not a man in drag”, and this ten years ago.

It is for these reasons Queerfest should be celebrated and packing out the screens by a varied and all-inclusive audience. In a time of deep economic crisis, and outdated social tensions still horrifically alive and well, what better way of keeping the day-to-day blues at bay than with a touch of camp or frivolity.

After all, if you can’t take a second out of the horrors of everyday life to enjoy the tragically ludicrous and the ludicrously tragic, then you’re in danger of living a ‘sick and boring life’ – and what would Aunt Ida say to that?

Amy Roberts

Queerfest begins at FACT on 14th February


Posted on 09/02/2012 by thedoublenegative