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Who Wants to Die for Art!?!: Reflections on a Meta-Film Sub-Genre: Part VII
𝘍𝘦𝘮𝘢𝘭𝘦 𝘛𝘳𝘰𝘶𝘣𝘭𝘦 and the Artistic Apotheosis of Crime
Dawn Davenport [performing onstage, gun in hand]: Thank you! I love you! Thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart! You came here for some excitement tonight and that’s just what you're going to get! Take a good look at ME because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow! You’re looking at crime personified AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot-line on Abby Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck! And I’m so fuckin’ beautiful I can’t stand it myself! [She shoots the gun into the air] Now, everybody freeze! Who wants to be famous? Who wants to DIE for art?!
Audience member [standing up]: I do!
[Dawn shoots and kills him]
Hiya, kids. Been a while. In fact, Part VI of this series was published almost half a year ago. And wouldn’t ya know it, between that time and now, Alan Arkin, the director of the film (Little Murders, 1971) that was the subject of that last installment, passed away, just as Jean-Luc Godard met his maker shortly after the publication of the installment on Pierrot le Fou (1965).
So that’s troubling. But I was even more troubled by the lack of attention various Arkin obituaries gave to Little Murders, a far more incisive and subversive film than the brighter (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006), goofier (The In-Laws, 1979) comedies for which the actor is and will most likely continue to be remembered — which just goes to show the unrelenting ability of middlebrow entertainment to steal the spotlight from its more abrasive and confrontational brethren.
I should make clear that I was troubled but not at all surprised by the scant mentions of Little Murders in overviews of Arkin’s storied career. I’m too realistic to feign shock that the American public tends to gravitate toward formula and escapist fantasy in its artistic choices, and I’m too disillusioned to find the reasons behind these choices (especially the tired chestnut that art should provide safety, security, and familiarity for viewers who feel confused by an uncertain, tumultuous world) interesting from even a sociological perspective.
But once again recognizing and accepting the marginal status of an odd duck like Little Murders got me thinking about the persistent “difficulty” of dark satires for the average filmgoer. Every once in a while such a project will speak to its moment in a way that earnestly optimistic ones cannot: see Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) or, more recently, Don’t Look Up (2021). But far more often than not, the dark satire is bound for relative obscurity by the very nature of its motives, which are to unsettle, offend, and disturb. I could be wrong, but at this point I believe I know the American public well enough to confidently assume that the vast majority possess no desire to experience these states when watching a film.
It’s worth noting, however, that Little Murders was released during the heyday of the dark satire, the 1970s. Yes, there was a period when the dark satire yielded substantial cultural clout: this was a time when A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) triumphed in the mainstream, a time when Robert Altman was not only the industry’s most daring director but also a consistently successful one at the box office. And not coincidentally, during this era a very singular subset of dark satire was developing in power and intensity, ascending to notoriety on the wings of the culture’s newfound reverence for the irreverent. It was the camp film, arguably the most influential subgenre to emerge from the American underground cinema.
Susan Sontag had celebrated and categorized camp in her seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” published in 1964 — the same year as the release of Strangelove, a film that Sontag questioned for its immediate domestication through trendy nihilism. “For,” she wrote, “nihilism is [our] contemporary form of moral uplift.” Sontag had no idea what was just around the corner. An argument can be made — and indeed, Sontag made it — that Strangelove revels in the very apocalypse its political and militaristic targets of ridicule enact via technocratic fascism, but the film also expresses a fairly straightforward anti-authoritarian, anti-war ethos that its “nihilism” communicates through “laugh to avoid crying” farce. In the end, Strangelove marked only the first swelling of a wave of films rising up against sanctimonious, chest-thumping messaging. Call that wave nihilistic, but at the crest of that wave was camp, and at the crest of the crest was John Waters.
Waters is a unique figure in American cinema. He hasn’t directed a film in almost two decades, and popular opinion is that he hasn’t made a good one in three, but in the meantime he has metamorphosed from “The Pope of Trash” to a cuddly, embraceable icon of maverick filmmaking and sexual outsiderness — at this point he’s probably better known to, and loved by, his fellow countrymen as the celebrity auteur behind the Broadway adaptation of Hairspray and as one of the best guest stars in the history of The Simpsons (as John, the gay owner of a tacky memorabilia store and, due to his unrepentant queerness, Homer’s bête noire). Yet while Waters himself has become respectable, the work upon which he built his name has not. Pink Flamingos (1972), his most infamous film, offers those in the know a conveniently recognizable title when discussing the most outré reaches of camp, but an audience has yet to develop for scuzzy, low-budget schlockers like Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), and almost all of his other early efforts. And that’s because — surprise, surprise — Waters made extremely dark satires, much darker and much more pointed in their criticism than their campy reputations would have the casual viewer believe they are.
Sontag defined camp as a fondness for and reenactment of the blatantly absurd, artificial, and histrionic aspects of popular culture, the material that the collective unconsciousness of a society has accidentally expressed with too much gusto and too little judgment. Such a definition certainly covers wide swaths of Waters’s modus operandi, but it doesn’t quite cover all of it. And that’s because Waters is as much concerned with the Real as he is with the Fake, a concern that speaks to his understanding of the thin line between camp and kitsch, the latter an artlessly authentic version of the “so bad it’s good” aesthetic toward which the former strives with knowing self-awareness. Waters’s own self-awareness has allowed him to recognize his limitations — for example, he could never produce pure kitsch along the lines of the movies he most admires, like Joseph Losey’s 1968 Boom!, an unintentional disaster that Waters has accurately described as “the other side of camp.” In light of this limitation — the inability to create the sincerely awful — Waters has thus thrown his hat in with the Real, the creation of the awful sincere.
The most notorious moment of his entire filmography comes at the end of Pink Flamingos, when Divine picks up from the pavement and then devours a real, actual piece of dog excrement. So legendary is this moment of unadulterated repugnancy that people often forget that it serves as the logical conclusion to the film’s narrative and thematic trajectory, in which two couples vie for the crown of “The Filthiest Person Alive.” In competing for that dubious honor, the couples commit acts of murder, abduction, rape, bestiality, cannibalism, torture, arson, exhibitionism, and castration, among other horrors. Yet Waters wasn’t content with mere representation — he had to have his film ascend to the realm of “Filthiest Movie Alive” by including in it an act that moved his story from fiction to documentary and thus from silly camp to visceral sensation. (Of all the other titles so far covered by “Who Wants to Die for Art” only Godard’s Pierrot blurs the lines between artifice and reality in the very act of its making, most notably in the wonderful scene in which the film’s lead actors drive a real car into a real sea.)
Perhaps because he realized Pink Flamingos’s coup de grace was untoppable, and perhaps because he realized that wilder explorations of the Real through the creation of art might land him in prison, Waters’s follow-up to Flamingos, Female Trouble (1974), represents the pinnacle of his self-reflexive vision in its investigation of the motivations behind “artists gravitat[ing] toward madness and murder in order to break through the unsatisfying limits of … representation so as to discover and work within the Real.” That’s due to the fact that, as camp, Female Trouble possesses something the dark satire lacks: a disdain for the entire notion of artistry.
At the very end of my analysis of Little Murders I wrote that Arkin’s film (as written by Jules Fieffer) posits that “art — itself included — provides no sufficient response to chaos and barbarity, at least not in an America ruled by traumatic violence that is too communal to be held back or made sense of by individual, romantic creativity.” Yet I would also say that Little Murders is a fairly “respectable” artistic product: acerbic in its portrayal of a deteriorating society, the film nonetheless leaves room for the viewer to imagine the inverted image of such a society, the image of a peaceful world built upon the bonds of community and sustained, in part, by the individual’s ability to channel his or her creativity through art. In a sense, as comically despairing as a film like Little Murders is, it still retains a value system recognizable to most moral and ethical viewers. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s hopeful pronouncement for Despair (1978), one of his own dark satires, might equally apply to Little Murders: “Of this despair and the painful search for something in motion, and the courage to recognize a utopia and to open yourself up to it, however poor it may be — of these things I tell in this film.”
I’m not so sure Female Trouble contains even an inverted hope, a positive reflection that might be glimpsed within the depths of its brutally bleak depiction of the convergence of art and crime. In the film Divine plays Dawn Davenport, a woman who becomes so obsessed with achieving fame that she commits increasingly vicious atrocities that also lead her to create art of a terribly Real sort. On its surface, then, Female Trouble satirizes performance and other media artists of the mid-’70s (including Waters himself) who pursued provocative interactivity in order to dissolve the boundaries between safely “consumable” entertainment and dangerously unpredictable life. But beyond that, I think, the film makes a far more disturbing point.
For if the other films of the “artists gravitating toward madness and murder” sub-genre have its protagonists discover crime as the ultimate form of art, Female Trouble has its protagonist discover art as the ultimate form of crime — “Crime IS beauty” is the movie’s key line of dialogue. Dawn Davenport is barely an artist since she does little more than model for the Dashers (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce), a husband and wife team who take photographs of Davenport in lurid poses as she does her dirty work. But even before she meets the Dashers and becomes an “artist,” Davenport starts off as a bratty teen who beats her parents — later, as a single mother, she chains her daughter to a bed and supports herself by robbing houses. One could say that Davenport gravitates toward art as a way to justify her criminality, as opposed to the protagonists of the other films of this series (the gay lovers of Hitchcock’s Rope, for instance) who gravitate toward crime to justify their life of art.
What’s so disturbing about Female Trouble is that whereas other films depict their protagonists’ gravitations toward crime-as-art as involving a loss of morality, sanity, and self-hood (in most of these films the protagonists become possessed by mental illness and/or become alienated from society), Female Trouble portrays Dawn Davenport’s journey as an apotheosis of morality, sanity, and self-hood. It’s not that Davenport goes so far in her pursuit of art that she does something horrifically wrong like commit murder and etc., but that she goes so far in pursuit of crime that she does something right — she aestheticizes murder and etc. This is where the film’s campiness operates like a Trojan horse. Moving beyond dark satire, Female Trouble’s campiness allows low-budget aesthetics, defiant taste, and intentionally bad acting to deflate any pretensions it might possibly offer in the way of an “answer” to various social and cultural targets. Waters refuses to raise his work above the immorality, hypocrisy, and stupidity that he ridicules, so that the film never becomes the “reward” for all the nastiness to which it subjects its audience. More than that, Dawn’s monstrousness is unlike that of her fellow lunatics, who lose the ability to differentiate between wrong and right or the ability to know when they've gone too far in attempting to reach the creative illimitable. Dawn can tell the difference between wrong and right and knows when she’s gone too far — she just doesn’t give a damn if she’s chosen a path almost everyone else in the world would designate as utterly despicable.
It’s interesting to note that in the climactic scene of Female Trouble (part of which is quoted at length at the beginning of this article — one line of dialogue provides the title for this series), Dawn breaks through the campiness that her admirers employ to celebrate her misdeeds. At this point Dawn’s performative criminality collapses the distance between aestheticized and Real violence — a distance that we as viewers know cannot exist in the extreme case of someone as diabolical as herself, but one that the gullible masses within Female Trouble conveniently ignore. The film doesn’t end there, however. Dawn’s subsequent trial and execution reveal that she has been more stooge than mastermind — a pawn of the Dashers, for sure, but also a naive product of a culture that goaded her into perpetrating increasingly desperate acts in the name of reckless entertainment.
More than uncovering one of America’s ugliest truths, Female Trouble’s campy disregard for propriety revels in that ugly truth: that people who should be considered irredeemable criminals too often achieve a cult following among the public due to the sheer force of their charisma and outsized ambition, and that only photogenic appearances and a flair for the dramatic separates people like Charles Manson and his “family” (the film is dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson) from your run-of-the-mill psychopaths. What we’ve watched is just as disagreeable and unpleasant as Dawn herself, but the film’s campiness redeems Dawn in the same manner that the character’s fictional fans, the ones who are so stupid as to offer themselves as her sacrificial victims, redeem her.
That’s what makes Female Trouble, for all its campy “fun,” so uncomfortable and so — strange to say it — profound. The film’s larger points about art, crime, and our role as creators and consumers who use camp to aestheticize the most warped elements of their convergence comprise the heart of Waters’s lifelong obsessions (and even appear in auto-critique form in softer later films like Pecker  and Cecil B. Demented ), even as these obsessions have been repressed by a public that has instead chosen to valorize the man’s eccentric affability. But the repressed always returns, and it may be possible that reality has finally outpaced the hellish imaginings of The Pope of Trash.
Kitsch, not camp, is the direction toward which American society is increasingly heading: after all, only seven years ago the populace elected to its highest political office a career con man and criminal, largely (I suspect) in the name of entertainment value, and in a year or so it may even elect him for a second time. Indeed, there may come a day in the not-too-distant future when crime is not just aestheticized but also looked upon as the greatest resource of our values and principles — if it looks and sounds pleasing enough, of course.
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