Divine Trash

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Steve Yeager

REVIEWED: 03-16-98

Twenty-five years have passed since John Waters gathered his merry band of Baltimore friends and filmed Pink Flamingos, the outre comic melodrama about the filthiest people alive (with its gross pinnacle being the ingestion of a live dog turd by the 300-pound, drag queen/star Divine). The hilarious and notorious film went on to become a midnight bonanza, a cult classic which stands as one of the watershed movies in the canon of American alternative cinema. Divine Trash documents not only the filming of Pink Flamingos but also the interdependent evolution of the careers of John Waters and Divine, and furthermore provides some context by which to understand these cultural phenomena as subsets within the colorful history of independent filmmaking.

Steve Yeager, the director of Divine Trash, is uniquely positioned to document the whole phenomenon. He was there at the beginning, back before Baltimore could boast its milieu as the filmmaking petri dish for such original and geographically devoted homeboys as John Waters and Barry Levinson. Yeager, who still lives in Baltimore, where he teaches and continues to work in film says, "John and I have been friends for 30-some years. I play a role of a reporter in Pink Flamingos. That's why I was around all the times that I was, participated in the rehearsal process, and really knew what was going on with John and his people. John and I met at a hippie bar [described in Divine Trash as Baltimore's decades-old beacon for weirdos, beatniks, and heads]; we were buying dope from the same dealer."

Indeed, Divine Trash reveals to us the young, long-haired John Waters, well before he morphed into a dapper icon of weirdo cinema on late-night TV talk shows. Through on-camera interviews with Waters, various of his filmmaking cohorts, and knowledgeable commentators, we come to understand the formative elements that shaped the director's career. We learn such things as how Waters was obsessed with filmmaking since he received his first camera at the age of 16; how as a toddler he cajoled his parents into taking him to junkyards to ogle mangled car wrecks; how as a teenager he sat on a high hill by his house and watched gory Herschell Gordon Lewis movies at the drive-in through binoculars; and how as a young adult he'd drop speed and take the train up to New York to watch three films a day. "I think John knew what he wanted to be when he was 12 years old," comments Yeager. "How incredible is that?"

The influences on Waters' filmmaking are many - he absorbed everything from classic European art films to Hollywood studio productions, New York underground movies to grindhouse quickies. His shrewd marketing sensibilities were honed early on, as was his habit of working continually with the same cluster of friends and associates. Chief among them was Divine, aka Glenn Milstead, who is now deceased. Yeager clearly sees the film as "an homage to Divine. I knew Glenn very well. He was a terrific character actor, and he would, as evidenced in John's films, jump in a freezing river and try to swim it. Divine would do anything for John because he believed in him."

Insight is provided by such diverse interviewees as Waters' parents (who provided Yeager with fascinating home movie relics, saying "Here, don't tell John"); underground film stalwarts Jonas Mekas, George and Mike Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs; above-ground fringe filmmakers Paul Morrissey, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Jim Jarmusch, and Steve Buscemi; Waters associates Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pierce; and indie film observers John Pierson and J. Hoberman.

Divine Trash was awarded the documentary Filmmakers Trophy at January's Sundance Film Festival. It's the award chosen by other directors, a testament to Divine Trash's ability to ignite a passionate contagion for the practice of independent filmmaking.

--Marjorie Baumgarten

Capsule Reviews
Divine Trash

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