More often than not, I’ve found that John Waters’ films exhibit an incredible energy and sensibility, but don’t necessarily come together as films. Of course, that’s part of their appeal – the sense that they need to be situated within a body of work that’s considerably more anarchic and peripatetic than a mere “filmography” – but it’s also hard not to escape the feeling that some of his releases might have been more fun to make than they are to actually watch. In the late 80s and early 90s, however, Waters hit a sweet spot where everything clicked, and during which – incredibly – he achieved a mainstream crossover appeal. From Hairspray to Serial Mom, it suddenly seemed as if the Duke of Disgust was capable of crafting films that were as tasteless and revolting as possible but somehow also amenable to wider Hollywood trends – or that were able to hide their tastelessness in plain sight and skewer Hollywood from the inside, rather than from the more remote distance of trash cinema. Coming at the peak of this newfound visibility, Cry-Baby is Waters working at the pinnacle of his talents as screenwriter, director and curator of grotesquerie, and in many ways it feels like both an irreverent and illuminating riff upon his body of work as a whole.
Like Hairspray, Cry-Baby is a period piece, although this time around we’re presented with an even more synthetic, hyped-up, oversugared version of mid-century Baltimore, a hallucinatory doo-wop cocktail that centres on a stand-off between the “squares,” purveyors of “beauty, brains, breeding and bounty,” and the “drapes,” purveyors of “vulgar jazz words.” That conflict is complicated, however, when Allison Vernon Williams (Amy Locane), the square princess, falls in love with Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), the leader of the drapes. Before the plot even begins, however, it’s clear that these two are destined for each other, since Locane and Depp are the only actors in this variegated cast who convey anything resembling regular facial expressions. In the opening sequence, Waters plays the credits over a school vaccination, convoluting each character’s face in turn, until it feels as if they’re being injected with something considerably more corrosive and trippy than a mere vaccine. For the remainder of the film virtually every face remains stuck in these writhing contortions, as if even the most minor characters are perpetually on the verge of reaching the most difficult part of a song, or the climax of a sexual experience. Only Allison and Cry-Baby are exempt, so incongruous that it often feels as if Waters is offering something of a parody of Depp’s eccentric pin-up persona that feels even fresher after all his subsequent collaborations with Tim Burton, as well as his role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Beyond that romance – and the friction it causes – Waters tends to aim for a cinema of revolting attractions rather than a particularly discernible narrative. At a time when nostalgia for the Eisenhower era was peaking, Cry-Baby celebrates the 50s as a celebration in bad taste and an opportunity for gross-out spectacle. Yet what makes Cry-Baby so powerful is that it simultaneously looks like a postcard-perfect ad for the 50s – it’s possibly Waters’ most beautiful film – suffused with allusions to classical Hollywood but also shot in the same heightened style and with the same ultra-cinematic address of other Baby Boomer nostalgia pieces that were garnering critical acclaim at the time. At moments, it is as if the 50s demographics that watched “tasteful” cinema and the 50s demographics that watched B-movies are being addressed in a single schizoid gesture, precluding any real nostalgia for the 50s as a unified era, as well as reminding Boomer nostalgists how much they might now have in common with the pre-war generations they initially defined themselves against (“God bless the juvenile justice system…God bless Dwight D. Eisenhower…God bless Richard Nixon”).
In the process, Waters perfectly pinpoints the inanity at the heart of so much tasteful 50s pastiche, if only by exposing how blithely these studied period pieces aimed to ignore or repress the inane energy that made the mythology of the 50s so galvanising to the Baby Boomer generation in the first place. At times that gesture almost reminded me of the way in which the Naked Gun franchise poked fun at the self-seriousness of 40s noir (or, rather, of 80s appropriations and pastiche of 40s noir), even if Waters’ vision obviously goes light years beyond anything the Zuckers ever committed to the big screen. Rather than offering up an “alternative” version of the 50s, then, Waters simply refuses to repress the raw, anarchic, antisocial edge of the decade, or to subsume it into nostalgia, resulting less in a return of the repressed than the continuation of a joy and anarchic abandon that this particular director never repressed in the first place. For all that the Eisenhower era may have been used as a way of validating suburban Baby Boomers in the 90s, it’s also abundantly clear from Cry-Baby that the 50s subculture that had become so enshrined and hallowed some forty years later was largely driven by white trash – people who would never have stood a chance in suburbia – with much of the action revolving around Turkey Point, the “redneck riviera,” of Baltimore, where po-faced mid-century idealism is brought up against the scuzziest, grottiest tastemakers you can imagine.
Speaking of taste, Cry-Baby is also profoundly sceptical about the way in which 50s nostalgia extracted and enshrined the era’s music from its original context, with the rendition of “Mr. Sandman” in the closing scenes already seeming to contain its subsequent appropriation in John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise. To that end, and as in Hairspray, Waters doesn’t quite opt for the diegetic immersion of a musical or the non-diegetic curation of a soundtrack, but instead simply presents music as a periodic concentration and consolidation of anarchic, inane energy. Even the most distinctive performances are simply local manifestations of an insatiable rhythm and melody that is always rippling back and forth amongst the drapes, not unlike the rock and roll riffs that pulse in and out of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s earliest neorealist mise-en-scenes. In that sense, the music scenes are not unlike the fight scenes – fighting and playing music are more or less synonymous – allowing Waters to build an incredibly dynamic sense of milieu and mise-en-scene that comes close to topping everything else in his directorial career. In these scenes, in particular, the facial expressions are incredible – they really need to be seen to be believed – making you realise what a limited spectrum of facial musculature we usually see on the big screen, especially once Waters throw more lavish facial gestures, such as crying and french kissing, into the mix.
The music is not just omnipresent, however, but drawn from virtually every 50s style, and the same goes for the film itself, which conflates every major 50s genre – teen films, prison films, suburban melodrama, soap opera, monster movie, political thriller, science fiction, late noir – into a schizoid and incongruous whole. By the third act, the action simply coasts on pure anarchy and inane momentum, with one dissonant set piece after another, as Waters amps up the crazy sense of spectacle into one final, splendid incommensurability that splinters even the most residual notion of this being a nostalgically amenable period. During this part of the film, you can really feel how much fun it must have been to make, since it’s also at this point that Cry-Baby expands to something beyond a film – a more profoundly participatory experience of which the film itself is merely one component. Beyond a certain point, it’s indiscernible whether the actors are “acting” or just having fun, which is perhaps why the sense of fun is itself so immediate, visceral and contagious, as Waters’ moves the action to Enchanted Forest – the first theme park in Maryland – to offer his own series of inane rides, spectacles and attractions inspired by his decade of choice.
Not surprisingly, it’s also at this point that you really feel the fully heterogeneity of the cast, which ranges from exquisitely curated classical Hollywood actors (Polly Bergen) to underground cinema icons (Susan Tyrell, Joe Dallesandro) to up-and-coming stars (Amy Locane, Johnny Depp), to contemporary arthouse icons (Willem Dafoe) to actual musicians (Iggy Pop). Beyond these, however, there are a series of figures who are even further out on the fringe of cinematic celebrity, including Ricki Lake, soon to be a talk show host, Traci Lords, two years after quitting adult cinema and, most astonishingly, Patricia Hearst, in the first of many film roles she would play for John Waters, cast here in a kind of irreverent riposte to Paul Schrader’s biopic, released two years before. This was the strangest and most compelling fact of the film for me, since I found myself half-recognising Hearst from the outset, and immediately drawn to her onscreen manner. Even in her few brief appearances, she encapsulates the brainwashed, perky oblivion of most of the adults in the film, and exudes an utterly magnetic sense of being abstracted to some other time and place, so it was quite extraordinary to find out that I was starting at the aftermath of the Symbionese Liberation Army, somehow already contained and co-opted by Waters’ vision of the 50s here.
Above and beyond their affiliations, however, everyone in the film is so performative that this is effectively a queer cast – or the closest Waters could get to a queer cast in Hollywood in the early 90s – and if their manifold backgrounds converge around any one period, it’s post-classical Hollywood, the time between the decline of studio tastefulness and New Hollywood tastefulness that would prove so fertile for subsequent queer appropriation. At the same time, however, Waters’ 50s are already full of sly homoerotic moments, and not simply in a revisionist spirit but in a wonderfully frank tribute to how much homoerotic pleasure even or especially the most strait-laced and cleancut 50s spectacles could provide to those who knew how and where to look. In Waters’ universe, at least, there is no repressive hypothesis – looking back on the 50s is an unfettered joy, since the 50s here aren’t some lost object or missed opportunity but a guide to experiencing jouissance, a guide that Waters’ has used in actually making his film and communing with his cast. In other words, Cry-Baby is irreverent enough about the 50s to feel like a film that could – or should – have been made in the 50s, brimming with a lust for life and will to pleasure that still burns a quarter-century later as one of Waters’ most accomplished and generous gestures.