Friday, May 14, 2004


I watched this one in thinking about my PDE/dissertation. Between Three Amigos and this one, I feel like I have actually come upon some good ideas about where I'm going in writing about place and humor.

Crybaby really isn't one of my favorite of John Waters's films. In fact, it marked the beginning of his selling out. I don't really fault him for selling out; he had to if he wanted a budget and an audience for his films. But I'm partial to the really gross older ones like Pink Flamingoes and Desperate Living. Crybaby, though, is interesting because it's sort of a bridge between the earlier gross films like Female Trouble and the more polished mainstream films, like Serial Mom. In Crybaby, Waters has moved from using all freak actors to having some more widely appealing ones, like Johnny Depp as Crybaby himself, and Amy Locane as Alison. But he hasn't graduated yet from the freakish characters, like Kim McGuire as Hatchet-Face/Mona. So Crybaby to me marks Waters's transition from filth-filmmaker to a more mainstream guy; I think that Crybaby demonstrates that the transition was an unconscious one, since he seems to have used Hatchet-Face, who would have been an appropriate character for earlier films like Polyester or Desperate Living, alongside these newly cast characters who represent his more mainstream creative impulses.

Now, that said, I suppose I have to concede that representative of Waters's mainstream (later) creative work is Serial Mom, in which a suburban mother kills people who make her angry (including a wonderful scene where she runs over a high-school teacher in her mini-van several times and after which the words "pussy willow" will never be the same to the viewer); another representative mainstream work is Pecker, the sheer genius of which, I believe, lies in the title, which was officially John Waters's Pecker, meaning that he got everyone in America (who went to his movie, at least) to say "John Waters's Pecker" out loud. One of the structural elements in the plot of Pecker is the male strip-tease dancer's practice called tea-bagging. You'll have to look that one up on the Internet if you don't know what it means. Anyway, I'm explaining this by way of admitting that even John Waters's mainstream films are hardly mainstream.

So Crybaby is interesting because of where it fits within the Waters filmography. But looking at the elements of humor and place in Crybaby can be interesting too. I hadn't thought that much before about the important role struggles around class play in Waters's films until I read a journal article where the writer compared the storyline of Hairspray with some actual racial issues that happened in Baltimore at the time, commenting on the important role class played in the film. I don't have citation information on that (though I know I should), but that writer deserves credit for pointing me in the right direction. Class is at the very center of what happens in Crybaby.

The plot goes like this: The preppy/cheerleader/jock set hates the stoner/biker/redneck set, but the prettiest cheerleader girl, Alison, falls for Crybaby, who is nothing but trouble. That's a pretty universal plotline for a romantic comedy, not so far, in fact, from its comedy cousin, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe a little closer to this story would be Grease, particularly in the way Alison's character is "trashed up" to please her trashy man. The class differences are fairly universal for most of the film. However, the part that interested me was where we see Pepper (played by Ricki Lake) have her baby shower in her aunt and uncle's basement. Up until that time, they could
have been any trash anywhere, but here they are securely located as Southern White Trash, in the decor of the trailer, the gifts, the toothless expressions, and the speech. Just for example, the baby crib she receives has a rebel flag pillow. I think these scenes where the characters are identified so strongly as Southern Maryland poor people are funnier than most others precisely because the details are so correct.

The scene has total authenticity and we laugh at what we recognize, and then when it has been authenticated, we get a laugh at the incongruity, because of course, no one would try on purpose to be like these poor white trash folk, but Alison here does (even, unbelievably, with her snooty grandmother's support in the end). So for these reasons, I think Crybaby is actually a pretty interesting film. It's evidence of a change in Waters's writing style, and it demonstrates how the humor works best when elements of place are used most accurately.

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