I was going to do a little review of Kitten With a Whip (1964), which I saw John Waters introduce last week at Anthology Film Archives for their 40th anniversary, but seeing as not only L Magazine but also Interview and Slant have done detailed writeups (two with interviews, one with on-site reportage), there's not a whole lot left to say--particularly as Waters repeats almost all his talking points from one writer to the next. I had no idea it would be so popular, but then again, John Waters is the kind of person with such a devoted following that even his slightest public appearances are newsworthy. So that takes some of the fun out of blogging. But, you know, commitments! etc. I'll sum it up in a few lines: Ann-Margret, a violent runaway from juvenile hall, breaks into the home of John Forsythe, a rising politician, in an attempt to hide from the police. A married man whose wife is out of town, Forsythe is eager to usher the bipolar jailbird out of his posh dwelling. Rather than brave the wilds of San Diego, she threatens him with rape claims to ruin his marriage and career, and for the next 24 hours terrorizes the bumbling politician (gratuitous scratch marks abound), eventually calling her three Beatnik friends over for a party and a disastrous trip to Mexico--a Tijuana roughly the size of a Universal backlot, and a climactic scene which, incidentally, is actually filmed in the old Bates Motel. (The user-submitted IMDB synopsis, with its random capitalizations of words like COPS, MATRON, and BACKERS, is kind of a brilliant piece in its own right.)
One line that stuck with me from Waters' intro: "Kitten With a Whip is like Douglas Sirk without the direction." And there are many things to confirm the Pope of Trash's assessment that this film isn't self-conscious camp, it's "a failed art film"--particularly in its first half, with all those gloomy 360 degree pans around John Forsythe's home and the deadpan zoom into the crazed eyes of a stuffed animal. Or--an audience favorite--one of Ann-Margret's demented harangues framed against a Tex Avery-like cartoon on a television set. There's a quintessential post-party scene that feels lifted from vintage Antonioni or Fellini, with youthful hipsters sprawled out on couch and floor, drinking and smoking while fondling an older man's records. You can see director/screenwriter Douglas Heyes trying so hard to craft Art from this material, patting himself on the back with every compositional trick deployed, but really only ending up with a variant of Beat Girl six years too late. Indeed, Waters attributes this film's total commercial failure to its obsession with outdated Beatnik slang, cynicism and stereotypes in a new era of hippies and free love. I know Waters didn't want us to laugh at this film ("I'm not showing this in any way to laugh at it"), but based on the audience's reaction Friday night, I'd say that aspect of promoting Kitten With a Whip was a total failure. On its own, Kitten With a Whip is a fun movie to see, full of lingo like "Everything's so creamy," "What a brainburger," and "I feel so shiny good about you," which one may feel tempted to add to his/her own everyday stock of phrases. But it's particularly interesting in a Waters context, and hearing the director warmly reminisce about how he saw this film on LSD with Divine when they were still kids, how he took Divine to Ingmar Bergman films when all Divine really wanted was more Liz Taylor, how Divine loved bad girls and Ann-Marget was nothing if not a bad girl... that alone should induce the wary viewer to give the film a chance. And though we may laugh at all of those things in Female Trouble, they certainly don't preclude our respect.