“John Waters’s Effluvic Cinema: Cult, Community, Laughter”
The Working Papers Series:
This talk was part of the Archive/Counter-Archive Working Papers Series, which brings together PhD students from different Universities to hear about exciting doctoral research in the area of archival studies. Our second speaker of this term was Kate J. Russell, who is a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. Kate's talk was followed by a Q&A with the audience, moderated by our student organizers, Emily Barton and Elisa Arca Jarque.
John Waters refers to his early films (1969-1977) as “celluloid atrocities” because of their transgressive comedy that adopts a staunchly anti-normative position. But despite, or perhaps because of, the antisocial subject matter of these films, they fomented a sense of community amongst spectators bonded through the lure of the unconventional, and through an abject laughter. For Waters, visceral reactions in a theatrical setting are the ideal form of reception, to the extent that he has famously claimed, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation” (Shock Value, 2). Waters’s early films aim for such uncontrollable ruptures of the body, through laughter and retches, that constitute an “effluvic cinema.”
This “effluvic cinema” is conceptualized through bodily rupture both on and off screen, drawing upon archival sources and putting them into conversation with theories of laughter and abjection. Mining primary sources for descriptions of audience response and affect, for traces of laughter, riotous responses, and camaraderie in contemporaneous reviews and articles, this project historicizes the experiential dimension of these screenings, building a picture of the community that coalesced around these texts. In this talk, I will present work completed using the John Waters Collection, housed at the Reid Cinema Archives in Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, focussing on archival materials that evidence the formation of Waters’s approach to cult cinema, community, and spectatorship. Central to this project are Waters’s scrapbooks in which he collected ephemera that piqued his interest, and amongst their pages, a vivid contellations of Waters’s main preoccupations emerges through heterogenous materials and jarring juxtapositions of pictures of friends alongside murderous cults. The dissertation positions Waters as someone who curates a community of outsiders who are in on the gag, in the sense of both a joke and a retch, a community that is illuminated in the archive’s ephemera.
Kate J. Russell is a PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, where she also completed her Masters in Cinema Studies. Her SSHRC-funded dissertation project focuses on John Waters and the comedic potential of cult spectatorship. Her interests more broadly include gross-out comedy, cult cinema, abjection, and material feminisms. Her essay “The Cinematic Pandemonium of William Castle and John Waters” appears in ReFocus: The Films of William Castle (University of Edinburgh Press, 2018). She currently serves as co-chair for the Toronto Film and Media Seminar.
Archive/Counter-Archive is a SSHRC project dedicated to activating and remediating audiovisual archives created by Indigenous Peoples (First Nations, Métis, Inuit), the Black community and People of Colour, women, LGBT2Q+ and immigrant communities. With 60+ participants, Archive/Counter-Archive looks to address how political, resistant, and community-based counter-archives disrupt conventional narratives and enrich our histories. www.counterarchive.ca