Baltimore filmmaker John Waters used to teach a film appreciation class at the City Jail. He would tell students that instead of committing new crimes when they got out they should take up an art form, such as writing outrageous poems or painting violent pictures.
"I'd say, 'these films are my crimes, only I get paid for them,'" laughs Waters at one revealing point in a cable documentary program making its U.S. premiere tonight.
It may be a dubious honor, but Waters gets the first spot in "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" (at 11 p.m. on basic cable's The Discovery Channel), a strangely engaging 12-part British documentary series produced in 1988.
In each installment, English talk-show host Jonathan Ross profiles the work of what he calls "the wildest and weirdest film directors of low-budget cinema." Among those to come in future shows are George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead"), Sam Raimi ("Darkman") and Ed Wood (the legendary "Plan Nine from Outer Space," held by many as the worst sci-fi movie ever).
Tonight's premiere opens with Ross standing in front of The Senator theater at the 1988 premiere of Waters' "Hairspray." We see Waters and the hefty transvestite actor Divine, who starred in most of Waters' movies and died shortly after the release of "Hairspray."
But soon, in conventional chronological documentary style, the show takes up Waters' work from its beginnings 20 years earlier. In addition to Waters, we hear from Waters' longtime collaborators such as Divine, Mary Vivian Pearce, Pat Moran and Mink Stole.
"I knew nothing about movies. I just wanted to make 'em," says Waters in an interview.
"Mondo Trasho" was the first production of his Dreamland Pictures, a spoof of the Italian "Mondo Cane" which spawned the word "shockumentary." Interviewer Ross remarks that for a late 1960s film, "it's remarkably unhippie-like."
"I hated all that love crap," replies Waters cheerfully, claiming he and his cinematic colleagues embodied the punk approach to life long before anybody coined that term.
Through looks at "Multiple Maniacs" (with its traveling freak show, "The Cavalcade of Perversion"), "Love Letter to Edie" (a ZTC tribute to the late Waters' actress Edith Massey) and the breakthrough "Pink Flamingos," it is easy to see the truth of Waters' contention that "we were just having fun."
While his movies may have shocked many viewers, he says he meant no harm.
"To be shocked makes me laugh," he says.
Perhaps it is Ross' accent, but the "Pink Flamingos" sequence, particularly, seems almost a skit from "Monty Python's Flying Circus," as the host talks seriously about that movie's most famous scene, in which Divine consumes dog excrement.
But Waters says, "it was a very commercial idea," because everybody talked about it. "Word of mouth is what sells a movie, the only thing you can't buy," he says shrewdly.
Although moving into the commercial mainstream with "Polyester" and "Hairspray" (plus last year's "Cry Baby," made after the interviews in this show), Waters notes that, "everything from my childhood is exaggerated in all my films," and concludes, "all my films are about underdogs who win."
If winning means having some fun, shocking some sensibilities and finally being taken seriously, Waters' inclusion on "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" seems to qualify.
DOIN' THE LINDY -- A breathless voice intones, "Here are youth the grip of a mass-dancing hysteria," and you expect to see slam-dancers bouncing off each other, or at least break dancers on their backs doing the helicopter. But no, it's just people in the '30s doing the jitterbug.
But what a dance they do!
In a special edition to mark February's annual designation as Black History Month, the series "National Geographic Explorer" offers this weekend an exuberant tribute to the roots of both those more modern dance mutations. "Jitterbug!" can be seen at 9 p.m. on the basic cable TBS network (with repeats Feb. 4 and 9).
Far from the staid two-step younger viewers might imagine when they hear the term, the Jitterbug -- or Lindy Hop or Jive -- was at its greatest development a swinging gymnastic form whose leading dancers, such as Frank Manning and Norma Miller, did moves they called "aerials" or "airsteps."
Born in black nightclubs such as Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and '30s, the dance form entered the white mainstream and hit its heights in Hollywood in the film "Hellzapoppin'" before World War II ushered in the decline of the swing era.
Both Manning and Miller offer their recollections of the era in "Jitterbug!" and are also seen helping a modern English dance troop that is re-creating the lively dance one young performer describes as "instant joy!"