John Waters, the filmmaker, raconteur, author, “Pope of Trash,” and gentleman of the world, is bringing his one-man show, This Filthy World, to Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse on Saturday. Salty Eggs is co-sponsoring the appearance, along with Radio-Active Records, Cinema Paradiso, FLIFF, and Strong Reaction Booking. Our all-purpose editorialist, Brandon K. Thorp, spoke with Mr. Waters last week.
John Waters: In the very beginning, it was just Divine and I, traveling in a car with the prints. We’d go to some town where there had just been a riot in the ’60s, and rent a midnight show in whichever movie theater showed the weirdest stuff and was privately owned. I’d show the movie, get the money, and move on to the next town …
John Waters, filmmaker and renaissance man, looks like a happy traveling Bible salesman, or else like somebody’s fiddly uncle. He has always looked that way, as he should. Waters really has come to share the Word. (Not God’s, though Waters’s message does touch on the Divine.) And he really does mean to seduce your children.
I was a child once, and I was seduced. It was Pink Flamingos that did it, on a stoned and solitary afternoon in the days before I had chest hair or prospects. I was a newly-gay little malchik trying to grok the social universe and my place in it, and I was confronted suddenly with this terrible spectacle on the television — the fat drag queen and her dark dimestore glamour, the washed out colors, the unmentionable acts involving dogshit and live chickens — and I rewound, rewatched, rewound, rewatched. I hated it. I loved it. I didn’t know what to think.
If you haven’t seen Pink Flamingos, if you are ignorant of John Waters’s oeuvre, then you must cease reading after this paragraph. Move along, and preserve this bit of advice: On some night when there’s no one to see, no family at home, and you know the phone will not ring and that your friends aren’t thinking of you — some night when your apartment is full of the melancholic blue funk that is not quite loneliness and not quite depression, but is a close cousin of both — and when you have spent too much time thinking about yourself, about all your dark little thoughts that, if you confessed them, would drive your so-called friends from your company forever — on a night when you feel like a monster in human skin, and you are morally certain that whatever you touch is corrupted: on such a night, if you don’t already own it, find a website that streams Pink Flamingos and watch it, beginning to end, with no interruptions, save occasional pauses to pour chardonnay.
Do this and you shall feel renewed, reborn, freshly clean, and un-alone. Or you may feel disgusted, in which case: Rejoice! You were normal all along and you’ve got nothing to worry about, save the fact that you’re an unimaginative bore.
John Waters: I live a lot of my life on the road. I’ve been at this 40 years … The original act, I’d come out dressed kind of like a hippie pimp — kind of how I looked in Shock Value, the book — and then I’d talk about nudist camp movies, and all sorts of movies that no one ever discussed then. Divine would come out, and I’d introduce [him as] the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and Divine would … do the act, kind of like he did in Female Trouble, though without the trampoline … All the years I’ve done this, I’m always trying to do the same thing. I’m trying to make you laugh at your inability to … understand extreme behaviors in other people. I expect you to look up to the subject matter that I’m talking about. I’m never condescending. I’m never asking you to make fun of people. I’m asking you to come into a secret world that I’d like to take you to.
When John Waters assumes the stage at Parker Playhouse, he shall endeavor to sell you an aesthetic. Although his show costs money, the aesthetic is almost free. Waters’s renumeration is your time and tolerance.
The aesthetic involves, among other things, weird hair, rock and roll, high art, low brows, jukeboxes, fake blood, fake violence, fake cruelty, fake tits, real tits, good humor, fun, friendship, freedom, industrial quantities of makeup, explosives, costume jewelry, guns, grossness, longing, the desire for beauty, the reality of ugliness, the human mind’s capacity to turn the one into the other — and its meaning is diffuse, hiding in winks on the screen, jokes on the stage. John Waters has been trying to explain himself in movies for almost half a century, and he’s not done yet.
It is difficult to summarize Waters’s career, because to write “In such-and-such a year Waters released such-and-such a movie” doesn’t tell you anything. James Cameron releases movies. What Waters did in the ’60s and ’70s was qualitatively different. There was no brilliant script discovered by a studio exec and handed off to a director and disseminated to stars and starlets. Rather, there was an idea in John Waters’s head, discussed and giggled over by his misfit friends in Baltimore, and there was a camera, and sometimes money for props and tape. Movies eventuated, half as ends unto themselves, half as a byproduct of these odd people sharing fun and fellowship. Punk wasn’t quite a thing yet, but Waters’s early films may be safely described as punk as shit.
Pink Flamingos wasn’t Waters’s first film, but it was his first famous one. It was chased into the world by Female Trouble, which featured Divine as an artist and hooker who, among other things, murders her daughter, amputates a woman’s hand, shoots a pistol into a crowd, and dies for our sins. In 1977, Desperate Living showed us a depraved queen’s lackey dying of a gunshot wound to the anus, and the queen herself roasting on a spit. Waters’s films became less violent after that, and less inscrutable, though they did not become less weird. Polyester, released in 1981, featured honest-to-goodness political commentary, along with sex and drag, and took as its theme a town’s feelings about porn. (The film contained a plain anti-censorship message; one which was repeated more hilariously two decades later in Cecil B. DeMented, starring Melanie Griffith.) Hairspray, from 1988, has been described as an accidental family film, which it is. My grandparents showed it to me when I was 8. It’s about a fat girl who becomes a famous dancer and integrates 1960s Baltimore.
John Waters: In Pink Flamingos, these people are living in peace … Divine’s character, the protagonists — they’re good people. Their values, in the twisted universe where the movie takes place, are the right values. If you took the sex out of Pink Flamingos, I actually think it could make a very good children’s book. Look at the children’s bestseller lists — there are all these books that are basically contests of grossness. So I’m really pushing — I want Pink Flamingos animated, turned into a children’s show, and put on basic cable on Saturday mornings.
That’s what John Waters said when I suggested that his work, even at its dirtiest, is essentially very moral. I think it is, and I think that’s its appeal. Let’s be honest: Why else would people watch it so enthusiastically? For the first half of Waters’s career, the plots of his movies were skeletal, sometimes dadaist — effect did not necessarily follow cause in Watersworld. And you couldn’t call the scenery in Watersworld “attractive,” at least not in any conventional sense. (By Hairspray, Waters had enough money and cinematographic know-how to shoot scenes of extraordinary conventional beauty, and often did.) And the acting in Watersworld, though uniformly excellent, has often been deployed in the service of characters to whom even very strange people have difficulty relating. And those early films haven’t traded all these years on their shock value. Shock, trash — the vicious, happy high that results from watching a man in a dress eat a turd on the road, has a surprisingly limited shelf-life. See one man eat a turd, and you’ve seen all men eat turds.
And so, in explaining the enduring popularity of bad old Watersworld, we are left with this: The liberating realization that a few kids, growing up in 1960s Baltimore and finding themselves criminally out of touch with society’s prevailing moral sentiments — Waters, Divine, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, others — somehow found each other. They offered each other permission to indulge their craziest fantasies in the safe and circumscribed world of art. They had the cojones to record those indulgences for posterity, and they possessed sufficient generosity of spirit to let the rest of us see them, and judge. And because they did that, censored and socialized human freaks can put on these movies, watch, and say: Holy fuck! I’m not alone!
Making people unalone is one of the most moral things a person can do.
John Waters: I think I’m mentally healthy. I think I’m a well-adjusted neurotic. I’m trying to pass that along to my fellow neurotics who come to see me … My core audience has always been minorities who don’t fit into their own minorities. I mean, gay people have always been there for me, but they’re the gay people who get in trouble. And then bikers have always been my audience. I have a blue-collar audience, too — and then, my movies always do best in the richest, smartest neighborhoods. So my audience is mixed … The one thing they have in common is that they were at some time angry in their life, and rebelled against society, but had a sense of humor about it. And I think they all figured out a way, or are trying to figure out a way, to be happy in whatever alternative life they’ve decided to pick — even if that’s being a Republican. Because, look, what’s an outsider in my crowd today? Republicans. They’re the ones that are outsiders. So I try to be inclusive of everyone, even if I don’t agree with their politics. I learned a long time ago that you’ve gotta make them laugh if they’re ever gonna change their minds.
I wrote earlier that you ought to stop reading if you’re a Waters virgin. Maybe you did. If you didn’t, then try to listen this time: It will probably be worth your while to come see this thing on Saturday. John Waters is, aside from a uniquely talented filmmaker with a head full of smarts and freedom, a very fine raconteur. He talks clearly and quickly; providing a breezy, 70-minute tour of the universe as John Waters has seen and inhabited it. You will hear Waters rap, among other things, about child-rearing, old and forgotten midnight movies, the infinite importance of enthusiastic reading, the state of public education, and — maybe — love.
Of course, there will be talk of sex, kinky and vanilla; of bodily functions; of art created to mortify. If you should hear these things, and if you should flinch, remember: John Waters is not trying to make you feel unwelcome. On the contrary. You are hearing these things because John Waters is performing for humans, and deep down, all humans are filthy. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
John Waters’s This Filthy World. 7 p.m. Saturday, July 28 at Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $36.50 to $125; all ages. Call 954-462-0222, visit parkerplayhouse.com or the event’s Facebook page.