Well before personal “branding,” multi-platform marketing or “outsider art” had entered the mainstream, John Waters built an empire out of sexual perversion, drugs and a sometimes crudely articulated brand of anti-authority politics.
Some would call his oeuvre—films, books or public lectures/stand-up routines—simply “trash.” William S. Burroughs famously called him the “Pope of Trash.” I’ve always preferred his “Prince of Puke” nickname.
However you know Waters, his works collectively offer a “love him or hate him” dividing line. You either cackle at Pink Flamingos’ vision of an overweight transvestite named Divine trying to make sure his family is named “the filthiest people alive,” or you’re repulsed. You giggle at Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom murdering a neighbor for wearing white after Labor Day, or you don’t find fashion-fueled homicide amusing. You laugh at a dog running off with a character’s severed penis in Desperate Living, or you’re disgusted.
My high school friends and I used to sneak into the adult section of an Ogden Movie Buffs to rent Desperate Living, something Waters found absurd when I talked to him about his upcoming “Filthier and Dirtier” spoken-word stop in Salt Lake City.
“That should not have been in the adult section,” Waters says. “If anyone’s masturbating to Desperate Living, they’re really in trouble.”
That movie was one in a long line of cult hits that made Waters a star, albeit an underground one, in the 1970s and ’80s. With his regular cast of Baltimore oddballs willing to try anything Waters imagined, a midnight-movie sensibility that included one scratch & sniff flick (1981’s Polyester) and a long line of stunt castings (Sonny Bono, Iggy Pop, Patty Hearst and Traci Lords), Waters’ name became synonymous with a certain kind of taste—one that blended a love of slapstick and potty humor with great old rock & roll, and an acceptance of all manner of freaks and geeks.
The same is as true now as back when he was one of the brash new film voices in the ’70s. But you won’t find Waters furiously working to keep up the image. There’s no JohnWaters.com that tracks his every move, or sells T-shirts with images from his movies. He’s not tweeting hilarious one-liners. And he’s not looking for “friends” on Facebook.
“I want to be harder to reach,” Waters says. “I have friends. I don’t need new friends. Anyone that I’m interested in, I stalked their house years ago. I’m not looking to find anybody.”
With Hairspray, and particularly the Broadway musical version that followed, Waters’ taste actually found a lot of converts in the mainstream. Most of that new audience didn’t follow him post-Hairspray for films that kept Waters’ outsider rep intact, from the seemingly biographical Pecker through the sex-addiction comedy A Dirty Shame in 2004, Waters’ last film.
When he hits the road, Waters is continually surprised that his audience keeps growing—and getting younger. “There were teenage boys in the autograph line, which shocked me. I’m a 65-year-old man!” Waters says of one recent stop. “Some of those kids weren’t alive when I made my last movie, let alone my first one. And some of them were there with their parents, which was weird since, when I was younger, the parents would call the police if their kids had my movies. Now, they all tell me their parents showed [my movies] to them.”
While Waters has had a hard time getting a movie off the ground in recent years—a deal for a “terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure” called Fruitcake fell through—he spent several years working on Role Models, a book released last year featuring Waters interviewing and writing about characters who have inspired him.
“The attraction was that they were brave and led a life more extreme than I’ve ever had to, good or bad, easy or hard,” Waters says. “Anybody from Johnny Mathis, who had instant success from the time he was 15, to Leslie Van Houten, who was taken in by a madman [Charles Manson] and has been in jail for most of her life, remorseful for what she did. Those are opposite ends of the extreme, but both are fascinating to me because there is no easy answer to the question of how they survived.”
It’s a fascinating read, although the most shocking thing in Role Models is the passionate plea for his longtime friend Van Houten to be paroled. One thing even long-time fans would have never expected from Waters is such straightforward sincerity.
“There are no jokes in that,” Waters says. “I had to be sure there were no jokes. I was thinking of this story for so long, I’ve done all the research, I’ve been looking at it for 40 years. To get it all together—the research, to go to every parole hearing, read every court record—it took months to organize to write it.”
It’s a striking and revealing piece, and a sign of maturity from one of America’s most renowned life-long teenagers. One thing it definitely can’t be called is “trash.”
Rose Wagner Center
138 W. Broadway
Thursday, Oct. 13, 7:30 p.m.