‘Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how, the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-up from pond films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad. What the hell has happened?’
Edith Massey as Aunt Edie
John Waters had a long career making films, often cheap but all vulgar and very, very funny and starring his gang of misfit friends from Baltimore. An early film, ‘Pink Flamingos’, being the story of ‘the filthiest person alive’, became a success de scandale as the star of the film, Divine, literally ate dog poo for one scene, setting Waters on course for a life in films.
Waters would eventually write and direct the original, non-music version of ‘Hairspray’ as well as classics (well, at least to me) ‘Female Trouble’, ‘Serial Mom’ and his final film, ‘A Dirty Shame’. That came out in 2004 and since then Waters has produced books, had exhibitions of his art works and toured extensively with his one man show, ‘This Filthy World’.
‘Mr Know It All’ is a sort-of-sequel to his book ‘Shock Value’ which detailed his life and films up to the point where he made his first foray into a ‘studio’ film (as opposed to cheap, independent films), ‘Polyester’ (which, fact fans has just been reissued by Criterion and includes a ‘scratch and sniff’ card for added viewing pleasure!?). It also has a number of others essays on, amongst other subjects Andy Warhol, his ideal Brutalism home, his one-man show, death and gay activism.
‘All I know is I was born with a screw loose. I realize now how hard it must have been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. As a child in kindergarten I used to come home form school and tell my mother about the twisted little boy in my class who’d only draw with black crayons and ever talked to other kids. I yakked about this unmade friend so much that my mother eventually mentioned his to my teacher, who looked confused and then blurted. ‘But that’s your son!’
Waters has always pitched himself as an outsider and, in his early days he and his films were just that: low budget monstrosities which starred his drop-out friends with a determination to not just upset the applecart but lace the fruit with poison and watch the consumers vomit up the results. These were films which wanted to say the unsayable and do the wrong thing and, to his credit, Waters work has always had a strain of subversion about them – even ‘Hairspray’, while now seen as American as apple pie, is described by Waters as a ‘trojan horse’ with ‘the power to sneak into middle-class home and espouse gay marriage and teenage race mixing without anybody noticing…Even racists loved Hairspray! But what truly makes Waters is how he is refreshingly honest about his success, and certainly is non-too precious about it: in noting the numerous versions of ‘Hairspray’ since the original he wonders about the time when the only version still to be made is the porn version: ‘Pubic Hairspray’
In essence, Waters is the acceptable face of political correctness. His early films reflected the lifestyle of his Baltimore milieu: students and drop out who hung around in the cheapest parts of town, the roughest hotels, the most accepting (usually gay) bars, all of which extended his regular cast members to include gays, lesbians, black men and women, trans people with scripts – bonkers, silly, scripts – informed by current affairs and Waters’ infatuations. Those early films of the late 1960s include references to Charles Manson, drugs, attacking the nuclear family, ‘Black Power’ and as he moved though the 1970s, these themes remained and became central to his plots but they came with a huge dose of humour and self awareness. Waters knows the power of humour to recruit. And so, while the essays in this book are very funny, they also reveal an anger about the state of the world, often with Water’s unique methods of putting it right:
‘It’s illegal to be gay in seventy-six countries around the world. Isn’t it time for us to borrow a slogan from that new ‘black bloc’ militant faction of protestors, Disrupt J20? ‘We will go to war and you will lose!’. That’s right. Don’t we need a comic armed conflict over sexual preference? Our guns may shot blacks but out tongues are lethal. We will kill you with humor… our vindictive and volatile gay army would, in a surprise air raid, plunder the Middle Eastern capitals of homophobia (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria) by dropping tens of thousands of pamphlets explaining in their native language the bear community, gay marriage, Walt Whitman followed by Bruce Benderson novels, Mommie Dearest DVDs and the complete recording of Judy Garland.’
Waters films and work places the underdog, the reviled, the unwanted at their heart. In Water’s inverted world, the villains are the beautiful, the middle-class, the princesses and the jocks. The mainstream is a living hell and only the freaks will inherit the earth.
Take, for example, a scene from my favourite Water’s film, ‘Female Trouble’:
- Edith Massey as Aunt Ida
Aunt Edie lives with her hairdresser nephew Gator, next door to ex-teenage jezebel, go-go dancer and cat burgler, Dawn Davenport (played with gusto by the wonderful Divine). Gator is heterosexual and has the hots for his neighbour, much to Aunt Edie’s disgust:
Aunt Ida: Have you met any nice boys in the salon?
Gator: They’re all pretty nice.
Aunt Ida: I mean any nice queer boys. Do you fool with any of them?
Gator: Aunt Ida, you know I dig women.
Aunt Ida: Come on, don’t tell me that.
Gator: Christ! Don’t go into this again
Aunt Ida: All those beauticians and you don’t have any boy dates?
Gator: I don’t want any boy dates.
Aunt Ida: Oh honey, I’d be so happy if you turned nellie.
Gator: There’s no way. I’m straight. I mean, I like a lot of queers but I don’t dig their equipment, you know? I like women.
Aunt Ida: But you could change. Queers are just better. I’d be so proud if you was a fag and had a nice beautician boyfriend. I’d never have to worry.
Gator: There ain’t nothing to worry about.
Aunt Ida: I’d worry that you’d work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!
(And bear in mind that Dawn Davenport was, of course, played by a gay man, as was Gator)
But back to the book.
‘Mr. Know-it-all’ is a great read for the Waters’ fan, but learning that ‘Serial Mom’ and ‘A Dirty Shame’ sank at the box office is just too depressing. Who wouldn’t want to watch a film in which Kathleen Turner plays a regular American middle-class ‘Mom’ who just happens to be a low down serial killer, prompted by petty grudges (wearing white shoes after Labor day) and played with manic energy by Kathleen Turner? (‘Serial Mom’) Or soak up the travails of Sylvia Stickles (Tracy Ullman), a prudish Baltimore who recieves a bang to the head and becomes a sex addict, discovering along the way a sex cult led by sex messiah Ray Ray who leads Sylvia to finding the new sexual high? The world truly is a dull and tasteless place.
But Mr. Waters is here to help and he’s still at it at 73, as described in the essay ‘Flashback’ in which he and a couple of friends (including film stalwart Mink Stole) decide its time to take LSD again:
‘My Mom always used to be horrified when she’d read interviews with me in the seventies where I’d say, ‘LSD gave me the confidence to be who I am today.’ ‘Don’t tell young people that!’ she’d beg. I’m not. If you didn’t take LSD back then, you’re probably not brave or insane enough to take it today. Why would you? You’re busy with your new designer drugs, virtual reality headsets and DJ-ing your way into becoming a billionaire. But senior citizens? Yes! You’re stuck, Do what Mr. Know-It-All tells you to do and take LSD now. Be placid on acid. Turn on, don’t yawn! Tune in and win! Drop out and shout out, ‘I’m proud to take LSD at seventy!’ Would my mom from beyond the grave now update her plea? Will I hear her spookily scolding voice whispering in the wind like in a James Purdy novel? Am I having a flashback or did I just hear her plead, ‘Don’t tell old people that!’ with a concerned urgency? It’s too late, Mom, I just did.’
The world needs John Waters, and this book is the perfect introduction, followed by a screening of ‘Female Trouble’. Before long you’ll be mainlining liquid mascara and tea-bagging like you life depended on it!