Teaching kids and cons
JOHN WATERS at home in his San Francisco apartment.
Countless descriptions have been concocted to define the work of filmmaker John Waters, best known for what is frequently referred to as one of the “most tasteless” works of cinema ever made – the 1972, $12,000 black comedy “Pink Flamingos.”
“Disgusting,” “adolescent,” “puerile,” “vulgar” and “sick,” are all words applied to Waters’ work. But, and here’s the great Waters paradox, so are “brilliant,” “honest,” “articulate,” “funny” and “kind.”
So, as the countdown for Waters appearance at the Sonoma International Film Festival draws nigh, the question might be fairly asked, just who is John Waters, really?
Ask him to define himself and Waters invariably comes back to the issue of taste – what it is, who has it (good and bad) and how social taste tends to govern social perception.
“Pink Flamingos,” Waters argues, is therefore an attack on the “tyranny of good taste.”
Ergo, Waters is, by his own definition, a “cultural terrorist.”
But he is also a clever and animated teacher who does workshops on creative imagination with both kids, and criminals behind bars, he’s a serious art collector and an artist in his own right, a best-selling author, and progenitor of the fourth-highest-grossing movie musical of all time, “Hairspray,” which has taken in well over $200 million and is a beloved part of the DVD collections of countless pre-teen girls.
“I accidentally made a family movie called ‘Hair Spray’ which, if you believe I’ve ever done anything subversive, that’s the one,” Waters says, explaining and perhaps defending his accidental good fortune. “But middle-America didn’t notice, and they embraced two men singing a love song, embraced a movie that actually encouraged their white, 15-year-old, teenage daughters to date black men. But they never seemed to notice that that was weird.”
But for all his dedication to cultural subversion, Waters is surprisingly middle-American, almost – but not quite – mainstream. He lectures on college campuses, he writes more-or-less serious books, he is a rigorously disciplined writer, following a set schedule every day.
And he has become something of a teacher.
“I teach a first-grade class now, and I also teach in prison, and I do the same lesson. We improvise the same things in both classes, plane crashes, a red carpet scene with Justin Bieber. In the first grade and in prison, it gets the same reaction. Especially the plane crash. It always ends the same way, screaming (Waters demonstrates). But you get to overact the first day. That’s a good way to loosen up any class of improv.”
Waters’ San Francisco apartment, on Nob Hill, is crammed with art – on the walls, on the floor, on every table and his appetite to collect appears insatiable. He says he visits, on average “maybe 50 galleries a month,” and his own representational art is widely collected and hangs in several galleries.
He has made 17 films, including six he birthed pre-Pink Flamingos, all with titles designed to disturb, intrigue or provoke, such as, “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket” (his first), “Eat Your Makeup,” “Mondo Trasho,” and “Multiple Maniacs.”
Divine, Waters’ drag queen diva, appeared in 10 of his films, including “Lust in the Dust,” “Polyester,” “Hairspray” and, probably most famously, in “Pink Flamingos,” wherein he performed a closing-scene act that set the bar for tasteless, gag-inducing trash.
But while his work can be profoundly offensive, Waters is passionately equal-opportunity in his lifelong assault against rote conformity. He is openly, happily gay, but disdains the rules of gay culture. “The gay world gets on my nerves as much as the straight world,” he confesses. “With the rules? Oh my God. I’m gaily incorrect. I didn’t have any choice whether I was gay or not, but I didn’t ever just hang around with all gay people. My friends were gay and straight.”
Waters’ film career came into early focus and, looking back, he says he probably wasted time in school he could have spent filmmaking. “I always just knew I would make movies. That’s why I should have quit school early, because I knew what I wanted to be. You go to school to figure out what you want to be. I already knew.”
So, he recalls, “Every school was problems. They wouldn’t let me graduate off the stage of high school. I went to some horrible Catholic school, and then I went to NYU and got thrown out in the first marijuana bust ever on a college campus. So it’s ironic that I make a lot of my living from lecturing on college campuses.”
He also makes part of his living writing books and when you press him to define the passion behind his movies, he says the movies are ultimately an outlet for writing stories. He’s never made a movie he didn’t write and insists he never will. He has what he calls a “$5-million movie” called “Fruitcake” he’s still trying to get made, but laments, “I don’t know anybody who can get a $5-million movie made right now.”
With at least three homes and a revenue stream that has never stopped flowing from films that 30 years ago were considered underground but can now be watched on cable TV (“even Pink Flamingos”), you wonder if Waters even needs to work.
But he insists, “I love writing books, I write every day,” and he seems to be in enough demand that the overflow of his creative energy always finds opportunities for expression.
One of those opportunities is the one-man show called, “This Filthy World,” a version of which he will perform at the Sonoma International Film Festival on Saturday at 8 p.m.