“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
—Hunter S. Thompson
In 1989 I went, in the company of my goth-punk girlfriend, the South’s Angriest Rock Critic, and a seven-foot-tall black man dressed as Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, to see John Waters give a talk at the University of Georgia. This was back when the music scene still thrived somewhat in Athens and the town still rated high on the Funky-o-meter, so the audience was a bobbing sea of metallic beehive wigs, sequined evening gowns, and fully half of the Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog. And the girls looked good too. As the famed director and undisputed King of Trash Culture came out to do his thing, I was struck by how poised and conservative he seemed in the midst of the tidal wave of sheer adoration he got from the crowd, how gracious and mannered. The man who built a career and a legend on the gleeful gross-out, the subversion of suburbia, and the celebration of the unthinkably perverse turned out to be, above all, a classy guy.
Some day, when people who claim to appreciate the cinema get their collective heads out of Martin Scorsese’s ass, John Waters will be recognized as one of the true pioneers of film, a subterranean auteur (if I may be forgiven for using that beaten-to-death term) whose every effort has been designed to kick us squarely in our comfort zone and make us question our notions of what is normal. His heroes revel in their perversions, thrive on dementia, and wallow in their own (and other people’s) filth, and yet they are never as grotesque as the forces who oppose them in the name of the status quo. In the film that, for good or (violently) ill, will forever be his trademark, Pink Flamingos, he filmed a 300-pound transvestite eating a freshly shat dog turd and turned it into a triumph of the spirit. Now that’s filmmaking! So what if Pecker was tepid at best and Cecil B. Demented was inadvertantly hypocritical? So what if he’s responsible for Ricki Lake’s career? The moment Divine bit down on the doggie-doo, gagged, and then flashed that you-know-what-kinda grin at the camera, Waters placed himself beyond reproach forever. He’s the Bob Dylan of film, utterly critic-proof and in command of a legion of fans who, twisted and scary though some of them may be, honestly believe that John Waters changed their lives for the better.
Robrt L. Pela’s Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters is less a biography of the man than an introduction to his work and what that work has wrought. Pela, a writer for The Advocate and NPR commentator, eschews the usual tedious star-bio approach—it’s hard to dig up dirty laundry on a guy who has so joyfully aired it all out himself—and instead gives us a fan’s-eye view presented with self-deprecating wit. The chapters dealing with Waters’ life and bargain-basement art, which are culled from wide-ranging and obviously painstaking research, are interesting, though Waters’ own books Shock Value and Crackpot are far more revealing. But these chapters are broken up by truly funny accounts of Pela’s explorations of the John Waters Universe.
Pela travels to Baltimore, Waters’ hometown and the setting for his films, looking for “the place where everyone is a grumpy housewife with a beehive or a drunken delinquent or a slovenly drag queen with a bad temper . . . where over-opinionated, narrow-minded, politically incorrect, aggressively stupid people shout at you for no apparent reason.” He scours funky junk shops, dirty bookstores, and a museum of circus oddities in a vain quest for the inspirations for Mondo Trasho or Female Trouble, even going so far as to pick a fight with some girl only to find that she’s in town looking for Baltimore’s underbelly too. In another chapter Pela pays a local psychic to channel Divine and discovers that he’s living large in Heaven and working up an act with Totie Fields.
The best parts of the book, however, deal with the fans. Pela introduces us to Suki, who has the most extensive collection of Waters memorabilia in the world—she’ll only let you in if you quote a line from a Waters film and she likes it, and she chants in Shinto fashion along with a continuous tape-loop of a Waters interview that plays in the bathroom. And then there’s Earl Bolton, who sustained some head trauma some years ago and ever since has been subconsciously feeding Waters ideas via his mind-reading cat, whose ass Waters reportedly enters as a puff of smoke.
This is not to say that Filthy is exclusively a freak show, although that would hardly be a bad thing. Pela repeatedly makes the dead-on observation that the first and best purpose of marginal art is to reach out to marginalized people. On a Waters fan listserv, Pela meets a number of disenfranchised sorts who found empowerment and community through Waters’ films. “Everyone thought I needed medication,” confesses one. “Then I discovered John Waters and felt this immense sense of relief. Here was a sicko who was getting paid for being weird.” Another fan testifies that Waters “helped me see how tragic things can be funny, and gave me a cool underdog to root for. When you’re growing up gay in a small town, that’s important.”
It is important, and a compelling reason to look at John Waters’ work beyond the surface play of vomit jokes and lesbian terrorists and people shooting up liquid eyeliner. Today gross-out humor is not only tolerated, it’s encouraged at your local cineplex. But the Farrelly brothers’ output and Pie-fucking Movie Part 2 are nothing more than novelty items for the frat-boy crowd, the cinematic equivalent of the whoopie cushion and pepper gum. While Pela’s book may be a bit lightweight, it reminds us of the vital importance of guerilla art that strikes hard where it is most needed and does indeed change lives for the better.
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