I know I look like a child molester.
— John Waters, This Filthy World
If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books. Don’t fuck ‘em.
— John Waters, This Filthy World
For those unfamiliar with the taboo-busting, censor-baiting, trash-paradise of director John Waters, this DVD aims to grab you by your drab sartorial stylings and plunge you deep into his filthy world. Filmed over two nights at the Harry De Jur Playhouse in New York City, Waters comes onto his audience like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. This charming raconteur lures you in with a confection of star-studded anecdotes and avuncular understanding, and with a splash of ‘let’s do this together’ team spirit. You’ll guffaw at his jokes and, before you know it, your head’s in that oven and you’re burning for your complicity. But hey, it’s fun, so enjoy.
An early recollection reveals that, tellingly, on his first viewing of The Wizard of Oz, Waters was “the only kid in the audience who didn’t understand why Dorothy would ever want to go home”. He was the child who couldn’t comprehend why she would return to “that awful black and white farm, with that aunt who was dressed badly, with smelly farm animals, when she could live with winged monkeys and magic shoes and gay lions”. So he set about creating his own Oz and it was not unlike the TV show of the same name. And thus John Waters begins to relate a career spent collaborating with a menagerie of marvellous misfits.
Alluding to William Burroughs’ description of him as “The Pope of Trash”, regular production designer Vince Peranio situates Waters onstage between a vase of flowers and a collection of garbage bags and cans. He emerges from a church-like entrance to straddle, as his work always has, the dichotomy between beauty and trash.
In This Filthy World, John Waters takes us through the making of his films chronologically and we encounter some fantastic characters along the way. Take for example an early inspiration, director William Castle, who created as Waters recounts with relish, “childhood bedlam” by inserting theatrical gimmicks into movie theatres, like suspended skeletons and electric shock buzzers. Or Liz Renay, the ex-moll of gangster Mickey Cohen and star of Waters’ Desperate Living who became the scourge of Bobby Kennedy when she refused to testify against her former paramour, who described herself as “perhaps the most beautiful woman of our time” and offered seduction tips such as “be nude and have a bar next to your bed”. And, of course, there’s Divine, John Waters’ childhood friend and sometime-transsexual whose infamy can be traced back to that shit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos. Waters recalls with pride his great-friend’s knack for shop-lifting: “I saw Divine walk out of a department store once carrying a chainsaw and a TV”, and does a fab impression of this larger than life character nonchalantly strolling off down the street swinging his acquisitions.
One reason why Waters is so endearing is the inclusion he preaches, and this inclusive embrace is spread wide. He champions not the underdogs but the rejected and the reviled. He seems genuinely rankled by Charlize Theron’s snub of murderess Aileen Wuornos during her Oscar acceptance speech: “Without Aileen’s great hairdos and fashion rage she would never have been on that stage clutching that statue.” Waters paints a vivid picture of one of his obsessions, Michael Jackson, dressed as Joan Crawford stalking the corridors of his child burns unit. He welcomed porn-queen Traci Lords into his oddball clan’s bosom and went on to baptise her, in preparation for her nuptials, in a self-styled ceremony. Incidentally, he had originally been ordained to wed Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder but had talked them out of it.
Despite bizarre this material, he rarely comes across as sinister or truly outrageous, although taken on face value, his words could easily be perceived as such. However he is in possession of a mischievous wit and charming irreverence. He even draws his own idiosyncratic lines; talking about accidentally smoking crack he snipes: “Eeew I felt like Whitney Houston”, and speaks with mock-horror on the disturbing sight of the fetish group adult-babies. He has a snobbery that elevates him (even if one foot remains stubbornly entrenched in the gutter); berating people that don’t like subtitled films, or books. He may look like a fiend but has the authority and enthusiasm of a professor, guiding us away from the straight and narrow with the intention of becoming our spiritual “filth elder”. He speaks with passion and urges his audience to indulge in his obsessions and cultivate their own. Waters additionally humbly acknowledges the debt he owes his collaborators and inspirations.
This stage-show, or “vaudeville –act”, as Waters would have it, succeeds due to the quality of the anecdotes, the considerable charm of the story-teller, and his refreshing disregard for the taboo. Although he speeds through his later work and the latter part of the act relies too heavily on more conventional gag-type material (drawn from overheard conversations), it is a weird, wonderful ride. At one point he recalls an experience from his days speaking in prison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his class were all murderers. One day he showed them Pink Flamingos and afterwards the response was unanimously “You’re fucked up, man.” At the memory of this, he flashes a devilish smile and remarks with good-humoured resignation: “which was maybe the best review of the movie I ever got.” It was certainly the most appropriate.
This Filthy World is available exclusively on Netflix.