Waters, John: Cult Figure–Part Three

Asked in 1994 to define his genre or style, John Waters said: “With all the directors I like, you can spot their style even if there are no credits on the film, because they take you into their world. It’s visibly identifiable, and it’s like no one else’s. That to me is a good director, even if you don’t want to go in their world.”

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Thus, instead of repressing his uniqueness, Waters embraced it, waving it like a flag throughout his career, Waters is aware that almost everything he says or writes is potentially quotable. Serving as emcee of awards ceremonies (the Indie Spirit Awards, for example) and as performer, recently in his one-man show, “This Filthy World,” he makes sure that each and every anecdote unfolds with the wit and grace of a born and savvy raconteur.

Called both an abomination and an instant classic, “Pink Flamingos,” Waters’ best-known work, concerns a brazen queen intent on maintaining her status as “the filthiest person alive.” Babs takes great pride in being “the Filthiest Person Alive,” an honor confirmed by one of America’s sleazier tabloid newspapers. Waters, just like Babs, was not about to take a back seat to anyone in the battle of filth and bad taste. But he also knows the sweet smell of (commercial) success. After years of underground notoriety, Waters enjoyed a surprise hit with “Hairspray,” in 1988, which was then turned into a profitable Broadway show and an even more profitable Hollywood musical movie, starring John Travolta in the original Divine role.

Throughout his four-decade career, Waters had to walk a fine line, as he acknowledged: “I’m certainly not going to make a Hollywood movie that will never be shown, but at the same time, I don’t calculate, I write what I think is funny, I don’t censor myself.” Waters is not willing to make a mainstream film devoid of black comedy, because it would then be “someone else’s obsessions, not mine.”
Waters’ agents don’t even send him scripts by other scribes, because they know that, like Almodovar and Haynes, he will only direct his own material. Waters has not developed acute technical skills, and so his narratives, characters and tone are far more important than their visual style or physical execution. Of the five directors in the book, Waters is the least technically adept, though in his defense it must be said, that he has never considered himself a craftsman.

Most of Waters’ films have no linear plot to speak of, and no characters driven by particular goals or ambitions. The notable exceptions to this trend may be “Female Trouble,” in which Divine is motivated by insane quest for fame and immortality, which paradoxically or not leads to her death, and “Hairspray,” a musical comedy that made a strong case for racial integration, in and out of schools. The other films exist in the eternal present, meant to offer camp, joy and pleasure. As such, they provide feasts to the ears, by way of profane dialogue, but not to the eyes, because they are too crude. The films’ characters also operate under the assumption that there is only present. This has allowed Waters to construct narratives with no progression, and characters with no future orientation.

Waters has been aware that his movies had to make some money, so that he could continue to work: “I had to pay back the people who loaned me money, and eventually, I would ask them again. There’s always that pressure.” Living from picture to picture, with wide intervals in between them, Waters is not the kind of director with three-picture deals. He has said that it took him a decade to learn how to play the game, how to get through the system.

The country’s changing demographics and shifty pop culture have worked both in his favor and against Waters in the sense of having a continuous or thriving career. As he recalled: “People my age who are now running the studios saw my films, especially ‘Pink Flamingos,’ in college, so it isn’t really something I have to battle anymore.”

One of Waters’ idiosyncrasies has been his penchant for peculiar, eccentric casting, choosing actors who don’t ordinarily work together, like Suzanne Sommers and Sam Waterston (then associated with the Broadway theater and Woody Allen features) in “Serial Mom,” or Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff. He has also liked to use personalities that aren’t associated with film, such as Patricia Hearst, who appeared in “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” and “Cecil B. Demented.” “We’re at the point where kids don’t even know that she was kidnapped,” he says.

In his earlier pictures, Waters has satirized Hollywood’s ideals of glamour and the liberals’ ideals of hipness–the limits in “good” taste. In his later pictures, he satirized all-American institutions, such as suburbanism, bourgeois marriage, the nuclear family, and motherhood. While some of the grotesqueries prevailed, there was a new tenderness in Waters’ later films, a sensibility more cuddly than cutting. An endearing sweetness has colored and tempered Waters’ films since “Hairspray.” Waters is still nostalgic for the 1970s, before independent cinema became institutionalized, as an industry with its own structure, financial backing, distribution, and even stars. Independent cinema of the past decade does not so much run against Hollywood as parallel to it; it’s a small industry, but industry nonetheless.

In the 1990s, Waters’ work became more polished, reflecting the difference between a movie that cost $10,000 and one costing $13 million, such as “Serial Mom.” Working with bigger budgets and movie stars, Waters is not anymore an underground director. He hasn’t had a movie playing the midnight circuit since “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble.” In any event, the real midnight market, as we knew it in the 1970s and the 1980s, has declined, if not altogether disappeared, a combined result of the VCR Revolution and the new technologies and social media (Video on Demand, for example).

Waters, who’s now in his late 60s, seems to have lost his bold audacity in tackling taboos, opting instead for a gentler, kinder filmic strategy. Time and history have also diluted the extremities of his work. Waters represents an underground phenomenon coopted into the mainstream, an initially shocking career gradually rendered more palatable. Waters himself has acknowledged that the golden age of trash is over, because there are not any more taboos to break. His battle for redefining taste and restructuring American pop culture by broadening the range of issues to tackle, has been triumphant. The struggle bore the kinds of successful results that, ironically, have brought an end to his own career.

Looking back, Waters the filmmaker has fulfilled important ideological and cultural functions. Perhaps it is Kathleen Turner, the star of “Serial Mom” (Waters’ most commercial picture to date), who has summed up his influence most succinctly: “John is probably a genius. Quite frankly, you don’t create your own genre and an international audience that are completely outside the system–and in spite of the Hollywood system–unless you have one hell of a lot of talent.”

But the last word belongs to Waters as manifest in the following credo: “I believe life is nothing if you’re not obsessed. I only think terrible thoughts, I do not live them. Thank God I am not my films. If audiences can laugh at my twisted ideas, what’s the great harm? I had a goal in life, I wanted to make the trashiest motion pictures in cinema history. Thanks so much for allowing me to get away with it.”

John Waters Filmography

1964 Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (8 mm)
1966 Roman Candles
1968 Eat Your Makeup (16mm)
1969 Mondo Trasho (16mm)
1969 The Diane Linkletter Story (16mm)
1970 Multiple Maniacs (16mm)
1972 Pink Flamingos (16 & 35 mm)
1974 Female Trouble (16 & 35 mm)
1977 Desperate Living (16 & 35 mm)
1981 Polyester
1988 Hairspray
1990 Cry-Baby
1994 Serial Mom
1998 Pecker
2000 Cecil B. Demented
2004 A Dirty Sham