Waters, John: Midnight Cult Figure–Part One

John Waters became a cult figure in the early 1970s, when he began making films of “dubious taste,” or to use his own words, “exploitation films for the art-house.” The greatest contribution of Waters to American cinema, and to popular culture in general, is his deconstruction of the concept of taste.

In the process, he has effectively redefined what “good” taste is, and what “bad” taste is, what’s beautiful and what’s not, what’s permissible and what’s forbidden. In a revealing confession, Waters stated: “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” This led to his self-description as “Prince of Puke.”

“I don’t make films about things I hate,” Waters has said. “What always make me laugh are people who have very extreme taste and think they’re very normal. That to me is the funniest. I don’t look down on it. I’m in awe of it. Like people who have on the most hideous outfit and think they really look good. Who am I to say that they don’t really?”

Waters’ oeuvre has been associated with gay camp, gay humor, and idiosyncratic but primitive aesthetics, all significant concepts that call for precise definition. For Susan Sontag, who was the first scholar to define camp in her well-known 1964 essay, camp is a phenomenon of pure aestheticism based on artifice and stylization. Sontag observed that “Things are campy not when they become old, but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of being frustrated by the failure of the attempt.” She held that camp derives from the unpredictability of the effect of time on the interpretation of cultural products, the view that something could be perceived as aesthetically good precisely because it is awful. For Sontag, camp is disengaged and depoliticized, since the obsession with style overrides concerns with the text’s more serious contents.

However, as the scholar David Van Leer has pointed out, in de-depoliticized camp, Sontag also de-homosexualized it. She did not deal with the conditions that create and foster camp, such as the ostracizing of minorities and oppression of subcultures, their “invisibility” from the perspective of hegemonic culture and mainstream society. Minorities, be they racial (black or Latin, for instance) or sexual (gay and lesbian), often speak between the lines, reshaping ironically and radically the dialogues that their oppressors had invented in order to control them and keep them in their place. As a result, individuals (and groups) of minority status find new modes of speaking to which the oppressors, whoever they are, have limited or no access at all. Sontag also did not distinguish between camp that’s innocent and naïve and camp that’s deliberate and intentional. For her, pure camp is always naïve and innocuous due to its outdated and retro nature. Sontag and her followers have claimed that self-knowing camp is usually less satisfying, based on the belief that self-conscious and imitative camp is just regressive in its self-assertiveness. But this may not be the case, as John Waters’ work has shown.

For Waters, camp is a form of historicism viewed histrionically. In his movies, the camp strategy resurrects artifacts of the past, focusing not so much on their origins, but on their artifice, which is done through heightened theatrical sensibility. Waters has turned and transformed famous and infamous movies and TV shows of yesteryear into something far removed from their initial design and original meaning.

The brand of camp that prevails in Waters’ output is what the scholar Barbara Klinger has called mass camp. Accordingly, various media products qualify for camp enjoyment because they exhibit exaggerated exotica in their historical out-datedness. Mass camp emerges from—and depends on—thorough inside knowledge of pop culture, the familiarity of conventions of established genres, such as Mae West comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals. Mass camp transformation does not necessarily result in coherent rereading of a film—it’s more of a hit-and-miss sensibility. The viewers’ interaction–and sometimes collision–with a particular text always bears some effects, but the effects may be temporary or influential only in the short run. Thus, thematic and visual pleasures may come in sporadic manner, in dipping in and out of a particular text, in selecting out specific moments– witty and quotable dialogue lines, lavish musical numbers, performers’ physical appearance–out of a given text.

Gay camp usually imitates the hyperbole of popular movies, as well as culture’s overstated décors, fashions, cross-dressing, and so on. In verbal terms, it’s reflected in quotation, mimicry, lip synching, gender inversion, put-downs and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners, because it allows them to demonstrate their insider status, their cultural existence and superiority over straight outsiders who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie.

From the start, Waters has politicized camp, using it deliberately as an assault on mainstream culture, specifically the bourgeoisie. Gay camp was employed by him as counter-cultural means, oppositional standpoint, and active force. For Waters, camp attacks acceptable values, normal physical appearances, and acceptable modes of thinking and behaving. Camp could be a mild or radical rejection of the essential tenets of what constitutes traditional aesthetic judgment. More importantly, Waters’ brand of camp thrives on exaggeration, theatricality, and travesty, evident in the admiration and glorification of both the characters in his texts and the particular actors who play them. His aesthetics are defined by elements that are deemed cheap, sleazy, vulgar, and crude. The plots of his features transgress the bourgeois sense of decency and morality, extolling bizarre and grotesque sexuality, which is considered to be appalling by standards of middle-class taste.

Gay camp is manifest in most of Waters’ films, both intentionally and unintentionally. The components of gay camp include glorifying performers who are cult figures, such as Divine, or movie stars who parody their own screen image, such as the latently gay actor Tab Hunter in “Polyester,” or the very straight Troy Donahue in “Cry Baby,” or the eroticized Joe Dallesandro, cult figure in the works of Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Waters’ camp comedies are ambivalent about their subjects and styles, raising questions of what is being satirized, and for what kind of spectators. They tend to be blatantly vulgar and deliberately crass, often drawing upon deviant sexuality as a source of their humor, while defying normative definitions of sex and gender.

A filmmaker of outrage and provocation, especially in the first decade of his career, Waters has directed shocking satires that contain garish characters and grotesque imagery. William Burroughs, the late godfather of the Beat Generation, has once labeled Waters “the Pope of Trash,” and the novelist Bret Easton Ellis (“American Psycho,” among others) has described Waters work as “demented but endearing.” Though Gus Van Sant is a very different director than Waters, he, too, has embraced Burroughs as a hero, making a short film as homage to Burroughs, and later casting him in a major role in “Drugstore Cowboy,” one of his crucial movies (See Chapter Two).

Waters’ challenge of taboos has made him more than just a priest of trash culture. He has cast his films with individuals whose appearance and demeanor are bizarre, deviant, and abnormal. “My films are about people who take what society thinks is a disadvantage, exaggerating their supposed defects, and then turning them into a winning style.” Along with gross-out moments, Waters’ films are imbued with irony, which for him is “the best kind of humor.” Subverting conventional plots, his movies are designed to outrage viewers based on his belief that, “the fantastic is beyond the realm of observable reality.” This strategy is achieved by deploying conventions that mainstream movies have prepared audiences not to expect.

Acknowledged as a renegade independent filmmaker, Waters has survived for four decades, despite changes in the country’s political and cultural climate, though he all but quit directing over the past ten years; his last theatrical picture, “Dirty Shame,” was released in 2004. (See below). “Even if you hate my films,” Waters has said, “you have to at least say that I’ve created my own genre.” It may be hard to define precisely what that genre is, but it’s distinctive enough for him to be identified with one. Waters’ work is better appreciated and more enjoyable by viewers who know movies and pop culture well enough to experience a new perspective on them. Making allusive and intertextual references to other films and directors, TV shows and personalities, pop music culture, is the name of the game while watching Waters’ oeuvre.

If Waters is no longer a subversive filmmaker, it’s because he shares most of the bourgeois values he has satirized. Unlike some Jewish comedian-filmmakers, such as his contemporary Albert Brooks (“Lost in America”), Waters has not been an enraged agent or angry provocateur, because deep-down he wishes life were as simple as that in “Leave It to Beaver,” a show he might have satirized all too gently in his 1994 film, “Serial Mom.”

Waters’ films have pushed the envelope to test the boundaries of what’s acceptable, but they did so funny and ironic, not hateful or angry, ways. “Anger is only funny for a short time and then it turns, it curdles,” Waters said. “I think my humor is completely politically correct, if you really think about it. The politics are, ‘Don’t judge other people until you know the whole story’ and ‘Mind your own business.’ That’s politically correct. That’s a very democratic way of thinking.”

Waters has stayed in Baltimore for practical reasons: “I have a whole crew there, and we know the city better than anywhere else.” There is another reason why Waters has favored Baltimore, as he explained: “It is the only place where I have friends who aren’t involved in showbiz, who aren’t always talking about movies, and who aren’t trendy.” Although Waters lacks the mainstream success of Barry Levinson (“Diner” in 1982, or the Oscar winning “Rain Man,” in 1988) Baltimore’s other native son, in 1985, the Mayor of Baltimore has proclaimed the date of February 7 as “John Waters Day.”

With few additions, Waters has steadily worked with the same staff and crew. Pat Moran supervises the casting, Vincent Perenio the sets, and Van Smith the costumes. These continuous collaborations have given Waters a sense of security as well as a sense of belonging. He has formed an acting ensemble, holding that audiences like to see the same actors go from one film to another. Waters’ films have relied on a regular troupe of actors known as the Dreamlanders. They have included Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey, Susan Walsh, and Cookie Mueller. But above all, Waters’ films have served as star vehicles and platforms for the serious acting skills of Divine until he passed away, in 1989.

Waters is the most idiosyncratic, if not the most accomplished, filmmaker in this book’s group of artists. Gifted in many fields, he has been at various phases of his career a filmmaker, actor, writer, working journalist, conceptual visual artist, and avid art collector.