Waters, John: Pope of Trash and Camp–Complete Retrospective

John_Waters_3This year marks the 50th anniversary of the screen career of John Waters, pope of trash and camp.  Our tribute to his scandalous work will include individual reviews of all his shorts and features.  The timing is right: June is the month of Gay Prode in numerous cities in the U.S.

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 by extension to popular culture, is his revisionist conception of taste. In terms of screen representation, he has effectively redefined what’s “good” taste and what’s “bad,” 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.”[i] This led to his self-description as the “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 but think they’re very normal. That to me is the funniest. I don’t look down on it. I’m in awe of people who have on the most hideous outfit and think they really look good. Who am I to say that they don’t really?”

A filmmaker of outrage and gleeful vulgarity, 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. Van Sant made a short that paid homage to Burroughs, and later cast him in a major role in “Drugstore Cowboy.”

John_Waters_2The taboo-breaking in his films has made Waters more than just a priest of trash culture. Waters has cast his films with individuals whose appearance is bizarre, to say the least, and their demeanor deviant. “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.”[iii] A consistent worldview has prevailed in all of his films. 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 shock and stun viewers, based on his belief that, “the fantastic is beyond the realm of observable reality.”[iv] To achieve that, he has deployed conventions that mainstream movies have prepared audiences not to expect.

A renegade filmmaker, Waters has survived for over three decades, despite changes in the country’s political and cultural climate, though his last theatrical picture, “Dirty Shame,” was released in 2004.   “Even if you hate my films,”[v] 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 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 fresh perspective on them. Making allusive and intertextual references to other films, TV shows, personalities, and pop culture is the name of the game in watching Waters’ oeuvre.

Waters’ films have pushed the envelope, testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable, but they did so in funny and ironic, not hateful or angry ways. “Anger is only funny for a short time and then it turns, it curdles,”[vi] Waters said. “I think my humor is completely politically correct, if you really think about it. My philosophy is, ‘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.”

Early Life and Career

john_watersWaters was born on April 22, 1946 in Baltimore, Maryland into a middle-class Catholic family. He’s the son of Patricia Ann (née Whitaker) and John Samuel Waters, a manufacturer of fire-protection equipment. Waters grew up in Lutherville, a suburb of Baltimore. Early on, Waters realized that he wasn’t like other kids, as he recalled: “I used to come home from kindergarten and tell my mother about this really weird kid in my class; he only drew with black crayons and wouldn’t talk to other people. I talked about him a lot. My mother mentioned it to the teacher, and she said, ‘Well, that’s your son.’ I was creating characters, really.”[viii] Water’s mother would say, “Oh, he’s just an odd duck. ‘Each to their own said the old lady as she kissed a cow.’” Waters holds that his mother regrets saying that, “because I took it much more seriously than she ever imagined.”

The strange, the lurid, and the forbidden have always fascinated Waters. But, ironically, he fed his mind through mainstream avenues. “Life Magazine was the biggest corruptor of youth,” Waters said. “They didn’t realize it. It was the magazine that every family got, where I learned about homosexuality, I learned about drug addiction, abstract art, beatniks and hippies –everything. I couldn’t wait to get it every week. I also learned from the Encyclopedia Britannica that every family had. All those subjects other children might have been looking up–dinosaur –I wasn’t.” Instead, Waters devoured all those “horrible” subjects. “I was obsessed about, because I knew that I was not supposed to know about them, like disease or censorship.”

In early childhood, Waters was intrigued by stories about devious subjects, criminals, murders, car accidents. A sharp observer of the “strange” aspects of everyday reality, he was more interested in the denizens of the working class than in members of his own milieu. He recalled his fascination with garbage collectors: “In our neighborhood, you always left the garbage man liquor at Christmas. I always wished that garbage men were my secret friends. I love when they pull up in Baltimore and go ‘Hoo!’ That’s when you have to run out and give them liquor or money or whatever.”

John_Waters_1“Lili,” the popular MGM movie, directed in 1953 by Charles Walters, starring Leslie Caron and featuring the popular song “Hi Lili,” had a major impact on the young Waters. At the age of seven, enchanted with puppets, he staged shows for children’s birthday parties that were sort of gross and violent versions of “Punch and Judy.” Waters’ mother believes that the puppets in “Lili” had the strongest influence on Waters’ future sensibility. The legendary fantasy fable “The Wizard of Oz,” made in 1939 and starring Judy Garland, also proved influential to the creative mind of the young Waters—as it did to David Lynch, Gus Vant Sant, and many others. Waters told Robert K. Elder in an interview for “The Film That Changed My Life: “I was always drawn to forbidden subject matter. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was one of the first movies I ever saw. It opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes, to great dialogue. I think the witch has great dialogue.”

A fan of Little Richard’s music while growing up, Waters claims that ever since he had shoplifted a copy of the song “Lucille” in 1957, “I’ve wished I could somehow climb into Little Richard’s body, hook up his heart and vocal cords to my own, and switch identities.”[xiv] In 1987, “Playboy” magazine assigned Waters to interview his idol, but the interview did not go well. Waters later remarked that “it turned into kind of a disaster.”[xv]

Waters discovered the world he was looking for in Downtown Maryland in a bar called Merrick’s, where Malcolm Maelcum (who would become a friend and appear in his shorts) worked as a bartender. The place’s clientele was mixed: bohemians, beatniks, drag queens. They read and later discussed Burroughs, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams. It was also there that he was initiated into drugs, and the first time he took LSD was in high school.

Tacky “B” flicks at the local drive-in, which the Waters family watched from a distance with binoculars, also left long-lasting effects. By age thirteen, Waters became an avid reader of the trade magazine “Variety,” the Bible of Showbiz. Waters attended the Calvert Hall College High School in nearby Towson. For his sixteenth birthday, he received a precious gift, an 8mm camera, from his maternal grandmother, Stella Whitaker. At high school, Waters was in a “beatnik” phase, a tough act to pull off in a place like suburban Baltimore. “My parents didn’t know what to do,” he recalled, “they’d dropped me off at this beatnik bar and hoped I’d meet some nice people.” Then one day, his mother took a quick look at the place and said, “Is this camp, or just the slums?’