Waters, John: Revisited–Hag in Black Leather Jacket

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 is his revisionism of the concept of taste. As a result, 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?”

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 as homage to Burroughs, and later casting him in a major role in “Drugstore Cowboy,” one of his crucial movies.

Waters’ taboo-breaking has made him more than just a priest of trash culture. He has cast his films with individuals whose appearance is bizarre and their demeanor 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 shock and 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.

A renegade independent filmmaker, Waters has survived for 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,” 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 fresh and new perspective on them. Making allusive and intertextual references to other films, TV shows and personalities, and pop culture, is the name of the game for viewers in watching Waters’ oeuvre, which enriches the experience.

Waters’ films have pushed the envelope to test 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,” 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

Waters 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. His boyhood friend and inspirational muse, Glenn Milstead, who later changed his name into Divine, also lived in Lutherville.

Growing up in Baltimore, 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.” His 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. 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–in Life magazine. I couldn’t wait to get it every week. And I also learned from the Encyclopedia Brittanica that every family had. All those subjects other children might have been looking up –dinosaur –I wasn’t.” Instead, he devoured all those “horrible subjects that I was obsessed about, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to know about them. Disease. Censorship.”

From early childhood, Waters was intrigued by stories about devious subjects, criminals, murders, car accidents. A sharp observer of the “strange” aspects in 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.”

The popular MGM movie “Lili,” 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 and showbusiness, he staged shows that were sort of gross and violent versions of “Punch and Judy” for children’s birthday parties. Waters’ mother believes that the puppets in “Lili” had the strongest influence on Waters’ evolving 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 and Gus Vant Sant. 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, and 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.” 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.”

Waters says he discovered “the world I 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: bohemian, beatniks, drag queens. They would read and later discuss Burrows, John Rechy, Tennessee Williams, and others. It was also there that he got into drugs, specifically LSD in high school, in 1964.

Tacky films (“B” flicks) at a local drive-in, which the Waters family watched from a distance with binoculars, also left long-lasting effects. By age thirteen, Waters became by his own admission 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 and said, “Is this camp, or just the slums?'”

Hag in a Black Leather Jacket

Waters’ first short, the 17 minutes black-and-white “Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” was made in his parents’ house when he was seventeen. Shot on the roof of Waters’ home, the tale concerns the interracial affair between a white woman named Mona, played by his childhood friend Mary Vivian Pearce, and a black man. The man woos the lady by carrying her around in a trash can and chooses a Ku Klux Klan man to perform their wedding ceremony.

The Klansman on the chimney is an angelic figure, representing Waters’ first exploration of a sacred symbol of Catholicism. A girl with a wild hair and a male in drag are also on the roof. Mona is dressed in a bridal gown, the train of her dress carried by a child. The black man emerges from his can, and people eat wedding cake on the roof, as the Klansman descends. At the end, Mona performs a sexy dance, “bodie green,” while Waters’ real-life mother plays “God Bless America” on the piano.

“Hag in a Black Leather Jacket,” like the next two shorts, was not released theatrically. It was shown once or twice in a “beatnik” coffee house. In later years, it would be included in his traveling photography exhibit. This short introduced a character that would become a recurrent icon in Waters’ work, a trapped, tormented woman.