Waters’s World

Nick Pinkerton on “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?”

John Waters, Polyester, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.

THE LAST NEW MOVIE to be directed by John Waters, A Dirty Shame, came out in US theaters almost exactly ten years ago. Despite being an infectious sex farce with a chewy, eager-beaver central performance from Tracy Ullman, it failed to turn a profit. Today, Waters’s film catalogue is only one of this one-man industry’s holdings, and “John Waters” the brand has never been so ubiquitous—but the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s comprehensive “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” is a chance to reconsider the works on which the legend was built.

Like another auteur specializing in odd Americana, David Lynch, Waters has seemingly left the motion picture business behind—or been left behind by it. And like Lynch, whose 2009 online Interview Project had him criss-crossing the States to speak with people from all walks of life, the thin man from Charm City has lately entered his Travels with Charley phase, resulting in a new book, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America. Both sprung from the avant-garde/underground, Lynch and Waters are American right down to the entrepreneurial spirit of their projects. Two films from Waters’s crossover period, Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), have been made into Broadway musicals. He continues to tour with his one-man show “This Filthy World,” a lecture circuit star like Mark Twain—or, as he says in his monologue: “As I get older, I realize more and more my career is becoming that of Paul Lynde.” He has hosted a program about matrimonial murder on Court TV, and handpicked two albums’ worth of novelty songs. Before the word curator had been abused to the point of meaninglessness, Waters was a curatorial genius, and a young person reading his autobiography Shock Value (1981) or his essay collection Crackpot (1987) could walk away with a whole shopping list of esoteric figures for further research.

Now considered a go-to all-purpose enthusiast and expert, Waters is generally the high point of any of the innumerable documentaries on counterculture subjects that he appears in. He has always been forthright in promoting his influences: Among these are William Castle, king of B-movie ballyhoo, and, perhaps most crucially, the Kuchar brothers, whose films he pilgrimaged to New York to see in the mid-’60s. “Here were directors I could idolize,” Waters wrote in the introduction to George and Mike Kuchar’s Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, “complete crackpots without an ounce of pretension, outsiders to even ‘underground’ sensibilities who made exactly the films they wanted to make without any money, starring their friends.…The Kuchar brothers gave me the self-confidence to believe in my own tawdry vision.”

Waters realized his vision with the help of Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, a chum from suburban Lutherville, and a repertory cast of skid row–chic Baltimoreans collectively known as the Dreamlanders. Waters’s early, Kuchar-inspired shorts will play Film Society, along with his twelve feature films and a hand-picked sidebar of “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make,” whose number includes works by Jacques Nolot (Before I Forget), David Cronenberg (Crash), and the inaugural film in the Final Destination franchise.

Unlike the Cronenberg of later years, Waters has never pitched himself as a serious thinker, though a few have seen into the depths of his fatuity. One such figure was Tom Allen, a lay Catholic monk who wrote film reviews for the Village Voice. “Beneath the sleaze and the uniformly hysterical pitch of the acting,” Allen wrote, “Waters is an austerely economical director who is figuratively comparable to Bresson. He is a driven, integral stylist. His troupe are beautiful ogres because they collaborate in absolute harmony with his ends, and are, therefore, not exploited.” The film that prompted this tribute was Desperate Living (1977), which features Mink Stole and Jean Hill, a four-hundred-pound special-education teacher, as Peggy Gravel and Grizelda. Peggy is one of those brittle WASPs who are figures of endless fun for Waters, and Grizelda is her black maid; the two women go on the lam to escape a murder rap and wind up in Mortville, a shantytown and a pied jumble of clashing, artificial colors against a backdrop of scrubby brown Maryland woodland, ruled over by despotic Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey, who Waters had “discovered” serving drinks at Pete’s Hotel bar in Fells Point). The flattened perspectives recall R. W. Fassbinder, as does the idea of suburban normalcy as a disfiguring affliction which invariably ends in madness. (Mink Stole here is in the Margit Carstensen role.)

Desperate Living is a sort of apotheosis for Waters, the world-building statement film that everything previous—Midnight Movie tent poles like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974)—had been working toward. Then, rather than cultivating and sustaining his amateurism, as the Kuchars did, Waters crossed over. This was at least in part due to the ongoing decimation of his “Dreamlanders” repertory crew by drugs, AIDS, and, to use a phrase that has never sounded so quaint and insufficient as when applied to the likes of Massey, best remembered as Baby Huey–esque egg lady Edie in Pink Flamingos, “natural causes.”

Waters’s transitional film, Polyester (1981), has Divine’s Jeep-size housewife seduced and abandoned by 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter, a cad who runs a drive-in theater that plays Marguerite Duras films. If Polyester is Waters’s stab at the weepie, Hairspray and Cry-Baby approximate the rhythms of the teen movie—the beach party romp and Elvis musical, transposed to a provincial Baltimore setting. Rewatching these films, what is most striking and even touching is their vision of the years of Waters’s youth—the late ’50s and early ’60s—as an act of role-playing on a mass scale, of America as a nation of stilted line readers, over-emphatically emoting in history’s spotlight. (“Integration is no laughing matter,” goes one line in Hairspray, though the film makes it exactly that.)

John Waters, Cecil B. DeMented, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes.

Waters continued to look backward with Pecker (1998) and Cecil B. DeMented (2000), which found the filmmaker revisiting his rough-and-ready early years through the stories of, respectively, Eddie Furlong as a naif Baltimore street photographer with an Arbusesque eye for the grotesque, and Stephen Dorff as a renegade filmmaker whose Mansonesque crew/family kidnaps Melanie Griffith’s starlet Honey Whitlock. (Her conversion to the convictions of her captors mirrors the experience of Patty Hearst, a Waters regular.) Cecil carries the torch of Underground against the Mainstream, one of the parodied dichotomies that recur throughout Waters’s work: Plebe/Royal (Desperate Living), Black/White (Hairspray), Drape/Square (Cry-Baby), Baltimore/New York (Pecker), Neuter/Sex Addicts (A Dirty Shame), Queer/Straight (all and sundry).

By the late 1990s, the mainstream had already been polluted by Waters, and something funny happened. In 2003, Manohla Dargis opined that “Poor John Waters…our king of kitsch and sultan of scatology—has outlived his outrageousness.” This was in the LA Weekly, in a review of the third American Pie film, in which Sean William Scott’s Stifler eats dog poo on-screen, an act that sealed Waters’s and Divine’s infamy in Pink Flamingoes. (That neither the feces nor Divine were a sham remains Waters’s distinction.)

“Alas, it’s all been done,” sighs Johnny Knoxville’s Libertine mechanic Ray Ray in A Dirty Shame. This could be the film’s writer-director razzing the perceived limitations of a lifelong dedication to bad taste, one of Waters’s several acknowledgments that the culture has shifted around him. There is a glimpse of the television talk show hosted by former Waters star Ricki Lake, one of the post–Jerry Springer Show programs that allowed Americans to gawp at the sort of people who might’ve once found a place as Dreamlanders, while yuppies from D.C. are gentrifying his beloved Baltimore. (“Texture, that’s what I call it” they cheerily say of what Waters calls sleaze.) At the same time, Waters’s attitude is plus ça change: A sound track of vintage records both intentionally and unintentionally perverse (“Tony’s Got Hot Nuts,” “Goo-Goo Dada,” “Hump-A-Baby”) aligns Waters with a classical tradition of American indecency going back to party records and vaudeville bump-and-grind. Some things never change with regard to Waters’s filmmaking, too. He was never good with third acts, but he knows how to stage a grand finale, and his trashcan Teorema ends with a curtain of CGI splooge oozing across the screen. If it turns out to be the last image in a John Waters film, it would be an apt one.

“Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” runs September 5–14 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.