New York

John Waters

American Fine Arts

With Inga #3 (Five Close-ups), Inga #2 (Three Close-ups), and Inga #1 (Shall we make love?) [all 1994], John Waters discerns new possibilities in the Swedish softcore porn classic by displaying shots of the scenes that make it “his.” Inga: a wild discipline; ruthless abandon; a stiletto sense of pleasure’s drives. With these photos (“little movies” because they mimic film’s multiple frames), Waters remembers the profound liberation of moviegoing (too many have forgotten cinematic hedonism is thinking, not a psychic misdemeanor) while demonstrating that his esthetic, though it revels in trash, glitter, and moldy wonders, is motivated by elegance and an acetylene purity. Look at Chesty, 1993: the brilliance comes from surrounding her bottomy bosom with the only thing as resonant—blank space.

Waters has no truck with anhedonia. He insists that we renegotiate desire, question why we desire at all, and then forget questioning and plunge in. All his work returns to the smorgasbord of thrills offered by the neglected and the maligned—the thrill of boredom, vomit, hairdos, footwear, fetishes, abrasion, jiggle, criminality, and fat. Waters’ transvaluations are as beautifully extreme as Jean Genet’s but funnier, femmier (like Jack Smith or Andy Warhol), and more explosive. While a number of painters have recently failed to make movies of more than passing interest, although with some delightful performances of bewilderment (Keanu Reeves in Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic, 1995) or eccentricity (Ileana Douglas, Christopher Walken in David Salle’s Search and Destroy, 1995), Waters, one of the greatest filmmakers, shows us that some kind of inverse is more than possible. I am tempted to say (glossing Edith Massey in Female Trouble), Pace all that, queers are just smarter.

Providing the eau de vie rush of intelligence found in the essays of Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick—the Big Girls, the Ladies—Waters’ photos are essays on the overlooked (Foreign Film, 1994), the lost (Patty McCormack; alter ego Don Knotts), the magic of title sequences (Ross Hunter Turns into Douglas Sirk, 1994), cinematic metamorphosis (in Zapruder, 1995, Divine is Jackie Kennedy); and the obtuse weirdness of life. With a connoisseur’s eye, Waters returns movies and movie stars to the verismo of the immediate. “Reediting” these movies, he plays with the stills the way Carrie Stettheimer played with dolls to return the lived back to life through artifice. Reputation, 1994, honors six directors: Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Federico Fellini, and Randal Kleiser. To see only difference (hierarchy) between the first five and Kleiser is to be grossly unimaginative. Instead of reading the horizontal six-frame sequence as a sentence (read left to right), consider how an allegiance to Kleiser alters what and how you watch all the others; or becomes a shrewd commentary on linear genealogy. By capturing the Tahitian flatness of Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields, Kleiser’s aquatic masterpiece, Blue Lagoon, 1980, showed the squish of (teen) sex and the laughable quality of watching it performed. Fellini makes me tired, but thinking of Kleiser via Waters, like a dose of amphetamine, I celebrate Edra Gale in 8 1/2! Remember Edra Gale as Saraghina—the unbelievable festival of her appearance, her mass snuck into garb, her dance on the beach for a group of mesmerized boys (the boys watch Edra and you watch Edra and the boys watching Edra): her spectacle has been equaled only by Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday, 1973, disrobing post-nip-and-tuck to demand “What about these breasts?” and bettered only by Divine, who combined the beachy, slattern expanse of Edra with the bejeweled, galactic, fleshy genius of Liz.

Imagine Lana Turner’s refusal and your own when looking at Lana Backwards, 1994, eight miraculous shots of the back of Lana’s body, the back of her blonde hairdos, her precise frocks, her ramrod posture. The back of Lana’s head—what can be learned by it alone? If Lana can turn away from it all, a movie star’s raison d’être being to give presence away as if it were a gift, consider how easily you could refuse everything: even refuse, at times, refusal, transmuting it into a kind of elegant generosity. Fans—as collectors, salvagers—watch their stars’ backs, protecting them from a decline into has-been. But from this vantage, fandom can easily turn into stalking, adoration into I-love-you-to-death. The erotic cleft of Lana’s French twist contains all this.

Waters learned it at the movies: silence, severity, surface, smarts, glamour, style, perversion, language, menace, rhythm, awe. His sensibility, even sexuality, is of moviegoing. He has accomplished his work not by aligning himself with the political, the historical, the social, but by recognizing that vision (as thought) leads to all that and everything else. He has his way with vision. His photos are memos: while watching movies, think about their strangeness and your own, the strangeness of visuality itself. As with few other artists, looking at Waters, how easy it becomes to distinguish existence from, well, life.

Bruce Hainley