The Complete Films Of John Waters (Every Goddam One Of Them…) @ British Film Institute, Southbank Centre, September And October, 2015 – A Personal Appreciation
‘Why are so many great fans of mine dead, and so many assholes alive? Life’s a lottery, and it’s not a fair one’. – John Waters, trash cult film director.
Has gay film director John Waters been miscast from birth? Tall, thin and frighteningly dapper, with trademark, pencilled-on moustache, he’d be a pitch-perfect mortician’s assistant. Who else could handle the awkward absurdities of the American Way of Death with such dry, hilarious aplomb? Who else would even care if a deceased’s eyelids are super-glued tight shut in an open casket, let alone whether a satin, coffin lining’s the precise shade of puce?
Pope John Waters, that’s who, the legendary, fan-appointed, sacred head of filth and the unthinkable, in short, everything that makes straight, reactionary bigots wet their panties and pray for deliverance.
A man as passionately devoted to popping taboos and dumb preconceptions as a teenager nuking zits, Waters infamously persuaded Divine, his outsize, female impersonator ‘star’ to eat fresh dog-sh*t live on camera in Water’s first, break-out feature, Pink Flamingoes.
He’s also kick-started the career of one Johnny Depp (the Juvenile lead in Polyester) and in Hairspray (the original, with Divine, not Travolta) fearlessly exposed the endemic, white-on-black early 60’s racism the US is still trying to retroactively erase.
So, a PC paragon, then, flawlessly ticking every box possible, from gay, trans, plus-size and anti-racist rights? Well, of course, and how could he not be? As a thinking, intelligent, self-aware gay man, shouldn’t sensitivity to minorities automatically come with the territory?
But remarkably, what seems like simple humanity to you and I still sparks redneck resentment towards John’s oeuvre. Perhaps that’s why he’s still not quite internationally acclaimed to the extent he deserves, which hopefully, this ongoing season of his entire output at London’s BFI will correct.
Cinematically, he’s often compared to Russ Meyer, the big-breast-obsessed sleaze supremo, who rushed out nearly two dozen movies best described as deranged, Carry On antics pumped up on (female) steroids. Now misleadingly treated as art-house fodder, they’re actually nothing but naive, rush-produced ‘jerk-off movies for guys who liked big tits’, as John fondly recalls. And faced with real, art-house depravity mocking his own tastes – John’s trans star Divine looked like a bizarre, buxom woman – Meyer was ‘always uneasy. But he made exploitation films for the exploitation theatres, and I made exploitation films for art theatres’. Tellingly, his own, sexually candid work, is both absurdly cartoonish and ironically deadpan; think Family Guy re-imagined as Queer As Folk set in the American boondocks.
It’s a singular, kitsch-with-knives perspective that, to date, has spawned seventeen, disturbingly strange, cinematic offspring. Does he have a particular favourite amongst his filmic brood? ‘I like them all, they’re like children, but children with learning disabilities. But generally, you root for the ones that didn’t do well at the box-office. And I’m very fond of Cecil B. Demented, my political movie, but I hope I have more sense of humour than Cecil did, because he was a fascist, and like all cult leaders, they never think they’re funny’.
Not surprisingly – during fifty years of movie-making – John’s also explored related art-forms like writing, one-man shows and photography, each a twisted, trademark success. Although always an art collector – ‘I had a silver, Andy Warhol Jackie O print that cost a hundred dollars my girl-friend(!?) gave me back in high school in 1964’ – John didn’t start showing his photo-art until the early 90s. Recently, this summer, London gallery Sprueth Magers hosted his ‘Beverly Hills John’ photo exhibition, a collection in typically brilliant bad taste.
And the sickest shot on show? Easily, Jackie O in Dallas the day of JFK’s assassination, with ‘Death Dude’ from the Scream slash-flicks superimposed smiling beside her. Gee, how’s that for spitting on the great-for-straights, cornball American Dream?
But that, of course, is just a splinter of John’s fabulously subversive iceberg. Quite aptly, his blanket desecration, of politics, gender and family values was a stellar inspiration for irreverent, punk rock guru and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. ‘He took the image of Divine from Female Trouble and appropriated it on a T-Shirt without Divine’s name or the Film’s title, and when Divine started seeing all these punk women, he was like, ‘Oh my god, I feel so Plain Jane!’.
Divine being ironic, surely, but if punk’s lost all shock value with pierced couture on every high street, John’s scathing satires still bite. Extreme in every way – except in his debonair, butter-soft demeanour – he even adores fellow auteur David Lynch’s otherworldly record releases. ‘Well, his music to me is perfect for funerals’. Even at your own? ‘Yes, I think it’d be good. I asked Nico (legendary Velvet Underground chanteuse and deep-voiced diva) if she’d sing at my funeral and she said, deadpan, ‘Oh, when are you going to die?’
It’s a question one imagines John asking repeatedly during his one-time obsessive attendance at murder trials. ‘Any villain that was hated by everyone made me interested, as when I first read about serial killer Richard Speck, who killed a whole bunch of nurses. But I don’t go to trials anymore, I teach in prisons and try and get people out on parole, and I think if I hadn’t become a film-maker I would have become a defence lawyer. But as a judge, I’d be a pushover; I’d be a liberal, then they’d (the accused) get out and kill me!’
Let’s hope not. Shockingly people-friendly and approachable, in an era of routinely unavailable and sulky celebrities, John’s happy to pose for fans. ‘Why wouldn’t I? I’m always on my bicycle in Provincetown and the minute I stop, everyone wants a cell-phone shot. So of course I’m happy to pose for a picture. Well, aren’t they my customers who’ve paid my rent all summer?’
Admirably, John also applies that breezy, beautiful modesty to his artistry, particularly writing, a process often pompously described as agonising by less gifted authors. ‘I write every day, it’s never easy, it’s never satisfying, there are good and bad days, but it’s not fun writing a book, but not torture, either. If I want fun, I’ll have a drink on a Saturday night. I mean, I have a job, so that’s good, my life is great, it’s not like I’m some tragic artist who’s never been understood. Sure, I didn’t get good reviews for a long time, but I had an eager audience from the beginning, so I’m hardly whining’.
Amen to that, and John’s eager, constantly attentive audience is spreading like an unstoppable, LGBT tsunami. Catch a ride on his filthily gorgeous tide ASAP. Find out more at www.bfi.org.uk/whatson