gamut (2007-38)


by Mike Gibson

There is perhaps no better evidence that freaknik filmmaker John Waters has been co-opted by the mainstream than the fact that his 1988 cult classic Hairspray (budget: $2 million) has not only been recast as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, but also remade as a star-laden Hollywood production (budget: est. $75 million). Waters himself was tapped as a consultant and has a small role in the picture, which was released in July and had grossed $112,000 million domestically as of Sept. 2.

â“I donâ’t know that Iâ’ve become any more accessible,â” says Waters, speaking by phone from his hometown Baltimore. Waters will make an appearance in Knoxville on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Bijou Theatre for one of his famously funny monologue presentations, An Evening with John Waters.

â“I think American humor today is very much what we could have called sick humor back in the â‘50s,â” he continues. â“I remember when I was a kid, I used to buy these little paperback books called Sick, Sick, Sick Jokes, and today thatâ’s the kind of stuff you see on the number-one television show. Everything has changed. Pink Flamingos plays on ordinary cable TV uncut now. How could that be? Even Iâ’m shocked by that.â”

But it remains an open question who has changed most, and by how muchâ"society, or the man whose first 8mm short, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), is about a white ballerina who marries a black man in a trash can in a rooftop ceremony performed by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Today, John Waters is arguably more an institution than a shock artistâ"a TV host, compiler of two relatively straightforward CD music anthologies (A John Waters Christmas, and this yearâ’s A Date with John Waters), and a professor of Cinema and Subcultural Studies at the European Graduate School.

And some of his middle- and late-era filmmakingâ"with the most notable exception being 2004â’s Johnny Knoxville vehicle A Dirty Shame, an antic romp through realms of fetishism and nymphomania and other sexual devianciesâ"seems almost wholesome when compared with, say, Pink Flamingos and its sundry perversions, such as a talking sphincter and the infamous closing credits during which cross-dressing lead actor Divine makes a mid-day snack out of a fresh-laid doggie stool.

And Waters freely admits that perhaps heâ’s mellowed some with age: â“Iâ’m 61 years old, and an angry 61-year-old is a major asshole. Itâ’s great to be an angry 25-year-old; every 25-year-old should be angry. But after 30, you canâ’t blame your parents anymore. And if you havenâ’t worked it out by 40, then shut up. This is the hand youâ’ve been dealt, so letâ’s get on with it.â”

By the same token, he believes his films have remained generally consistent over the decades in terms of subject matter, base-level shock value and tone.

â“You could see any one of my movies,â” he says, â“just line them up in a row, pick one at random, and youâ’d know what all my movies are like. I could never pick one that stands out for one reason or another. Theyâ’re all John Waters movies.â”

Indeed, Waters seems to have been groomed by the fates for his role as cinemaâ’s most celebrated sicko. During his formative years in Baltimore, he was obsessed with show businessâ"he was a regular reader of Variety magazine, even as a childâ"and especially movies, which he would often skip school to attend, sometimes watching the screen through binoculars from a nearby hill at a local drive-in when he didnâ’t have money for a ticket.

Yet the subjects that most often captivated his youthful imagination, both in films and elsewhere, were decidedly unwholesome, at least by ordinary standards: burlesque performers, fetishism, gore, crime and criminal psychology.

â“It started with me liking the villains in Walt Disney movies,â” he chuckles. â“I liked the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz and the stepmother in Cinderella. I always liked the wrong people. Then I became interested in the Alphabet Bomber, the one who supposedly bombed things in alphabetical orderâ"airport, barber shop, car wash... I was fascinated by people like that, people whose motivations I couldnâ’t understand myself, and whose actions I would hope I could never commit myself.â”

At age 16, he found an outlet for his strange fascinations in film, taking up a camera and making 8mm and 16mm movies featuring a small coterie of like-minded, misfit friends as his regular cast members. And from the beginning, he says his instinct was to push the limits of what constituted acceptable filmmaking.

â“I was a movie fan, and when I was growing up, directors pushed the envelopes from all directions,â” Waters says. â“When I was coming up, we had the Legion of Decency condemning some movies for their content, which only served to validate those movies for me.

â“There were the art movies, where youâ’d have someone like Ingmar Bergman showing breasts in a movie, or somebody vomiting in a movie, and that was shocking. Then I would go to the drive-ins in Baltimore, where they would test exploitation films, Blood Feast and that kind of thing. And then I would go see underground movies in New York that were pushing the limit in a different kind of way. And I sort of put the three of them together to come up with the genre that now defines whatever a John Waters movie is.â”

Waters adds that he devotes a portion of his Evening-With monologues to discussing his directorial influences, including Kenneth Anger, Russ Meyer, Herschel Gordon Lewis, Andy Warhol. And of course Bergman, whom Waters credits as the real progenitor of many of the cinematic shock tactics with which he himself is credited with pioneering. â“People donâ’t realize how much he did,â” Waters says. â“He was the â‘Puke Kingâ’ [which Waters has been dubbed by some critics], not me. He did it first. I was a mere disciple.â”

Though he doubtless understates his own role as a trailblazerâ"and a remarkably fearless one, at thatâ"Waters recognizes that todayâ’s audiences are more open to subversive cinematic notions than at any time since the early and middle â‘70s, before Star Wars and its over-budgeted ilk doomed the last great era of risky auteur filmmaking.

â“Itâ’s a great time to make movies,â” Waters says. â“Lots of studios are looking for that next great weird movie, the next Blair Witch Project or whatever. Now theyâ’re looking at how to make money on the Internet. Because thatâ’s where the next sensation is going to come from, an underground film that terrorizes people on the Internet. Whoever figures that out is going to be the next â‘Puke King.â’

â“I loved that movie Tarnation [a documentary about director Jon Caouetteâ’s relationship with his mentally ill mother, pieced together from Super 8 home movies] a lot. I think Todd Haynes [Velvet Goldmine] is a brilliant guy. I like [Canadian gay filmmaker, writer and photographer] Bruce LaBruce, off the top of my head. There are so many good ones. Itâ’s a great time for kids.â”

But Watersâ’ own most recent projects donâ’t bank much on shock valueâ"unless you find shock value in the notion of the so-called Puke King appearing as a cable television host, or compiling a commercial album of earnest Christmas songs. In addition to the aforementioned CD anthologiesâ"which feature the decidedly non-subversive likes of Tina Turner and Dean Martin and Ray Charles, among othersâ"heâ’s also been tapped as the host of â‘Til Death Do Us Part, a Court TV real-life crime series about marriages that ended in murder.

â“It just seemed right up my alley,â” Waters says of the latter. â“I really hate going to weddings. So the idea was that maybe now people wonâ’t invite me anymore. If Iâ’m lurking around your wedding, it must mean somebodyâ’s going to die. I liked the whole concept of it.â”

And then thereâ’s the reworking of Hairspray, which stood even in its original version as arguably Watersâ’ most accessible film to date. The â‘07 remake was directed by Adam Shankman, helmsman of such shockingly mainstream fare as The Pacifier, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and The Wedding Planner. And its cast includes A-list stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and John Travolta, who performs in drag, taking the former Divine role of Edna Turnblad.

And Waters, whose participation in the film began in pre-production, gives glowing reviews to Shankmanâ’s directorial decision-making, as well as to all of the players involved.

â“I was involved from the beginning, as a consultant, basically, besides having a role,â” he says. â“Everyone came to Baltimore, and I gave them the Baltimore tour. New Line cinema tested some ideas with me. I even wrote a letter to John Travolta; I was one of several people who helped talk him into doing the movie. And I think the movie turned out great.â”

Still, Waters maintains that none of this is evidence that his flair for freakishness has gotten soft around the edges. â“I think the American public has changed way more than Iâ’ve changed,â” he says. â“John Waters is still John Waters.â”


All content © 2007 Metropulse .