April 22, 1946– John Waters is undoubtedly one of my favorite people on the planet & one of my best reading experiences of the current decade was making my way through his memoir Role Models (2011), a collection of essays about his idols, some living, some dead, most dating back to his teenage years. Under my New Austerity Program, I borrowed this book from the library after making a pledge to check out books from my local branch rather than purchasing them in hardback from Portland’s Powell’s City Of Books. I loved Role Models so much; I purchased it anyway, even though I had already studied every page before returning the library edition.
Waters & I share a passion for Tennessee Williams. His started early in life, the nuns at his Baltimore Catholic school told Waters that if he saw a film written by Tennessee Williams he would go “straight to hell”, so naturally he headed for the library to find the “joyous, alarming, sexually confusing” writer who “saved my life”.
We also both have a thing for Johnny Mathis. In his Mathis essay, Waters remembers seeing a basement full of his friends French kissing to Johnny Mathis music. Waters explains:
“I knew then that not only did I want to be a teenager… I wanted to be an exaggeration of a teenager.” Note that Waters wanted to be a teen, as if being a teenager were not simply a matter of putting in the time, but a lifestyle. You could actually fail at Teenagerdom if you didn’t do it right.
One of my favorites of the essays in Role Models is about Mexican porn director Bobby Garcia, “who has blown hundreds & hundreds of really cute marines & lived to tell about it”, & whose favorite film turns out to be The Hours (2002). Garcia claims to have seen it at least 25 times.
Waters writing is stealthy engaging, full of devotion & delight. I often feel that writing for the screen must be the ultimate place that all writers dream of escaping, but here Waters is just the opposite: a filmmaker who writes a book that feels joyous & celebratory. He is allowed to be the fan he wants to be in Role Models.
Maxims from John Waters:
“Be interested in other people’s behavior & try to figure out why they did it. That’s what’s so interesting to me, & it’s not quite so obvious, & everybody has horror stories, everybody has secrets, everybody has things they’ve done that they’re still trying to explain why they did. So if you can understand why other people did it, then maybe you’ll be better with yourself, & you can be a happy neurotic, which is what I’m trying to be.”
“I write about being gay in a refined way. I’m trying to give it grace, a word I would never normally say. I also hate the word ‘journey’& ‘craft’ & ‘rigorous’ & ‘openly gay’, which always makes me laugh. Do they say, Openly heterosexual So-&-So is appearing tonight? & that phrase ‘practicing homosexual’. Like, if he keeps practicing, he’ll get it right. First of all, I never call myself a gay artist. History decides if you’re an artist. I certainly think I’m equally right for gay & straight people.”
“I don’t have a gay agenda, although I vote gay. If someone said they were against gay marriage, I wouldn’t vote for them. But I have no desire to mimic something Larry King does 8 times, & I like Larry King. Good for him! He’s helping us. I hope he gets married 10 more times. Just don’t make me do what you want to do.”
The self-dubbed “King Of Filth” has directed 17 transgressive films since Hag In A Black Leather Jacket in 1968, including those starring his muse Divine: Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), plus the fabulously demented Serial Mom (1994), & my Favorite John Waters flick, the rather sweet, even tender Pecker (1998).
Last year I very much enjoyed his funny book about his adventures as a hitchhiker, Carsick. In one chapter, Waters tells about being picking up by Myersville, Maryland’s 20 year old Republican councilman Brett Bidle, who thought Waters was a homeless man. Worried about Waters, he drives him to Ohio, 4 hours away. Later, Waters reconnects with Bidle in Denver. Bidle then drives him to Reno, 1000 miles west. Before moving on, Waters arranges for Bidle to use his San Francisco apartment.
I admire Waters’ assortment of friends which include would-be Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme, bank robbing heiress Patricia Hearst, former porn actor Traci Lords, Kathleen Turner & Johnny Depp.
He says that making his kind of films is too expensive nowadays, it is rough getting financing. I hope he has one more in him. I would like John Waters to be a guest at one of my moonlit summer garden parties. He can bring anyone he wants as his guests.