April 22, 1946– John Waters is undoubtedly one of my favorite people on our pretty planet and 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 (many of them mine too), some living, some dead, most dating back to his teenage years. Under my own 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 that I purchased it anyway, even though I had already studied every page before returning the library’s edition.
Waters and I share a passion for Tennessee Williams. His started early in life, when the nuns at his Baltimore Catholic school told Waters that if he saw a film written by 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 singer Johnny Mathis. In his essay about Mathis, Waters remembers seeing a basement full of his friends French kissing to 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 chapters in Role Models is one about Mexican porn director Bobby Garcia, “who has blown hundreds and hundreds of really cute marines and lived to tell about it”, and 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 and delight. I often feel that writing for films would be the ultimate place that all writers dream of escaping, but here Waters is just the opposite. He claims that a filmmaker who writes a book always feels joyous and 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 and try to figure out why they did it. That’s what’s so interesting to me, and it’s not quite so obvious, and 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, and 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’ and ‘craft’ and ‘rigorous’ and ‘openly gay’, which always makes me laugh. Do they say, openly heterosexual so-and-so is appearing tonight? And 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 and 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 eight times, and 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, superstar Divine: Pink Flamingos (1972), Polyester (1981), Hairspray (1988), plus the fabulously demented Serial Mom (1994). My favorite John Waters flick is the rather sweet, even tender, Pecker (1998) with Lily Taylor, Edward Furlong, and Christina Ricci.
In 2014, I very much enjoyed his funny book about his adventures as a hitchhiker, Carsick. This travel book is about Waters putting his life on the line when, armed with his singular wit and a cardboard sign that reads “I’m Not Psycho”, he hitchhikes from his home in Baltimore to San Francisco, braving lonely roads and scary drivers.
Before he leaves for his zany adventure, Waters fantasizes about the best and worst possible scenarios: a friendly drug dealer handing over a lot of money to help finance films with no questions asked, a demolition-derby driver with a filthy sexual request in the middle of a race, a drunk with a revolver terrorizing and holding him hostage, plus a Kansas vice cop entrapping and then throwing him in jail. His actual rides include a gentle, octogenarian farmer who believes that Waters is a hobo, an indie band on tour, and Water’s unexpected hero, a hot young, blond, Republican driving a Corvette named Brett Bidle, who thinks Waters is a homeless man. Worried about Waters, he drives him from Maryland to Ohio, 4 hours away. Later, Waters reconnects with Bidle in Denver. Bidle then drives waters to Reno, 1000 miles west. Before moving on, Waters arranges for Bidle to use his San Francisco apartment for a while. Carsick is filled with subversive humor and warm observations about life.
I admire Waters’ assortment of interesting friends which include would-be Presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme, bank robbing heiress Patricia Hearst, former porn actor Traci Lords, and A-List actors like Kathleen Turner and Johnny Depp.
Besides being a film director/screenwriter, Waters is an occasional actor, stand-up comedian, and journalist. He is also a visual artist. One his own works is a Waters-ian version of a baby stroller made of leather bondage straps and featuring sex club logos. He is also a world-class art collector, with important pieces mixed with his famous fake food collection and dirt from serial-killer John Wayne Gacy‘s yard. Waters is a bit of a bibliophile, with a collection of over 10,000 books.
Waters, who is single, still lives in his hometown of Baltimore where all of his films are set. He also keeps apartments in NYC and San Francisco, and a summer place in Provincetown.
Waters says that making his kind of movies is too expensive nowadays. It is rough for him getting financing. I hope he has one more in him.