John Waters is undoubtedly one of my favorite people on our pretty 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 (many of them mine too), some living, some dead, most dating back to his teenage years.
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. In the mid-1960s, Waters met Harris Glenn Milstead through a mutual friend. They were the same age, lived in the same neighborhood and gravitated towards the same counter-cultural scene. It was Waters who first named Milstead “Divine”. Together they made: Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Polyester (1981), and Hairspray (1988).
Besides being a film director/screenwriter, Waters is an occasional actor, stand-up comedian, and journalist. He is also a visual artist. One of 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’s eighth book is Make Trouble. It’s a thin volume, an adaptation of the speech he gave the Class of 2014 at Rhode Island School Of Design. It is enhanced by playful typography and droll, sketches by Eric Hanson, one of Waters’ best friends. Like his films, Make Trouble fulfills its genre expectations while also subverting them. It would make a swell gift for a brooding, easily offended upcoming grad.
His newest memoir Mr. Know-It-All (2019) is a look at the next chapter of Waters’s career, with bigger budgets and rising respectability. Writing about the iconic smellploitation film Polyester in glorious Odorama; the integrationist dance-hall fantasia Hairspray, Waters: “Even racists loved Hairspray!”; Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994) starring A-listers Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner; and the Hollywood satire Cecil B. Demented. Jeanne Moreau called A Dirty Shame (2004), with Johnny Knoxville as the head of a cult of sex anarchists, “poetry”.
When asked by the failing New York Times: “If you could require the President to read one book, what would it be?” Waters answered: “Surgery Of The Anus, Rectum And Colon, by J. C. Goligher”.
When asked about America’s current predicament, Waters disdainfully quipped:
“I hated him before he became President. I hate a hopper. A hair-hopper is someone who pretends they’re rich, who really wasn’t brought up very wealthy but now tries to brag that they’re rich, and they spend too much time on their hair.
I hate liberals who say: ‘I’m leaving the country’. Oh, like it’s going to matter. You’re not that important, go ahead. But the only thing I can think that’s positive is that a new kind of anarchy is going to happen next.“
Waters, who is single, is sequestering in his home in Baltimore where all of his films are set. He has apartments in New York City 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.
More maxims from the pencil-thin man with a pencil-thin mustache:
“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.