Shaidle Unchained

John Waters, Singular Maniac

April 04, 2017

Multiple Pages
John Waters, Singular Maniac

Filmmaker John Waters is one of those weather-vane celebs whom conservatives celebrate when they point in roughly the right direction.

For instance, and ironically, I’m writing this the day the inventor of the rainbow flag died, and the very gay Waters has expressed a bemused hostility to such mass-market queer iconography, along with “camp” (“Two older queens talking about Rita Hayworth under a Tiffany’s lampshade”).

Andrew Breitbart, in fact, was a lifelong fan of Waters. When they met, though, on Bill Maher’s show, it went badly—for Breitbart (which is saying something; admirers have blotted out just how crap the late conservative hero’s media appearances frequently were).

So, for instance, Waters was widely quoted postelection for saying:

I hate liberals who say: “I’m leaving the country.” Oh, like it’s going to matter. You’re not that important, go ahead.

Not every outlet included the sentence that followed—“But the only thing I can think that’s positive is that a new kind of anarchy is going to happen next”—which is too bad, because I happen to agree, but Waters and I may define “anarchy” differently. At least, these days…

“I kept hearing that Multiple Maniacs sent up its era’s radical left. This I had to see.”

In high school, I saw his cult movie Polyester at the Broadway just like the other local weirdos. But when I moved to the big city, I met scarily cool people who had seen (and even owned!) the older Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, and Female Trouble. I quickly and quietly caught up on Waters’ “trash” oeuvre via Suspect Video. While I was never able to completely get past his actors’ of-its-era hairiness, these movies were absurdist fun, with their proto-punk sensibility and mock-mental-hygiene dialogue (“The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life!”).

Affection for the man dubbed “the Pope of Trash” by no less a personage than William S. Burroughs was compulsory in hip circles.

Until he “sold out.”

Longtime fans who’d sat sanguinely through Divine chowing down on an actual dog turd literally recoiled (believe me, I was there) when Waters’ Hairspray and Cry-Baby broke through to the mainstream. Where had these wholesome, upbeat, pastel demi-musicals come from?! Sure, the heroes were still outsiders, but they were glossily embodied by real actors, not Waters’ Dreamlander stable of fellow Baltimore freaks.

Around the same time, his first books Shock Value and Crackpot came out, and I came to respect him more (with reservations; he’s since outgrown his juvenile obsession with murderers, but back then was still parroting Genet’s pernicious “crime is beauty” bunkum). Like those of his fellow indie impresarios Roger Corman and William Castle—who’d also crafted cultured, avuncular public personae—Waters’ stories about making his movies were far more endearing and entertaining than the finished products.

And that’s the John Waters the “straight world” has known best for most of this century: the New York Times best-selling author, and brains behind a Tony-winning Broadway musical that gets put on in high schools; the dapper, ever-pleasant yet ever-so-slightly edgy afternoon-talk-show guest; hell, he even staged a G-rated table read of Pink Flamingos with children (and without the puppy poo part).

Some aging artists, having thus risen from low- to middlebrow, would stomp down “rediscoveries” of their back catalog, but not Waters. Anyhow, few filmmakers could resist overtures from Criterion to restore and release a chunk of their obscure juvenilia. And so, 1969’s Multiple Maniacs (a.k.a. The One With the Giant Lobster Rape) is finally on DVD.

Which means Waters is on yet another press junket, patiently repeating highly polished drollery: The black-and-white flick, made for five grand borrowed from his parents, and formerly marred by ugly splices, now looks as crisp and pristine as “a bad John Cassavetes movie”; “The first comment I got when [the restored Multiple Maniacs] premiered was ‘That acid must’ve been good then’—and it was.”

Now, at this point in my life, I normally wouldn’t care. But I kept hearing that Multiple Maniacs sent up not just the usual low-value targets—square, suburban families and blustering authority figures—but also its era’s radical left. One minor character was a Weatherman! This I had to see.

And, well, it was just okay. No, I wasn’t that shocked by the drawn-out “rosary job” sequence; it was obviously a zany nod to Pasolini, and only slightly more profane than the sick fantasies of your average precocious Catholic kid.

What did startle me was one of Waters’ offscreen talking points. In virtually every promotional interview, he’s said a variation on the following, regarding the scene in which the “Weatherman” and “Lady Divine” (a criminal of apolitical persuasion) swap cop-killing anecdotes:

I look back on it now and think: “Oh my God, all this stuff about killing cops—not even the most radical group would say anything like that today.” And you forget, in the ’60s, “Off the pig” was a common slogan on a march, which is shocking today to look back on.

And in not one of these many interviews did anyone shoot back: “Are you still high? You live in FUCKING BALTIMORE!”

You know: Freddie Gray. Riots. Black Lives Matter. “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon.

In Charm City 2017, poor Tracy Turnblad wouldn’t end up dancing merrily with the black guys on the freshly integrated Corny Collins Show. Instead, they’d rape and kill her in an alley behind the studio. And no one would riot in her memory. After all, Baltimore averages a murder a day. Who can keep up?

I said earlier that Breitbart’s televised meeting with his hero was a disaster. It took place during the Tea Party’s ascendancy (which had been accompanied by the inevitable scatological response from the left), so Waters greeted him with “So are you a Tea Bag top or bottom?” The audience dutifully howled.

But, well, it’s not really funny, is it? Neither is Waters’ quip that Milo Yiannopoulos is “just the next Fred Phelps.” I’ll bet his famous mustache curdled when he mouthed that dumb, leaden line.

Yet those are the familiar sad, sputtering sounds liberals make when they’re trapped. Like all transgressive, avant garde blah blah blah progressives, Waters finds himself stuck in the very future he helped create—a reality show host for president!?!—but which is no longer under his control.

His apparent confusion about the real world extends even to one topic you’d think he’d be an expert on: political correctness.

He always insists perversely (and again, without journalistic pushback) that “all my movies are politically correct,” but then again, he clearly doesn’t understand the concept:

My philosophy is “Don’t judge other people until you know the whole story” and “Mind your own business.” That’s politically correct. That’s a very democratic way of thinking.

Like the kids say today: I can’t even!

Don’t get me wrong. The world will always need a John Waters or two. But he was never one of my heroes, even though, through his books—which mostly (and entertainingly) catalog his “loves” and “hates”—I learned about other artists I went on to revere, like Flannery O’Connor. For that I’m grateful.

Trying to track down a quote I didn’t end up using here, I came across another, in the revised edition of Crackpot, put out in 2003, fifteen years after the first. In a new introduction, Waters reevaluates some of his old passions, such as smoking. (He’d since quit.)

And after reading journalist Oriana Fallaci’s new book (‘The Rage and the Pride’), I think I hate her now rather than love her.

“Hate” is such a strong word. But I think I know how he feels.

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