A King in Exile

How can you be the Sultan of Sleaze when nothing’s shocking anymore? John Waters is trying to find out.

It’s been more than 40 years since John Waters etched his name in cinema history with the last three minutes of Pink Flamingos. “What you are about to see is real,” Waters’ nasal voice-over announces over grainy footage of his muse and on-screen avatar, Divine, a gloriously corpulent transvestite, who saunters across a Baltimore side street, takes a load of dog feces in her hand, and shoves it in her mouth. It doesn’t matter when you first saw these images: they are revolting. During Pink Flamingos’ premiere, audience members puked. At subsequent screenings, Waters provided vomit bags.

Waters, the so-called “Pope of Trash” and “Sultan of Sleaze,” makes his way to Dallas this month for a Wordspace-hosted performance of his one-man stage show, This Filthy World, at the Kessler Theater. It’s been more than two decades since Waters figured out how to take his gross-out circus into the mainstream with Hairspray (1988), and a decade since he made his last film, A Dirty Shame (2004). His films have been turned into Broadway hits, his art has been exhibited at New York galleries, and he has written a slew of books. The latest, Carsick, a semifictional chronicle of a recent adventure hitchhiking across America, comes out in June. By all accounts, Waters should have shocked himself out of relevance decades ago. These days, he is less gutter revolutionary than America’s favorite pervy uncle.

And yet, Waters holds tight to his reputation as “The King of Bad Taste,” even after becoming America’s most mainstream cult director. Ahead of his Dallas appearance, I delved back into the underbelly of Waters’ filmography, to see how his most notorious films—scatological deconstructions of America’s mid-century id, featuring a barrage of puke, pimps, prostitutes, perverts, pee, porn, punch lines, and pixie dust—play to contemporary sensibilities.

It’s easy to forget what a transgressive force his brand of taste-trashing skewering was in an era that saw Charles Manson and Watergate spoil the utopian dreams of the late 1960s. Going back over his early films can feel like an act of cultural anthropology. You have to remind yourself that, in Mondo Trasho, when Waters’ skeevy, long-haired hippie-rapist sneaks up on a Jane Mansfield-type, drags her into the woods, and furiously sucks on her toes, most of America didn’t know what a foot fetish was. And in Multiple Maniacs, when Waters’ troupe of perverts sets up a tent on the sprawling front lawn of an upper-class Baltimore neighborhood, inviting housewives to watch two men make out, legally married gay men didn’t exist, and they didn’t, as Waters put it in 2006, “have more kids than Catholics.”

Even though Waters is heralded for helping to break down taboos around homosexuality, he wasn’t a social pioneer or an activist. He reveled in the underground—illicitness bred excitement. And yet, what now feels transgressive about Waters’ early films aren’t the many perversions at play but rather the way his sleaze snaps with style. There’s something almost—dare I say it—tasteful about his grotesque, vaudevillian imagination. He presents his displays of sexual weirdness and vicious sadism with a carnivalesque showmanship. Putrid body fluids glisten in the glamorous glow of the stage lights. His shoplifting, murderous, baby-stealing, trailer-park-dwelling antiheroes are elevated through a melodramatic pageantry of tastelessness. This is not Kardashian crassness. No wonder Divine became—and remains—such an icon. He bristles with pure audacity, the sheer force of personality. He is Frankenstein’s monster brought to life by that spark of American entitlement, that sense that deep inside us, no matter how low we are on society’s totem pole, there is a burning desire for the limelight.

For a guy who claimed to start makingmovies before he knew what editing was, Waters’ lo-fi early style is deceivingly sophisticated. Without the budget for a proper soundtrack, Mondo Trasho is a mash-up of 1950s and ’60s teen ballads, with snippets of songs used as overdubbed dialogue. It plays like an adolescent fantasy reconstituted as a murderous nightmare. Desperate Living rewrites Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz into an allegory of social revolution that resolves in a cannibalistic coup as hedonistic as anything in the Satyricon. He wears his cult influences on his sleeve—Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Russ Meyer, Herschell Gordon Lewis—but there’s also a lot of Federico Fellini and Douglas Sirk.

What’s perhaps most surprising about returning to Waters’ films, though, is discovering how Catholic his imagination is. As with Fellini, Waters’ Catholic upbringing casts a shadow over his work. Marian apparitions egg on misfit perversions. Religious articles sit on walls during mass-murder scenes. A rape in a church is montaged with bloody, restaged stations of the cross. And while Waters is sensationally dismantling religious sensibilities, it is difficult to watch the ludicrous sex scenes—in which carnal pleasure is never depicted as an erotic act—and not catch a whiff of Augustinian austerity: sex as abuse, smacking of death. By the time he made the sentimental Pecker (1998), Waters betrayed an affection for the simple, old women who fetishize Marian devotion. It’s as if the filmmaker knows his sacrilege relies on a sense of the sacred, his twisted fantasies on the potency of superstition. Sex is more exciting when it’s dirty.

In Waters’ new book, Carsick, you catch more than a hint of nostalgia for a time when it was easier to drift wild on society’s fringes. His impetus to hitchhike across America feels like a stab at discovering some rancor that still festers in truck-
stop subcultures. And yet his admission that
he dreams of casting Jackass’ Johnny Knoxville in his next film only underscores the catch-22: you can’t revel in bad taste
in a culture that no longer has any taste at all.

Watching Waters today provokes a similar counterintuitive nostalgia for a time when the hypocrisy of middle-class morality and societal vanities was written more plainly on the veneer of social graces. Waters’ movies were Chaucer-like, an undermining of decorum that exposed a base and vile view of humanity that, nonetheless, appeared more honest and sincere. Today, however, from Johnny Knoxville to Kim Kardashian, society simply parodies itself, and reality outpaces satire.
What’s a court jester to do, then? Out of a job, he is forced to hit the road.