Younger generations of moviegoers seem to have a soft spot for the films of John Waters, having been introduced to them through their parents. But the Waters movies that push the boundaries of good taste and, indeed, throw taste completely out the window — like Multiple Maniacs, Desperate Living, and the legendary Pink Flamingos — might not have been their first exposure to Waters’ work. More likely, if kids today discover him, it’s from zany but relatively tame fare like Serial Mom, Cry-Baby, or Hairspray. But sooner or later, Pink Flamingos seems to get on everyone’s radar. “So many people come to me now and they say, ‘My parents showed them to me,’ ” Waters said. But back in the day, he said, “If parents found their kids at my movies, they called the police. So things have really changed.”
Waters, a special guest of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival and Meow Wolf, will perform his one-man show This Filthy World: Dirtier & Filthier at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Oct. 21. His films Cry-Baby and Cecil B. Demented are also screened at this year’s festival. “I do two shows every year,” he said. “One is a Christmas show that I’m doing this year in 18 cities in 21 days. This other show, This Filthy World, I do all year in different places.” Waters will also sign copies of his 2010 book Role Models.This Filthy World is a riotous foray into Waters’ beloved and deranged mind. No subject is safe, he said. “It’s autobiographical, but it’s also morphed into more of a spoken-word comedy routine about the movie business, art, crime, politics — everything. It’s really advice on how to have a happy life if you’re insane.”
Waters grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and ’60s as a fan of exploitation films, the splattery gore-fests of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and movies like Nude on the Moon,a 1961 nudist science-fiction film by Doris Wishman and Raymond Phelan. He also liked watching foreign films by directors like Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard, which he saw with his early film diva, the drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), a member of Waters’ troupe of regulars called the Dreamlanders.
“I used to take acid and take Divine to see [the films of] Ingmar Bergman,” he said. “I loved Bergman. He always had vomit in his movies for some reason, and nudity. You know, the foreign films broke all the taboos.” Divine appeared in several of Waters’ features, including Mondo Trasho (1969), the film that first put Waters on the map. Divine achieved infamy as the character Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos (1972), when, in the closing scene, Babs — rather unhappily, judging by her expression — downs some dog feces.
Like other Dreamlanders, Divine put up with a lot, like getting raped by Lobstora, the giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs (1970). “Multiple Maniacs was released by Criterion last year, of all places,” Waters said. “Also, Janus Films did it theatrically, which was astounding to me because I grew up watching Bergman and Truffaut and Goddard on Janus films. To add Multiple Maniacs to their label was a delicious irony for me.” Lobstora’s appearance in the film seems to come out of nowhere, but at the time, it made perfect sense for Waters to include the scene. “I think I was influenced by Salvador Dalí. Surrealism always had it. And there was a postcard from Provincetown with a lobster in the sky over the beach. It used to hang in my apartment when we were tripping, and we always used to look at it and think, ‘Oh my god. The lobster is going to attack us while we’re swimming.’ So that’s where that idea came from: LSD.”
Waters credits the Theatre of the Absurd as his first big influence as a teenager. “No one talks about the Theatre of the Absurd anymore,” he said. “They talk about different underground things, but they never talk about the Theatre of the Absurd.” Jonas Mekas’ movie column in The Village Voice also awakened his interest in cinema. “When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a beatnik, and I got The Village Voice because that was a beatnik paper. Jonas Mekas’ column completely saved my life because it inspired me and told me about Warhol and Kenneth Anger and what underground films were, and I realized that you didn’t need money. You could make a movie with your friends.
“My grandmother got me an 8-millimeter camera. I always was an optimist. I always thought you could do anything. I think that’s one of the things my parents put in me. They were appalled by what I was doing, but they gave me a begrudging respect that, somehow, I was doing this, even though they preferred it if the product had been very different. And my father’s name was John Waters. I was a junior. Something you should remember when you name your child the same as you is that you never know how they’re going to turn out. My father got my obscene phone calls in the middle of the night. I didn’t. I’m unlisted.”
Waters’ continuing popularity is aided by the fact that his films have achieved cult status. Hairspray also became a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2003, and he’s authored a number of bestselling books. But obscenity trials plagued his early repulsive, offensive, and uproariously funny films like Pink Flamingos. “I’ve never won an obscenity case with Pink Flamingos, because they’re technically right,” he said. “At midnight, Pink Flamingos is a joyous experience with an audience of your peers, but who wants to see it at 10 a.m. after you’ve been sworn in for jury duty? It is obscene.”
Waters maintains his friendships with the Dreamlanders who remain, like Mink Stole, who’s been in just about every one of his films. Divine died in 1988, while Edith Massey, another beloved Dreamlander who appeared in many of his films in the 1970s and early ’80s, died in 1984. Waters has kept up a certain notoriety, but even if he’s still trashy, he’s also mellowed. It’s almost as if the films of yesteryear have passed into a state of near-general acceptance. They exist. Everyone can see them, and they aren’t going anywhere — and neither is Waters.
He remains humble, despite his having become a household name. “My mother was only impressed when I was on Jeopardy! as an answer, which I’ve been a couple times. But each time I get to be the easier answer, which means my fame went up. That’s the only judgment I have, is what level I’m at as a Jeopardy! answer. I always said I wanted to make exploitation films for art theaters, and now I’ve turned into Kroger Babb. He was the one that toured the country with a nurse — and they would show sex education films, so they could show the birth of a baby — and he would come out and talk. Well, that’s me. I am Kroger Babb. But I’m still doing what I always do, which is telling stories.” ◀