Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters / Edition 1 available in Paperback
- Pub. Date:
- Alyson Books
To call John Waters a cultural icon is almost insulting. This is after all a man who's entire career has been dedicated to the explosion of mainstream culture. But nonethless, from his earliest films he has been the center of controversy, acclaim, revilement, and reverence. He is the director of the notorious Pink Flamingos (in which the 300 pound transvestite Divine snacks on poodle poop) and Female Trouble (in which Divine as a man--with really nasty skidmarks on his shorts--rapes himself as a woman) as well as the crossover smash Hairspray (which introduced Ricki Lake to the world) and Serial Mom (in which Kathleen Turner offed Patty Hearst with a white pump.) From the days when the press wouldn't return his phone calls to the present, promoting his new films on network morning shows, and giving commentary on NPR, CNN, TNT, and The Sundance Channel, Waters has consistently been the outrageous voice of avant garde cinema. Critic Robrt Pela, examines Waters's life and impact on our culture in this book which is both a biography of Waters, and a remarkable, often hilarious, always illuminating look at his films, their impact, and the not to be believed cult of Waters fans.
The Films of John Waters: Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, and Cecil B. Demented.
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Robrt Pela is a contributing writer for Men's Fitness and The Advocate as well as a theater critic whose reviews appear each week in the New Times and are heard on NPR's Morning Edition. He lives in Phoenix.
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Read an Excerpt
The Weird World of John Waters
By Robrt L. Pela
Copyright © 2002 Robrt L. Pela.
All rights reserved.
THE SKY IS FALLING
"I think what influences you is movies that you innocently see that make you crazy in a wonderful way."
Tiny John Waters, trapped in the body of a 5-year-old, was in a sour mood. He was running out of ways to shake off the tedium of 1951 upper-middle-class suburban Baltimore, and the pressure was starting to get to him. He was afraid he might snap.
He had to escape, and he knew just where he was headed once he busted out: the "other world," the one he knew about from books and movies and records, which was much more fun than the suburban hell he'd been made to endure. In his storybook The Little Red Hen, the sky kept threatening to crash down on a retarded chicken with the amusing name of Henny Penny. In the movies, the Evil Queen wore a creepy black unitard, had a talking mirror, and plotted ways to kill sniffy Snow White for being pretty. Even people who lived in records had it better than him: On his 78 rpm of Cinderella, the bitchy Wicked Stepmother got to holler and throw buckets of dirty water on people. Plus she had her own scary theme song (Da-dada...Da-dada...) that announced her every arrival. For the rest of his life, he wanted that music to play whenever he entered a room.
But that would probably never happen. John was stuck in Baltimore while everybody in the other world was having fun. Dorothy was hanging around with Munchkins and ugly flying monkeys; Hansel and Gretel were getting eaten by a hag. But he had to go to church and be nice to other people, even if they were stupid or wore ugly shoes. It wasn't fair. He wanted someone he knew to get their hands chopped off and baked in a pie; instead, he got cheerful neighbors and meat loaf. Goddamn it to hell!
Reading helped, a little. His favorite book was Slovenly Peter: Cheerful Stories and Funny Pictures for Good Little Folks, about a bunch of kids who get tortured and die horrible deaths. Like Pauline, who burned herself up playing with matches. Or the kid whose mother had his thumbs cut off because he wouldn't stop sucking them. And the best story of all was about some nasty little boys who make fun of a Negro, so Santa Claus turns them black.
John felt better whenever be played Car Accident. He'd smash up his toy cars, then make up stories about the people trapped inside: They almost always ended up covered in blood and screaming, and someone usually shouted, "Oh, my God, there's been a terrible accident!" Now, that was living!
But it wasn't enough. Something had to give. He worried that if something exciting didn't happen pretty quickly, he might go nuts, like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz. He was afraid he might do something. He liked his family and he didn't want to hurt them, but hey, he was bored.
John got up from his desk, where he'd been drawing an electric chair, and went looking for his mother. He found her sitting by the fire, reading Collier's. He waited until she looked up from her magazine, and then he just plain blurted it out.
"Mother," he said, "Please take me to the junkyard!"
"What to do if your kid is obsessed with car accidents was not in the Dr. Spock book," John Waters recalled many years later. "So she did what any good mother would do: She took me to the junkyard to see the smashed-up cars."
In the half century since that trip to the local dump, Waters has arrived and taken up residence in the other world he dreamed of as a kidthe one filled with demented children and lunatic chickens and mean women who have their own theme music. The sky has been falling for decades, and John Waters is deliriously happy.
As writer and director of more than a dozen infamous film comedies, Waters has redefined the limits of bad taste. His movie heroes have eaten dog shit, injected liquid eyeliner into their veins, and been raped by giant lobsters. His early acting troupe, mostly unknowns whose primary talents were their odd looks or willingness to act perverted on screen, became superstars after appearing in his films. He discovered Divine, Ricki Lake, and Mink Stole; revived the careers of Tab Hunter, Pia Zadora, and Deborah Harry; and influenced hundreds of outsider artists to pursue high-profile careers. His early films, which draw on his personal obsessions, made filth fashionable, and the popularity of his later, Hollywood-produced movies placed him among the most recognized directors working in American cinema today. Waters' wacko plotlines and innovative casting have made a lasting impact on pop culture and have earned him the title "The Prince of Puke."
It certainly wasn't what his parents had in mind for their eldest son. John Sr., owner of a company that sold fire protection equipment, hoped young John would take over the family business one day; mom Patricia presumed her Johnny would marry a nice girl from Baltimore and raise a houseful of grandchildren. Neither imagined that their firstborn would grow up to make movies in which their neighbors' children ate puke or masturbated with the business end of a rosary.
Yet Mr. and Mrs. Waters unintentionally kick-started the showbiz obsession that eventually led to such stunning imagery. Without meaning to, they opened the door to the other world their son longed to live in when they took him to a broadcast of his favorite television program, The Howdy Doody Show, in New York when he was just 7 years old.
Waters had been infatuated with the antics of Howdy host Buffalo Bob and his degenerate pals for as long as he could remember. Clarabell the Clown was his favorite: A man with a woman's name, Clarabell was scary and funny at the same time. He wore clown white and acted retarded, and he and Bob hung around in a vaguely magical place where grown-ups talked to marionettes and dressed like children. No one had boring jobs or seemed to care about much more than the next cartoon or the names of the kids visiting the Peanut Gallery, which is what Bob called his studio audience.
Waters' visit to the Peanut Gallery in 1953 changed his opinion about the true nature of show-business magic and irrevocably altered the course of his little life.
"I saw there were five Howdy Doody puppets and 10 cameras and that the stage was tiny," he remembered many years later. "I couldn't even see the puppets, and Buffalo Bob was mean to me. But still I thought, This is all a lie, and this is what I want to do forever. And I knew then I was gonna be in show business."
Before that, Waters had contented himself with violent childhood fantasies. Obsessed with amusement park rides, he'd daydreamed about roller coasters that jumped their tracks and crushed crowds of innocent bystanders waiting in line for cotton candy. He'd spent hours drawing a carnival ride called the Crush, a modified Ferris wheel whose patrons were strapped into their seats and then slowly ground to death.
Other days, he'd pretended to be other people, dressing up as the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz or as his other favorite villain, Captain Hook. Taping his father's neckties to his forehead and shoving a coat hanger hook up his sleeve, he'd stalk the neighborhood, glowering at people and shouting dialogue from Peter Pan: "Quiet, you scugs! Or I'll cast anchor with ye!"
But after seeing Clarabell out of costume, little John figured he could be a big fake just as easily as some middle-aged, overweight guy in a clown suit. Suddenly, he had a goal: He was headed for showbiz, where he would rub elbows with all the weirdos he saw in movies and on television.
Waters turned the family garage into a haunted house, charging neighborhood kids admission to be scared by blasts of cold air and spooky noises. But his first attempt at entertaining the public was a flop: Local parents forbade their children to return to his horror house, and with no audience, he was forced to abandon the game.
His next show business venture proved more successful. After seeing the 1953 Leslie Caron feature Lili, which featured a lot of ornate puppetry, Waters began staging his own puppet shows. For $20, Baltimore housewives could hire 7-year-old John's violent version of Punch and Judy (in which both puppets got eaten by a dragon) for their children's birthday parties. Despite the gratuitous gore or perhaps because of it, Waters' programs were in constant demand. He did as many as five shows a week and brought home pots of money. When he grew bored with his scripts, which he wrote by hand on lined paper, he'd terrorize the audience by chasing after them with the dragon puppet.
Today, Patricia Waters prefers to believe that the puppets in Lili had the biggest impact on her son's later film career, but in reality young John had found a greater influence.
"I could see the local drive-in by climbing up on top of this nearby construction site," Waters says. "I would take binoculars and go up to the top of this site and watch bad movies."
He was especially taken with the tacky films of director William Castle, whose shameless screen gimmicks with names like "Illusion-O" and "Emergo," an effect that sent a skeleton out over the audience on a wire (in House on Haunted Hill), were more memorable than the movies in which they appeared. Waters especially loved The Tingler, a Castle movie that featured an effect called "Percepto," where theater seats were wired to give mild electric shocks at opportune moments of suspense.
Waters began working references to Castle's cheapjack pictures into his puppet shows. He even staged a puppet version of The Tingler, with younger brother Steve stationed under the benches at kiddie parties, grabbing ankles during key moments in the story. But The Tingler didn't scare the local cake-and-ice-cream crowd so much as confuse them, and word began to spread among Baltimore housewives that Johnny Waters was getting a little weird.
"It was about then I realized I'd better get another job," Waters says. "It was really uncool to be doing puppet shows for money, anyway. I never told anyone I was doing it."
Waters was anxious to grow up. "I couldn't wait to be a teenager so I could get pimples," he wrote in Shock Value, a collection of autobiographical essays. "When I entered junior high, I received the thrill of my life: Actual girl juvenile delinquents were in my class, and to my astonishment, they got into catfights. I immediately lost interest in the school's curriculum and concentrated completely on every move of these cheap girls."
His female classmates, who painted their lips with pimple medicine and refused to do their homework, became an obsession. Their teased hair, huge vinyl purses, and sour attitudes exemplified the rock-and-roll juvenile delinquent stance that Waters aspired to. When the scarier "skagettes" began to drop out or were expelled, he invented his own, sketching them in his notebook and writing long, elaborate life stories filled with sorrow, switchblades, and teenage pregnancy.
When he wasn't drawing delinquent girls, Waters was at the movies. "The drive-in was my temple," he says. "I went to the drive-in literally every night, because it was the only place where you could go unsupervised. Those drive-in years are where my film knowledge came from, in one senseall the exploitation movies."
He usually went with lifelong friend Mary Vivian Pearce, whom Waters has always called Bonnie. He says her influence resonates in every one of his pictures. "There are lots of things in all my movies that come from growing up with Bonnie," he says. "She's the only one of all the people from back then who is in all of my movies."
The Pearces were family friends, and Waters had known Bonnie his whole life. The teenagers began to spend more time together, and always ended up in trouble. "We were always getting thrown out of CYO dances or hooking school," Pearce says. "We were juvenile delinquents."
Waters remembers, "I lived at my parents' and she lived at her parents'. The quickest way for us to meet was walking up the railroad tracks. So we'd both walk up these railroad tracks and see each other in the distance. It was very Tennessee Williams."
The teens were forbidden by their parents to see one another, so Pearce would arrange dates with local boys, ditching them as soon as they left her parents' house. She'd meet up with Waters, usually in the worst dives in downtown Baltimore, and the pair would spend the evening drinking and crashing parties, where they'd dance the Bodie Green, a vulgar bump-and-grind they'd perfected.
Waters has written, "Parents should worry if their children haven't been arrested by the time they turn 16." But he managed to make it to that age without being tossed in jail. He was enrolled in a Christian Brothers high school, where he disrupted class by laughing at the preposterously pious lessons. He remembers being attacked one day by his religion teacher for laughing at the notion of manna from heaven. When Waters guffawed, "Oh, sure, I can hear the weather report now: partly cloudy with brief showers of bread," his instructor pounced on him.
It's no wonder Waters frequently played hooky. He'd hitchhike downtown and convince young women ("I soon learned that hairdressers were the best") to phone the school and pose as his mother calling to say he'd be absent that day. Then he'd spend the day at the movies, watching the films his Sunday school teachers forbade him to see.
"The nuns at Catholic Sunday school initially interested me in forbidden films," he says, "and I thank God for pointing me toward my vocation so early in life."
When he did attend school, the other students mostly ignored him. "I was never very close with my fellow classmates. My real friends were from my own neighborhood and wanted to be just as rotten as I did." Small and odd-looking, John sported a bleached-orange forelock and flamboyant clothing. He dodged hazing from local bullies by making them laugh and posing as a rebel. "The bullies wouldn't beat you up if they knew you were against authority," he says.
Waters began using drugs as a high school senior when a member of the student council offered him a joint. He quickly turned his neighborhood friends on to pot; soon after, the group discovered LSD and was tripping regularly.
That group had grown to include Mona Montgomery, a high school freshman So notorious for fashion crimes and hooking class that she was suspended from the entire Baltimore County school system. (Mona Montgomery is not her real name: Waters explained to Provincetown Arts writer Gerald Peary in 1998, "I changed her name in my book Shock Value because I don't know where she is today. She's not in show business and she's not a public figure.")
Mona and Waters became a crack shoplifting team, stealing records and art prints and anything else that wasn't nailed down from local department stores. The pair often hitchhiked together to New York City, where they did drugs and panhandled movie money. They watched films that weren't being screened anywhere else in mid-'60s America: trash-art epics by Kenneth Anger and the Kuchar brothers, and experimental movies by a new artist named Andy Warhol.
"These were the people who made me want to make movies," Waters says today. "I saw everything they did, and those movies were the biggest influence on me up to that point in my life."
Back in Baltimore, John Waters was anxious to put those influences to use. He had just been given his first movie camera: a small, hand-held 8mm Brownie, a gift from his grandmother on his 17th birthday. Armed with a camera, some film that Mona had shoplifted, and an enormous amount of chutzpah, John Waters was ready to make his first picture. And he was about to meet his muse.
Excerpted from filthy by Robrt L. Pela. Copyright © 2002 by Robrt L. Pela. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
|The Sky Is Falling||1|
|One Day in Bumberg||10|
|Some Sort of Discovery||48|
|On Eating Shit||63|
|The Sickest Movie Ever Made||72|
|The Cult of John||80|
|Isn't There a Law or Something?||93|
|Faggots, Fat Women, and Puke||111|
|The Triumph of Henny Penny||135|
|John Waters Filmography||151|