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A Brief Evolutionary and Memorable History of John Waters 2021

| August 17, 2021 | 0 Comments
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John Waters

“When I was a young, ‘art’ meant dirty.”—John Waters

John Waters is a man of many hats. Well, I have never seen John Waters in a hat, so perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that John Waters is a man of many coats. There is the special coat he used to steal records during his youth in Baltimore followed by the coat that he wore to flash Tracy Turnblatt in the insanely popular remake of his original film turned Broadway musical, and, the most recent, the fashion-forward and weathered denim coat he wore to lecture at Benaroya Hall in Seattle on Tuesday, June 3rd. The event was presented by Seattle Arts and Lectures along with the Seattle International Film Festival and was an interesting addition to SAL’s lineup of authors.

The coats may not be important. They are the least interesting of John Waters’ choices, but they are a good marker of moments that signal some very important steps in John Waters’ career. Perhaps they also help in explaining how John Waters managed to be an important, controversial Hollywood figure without succumbing to the mediocrity and untouchable attitude that too often seems to be on par with mainstream success. John Waters is simply who he has always been—the kid from Baltimore who likes to shake things up. When asked by the audience, “What about yourself do you think would surprise people?” Waters answered that he didn’t think that anything would surprise people. This seems true enough when listening to the man who spoke on Tuesday night.

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Waters is raunchily funny but also continuously charming. It was most likely this charm that helped him to convince his friend Harris Glenn Milstead to take his acting skills and willingness to dress in drag to the big screen as Divine. Waters early films were no-budget pieces that were usually only a few minutes long and were never made available to the public. In the sixties, though, it wasn’t about budgets or exposure; it was about art and having a great time. Waters says that he and Milstead would do things, “just to see if we could,” and this attitude led to his art. He is a sign of a time and a mindset that was refreshing in the 1960s, but also extremely empowering. In today’s political climate his ideas are equally as poignant. John Waters has never gone out of style, but his core following is surely expanding as our culture becomes once again saturated with the disaffected youth that Waters made himself an artistic pariah for. See, when John Waters was stealing records with his special coat he was also making films that were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in the film community—even what was respectable in decent society. He recalls filming a reenactment of JFK’s assassination in 1970 for a ten minute piece called The Diane Linkletter Story—with Divine cast as the first lady—and thinking all the while that it might be too soon, but it was just too great to not do.

John Waters is well-spoken, affluent and obviously has good taste, which means that he does trash because he chooses to. He picks characters and themes that he has a very real amount of respect for, and his films are designed to be a celebration of them. He cast Divine at the center of his early films because he genuinely loved Divine and he loved the idea of Divine. By the time he made Pink Flamingos he had graduated from 8 mm film and simple story lines, but his main goal still seemed to be to shock. His “Trash Trilogy” is an ode to all things filthy and in a way a love letter to the down and dirty things that no one else wanted to put in a movie. The films, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living are classics among Waters fans and signal a high point in the early part of his career. He topped this era, also known as his “High Filth” period with a gimmick that would help to cement his image as a showman as well as a filmmaker. Polyester came out in 1981 complete with “Odorama” cards with which audience members could scratch-and-sniff smells in the film. “Odorama” may have been a big draw, but Polyester was likely also a big success for Waters because it was the first of his films to avoid an X rating.

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Waters drew his inspiration from other “shock” directors, but he took their ideas of cinema and shock gimmicks a step further by being a link between the world of trash and the world of refinement. Soon he was melding his unique brand of shock comedy with more complete story lines and bigger stars. In Polyester he had used most of his normal troupe of actors, known as the Dreamlanders, in much smaller roles and this trend continued in his next film Hairspray where Ricki Lake, Sonny Bono, and Debbie Harry shared the credits along with Divine as a doting mother. Next came Cry-Baby starring Johnny Depp, Serial Mom with Kathleen Turner, Pecker with Edward Furlong, and Cecil B. Demented with Melanie Griffith. By the time A Dirty Shame (with Tracey Ullman and Johnny Knoxville) came around, it was obvious that Waters had gained the notoriety to tap big names for his films that would guarantee a degree of media interest. Waters, however, wasn’t just using these actors for their names—Waters likes playing with the public personas of his stars. He dirtied up Johnny Depp’s teen heartthrob image, he made Kathleen Turner a serial killer, and he gave Melanie Griffith a turn as a self-obsessed showbiz star turned cinema terrorist. These movies, too, marked a time when Waters learned to craft the subtlety in his satire that makes you feel more like he’s smirking at you from beneath his pencil-thin mustache rather then accosting you with an over-the-top shockfest.

By 2007, after a successful run on Broadway, Hairspray was being made into a film yet again. With a mix of big names and kids fresh off the Disney channel, it was a bigger, brighter, version of the original with a budget of seventy-five million compared to the original two million. It was written and produced by Waters, but it didn’t look like his picture. He appears briefly in the opening musical number and whips open his coat to flash the main character—and for any Waters fans in the audience, to remind them that he is still the same John Waters that would appreciate a flasher during a cheery musical number. The impact of this film shows just how satisfied Waters is with how far his work has come. He is willing to create something and then let someone else put their own ideas into it. He is a collaborator, but also a teacher. Waters does this through his films, yes, but he also fills a more traditional role through his lectures and his teaching—both in prisons and also at universities.

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Speaking on his craft and his life John Waters has cemented himself as a respected and recognizable figure for his contributions to film, but also for his role as a champion for society’s outcasts. He is lauded within gay and lesbian communities and film circles alike. And the crowd that came to watch him speak is an indication of his varied influence: his audience ranged from finely dressed middle-aged couples to twenty-something men dressed in drag. Waters spoke conversationally on a range of topics often letting a tangent take him somewhere that was unplanned. The lecture was a mesh of hilarious commentary about the state of society and filthy tidbits that had people groaning and laughing simultaneously. He’s not a juvenile delinquent anymore, but it’s fairly clear that growing up hasn’t changed his sense of humor only helped him to craft it. At the after party at the W Hotel, Waters joined diehard fans that had paid upwards of one hundred dollars for “Divine” tickets in order to meet him. What was probably planned as a cocktail party with Waters mingling with fans turned into a meet-and-greet the moment he walked in the door. His fans thronged him with movies and books in hand for him to sign. Eventually, Waters took a seat, creating an interesting image as several fans took the initiative to kneel at his feet. One long-wigged drag queen brought to mind a pastoral of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with her hair; the blonde nylon locks brushing Waters’ sneakers. After readjusting, the fan quickly stood up, pulled down his skirt, and asked Waters to sign his ass. It is an irony that Waters would appreciate. At the end of the party, I finally got a chance to take a shot. The line had been cut off and Waters was tired after almost two hours of smiling for pictures, answering questions, and refusing hugs (he’s not a hugger.) He stood up to go, adjusting his coat before turning to shake my hand and offer me a sincere thanks for coming. Shortly after he left the celebration had all but died out. John Waters’ work may not be for everyone, but without him, the party is suddenly a lot less fun. Maybe art doesn’t have to be dirty, but thank God there are those who like it better that way.

John Waters is currently working on his next feature length film Fruitcake.

Seattle Arts and Lectures will begin its 2008-09 series in September with Richard Russo

John Waters is well-spoken, affluent and obviously has good taste, which means that he does trash because he chooses to. He picks characters and themes that he has a very real amount of respect for, and his films are designed to be a celebration of them.

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