John Keats assures us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth.” The films of cultural juvenile delinquent John Waters see beauty and truth in trailer-trash junkscapes and the outrageous, disgusting doings of polite society’s outcasts, “the filthiest people alive.”
Born to a prosperous Baltimore family in 1946, Waters was raised Catholic, but “flushed” the religion’s strictures out of his sensibility as a teenager, though he appreciated the way Catholicism “increased my attraction to forbidden things.” Living in conformist mid-century suburban comfort, young Waters was homosexual and considered himself a beatnik. His patron saint was the gay convicted thief and author Jean Genet, whose words “the most sordid signs are the signs of grandeur” could be Waters’ credo.
Like the French Surrealists, Waters believes there’s something liberating about being jolted out of our comfort-zone trances by artistic experiences that meld bizarre juxtapositions, transgressive sex and violence, dirty words, and grotesquely exaggerated emotions.
Waters devotedly follows the Tao of Trash, but he also worships Hollywood glamour and celebrity, and his love of both sleaze and style fuse in the “gender blur” that is Divine. Nothing human is foreign unto Waters, and he wants to broaden and deepen our connection to our fellow creatures, even if they’re flamboyant 300-pound blonde-bouffant drag queens in too-tight dresses. As Waters tried his hand at making short films in the mid-1960s, he envisioned his corpulent, cross-dressing neighbor Glenn Milstead as Divine, high priestess of his trash aesthetic and female archetype of Waters’ cinematic universe. As Waters’ films grew to feature length, Divine became the superstar of the director’s repertory company, the Dreamlanders. Divine/Milstead died in 1988, but he contributed the most iconic image of Waters’ oeuvre as he cheerfully ate poodle poop in the final frames of Pink Flamingos (1972).
Waters’ films are driven by an “us-versus-them,” hip-versus-square dynamic in which being bad is a good, and the minority outsiders who embrace their “neuroses and obsessions” are the cool ones who emerge as winners. The director’s satirical jabs at middle-class suburban values struck a chord with disaffected late-1960s youth, and a cult quickly coalesced for John Waters’ midnight screenings. As the broader 1970s counterculture blossomed, Waters’ underground gems were discovered by cognoscenti who appreciated his aesthete’s stance: the way this highly intelligent, elegant man was choosing to be trashy.
Though Waters’ films teem with depraved characters and grossly offensive behavior that would shock a church congregation or the P.T.A., what’s most shocking about Waters’ sensibility is his benevolence. Even his most biting and edgy productions project a playful affection for all his characters, even “hideous yuppies.” As he says, “I make fun of things I like.”
Waters’ medium was repugnant to many, but his themes were serious: class distinctions, racial tension, desperate housewives, religious fanaticism, gender roles, drug-taking, teen pregnancy, and abortion. Mainstream Hollywood eventually recognized the sophisticated irony of his vision and funded more ambitious projects like the film Hairspray (1988), which became an award-winning Broadway hit. Millions of people were now being stung by Waters’ sensibility, but fans of his early High Filth period accused him of being too mellow in his middle age and diluting his subversiveness with sweetness. Still, Waters lives to shock, and the eyes of even his longtime professional collaborators popped wide open when he roared back with his NC-17-rated 2004 A Dirty Shame, in which the uptight suburbs are invaded by a sex saint and his apostles of perversion.
Over the past four decades Waters has taught film classes in prisons and been a cinematographer, film editor and composer. He has acted and appeared in 100 films and TV shows, and published eight books and exhibited his photographic artwork around the world. He’s written and directed sixteen films and is working on his seventeenth, Fruitcake. Will it be ferocious or temperate? All we know is that Waters will be Waters, and the movie will be funny as hell. Aglow with the Joy of Trash, the man with the pencil-thin mustache is smiling.
Selected Work – Filmography
Fruitcake (2008) — in production
A Dirty Shame (2004)
Cecil B. DeMented (2000)
Serial Mom (1994)
Desperate Living (1977)
Female Trouble (1974)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Multiple Maniacs (1970)
The Diane Linkletter Story (1969)
Mondo Trasho (1969)
Eat Your Makeup (1968)
Roman Candles (1966)
Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964)
Hairspray (2007; also executive producer)
This Filthy World (2006)