On a grimy peninsula off the mainland of good taste, in a Baltimore far from the threatening realism of “The Wire,” still reigning over his own personal filthdom, lives the original Pope of Trash, John Waters. The “Hairspray” director may not have made a movie since 2004, but he has toured a successful one-man show, hitchhiked across America and popped up in movies from “Seed of Chucky” to “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip.” Now he’s returned with a girthy new book of hot takes and shocking gossip.
In “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder,” Waters recalls the rise and droop of his movie career and offers advice to aspiring filmmakers, style icons and “sensation-monger(s).” His roguish charm may be enough to make readers feel “all warm and scuzzy inside,” but sadly it seems the book was born of existential crisis. “Suddenly the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me,” writes Waters. “I am accepted.”
The road to recognition was long, of course; no trash empire is built in a day. In his first memoir, “Shock Value,” Waters recounted the depraved true stories behind his early movies (“Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble”). These cinematic eructations, starring the “filthiest people alive,” were no more than midnight movies, cult hits – cult meaning “three smart people liked it and nobody paid to see it” – but they nonetheless came to form the basis of the director’s legacy. Today, they play like a kind of Jackass Drag Race; Waters’ anarchic, lo-fi style was ahead of its time. And like many once-shocking things, these “celluloid atrocities” now enjoy critical adulation and Criterion Collection releases.
“Mr. Know-It-All” tracks Phase 2 of Waters’ career, a time of growing budgets and rising respectability. From the “smellploitation” classic “Polyester,” whose “Odorama” technology promised audiences a thrilling olfactory experience, through the integrationist dance-hall fantasia “Hairspray,” his “Trojan horse” (“Even racists loved Hairspray!”), the production values of his films gradually rose. Follow-ups “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom” would find star backing in Johnny Depp and Kathleen Turner. “Pecker” was big in Japan, while Hollywood satire “Cecil B. Demented” was funded by the French cineastes at StudioCanal. Jeanne Moreau called “A Dirty Shame,” a film that stars Johnny Knoxville as the head of a band of sex anarchists, “poetry.”
Waters, then, had found his people. But he couldn’t always persuade the suits to part with the money or license necessary to splatter his uninhibited vision on-screen. “Should I have been disappointed that a love story between a drag queen and the movie star Tab Hunter with the smell of natural gas and pizza mixed in hadn’t ripped it up at the box office in Peoria?” he asks.
The joy of Waters is rooted in his seeming faith, naive but strangely inspiring, that sex jokes might create a better world. The exuberant naughtiness of his work thus has a political purpose. Think of Divine mincing through Baltimore in “Pink Flamingos,” gleefully indifferent to the stares of passers-by: Waters’ work, however absurd and disgusting, celebrates this indifference and in so doing aims to expand tolerance. By exposing soiled humanity for what it is, he harpoons hypocrisy and promotes a kind of acceptance so capacious that few escape its filthy embrace.
And he practices what he preaches. “Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison,” he boasts, later recalling a dinner enjoyed with onetime Black Panther (and convicted murderer) Johnny Spain. Meanwhile, his long friendship with Patty Hearst, a woman not untouched by controversy, led to the heiress-hostage taking roles in five of Waters’ films. “Hadn’t she been performing with the SLA all that time so as to stay alive?” he asks. “This time, at least she’d have on-set catering.”
The book’s second half ditches the Hollywood memoir in favor of less structured but equally riotous material. Waters’ extended riffs on architecture, cuisine, Warhol and more are essentially a rebel’s attempt to buck the acceptance he’s accidentally found. He enthuses about gorilla art (yes, literally paintings by chimps); takes an NC-17 tour of America’s sex clubs; speculates on the future of terrorist-activism. He teases out the stupidest implications of a string of conceits, including his proposal for a brutalist dream house characterized by “Stalinist chic, Stasi nostalgia. Designed to be unfriendly,” and his idea for a restaurant – Gristle – that serves foie gras “made from horse corn that was forced down the throats of masochistic ducks who enjoyed being humiliated by the butchest liver-loving farmers this side of the French border.”
In a chapter guaranteed to delight fans, Baltimore’s filthiest celebrates his 50-year friendship with actress Mink Stole by inviting her to his Provincetown, Mass., home for a carefully planned, LSD-fueled night in. “Every sparkle of the moon on the water turned into pinwheels and prisms of pop-art beauty,” he writes. “We weren’t juvenile delinquents anymore, we were finally mature multiple maniacs.”
That this Prince of Puke has become an accidental darling of American cinema and letters – an institution, however depraved – may be a dirty shame to him, but it’s a blessing for the rest of us.