Roles of a Lifetime

You might be surprised by some of the role models that filth-happy movie maker John Waters includes in his book of influences. A few are staid, respectful even tasteful models such as Johnny Mathis.  On the other hand…

Waters admires Mathis because they’re opposites. Mathis is, “So mainstream. So popular. So unironic, yet perfect.” With this observation,  Waters makes one of his more revealing personable observation. “Versus me, a cult filmaker whose core audience, no matter how much I’ve crossed over, consists of minorities who can’t even fit in with their own minorities.”

Like any of us, Waters just wants to be loved. More than he already is. Loved like Johnny Mathis.

Introspection isn’t Waters’ thing and if you’re looking for a direct view into the man’s psyche you’ll be disappointed. But you won’t be disappointed in the sideways glimpses he gives.  Waters guides us through the twisted world of his admiration with many side trips into tangential lives that all help define his eclectic taste. We already knew that Waters was different and he uses his role models to define that difference. What’s not included here is why.

And maybe he just doesn’t want to tell us. In an early chapter on Tennessee Williams, Waters questions whether Williams spoiled his public personae later in life with his Memoirs. “Was Tennessee Williams nuts to reveal everything about his personal life as he got older, or was he just high?” Yet Waters revels in the revelations and credits Williams with helping to work out his own sexuality. “Tennessee never seemed to fit the gay stereotype even then, and sexual ambiguity and turmoil were always made appealing and exciting in his work….Tennessee Williams wasn’t a gay cliche, so I had the confidence to try to not be one myself. Gay was not enough.”

Waters book is less about personal matters and more about preference. Most of the personalities introduced here — and there are many more  than the book’s ten chapters might suggest –are kindred spirits rather than role model. Waters finds something to like in all of them, including Manson girl Leslie Van Houten. His friendship with Van Houten isn’t well explained. Early on, he appears drawn to her because of his own exploitation of the Manson family  in some of his early film. He defends her on the grounds of mercy, retribution and the passage of time, even comparing her punishment to that of convicted Nazi war criminals. It’s the book’s most controversial and confusing chapter.

Waters is at his best when discussing folks out of the public eye. “Heroes of Baltimore” delves into the city’s bar and club scene (the good bars, “have no irony about them,” he says). He focuses on the nonconformist lives of lesbian stripper Zorro and the owner of the Club Charles, Esther, a “hard-working divorced mother of four.” Both of these heroes are dead and Waters interviews their children to get slightly biased looks at their lives. Around these tales swirl a host of strange counter and anti-cultural figures that reflect back on the author and his need to be different.

Elsewhere, we’re given a collage of personalities, famous and not-so, who define Waters obsessions, fascinations, crushes and quirks. Little Richard is problematic during an interview Waters does for Rolling Stone. A chapter on outrageous fashion designer  Rei Kawakubo explores the author’s fashion sense, with an emphasis on exaggeration, too much eye makeup and dirty finger nails. Yes, that pencil moustache gets help from a pencil. The most outrageous chapter explores Bobby Garcia, the “Outside Porno” king who convinces Marines that his blowing them on camera is part of an audition for straight porn. Then there’s David Hurles who cut himself a career by getting only the crudest and meanest amateurs into his work and inventing “verbal abuse porn.” Books figure large in Waters life, aired not only in the Tennessee Williams chapter but one called “Book Worm (get it?). We’re proud — or ashamed — we’ve read none of the life-changing books he recommends. And no, Catcher In the Rye is not on the list.

Waters brings the off-beat art objects that populate his apartment to life in the chapter “Roommates.” This anthropomorphic reference to scribbles, found items and renderings of turds suggests that his taste in art reflects his view of humanity and himself.  His remarks on artist Mike Kelly seems to define his own modus as a film maker. Kelly, like Waters, “can make you see something supposedly shameful in a beautiful, hilarious, radical, subversive way.”

The one word that doesn’t appear in the book is the one most used when describing Waters work:  “camp.”  Its omission suggests that Waters is looking for a kind near-mainstream acceptance of the sort attached to his more commercial films. While the word itelf isn’t used, there’s plenty of camp, Waters-style, represented. In the final chapter, “Cult Leader,” Waters becomes his own role model, calling out a new generation of perverts who are fanatical in their devotion to  “a new dogma of dirt.” It’s here our hero degenerates into cliched disrespect for cultural and religious institutions and social mores, an exercise in forced outrageousness that’s better stated in some of his earlier films. And he provides a final role model, Madeline Murray O’Hair, once owner of Baltimore’s New Era Bookshop, a woman Life magazine dubbed “The Most Hated Woman In America.”  Maybe Waters doesn’t want to be loved after all.–Cabbage Rabbit

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