Illustration by Nicholas Gazin
VICE’s Art Director Nicholas Gazin and I shuffled ourselves over to Lincoln Center, New York, on a muggy, sweaty September day to meet one of our heroes. The list of artists I consider to be genuinely heroic is short, but John Waters is indisputably a member of that club by virtue of being the first and the best to explode numerous sacred assumptions about taste, gender norms and authority, to say nothing of the cathartic benefits of watching a drag queen eat a dog turd.
From high art to low humor, the impact of John Waters can be detected everywhere. In its own slick and heteronormative way, mainstream Hollywood humor now takes the lessons of Waters’ films for granted, to the point where it is now difficult to find a popular comedy that isn’t richly scatological.
In recognition of the fact that Waters has so thoroughly gotten under the world’s skin over the course of a mere half century, the Lincoln Center hosted "Fifty Years Of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?" a twelve-film retrospective of his life’s work, along with a collection of films curated by Waters’ called "Movies I Didn’t Make But Wish I Did," which was exactly that. Even better: several of the films we had come to see that day were Waters’ personal prints, some of which had not been projected in twenty five years, and they came with a gentle disclaimer from the management about their neglected condition and the very real possibility that they may not play well or even at all. Fortunately, Multiple Maniacs looked and sounded like a million bucks.
A clip from a crummier version of Multiple Maniacs than the glorious print that was on display at the retrospective.
These films alone are enough to make you so happy that you will shit. As if that weren't enough, while I was there, I caught the Pope of Trash himself beaming with pride in the warm celluloid glow of Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.
“I was in show business when I was 12,” said Waters. He’s 68-years-old now, impeccably dressed, with the whitest veneers I have ever seen, which makes me think his days of smoking and French exhaling might be long over. “I had a puppet show that I did at children’s birthday parties. So I should have quit school in sixth grade. I knew what I wanted to do, and you go to school to figure out what you want to do, and they wouldn’t let me do what I wanted to do in any school. So I got angry and bored. And boredom is anger when you’re a teenager. So, that anger is what I turned into a career in a way, but with humor. This is the first time Multiple Maniacs has been screened on 16mm in twenty five years,” said Waters of the print that continued to slay the audience as we spoke. “The Cavalcade of Perversions thing was on my parents’ front lawn. They were liberal.”
To watch the films of John Waters from the beginning onward is to realize that he’s been making the same film over and over again from the beginning, with the same family of collaborators. A John Waters film is not just a John Waters film, but a film by the Dreamlanders. Dreamland Productions is a loose band of performers (to say that everyone who appears in a John Waters film is an actor is categorically untrue), craftsmen (the films are all unfailingly costumed and designed to a degree of high fabulousity, regardless of the budget) and misfits who contributed to these works.
Dreamland has long been a fascination of mine because it's precisely what you hope to fall into as a teenage misfit: a high functioning carnival of artists, outlaws, losers and freaks who somehow get it together enough to make really cool shit that is about something. 1970’s Multiple Maniacs opens with David Lochary as a carnival barker character luring marks into Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, a tented sideshow full of sexual deviants, junkies and old fashioned entertainments like The Puke Eater. Lady Divine is the star attraction. Like Dawn Davenport in the full color spectacle of Female Trouble four years later, Lady Divine is bent on being rich, famous, killing anyone who fucks with her and dying a fabulous violent death.
“We were not fitting in with anybody, because this was the height of hippies. And we were sort of hippies. Sort of, I don’t know, not that much. I mean that dialog was hardly peace and love. We looked like a hostile group, and I guess we were in a way, against some people."
"People were scared of us!" he continued. "They would run when they’d see us coming because it was also straight and gay, completely mixed, it totally confused people. Some of them were my high school friends, some of them were downtown people, some of them were gay, some of them drag queens. But because there was no one thing, it was more threatening to everybody. It was mostly these three groups: beatniks, gay people and suburban crazy people. And we all hung around together and took acid together and that’s what happened. The kids today are doing the same thing. They’re making films on their cell phone. That’s what I would have done. It’s the same thing, what’s the difference? I had 8mm, they have cell phones and they’re doing the same thing now and they’re having just as much fun. And their friends can become stars too, it just depends how much you really want to do it.”
"Fifty Years Of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?" just closed. You can learn more about it anyway at the Lincoln Center's official site.
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