I’ve never seen a John Waters movie or read a John Waters book. What I knew of him before last night, I’d picked up by way of either scandalized whispers or unbridled gushing or The Simpsons (from which I picked up that he’s gay). What I know of him after last night, having heard him speak at the Miami Book Fair International, includes the following:
— that he takes life lessons from a member of the Manson family
— that a room full of incarcerated murderers once (at least once) unanimously agreed that he is “fucked up” after seeing one of his movies
— that perfect strangers confide in him their most disturbing secrets (“My whole family fucked me on Easter morning”) because, he says, “People look at me and think, ‘Well, I’ll understand.'”
— that he considers one of his movies the perfect sex addiction flick to screen at a birthday party
— that he was, in his own estimation, “typecast” as the flasher in the remake of his 1988 film Hairspray
— and that he advocates politicians having more sex as a peacekeeping strategy.
Even without having experienced any of Waters’ oeuvre, I was hardly surprised to learn any of this, for his reputation as the “Pope of Trash” precedes him. (William S. Burroughs coined the epithet, which Waters says was “like being anointed from above.”) But if I had ever thought about it, I might not have expected these idiosyncrasies to reside in a gentleman whose gentility, charm, and easy wit won over a packed house within moments.
Dressed in a tux jacket and dark camo pants, and sporting his trademark Little Richard moustache, Waters discussed his new book, Role Models, a series of essays about the people who have inspired his life and career. These include playwright Tennesee Williams; singer Johnny Mathis; a lesbian stripper called Lady Zorro; and Leslie Van Houten, the aforementioned Manson groupie and convicted murderer.
A fellow gay writer and Southerner (is Baltimore in the South?), Tennessee Williams sits high in the hierarchy of Waters’ role models. “Tennessee Williams freed me,” Waters said last night. Freed him not precisely to make movies that feature chicken sex (with a human, I think) and a singing anus, but to transgress the mores of suburban Baltimore and to be his weird, wondrous self.
Waters has a long relationship with Leslie Van Houten, who he believes should be let free on parole 41 years after murdering Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in their home at Manson’s behest. She is one of his role models, Waters said, because of how she has faced her horrible past and dealt with her punishment.
“Everyone who in life has gone through extreme things has taught me how to live,” Waters said. “There’s no one in this book I feel better than.”
Golden nuggets of odd wisdom dropped from Waters’ feminine mouth all night: “Encourage your kids’ weirdo fantasies. Let them do it … because [otherwise] later on they’ll do it for sex”; “Don’t ever ask a fat person to be Santa Claus. I call that ‘Santabused'”; “I’m always for a riot — you meet cute people”; et cetera.
One dictum seemed to sum up — and clarify — Waters’ artistic philosophy:
“You have to have good taste to have bad taste,” he said.
And if that alone wasn’t enough to get me to put a Waters’ film at the top of my Netflix queue, then the last person to approach the mic during Q and A sealed the deal. A 20-something Hispanic (judging from the crowd, Waters’ fanbase crosses generational and ethnic lines), he told Waters that his therapist had prescribed Pink Flamingos, Waters’ 1972 film which co-starred, yes, a chicken, as an antidote to his severe OCD.
Somehow, without having experienced a single cell or page of Waters’ art, I knew this made sense. And I knew which film to put at the top of my queue.