A late night drive to a midnight movie, or the conversation overheard somewhere of someone waxing rhapsodic about John Waters, leather-coated would-be greasers at coffee shops in the hip part of Omaha or at the trashier gay bars in Wisconsin. Someone tells you about John Waters and they off-handedly reference him in that way that makes you feel that if you haven’t actually heard of him, you sort of pretend that you had, saying something uncommitedly slippery and face-saving like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard of him.” And the old queen telling you (you’re only thirteen after all or eighteen maybe, but totally sheltered) says “No, you haven’t, but that’s okay. We’re going to fix that right now.” Personally, I think I may have caught Pink Flamingos on TV late one night, parental Catholicism stymied in the face of Showtime. I wasn’t queer, but I knew watching John Waters' films that most of the interesting people were.
Waters' films have that meta-level of camp, the irony of an insider who likes bad films and ugly things, knowing they're bad and still loving it. This is all pretty boilerplate stuff, but like all camp jokes, especially told in print by straight guys, I wouldn’t want to pretend that somebody else doesn’t already know it, we all, each of us, have to start on this wrong road at some time.
Things have shifted peculiarly these last years in a way that makes Waters' raunchiness seem sort of tame, day-time TV freak show stuff. Though it’s not entirely Waters’ fault that in the ’90s, talk show hosts stole all his best material, from Jerry Springer to a one-time member of his ensemble Rikki Lake. Irony gave way to earnestness back to irony back to earnestness. It’s a difficult route to follow for sure, but what we have is what we have when we watch a John Waters film. I watched his latest movie A Dirty Shame (2004) recently and felt all the contrasting emotions that one has when doing pith-helmeted anthropology in the specific demi-monde of Waters. Once you get over how bad it is, choppy dialogue, rough editing, consciously (and perhaps sometimes, unconsciously) artificial acting, you just sort of lean back and enjoy it, the feeling washing over you that I imagine normal people get when watching the endlessly bad family films that still manage to get mainstream distribution, shaggy dog tales involving familiar families and corny jokes, just enough skin to keep dad awake, but nothing to threaten the status quo. The so-called “guilty pleasures” of mass-produced schlock.
John Waters is likely making the alter-version of this mainstream family film. Even if many of the reviewers sort of got it right portraying Waters in his latest book, Role Models, as a dirty but benign gay uncle of American trash, he’s still family, the first man to turn me onto Almodovar, Pasolini, and Otto Preminger. I can’t unfortunately give Waters credit for making America safe for schlock, culture did that largely on its own (though as I said all kinds of grandstanding hypocrisy persists in the US), but Waters bequeathed to a freakish set and their appreciators the closest things to family films we have.
God bless him for it.