It’s possible that the personality of John Waters may eventually outshine his films. For over three decades since his breakthrough “Pink Flamingos” cast an endearing stink on the late-night circuit, this filmmaker has proved reliable in dishing out the bizarre. But as his canon grew, the spotlight often went to the maestro himself, who dreamt up such infectious camp.
“This Filthy World,” Waters’ spoken word performance now available on DVD, offers a full dose of a teeming mind. His performance has been in the works since his early career. It “grew out of promotional events that Divine and I used to do to get attention for our movies before anybody knew who we were,” Waters said in a recent phone interview. “I used to think of anything that would get people to see [my films]. I kind of became master of ceremonies. I would come out in the beginning and talk about nudist camp films and other stuff that no one talked about then. I would treat it very seriously – though in a tongue-in-cheek way.”
Waters maintains the spirit of his early appearances in “This Filthy World,” though his new show tackles “my whole life, my whole filmography, and my top ten greatest hits of obsession,” Waters said. Though his topics shift at a near breakneck pace – he can run at Chris Rock’s speed – Waters’ open personality allows him to nail his “kitchen sink” of material in less than 90 minutes. “Every word is written and rehearsed – not one bit is ad-libbed. It is completely planned – I could do that exact same monologue without changing a word five minutes from now,” Waters said, though his scattershot focus makes it hard to believe. But the filmmaker notes that such planning has been essential to the development of all his scripts: “I play every single part on a tape and do the entire movie to hear what it sounds like, then burn that tape.” (Yes, what DVD extras these audio tracks would make – but Mr. Waters asserts that they have all been faithfully cremated.)
In developing “This Filthy World,” Waters set out to “cover everything that I have been interested in: aberrant human behavior, movies, art films, crime, parents, advice on how to be a happy juvenile delinquent – all the things that I find joy in.” His range and approach make “Filthy” friendly to those unfamiliar with Waters’ work.
The self-proclaimed vaudevillian stays faithful to his title; he doesn’t forget topics that will out-gross the strongest stomach in his audience. With a straight face he addresses, in detail, the physical ramifications of those who partake in bizarre sexual acts. (The details are best delivered by Waters onstage.)
But he also discusses square subjects, like education. “I think that you do learn things from this act,” Waters noted about his show. During extended down time between “Polyester” and “Hairspray,” Waters actually taught in a prison, on and off for seven years. “Since I’ve written Crackpot [a collection of essays that includes “Going to Jail,” about his teaching experiences], one of my students got out and killed two more people, but another got out and did great.”
In similar Waters fashion, “This Filthy World” even notes our lack of interest in reading: “We need to make books cool again,” Waters says onstage. “If you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t f**k them!”
Above all, “Filthy” proves that the Waters brain is as fruitful as ever. Mixing a variety of references, viewers will see how he may very well be a subscriber of 160 publications. And his writing has shown up in a number of them. An introduction to a new edition of Tennessee Williams’ memoirs – reprinted in the Nov. 19 New York Times Book Review – shows a restrained and self-reflective Waters.
Current film culture is also on his radar. “I go to the movies all the time,” Waters said. “Sometimes I see five in a week. But I never watch DVDs or videos – I’m sorry, Netflix! [whose new distribution label, Red Envelope Entertainment, is handling “This Filthy World”] – if I don’t see them in the movie theater, I never see them.” His love for current Hollywood leads him to occasional onscreen roles, ranging from Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” to “Seed of Chucky” and a recent spot on NBC’s “My Name is Earl.” (Waters couldn’t help hinting at his interest in the next “Final Destination” entry, should anyone attached be reading this.)
“I go to see new movies, and I don’t watch a movie a lot of times. I like the old days [.] you could only see them once, and never again. That was when they were magic, when you couldn’t see them do the trick.” Waters’ love of cinema traditions spawned his various concepts: “I take on genres all the time. ‘A Dirty Shame’ is a sexploitation movie. “Female Trouble” is a “True Crime” movie – “Serial Mom” is too. “Desperate Living” is a fairy tale; “Polyester” is a melodrama; “Cry-Baby” is a musical. The only thing I could never do is a sci-fi movie, ’cause I don’t get it. I don’t know what’s good and bad in that: I’m not a big sci-fi fan. I was more “Betty and Veronica” [when I was young].”
Aside from a number of personal influences, the self-proclaimed “media hag” still gets his “best ideas from overhearing people in Baltimore and watching people there.” But Waters keeps an eye outside of the “Greatest City in America.” “I think humor is politics,” Waters said, “even though I never mention political figures – it almost completely dates films, and mine have been playing for 30 years. What you laugh at and how you get people to look at social problems is certainly political. But I do it without getting on a soapbox and preaching – then everybody would just run.”
When referring to his notoriety, Waters never loses his candor – but will throw you off with dead-on honesty. Now best known as the mind behind “Hairspray” – regretfully better known as a drippy musical – he asserts that it was his greatest concept: “It certainly worked – the fat girl wins,” he said. But he swears that his intentions were 100% Waters. “I didn’t write that movie to try and be more mainstream, or be a hit, or anything [.] I just made the next movie. I was shocked when we got a PG rating. I assumed that since it involved Divine and myself that we’d have the same troubles. I didn’t even try to do [anything different] with ‘A Dirty Shame’ – it just happened to come out NC-17.”
“But if I ever do the TV show [of ‘Hairspray’], a fat girl won’t be enough anymore – she’s going to have to be retarded,” Waters said. True to his legacy, plenty more is laid bare in the content of “This Filthy World.” It’s pure Waters, for sure.