Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 25 April 2007
Source Red Envelope Entertainment DVD
Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act.
The sound of a cathedral organ – deep, rapid and thunderous, almost ironic, as though calling dour worshippers to mass – accompanies the opening of curtains. Before us on stage is a gothic confessional designed by Vince Peranio; to the right are trash cans, and to the left is a large vase of black tulips. When the confessional door opens, we’re greeted by a rail-thin sexagenarian who’s spent his life producing “trash” cinema. The audience responds with a roar of applause; it’s unclear how many know him from his directing career or have ever seen what is perhaps his greatest work, Pink Flamingos. The only certainty is that this man, John Waters, is marvelously filthy.
A proponent of cultural anarchy, Waters delights in amusing the audience with stories of local lawlessness, including his own exploits as a young Baltimore filmmaker. He jokingly tosses the audience a container of poppers between recollections of trespassing on a pig farm to film Mondo Trasho and shoplifting vinyl albums using a specially tailored coat. And while Waters and friends Mink Stole and Glen Milstead (a.k.a. Divine) spent their childhoods shoplifting – in one instance, some rather extravagant merchandise—the adolescents of today enjoy “mopping” and “dropping” – that is, smashing storefronts for a Valentino or sneaking stained thrift-store clothes into the Gucci window display, respectively.
Waters also delights in referencing men and women who reside nowadays as dusty, mildewed lumps beneath the carpeting of popular culture. Peppered throughout his talk are brief, infrequent allusions to Kroger Babb, Cyril Ritchard, William Castle’s Percepto buzzers, the Cockettes’ performance of Tricia’s Wedding, Joseph Losey, and the porn collection of Andy Warhol. Added to that are mentions of Visconti, Paul Lynde, The Passion of the Christ, Godard, The Wizard of Oz, Charlize Theron, Dogme ‘95, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard Simmons, the Kennedy Assassination, Michael Jackson, William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and Whitney Houston, among many others. In some instances, such as an opening comment about the Lunts, he seems to find an unacquainted audience. But even when Waters’ speech becomes unpalatable – a short mention of “ultimate nudity” and “blossoms” has the audience audibly squirming – no one leaves; everyone remains seated, waiting for more, even laughing in wild disgust. In making some of the most reviled, ridiculous, and downright repulsive films ever, Waters has also secured for himself an enduring and devoted following that, ten years ago, made Pink Flamingos the second-most popular video in the country. Imagining an averse or ill-informed member of the audience – an unwitting friend, a curious parent, an unassuming spouse – among the throngs of hardcore enthusiasts must make Waters grin; the fact that the director has done this very routine on campuses across the country, where posterboard promises of “John Waters, director of Hairspray” undoubtedly trumped any knowledge of the speaker’s complete works, makes the image even funnier. It’s a notion he even touches on, mocking the men and women who loved his first and so-far only PG-rated film:
What happens today in video shops… [Pink Flamingos is] in there just in the comedy section, and families come in and say, “We loved Hairspray, let’s get another John Waters movie.” And I read the police report in Florida; they took it home and the family said, “We got half-way through it”—that’s the “papa-oom-mow-mow,” the singing asshole. And, you know, I’m glad I ruined their family’s night, really, because why didn’t they just turn it off? No, they called the police. Why didn’t they turn it off? That’s what I did when Forest Gump started running. I mean, who am I supposed to call in the barn-raising scene in Witness? I want a number! Our community has standards, too, you know!
While most people become comedians in their teens or twenties, Waters has become one at the age of sixty. But this, he tells us, is merely a lecture, not a stand-up routine, though the hand-held microphone and Comedy Central Presents-esque set convey otherwise. And while This Filthy World is a perfect look into the mind and character of a leading figure in cult cinema, this is also an important look into the culture surrounding his films: the influence of suburbia on Polyester and A Dirty Shame; our fascination with fame and sex and death; social intolerance. But more than anything else, it demonstrates that Waters is his movies: hilarious, nauseating, familiar, unprofessional, smart, independent, fun.