The Reeler


November 24, 2006

All Around This Filthy World

"Perverted uncle" John Waters discusses the new film of his ageless one-man show

John Waters explains it all in the Jeff Garlin-directed This Filthy World (Photo: Filthy World, LLC)

Happily and from memory, John Waters can tell you all the appellations he's earned in 42 years as a filmmaker. There's "Sultan of Shock," "Captain Kangaroo gone insane" and "the Pope of Trash" among scores of others. But perhaps more than any single descriptor or nickname, Waters is a singular brand with formidable reach beyond the cinema: on Broadway (Hairspray, with Cry Baby around the corner); on TV (John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You); in publishing (Shock Value, Art: A Sex Book); and, well before any of those, in the lecture circuit.

Or something like that.

"This is not a lecture!" Waters stresses in the introduction of This Filthy World, the new screen version of his one-man show (opening today at Cinema Village). "This is vaudeville!" As directed by Jeff Garlin in the relatively austere confines of Manhattan's Harry De Jur Playhouse, This Filthy World is really neither; it's more stand-up comedy meets oral history, with Waters gleefully recounting the "negative artistic influences" that captivated his upbringing in Baltimore and have since fueled four decades of his carefully cultivated yet defiantly tasteless empire. But don't let the oversize fresh flower arrangement onstage fool you -- the rubbish piled at stage left balances everything out, and Waters himself will assure you that the show hasn't always been this classy.

"It has mutated into what you have today," Waters told The Reeler last week, reflecting on This Filthy World's germination in the late '60s. "In the very beginning, it started out because nobody knew who we were. I was showing movies in club or church basements or in obscure film societies at colleges. This is like Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs -- way before even Pink Flamingos. Divine and I didn't have any money to advertise, so we would appear before the movie. Generally, I would come out first dressed kind of like a '50s lunatic pimp, pretending I was serious and talk about how brilliant nudist camp movies were and stuff. And then say, 'I'd like to introduce the most beautiful woman in the world,' which we always called Divine. And Divine came out dressed in character and did the act: He would rip phone books in half; he'd come out pushing a shopping cart and he used to throw meat or fish into the audience. And then in each city, we would have some cute hippie we were hanging out with, and we had a stolen police uniform from a costume shop that we never returned (I'm embarrassed to admit) and a short-haired wig, and he would play the cop. And the cop would come onstage and pretend to arrest Divine. We would act like it was really real, and Divine would strangle the cop to death and then the movie would start. That was our act."

In the sense that it features no fake cop killings, This Filthy World indeed represents a tactical evolution. It also fulfills its word-of-mouth function more generally than it did 30 or 40 years ago, the pre-video era when directors often accompanied their films on secondary college runs. "Between movies, it was a way to always make money," said Waters, who continues to attract substantial university demand and once even performed at Oxford. "And you get to meet your audience; it's like being a politician. You're pumping flesh in every city. I remember seeing a few filmmakers when I was a teenager. And when you see them young and you meet them at one of these things, you feel like you know them. And to be honest, you follow their work for the rest of your life."

But in its exquisite perspective of stunt-publicity precedent -- Waters as a youth attempting to locate the vibrating buzzers under seats at William Castle films, or observing the tireless self-promotion of exploitation mavericks like Kroger Babb -- the show occupies a realm between autobiography and cultural critique. Waters downplays his own most notorious legends ("I'm not a sadist," he says winkingly of Divine's shit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos. "It was only one take.") while emphasizing priceless recollections such as the one day he managed to shoot and screen The Diane Linkletter Story -- a campy short based on the suicide of Art Linkletter's daughter. Moreover, with snappy punchlines invoking everything from Visconti to Irreversible to Forrest Gump, This Filthy World may signal the world's first and only cinephile comedy act.

That said, Waters' routine is more consistently good-natured than funny, and that consistency is perhaps the principal factor underwriting the monologue's -- and its brand-name speaker's -- storied longevity. "I am a filth elder," Waters said, echoing a theme from the film. "In some of the reviews for this, I've been called a 'perverted uncle' or 'Captain Kangaroo gone insane,' which made me laugh. And parents bring their kids now, which is a weird thing. It's different because when I started, parents would find the scripts to my movies and call the police or they were always very much against me. And I guess what's changed is that they have kids with their own problems and their own creative weirdness that today, parents understand a lot better than they did when I was young. ... We used to call it 'sick humor' in the '50s. Now 'sick humor' is 'American humor.' That's what's on television now. So basically, I don't think I've changed -- I think I'm still doing the same thing."

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