The King of Kitsch

Director John Waters is synonymous with Baltimore, sleaze, and kitsch: the underlying themes of his talk last Thursday at UM’s Storer Auditorium.

If Waters ever quits his day job, he could certainly find good, consistent employment as a stand-up comedian.

For over an hour and a half Waters serenaded the packed auditorium with a hilariously raucous rundown of his love affair with the power of the cinema. He shared anecdotes about his time as a criminal trial groupie, his adolescent obsession with the electric chair, prodded listeners to touch themselves when they go into their voting booths come election day, and admitted that “Anna-Nicole Smith is tempting.”

Waters’s talk was peppered with plenty of the foul-mouthed language that fans have come to expect from his films. However, one joke that fell completely flat revolved around ebonics – a strange joke from the director of the 1988 campy anti-segregation film Hair Spray.

Waters’s films are marked not only by his sly, subversive writing and directing, but by the personalities that drive them- such as Traci Lords, Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake, Iggy Pop, Kim “Hatchet Face” McGuire, Deborah Harry, and the late Divine and Sonny Bono.

The most enjoyable sections of his talk were the behind-the-scenes stories he shared.

His first films were not just a crime against cinema, but also crimes plain and simple. The 8 mm film he used to make his first movie, 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, was stolen by a girl who used to work in a film store.

Waters, innocent to the rules of the Screen Actors Guild and film permits, was arrested while filming a scene that featured a naked man and an apparition of the Virgin Mary for 1969’s Mondo Trasho. Interestingly enough, the 300-lb. transvestite Divine was able to drive away, leaving Waters and his crew behind bars.

Once Waters learned a thing or two about how to really make a film, he soon befriended Maryland’s film commission. Grateful for Waters’ insistence to always film in what he calls the crazy town of Baltimore, they regularly give him permits for any location.

With such prurient matter having been the bread and butter of his films, Waters hung his head in shame the day he found out that Hair Spray garnered a PG rating. A Broadway musical of the film is slated to premiere in Manhattan’s Neil Simon Theater this July, starring Harvey Fierstein in Divine’s role.

Subsequent films such as Cry Baby, Serial Mom, and Cecil B. Demented never reached the trashy level of Waters’ early films, but he likes it that way. During a Q&A session he told one fan that he doesn’t want to outdo himself and end up looking bad.

After families continuously call police to report him for obscenity after they rent Pink Flamingos, Waters accepts the fact that even if he finds the cure for cancer and dies the next day, that film will be in the first line of his obituary.

He also longed for the days of cinema terrorism when directors like William Castle would rig chairs in the movie theaters with electrical buzzards to give audiences a real shock, have skeletons fly over the audience, and have film-goers sign life-insurance policies before they watched his film in case they died from fright.

Waters attempted to revive this “celluloid anarchy” with 1981’s Polyester. Numbered scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards were issued to patrons. Each number accompanied a smell, such as a fart or the scent of glue, when it appeared on the screen.

“I am a carnie at heart,” Waters said.

The subversive and the bizarre are Waters’ territory. Butch strippers called Zorro that come out naked and scream obscenities to their patrons are the things Waters lives for. He admits he looks like a child-molester, and isn’t ashamed of his untimely cameo as a pedophile priest in the new Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat.”

Besides sharing insider stories, Waters implored the audience to enjoy being poor, to be rebellious with their films, and to act more like juvenile delinquents.

While Waters’ powers to transform B-movies into A-movies may have dimmed a bit since the days he claims to have been on drugs while making films, he implores young filmmakers to continue the tradition and create something original and fun in their films.