I never consider the year-end best-of list season officially open until, on December 1, Artforum publishes John Waters‘s top ten. It’s not just that his choices are usually surprising—pleasantly surprising at that—but that his comments are pithy and fun. “Jealousy over other directors’ careers is a terrible thing to waste,” he writes, introducing a sidebar, John Waters Presents: “Movies I’m Jealous I Didn’t Make,” whose title is almost as good as the one for the retrospective opening today at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and running through September 14: 50 Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?
The series “encompasses the range of the Baltimore writer-director’s unconventional output, from sleazefests such as Pink Flamingos—starring Divine, a 300-pound drag queen who became Mr. Waters’s greatest discovery—to movies with bankable stars such as Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) and Johnny Depp (Cry-Baby),” writes Steve Dollar in the Wall Street Journal. “‘It’s my Jean Hersholt Award,’ said Mr. Waters, likening the occasion to the humanitarian honor given at the Academy Awards. ‘No irony. I can say I’m really excited about it.'”
He truly is, and has been saying so all over town. “I mean, it’s great, I’m not dead, so I get to see it,” he tells Time Out New York‘s Terri White. “Also, New York was the last place that my movies caught on. I didn’t make underground movies in New York, and in the 1960s, they were very snobby about that, because the whole scene was here.” He’s been on the Leonard Lopate Show (“I didn’t even know there was editing when I made my first movie”), chatted up the Gothamist (“I never made movies about Bohemia. I always made movies about people in real life, in blue collar Baltimore”) and, of course, the New York Times (“I just read Ted Hope’s new book, which was quite sad, because the world I knew of independent film is over. It’s good that I’m not dependent on that right now”).
Matt Patches introduces his interview for the Dissolve:
Waters is easy to underappreciate. Along with his Dreamlanders, his ensemble willing and able to table dignity for whatever perverse vision came along, the writer-director crept into an underground movement with raunch on the brain. In Waters’s mind, comedy was boundless. While his early shorts and 1969 feature debut, Mondo Trasho, were inspired by Andy Warhol and Russ Meyer, they share a spirit with Buster Keaton silents, with pratfalling swapped out in favor of foot-molestation and various forms of mutilation. Should we laugh or gasp at a scene in Desperate Living where lesbian wrestler Mole McHenry unveils her enormous penis, the result of a slapdash sex-change operation? Waters’s boldness allows for both, the same way a disaster movie’s destruction can provoke terror and awe. Pink Flamingos’ infamous scene where Dreamlanders Mary Vivian Pearce and Danny Mills sandwich a real chicken as they screw—that’s downright Herzogian. Waters’s art never feels calculated. It just seeps out.
“I’ve always been a fan of the second half of his career, which is dominated by films that dial down on the lunacy,” writes Craig Hubert for Artinfo. “The best work of this period is undoubtedly Pecker (1998), a bizarrely sweet skewering of the art world’s obsession with marginal subjects. The film also sketches a trajectory similar to Waters’s own. Pecker (Edward Furlong) is a fry cook who is constantly taking pictures of the people who occupy his small neighborhood in Baltimore. When a New York gallerist (Lili Taylor) stumbles upon his work while passing through town, his photos take the New York art world by storm. Suddenly his work is featured on the cover of Artforum and the Whitney Museum is offering him his own solo show, while back home his friends and family are treated like freaks due to their newfound fame.”
In the L, Danny King recommends one of the eight films Waters is jealous he didn’t make, Roger Michell’s “unsparing” The Mother (2003). In Los Angeles, Fred Armisen and musician Harper Simon will be on hand for a screening of Female Trouble on Sunday. And Park Circus is taking Polyester around the United Kingdom and, in Electric Sheep, Mark Stafford notes that it’s “Waters’s transition film, marking an evolution from the underground midnight movies (Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living, Female Trouble) that made his name as the Pope of Trash, and before the surprising, genuine mainstream success of Hairspray…. Clearly a reaction to 1950s melodramas like Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, Polyester isn’t so much a parody, it’s more of a Sirk film made in John Waters’s head, with all of his obsessions allowed free rein.”
Still love this
If you can take it all and still want more, Film Comment has put together a digital anthology, The John Waters Collection, which, of course, you can carry in your John Waters Tote. Along with your copy of Carsick.
Updates, 9/7: “Waters has never pitched himself as a serious thinker, though a few have seen into the depths of his fatuity,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum. “One such figure was Tom Allen, a lay Catholic monk who wrote film reviews for the Village Voice. ‘[B]eneath the sleaze and the uniformly hysterical pitch of the acting,” Allen wrote, “Waters is an austerely economical director who is figuratively comparable to Bresson. He is a driven, integral stylist. His troupe are beautiful ogres because they collaborate in absolute harmony with his ends, and are, therefore, not exploited.’ The film that prompted this tribute was Desperate Living (1977)… a sort of apotheosis for Waters, the world-building statement film that everything previous… had been working towards.”
“The last film he made was A Dirty Shame in 2004,” notes Geraldine Visco, introducing her interview for Hyperallergic. “He would like to make a film called Fruitcake, a children’s Christmas film, but he claims that he cannot get sufficient funding to make the film. These days, Waters also styles himself as an artist, and has an upcoming art exhibition that will open at the Marianne Boesky Gallery this coming January.”
Update, 9/9: At Flavorwire, Jason Bailey reports on the opening night Q&A conducted by J. Hoberman.