I worry that you'll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.
Probably the tamest line John Waters has ever written, it’s also quite fitting considering it’s now Pride Month (probably the ultimate example of how far capitalism can reinvent itself and set the new standard). Said by Edith Massey in Female Trouble, it’s often quoted for humorous effect. But what often missed by some is the malice for conformity and normality that is built into the line. This was from a time long after the Stonewall riots, but before your bank tried to show how ok they were with you being gay. Gays were outlaws, even in liberal cities. So it became a drive among many to demonstrate just how “out there” they were. A provocation, maybe, but a genuine desire to prove themselves. Remember the old line “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”?
Having recently turned 75, and with it looking less and less likely that he’ll direct again, Waters has focused his attention on his other great love: books. Role Models was an examination of people who had influenced him over the years, Carsick saw him document his time hitch-hiking from Baltimore to San Francisco (with a few best case/worst case scenarios thrown in for good measure) and Make Trouble was his famous commencement speech in print form. All of which have reinforced his legacy as a troublemaker, artist and provocateur (hey, if you end one of your films with Divine eating dog shit, you’re definitely a provocateur).
This, part memoir/part philosophical discussion, sees Waters look back over his movie making career from 1981’s ‘Polyester’ onwards (picking up where he left off in Shock Value). Most fans will already know the stories. One of my favourites involves Traci Lords sobbing, because she was being hassled by the FBI to testify against the Mafia over her pornographic past, and being comforted by Patricia Hearst with the line “we’ve all been arrested”. But it’s always a delight to hear Waters recount them in his raconteur stylings. If Little Richard was right that the girl can’t help that she was born to please, then Waters was definitely born to entertain.
What’s interesting, to me, is how someone like Waters (who started off making films re-enacting the Kennedy assassination) became a Hollywood insider thanks to 1987’s ‘Hairspray’ and was able to keep making movies for the big Hollywood studios throughout the 90’s despite none of the films being box office hits. Although not mentioned, the 90’s were a time whenever indie movies could cross over into the mainstream and, to me, it was a much more open time in Hollywood. Nowadays, the thought of a film like ‘Serial Mom’ getting greenlit by a major studio is unthinkable.
Interestingly, he blames China for destroying the worldwide indie film business, due to their demand for special effects driven movies. A line that plays very differently post Covid-19.
Turning to the more thoughtful (why you should take LSD in your 70’s) to the more baroque (discussing the artwork of Betsy the chimp), Waters takes the reader on journeys they probably thought they would never go on and even though there is a flippancy to most of his commentary, there are moments when a more sombre mood overtakes him, such as writing a letter to his “14 year old son” Bill (which is a reborn baby doll) and discussing the death of his parents. And it’s in these moments when the façade comes loose, leaving a man in the winter of life. And, for fans, it can be gut wrenching reading Waters (a man who has always been known for having a zest for life) trying to manoeuvre these choppy waters.
Nonetheless, he still manages to make light of it by revealing that him and his friends have bought graves next to each other, so the area can be called Disgraceland!
While some of the more outré moments may put off some readers, this is another excellent book from John Waters. His outlandish ideas suit the format well and, with him already hinting that he has started a new book, we wait with bated breath.
The Filth Elder has spoken, and we are all the better for it.
John Waters, 2019, Mr Know-It-All. Corsair ISBN-13: 978-1472155207.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.