Scandalous: John Waters

John Waters

John Waters is a director synonymous with controversy. Mike Pinnington examines a career in scandal…

He’s been called many things: the King of Bad Taste, the Sultan of Sleaze, Prince of Puke; perhaps William Burroughs nailed it with the Pope of Trash – they all come from a place of love. We like to think.

But long before such epithets became synonymous with John Waters, he had already begun down that road; directing silent 8mm and 16mm movies in the 1960s in and around his hometown of Baltimore with his counter-culture friends, Waters courting of scandal was well underway.

As his experimentations with more and more shocking subject matter grew, so too did his infamy, and crucially the audiences for his films which, hard as it is to believe, he’d screen in rented Baltimore church halls. However, whatever the local Baltimore press could muster by way of moral outrage was small-fry in comparison to the reception for his 1972 film, Pink Flamingos.

“With any luck at all that means I won’t have to see it again for another 25 years”

While the film has come to be remembered fondly (though the noted critic Roger Ebert, reviewing the film on its 25th anniversary in 1997, said: “with any luck at all that means I won’t have to see it again for another 25 years”), it’s inarguably still best known for the scene in which Waters’ muse (stop here if you’re reading this while enjoying a meal) Divine eats real dog faeces.

Such provocation (and Waters was surely counting on it) would not go ignored – Pink Flamingos took off, its notoriety only adding to and elevating the reputation and infamy of its director.

Waters continued to write and direct relatively prolifically, following the underground success of Pink Flamingos with a movie every two to three years between 1974 (Female Trouble) and 1985’s unreleased B&W short, Reckless Eyeballs, until genuine crossover success arrived in 1988 with Hairspray (remade in 2007).

“Perhaps the mainstream has increasingly gravitated toward him”

In the intervening years, that crossover has only continued; oft described as an icon of queer culture, we’d argue that is to marginalise both him and, to some extent, that scene – indeed, it’s fair to speculate that rather than Waters increasingly gravitating toward the mainstream, perhaps the opposite is true, that the mainstream has increasingly gravitated toward him.

For proof of the director’s broad appeal, we need look no further than his appearance in The Simpsons episode, Homer’s Phobia, in which Waters – largely playing himself – hangs out with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. Friendship blossoms, that is until Marge explains to Homer that not only does John probably not have a wife, but that he is gay.

With Homer’s reaction: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! I danced with a gay! Marge, Lisa, promise me you won’t tell anyone. Promise me!” it was clear that The Simpson’s creator Matt Groening, and Waters himself, were having great fun at the expense of a receding point of view.

However, let’s not break out the fizzy stuff just yet, rumours abound that the episode was only green-lit due to a turnover of staff at broadcaster Fox, who originally found the episode’s subject matter too controversial. But, after all,where would Waters be without controversy?

That the Pope of Trash, with his enthusiastic embracing of society’s sordid underbelly, is now recognised as a significant contributor to pop culture is encouraging; not bad for a guy whose career is built in-part on courting scandal.

Mike Pinnington

John Waters appears at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall this Friday as part of Homotopia

Posted on 05/11/2013 by thedoublenegative