John Waters may be a role model to his fans, but whom does he admire?
In his terrific new book, “Role Models,” Waters writes about what he calls “the amazing people who inspire” him. The choices are, as his fans might expect, an eclectic collection of outsiders, ranging from fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and artist Cy Twombly to the singer Little Richard. But the one quality they all share is that they have lived, as Waters puts it, “an extreme life.”
Sitting in the living room of his Baltimore home, surrounded by books and copious amounts of fake food — from a plastic hamburger on the window sill to a tempting box of chocolates on the table — the filmmaker explains what it takes to be one of his role models: “They are certainly people who have survived something — whether it’s great success, or great horror. They have had to be braver [than me]. They can inspire me through patience like Leslie Van Houten, who has been in jail for 40 years for something terrible she did, or being the opposite of me, like Johnny Mathis. Or they can inspire me as a kid, as Madalyn Murray O’Hair did, even though she turned out to be kind of a horrible person. Sometimes we have to embrace the extremes in people that change the laws and how we live, even if they are not so honorable.”
Embracing extremes is what Waters has done from his infamous 1972 classic cult film “Pink Flamingos” to his more mainstream success with “Hairspray.” (The latter became a hit Broadway musical, followed by a hit Hollywood film version/remake, and a sequel to the movie-musical is due out this summer).
Waters has always “stuck up for those people who had a tough time,” and this is why his fans like the way he thinks. “Everybody feels they are an outsider,” he says.
Waters’ chapter on Tennessee Williams is especially revealing. After reading Williams’ “One Arm” — which he confesses to stealing from the library, because it was forbidden — he writes, “[I] didn’t have to worry about fitting in with a crowd I didn’t want to hang out with in the first place ... Didn’t want to be part of this dreary conformist life that I was told I had to join.”
As he describes his teen years, Waters is candid and thoughtful. “I felt anger, but I never felt I was a victim. I didn’t fit in, but I didn’t know how angry I was about that. I didn’t want to [fit in]. I wanted to hang out with other people who didn’t want to fit in.” He continues, clarifying his point: “The ones who chose not to. I hung around with the worst boys and always the trashiest girls — the girls they said were the whores.”
The filmmaker returns to the topic of Tennessee Williams only to pause the conversation while he looks for a copy of “One Arm,” “Have you seen that new little book that just came out?” he asks, as he searches his shelves for “Tales of Desire,” a new collection of Williams’ stories, including “One Arm” published in February by New Directions. Ever the role model — Waters’ library contains over 8,000 volumes — his lengthy search makes me feel better about the difficulties of finding titles on my own overcrowded bookshelves.
He finally secures the copy and effusing about the picture of an electric chair in the book, admits he didn’t re-read “One Arm” when he wrote the essay in “Role Models” about Williams. But he did read the story again recently. “You know what?” he says in a confessional hush. “It was better than I remembered. It sooo lived up to my obsession in my mind!
“Sometimes you don’t even remember what it is [about something]; it was just an influence when you were young.”
I cite Waters’ own 1987 book “Crackpot” as something that influenced my outlook 20-some years ago, and he thanks me politely. Then he says proudly, “Both ‘Crackpot’ and [his 1981 book] ‘Shock Value’ have never gone out of print.” Indeed, it is a testament to his talent as a writer — and his fans’ ardor for his work.
If Waters had not become a filmmaker or a writer, he admits he would have probably been a defense attorney.
“That is a world I am fascinated with because there is no clear answer,” he says, adding he has attended numerous trials, including the Manson case, and has taught for many years in prisons. “Corrections is my field, weirdly enough,” he demurs.
His chapter “Leslie” in “Role Models” chronicles his friendship with Van Houten, one of the Mason family members. He emphasizes that she has taken “full responsibility” for her crimes, and judiciously includes what the victims’ families have said against Van Houten’s release.
“Leslie is a case like no other — ever. Who meets a madman when they were 17 — and he turns out to be one of the most notorious madmen in the history of criminals?”
The topic of crime soon leads to some Philadelphia stories. He mentions “Fast” Eddie Savitz, “the most notorious pervert to come out of Philadelphia.” In a few fascinating paragraphs in “Role Models,” Waters describes troubles of this man who bought sweaty socks and soiled underwear from teens.
And while he declines to discuss notoious Philadelphian Mumia Abu Jamal, Waters gushes about the MOVE case: “I’ve been to all their trials, and I know some of them. Talk about a strong group that doesn’t give up their beliefs! They keep coming up for parole, but they never admit their guilt, so it’s really hard to get out of jail. But if they aren’t guilty — and they don’t think they are — it’s [a Catch-22].”
Waters himself has been arrested on several occasions. “I went to jail for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure making ‘Mondo Trasho,’ for underage drinking twice — in a drive-in movie and a fast-food parking lot. I did get arrested once for DWI, but I was actually on Quaaludes. I couldn’t tell the police that.”
“Role Models” also recounts one particular incident that Waters hasn’t discussed much, in which he was found “not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.” And he claims this episode was not what interested him in the criminal psyche. It was villains in movies that sparked his interest in bad behavior, he says.
“I wanted to be the Wicked Witch of the West, the Bad Seed or Captain Hook, not Peter Pan, Dorothy or Snow White. The Evil Queen was a better part.”
“But then the fact that there was a real person that was a villain was something that always intrigued me because I don’t think I could do that — but everyone’s capable.”
This idea of being villainous is a continuation of the extreme behavior Waters mentioned at the beginning of our interview. He also puts contemporary artists in that category, as their whose work is often confrontational. “That’s contemporary art’s job — to wreck what came before it!” Waters insists. “You have to learn how to see. That’s what contemporary art is — learning how to see something new, in a totally different way, and the artwork/artists [featured in “Role Models”] make you do that. And that is the kind of art people need, because they refuse to see things in a different way. Initially, it always gets the reaction, ‘Anybody could do that’ or ‘It looks failed.’ Well, you didn’t, stupid, and I bought it!”
Waters’ impressive collection of art, like the books, threatens to overtake his house, appearing in every possible inch of wall or floor space. In the entryway is Fischli/Weiss’ “Invitation,” a rubber 33-1/3 record that sits on a pedestal and practically invites people to use it as a coaster (Waters bemoans they do in his book). The same artists’ “Fotografias,” a collection of six “underexposed” images that are hard to see, hang in the living room and are, indeed, dark and hard to see. But it is to the artists’ credit that you do want to see them. Across the room hangs Moyra Davey’s equally frustrating photograph “The Problem of Reading,” which presents a handful of books facing spine in, so all viewers see are the edges of the pages. It’s fantastic, and reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s negative cast of a library. I mention this, and Waters responds that he appreciates Whiteread too.
His dining room is filled with some of his favorite pieces as discussed in “Role Models,” including Mike Kelley’s “Wedged Lump,” which dares guests to look at it during meals. I am wowed by the seven Twombly prints on the opposite wall entitled, “Five Greek Poets and a Philosopher,” one of the highlights of Waters’ collection.
With the possible exception of the Twombly prints, humor seems to be the element that connects most of Waters’ artwork. “I Peed in My Pants,” by Tony Tassett, hangs in Waters’ hallway — a six-foot photograph of the artist with a wet leg that is amusing and yes, artful.
Of course, right after this, I zoom in on a spilled cup of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream sitting on top of more books. It is another faux-food gag item, and one that momentarily fools me because I’m not expecting to see it.
Waters ends his tour, and closes with a comment about humor, art and shock value that appropriately sums up his thoughts on the subject. “Trying to be shocking, especially today, seems to me to be desperate. I can still be surprised, by wit, and shocked — in a good way. But trying too hard is the ultimate sin. I never tried to top myself after ‘Pink Flamingos.’”
Waters also doesn’t try to exceed his limits with “Role Models.” The book is suitably smart and queer and slightly unwholesome. “My mother is not allowed to read the book. My sister just read it and agreed it won’t bring her pleasure. Why torture her?”
Yet fans of the author/filmmaker will find much to appreciate in this impressive collection of essays.
John Waters will discuss “Role Models” at 7:30 p.m. June 1 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.