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Making trouble with John Waters

In a new book, the iconic writer and filmmaker dispenses advice to the next generation of artists, of whom he demands: “Make me nervous!”

By Heather Wood Rudulph

Walking through John Waters’ Nob Hill home, one must be careful not to disrupt the art. It is everywhere—decorating the walls, lining the halls and delicately poised atop the piles of books that stretch from floor to ceiling in nearly every room. When Waters first came to San Francisco in 1970, he lived in a car a few blocks from this apartment—a home that is now filled with memories, memorabilia and an impressive collection of sculptures, paintings, macabre black-and-white photography, and kitsch from artists such as Paul Lee, Vincent Fecteau and Brett Reichman. It’s the kind of high–low aesthetic that has become a John Waters trademark.

There are few artists who can match the notoriety that Waters has acquired over six decades as a writer, filmmaker and performance artist. That attention, of course, has not always been glowing. He has been called the Prince of Puke, King of Trash and Sultan of Sleaze, among other epithets. Going through this list of professional insults makes Waters sit up straighter in his chair and adjust his Issey Miyake suit, printed with watercolor birds. He flashes a mischievous grin that makes his pencil-thin mustache stretch clear across his face.

“I was happy when they called me a pervert,” says Waters, looking a mixture of amused and impatient. We’re sitting in his dining room surrounded by more books, and photos of old friends like Andy Warhol and James Baldwin. “I embraced it just like we have now embraced queer, which used to be the worst thing you could say to a gay person.”

A more fitting moniker for Waters might be something along the lines of Guardian of Counterculture, a suggestion that provokes a smirk. Since shooting his first movies on an 8mm camera as a teen in Baltimore, Waters has spent his entire career making unsung characters heroes of their own stories, all the while pulling back the curtain on middle-class America. His widely panned cult classic Pink Flamingos depicts suburban housewives getting into a gross-out war, culminating with star Divine ingesting dog feces. Waters’ biggest commercial success, Hairspray—which has spawned two remakes and a Tony-winning Broadway musical—centers on a horny fat teen who is obsessed with getting on a TV dance show during the era of segregation and race riots. In Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner plays a suburban housewife who moonlights as a serial killer.

Of all his characters, Waters himself is the most compelling. In memoirs such as Crackpot, Role Models and Carsick, Waters spins life lessons from his friendships with convicted murderers, bizarre obsessions like car crashes and executions, and his pastime of hitchhiking.

“I always joke that I made bad taste one percent more respectable. And if you can do that in under 100 years, that’s an accomplishment,” he says boastfully, before quickly shifting to self-deprecation. “I try to be very humble about my filth-elder empire. I still think, How is this possible?”

The answer, of course, is that Waters has the keen insight into society that only comes from examining its underbelly. He gives the kind of advice that adolescents seek out from the outlaws and outliers, like the cool uncle who’s been to jail, buys you cigarettes and lends you dog-eared copies of Tropic of Cancer, American Psycho and Catch-22 that he saved from a banned-books cart.

“I believe in adult delinquency,” Waters says. “I try to use it in a way that changes things.”

Waters’ wit and wisdom have made him an in-demand speaker and regular guest on talk shows like Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show. In 2015, Waters gave perhaps his most memorable speech to date when he addressed the graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design. Standing before budding artists who were still babies when the John Travolta-version of Hairspray was released, Waters dispensed gems such as these: “If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid—to you” and “Prepare sneak attacks on society” and “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

The speech went viral across media ranging from YouTube to the Wall Street Journal, and then Waters was approached to turn the commencement address into a book. Make Trouble, which is illustrated by Eric Hanson, will be released April 11.

In this Trumpian era, Make Trouble offers timely lessons on tolerance, political engagement and the power of being painfully self-aware. “When I wrote it two years ago I was thinking, What should the kids do now? Stop studying and let’s go march. There has got to be activism again,” says Waters, who has two honorary doctorate degrees but never finished college after being expelled from NYU for smoking marijuana. “Now that Trump won, it oddly makes more sense. Fighting from the inside is more critical than ever.”

When asked about what artists inspire him today, Waters takes me on a tour of his CD collection, which fills two rows of one of his floor-to-ceiling bookcases. He pulls out Doris Day, A Tribe Called Quest, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rufus Wainwright, Marvin Gaye—a mixture of the old guard and new voices that represent how art over the years has endured many generational divides.

“Any art that matters causes trouble,” Waters says. “Pop Art destroyed Abstract Expressionism. Minimalism helped destroy Pop Art. Rap music changed Rock, and pissed off all the parents who thought they were so cool for listening to rhythm and blues. The secret is that each time you have to come up with something that surprises and horrifies people—in a good way.”

While Waters, who at 70 maintains a daily writing schedule and constantly travels between his homes in Baltimore, New York and San Francisco, shows no signs of retiring anytime soon. Make Trouble has captured him at a sentimental moment in his life and career. Waters begins the book and speech by talking about how he was put down by educators, ostracized from his peers and even dumped on by the arts community—all setbacks that propelled him to keep working toward the dreams that no one thought he should be following in the first place. Could he be ready to pass the baton on to the next prince or princess of bad taste?

“Nobody gets mad at anything I say anymore,” he admits, sounding somewhat defeated. “I do think there is going to be a new kind of anarchy, a new kind of disruption and resistance that will become daily. If art is just political it’s too obvious. Art has to be a little more sneaky to work.”

He pauses, then takes a seat on his big red couch and shows me a small pillow with a needlepoint picture of a burning police car. It’s a scene he witnessed during the White Night Riots in San Francisco that followed the assassination of gay rights icon Harvey Milk in 1978. Waters commissioned the pillow from his mother. “We could really use a good riot,” he says. “I’m so nostalgic for them now.”

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