John Waters Pitches His "Oral Sex for Literacy" Program to Houston
"Are you calling me from jail?"
That's how our phone call to John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos) began. Our iPhone call recorder app has a brief recording informing the person you're calling that they might be under surveillance when you activate it. Waters, who has been arrested multiple times, as well as many of his friends, can certainly be forgiven for assuming we'd been incarcerated. Now that we have his number, we plan on calling him should that ever come to pass.
It was hard to believe that we were actually being personally addressed by a voice that we associate only with the highest level of artistic brilliance. Granted, we understand that not everyone would call the man who had Tracy Ullman pick up a bottle with her cooter a genius, but that's because they don't realize the subtlety of Waters's work. To better know him, you need only to pick up his one-man show This Filthy World on Netflix, or better yet, go see the performance of his updated version Filthier and Dirtier.
Hearing Waters reminisce on his career, his upbringing and the state of film is learning to see the world as a fantastic sandbox video game where you are free to attempt any number of insane stunts for no other reason than that someone should. He is shocking in the purest interpretation of that term. Sure, he drops the gross on you fairly frequently, but his real skill is doing the unexpected. He attacks from behind with art and information that you would never come across in regular life, and delivers it with such devilish charm that instead of having him committed, you buy him a drink just to hear more.
"I think of it as a psychological, self-help lecture for people that already feel good about being crazy," says Waters.
A live-action how-to guide to being cool would probably be more accurate. More than anything, the message that Waters delivers through his trademark pencil-thin mustache is to challenge the norm and to seek a new world. Our favorite story from This Filthy World goes like this: At one point Waters baptized Traci Lords. It was totally legit because he'd been ordained in order to marry Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder (He used his role as spiritual adviser to talk them out of it), and had an entire stolen Mormon baptism set-up in his basement. He decked out the scene in black candles and serenaded by a recording of castrated altar boys, then washed her clean of the piggishness of men and all her sins.
Now, to the average 'Merican it sounds like a smart-ass and a former porn star indulging in some blasphemy just to be weird and offensive, and we imagine that there is a tiny part of that in everything that Waters does. Still, think about the massive amount of scholarship, human insight and forethought that had to go into something like that. Where the hell do you find a recording of castrati, and would you even think about the inverted psychological effect something like that would have on a person who went through the things that Traci Lords went through in her time in the sex industry? He obviously knew how to set a scene so powerful that it would leave his subject in tears, and one only has to read Lords's autobiography to see how far she's come in healing herself. John Waters was part of that, offering input so outside even her realm of experience that it helped her see herself within the realm of normalcy.