Tuesday, November 29, 2011

John Waters: This Filthy World

(my response to a lecture given by a social theorist)

            Inspired by the challenges to gender ideology that fill Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman’s Gender Outlaws, I decided to watch a lecture by openly gay filmmaker and icon of bad taste, John Waters. Much like the narratives in Gender Outlaws, Waters subverts societal conventions of sexuality, as he offers a no holds barred account of homosexual lifestyle and fetishistic behavior. What I appreciated the most about this lecture was Waters’ humor, which could be occasionally self-deprecating. He wasn’t preaching or making impassioned arguments for alternative lifestyles; he was just offering up his view on the sensational, often vulgar, aspects of our society. He seemed to revel in bad behavior, encouraging filmmakers, artists, and even children to go out and find some trouble. It could be anything from starting a film society devoted to shocking acts or knocking over a row of bikes. You don’t necessarily need to make a statement; you just want people to react.
The lecture opens with John Waters emerging from a confessional booth to a stage littered with trash and open garbage cans. He seemed to have a very open relationship with the audience, wherein he could share any story or idea without fear of condemnation. Throughout the lecture, Waters parallels his societal observations with his devotion to film, first as an audience member, then as an independent filmmaker.
            As a young man growing up in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1950s, John Waters was influenced by gimmicky, low budget filmmakers like William Castle. These directors would use shock tactics to lure in audiences. Props would often be incorporated into film screenings as well as opportunities for audience participation. Waters also discusses dirty, underground filmmaking—an art form that anybody with a camera can take part in and exploit. These “instant movies,” as Waters refers to them, dealt with a current event and could be put into theaters the same day they were filmed. Due to the controversial and shocking subject matter, however, these film screenings were occasionally cut short by police raids. The films of Andy Warhol are also included in Waters’ description of underground filmmaking, as Warhol was one of the first artists to put homosexuality and drugs on the screen. “At last,” Waters states.
            He then opens up about his own career as a filmmaker; beginning with his early, independent films with drag queen and long time companion, Divine. Waters speaks of Pink Flamingos as a film about testing limits, subjected to repeated problems with censorship. I suppose that would be expected of any film that features a singing anus and a man in drag eating dog feces. In Desperate Living, Waters took a fairytale approach to telling a story of lesbian anguish. He even used real homeless people as extras in the process. Waters then transitions to what he deems his “above ground” movie making, beginning with Polyester. For this film, he incorporated the gimmickry of William Castle with an interactive device called Odorama. Odorama has the audience members scratch and sniff a smell at a particular time, everything from grass to feces. Crybaby, along with Johnny Depp, featured then pornographic star, Tracy Lords. It focuses on a theme Waters often applies to his life and his work: juvenile delinquency. According to Waters, it is a form of rebellion that “needs to be brought back.” Pecker, a movie the Japanese press described as “a Disney film for perverts,” deals with the oddity of fame in the art world. I found it quite interesting the way Waters compared the success of a visual artist with the success of filmmaker. In his view, it is better to be an artist because if everybody loves your work, then it’s a failure. A filmmaker, however, has to receive approval from several people to even get their work released. Such was the case with Waters’ latest film, A Dirty Shame. This is a film about sex addicts and incorporates any number of fetishes that Waters has read about, witnessed, or created especially for the story. Upon its release, it was attacked by the Catholic Church and given an NC-17 rating by the industry of motion pictures. According to the ratings board, no amount of editing could save this film from such limited viewership.
            The lecture is brought to a rather satisfying close as Waters delves into his unique relationship with society. Much like the work of the numerous social theorists we have read this semester, Waters is an observer. More to the point, he is an observer of antisocial behavior, or those people who simply do not fit into everyday society. He regularly attends trials, with many of the defendants accused of heinous acts. He investigates aspects of gay subculture such as adult babies—which Waters himself decries—and heavy-set, hairy gay men who refer to themselves as “bears” (bears who seek a smaller companion, or cub). In a society where all of these things are being documented, being gay, Waters declares, is simply not enough. Many students today are openly homosexual, but only in the more affluent schools. Waters states that humor needs to be used as a form of terrorism amongst the gay community. This struck me as an especially poignant comment as Waters grew up in a conservative, Catholic environment where sexual addiction and fetishes were almost never discussed. Forget about the gay subculture, being gay wasn’t even considered a culture, but rather a disease. Yet even as politically correct and accepting as our society tries to be of alternative lifestyles, there are still people like John Waters who want to push the limits even further. He would probably be the first to admit that these limits go well beyond the lines of good taste, but like with any social theory or piece of artwork, it is important to incite questions and controversy.     

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