Is there a more lovable director now working (though not nearly often enough) than John Waters? The man wears his loves and hates on his sleeve, unapologetically; he won’t apologize for his films, either. Why should he? If he didn’t like them, why would he have made them?
In This Filthy World, Waters stands up in front of a New York audience for a little over an hour and takes them — and us — through a lifetime of obsessions, pet peeves, and filmmaking. Much of the material and anecdotes will be familiar to longtime fans who’ve read his interviews or his essential books (Shock Value and Crackpot). But it’s more fun to see and hear him presenting the stories. What we come away with is a self-portrait of a pre-punk transgressor gentled by the years into an elder statesman — with two Broadway hits, no less! — whom everyone expects to be wilder and crazier than he actually is. Hunter S. Thompson lived his role in and out. Waters prefers to get all his madness out in his movies, and go about his regular business dressed like a natty clerk and living a conservative life, albeit a life governed by fascination with things like murder trials and the consistent bad taste of his Baltimore neighbors.
Under Jeff Garlin’s unobtrusive if pedestrian direction, This Filthy World is your basic three-or-four-camera set-up, with occasional audience cut-aways and lighting on Waters that makes him look like he’s wearing a blue toupee. Fans of his films will appreciate that Waters offers at least one witty anecdote about each, from the Eat Your Makeup days all the way to 2004’s A Dirty Shame. His lasting affection for his incomparable star Divine is obvious; he says that if Divine were still alive, he would have wanted to star in Hairspray the musical and Hairspray the movie musical. It struck me anew how odd it should be that John Travolta, who ended up filling in for Divine (quite capably) in the movie musical, was making Saturday Night Fever at the same time Waters was making Desperate Living, his last “underground” film.
Reviewing Serial Mom back in 1994, I said that it was hard to tell whether John Waters had gone mainstream or mainstream had gone John Waters. He himself guesses that the story of Beverly Sutphin could happen today; “everybody can have a bad night,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t favor the death penalty. Waters is not for gay marriage, but not for the reasons bigoted straight people are; he opines that two of the perks of being gay were that you didn’t have to get married or go into the army, and now, as a gay man, he’s expected to fight the good fight to win gays the right to marry and go to war. Well, fine, he concludes, they should have the right if they really want to; leave me out of it.
The secret of Waters’ cult success, I think, is his essential good-heartedness. He’s too curious and easily amused by human foibles to be a misanthrope — if people were perfect, what would he make movies about? Even the rare villains in his work are seen campily, almost lovingly, the way he views the Wicked Witch of the West. That good-heartedness — the ease with strange behavior — comes through here, though he does draw the line at “adult babies.” He talks almost warmly about the woman who got him to sign a bloody tampon; sure it was weird, but he signed it, and he got a good story out of it. This Filthy World is a collection of good stories, and while it’s somewhat lacking as a deep probe into what makes Waters tick and as a piece of stand-up, it works well enough as a record for those of us who in all likelihood won’t ever make it to see him chat in person. The DVD has the added value of a featurette and an audience Q&A.