Editor's note: John Waters is not known as The Pope of Trash for nothing, so if you tend to be offended by raunchy statements, you might not want to read all of this post.
"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.
John Waters's most famous quote (Besides saying "Neeegrrrrooooes" while jabbing Leslie Ann Powers in the ass with a cattle prod, of course) is, "If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't fuck them." Right there is everything you need to know about the lessons he has to teach. Do something kinky, and learn something along the way. Everything else is a waste of your time.
Actually, Waters informed us that he's updated his advice regarding literacy and promiscuity, as well as more or less daring us to print it. Playing Dare You with John Waters sounds like a good way to end up on a government list, but in this case we accept the challenge.
"If this Christmas you receive a book from somebody by an author you like that you end up loving, blow them," says Waters. "Or eat them out, if that's the case. If somebody gives you a book by an author you've never heard of and you love it, rim them."
Sound advice, though it might be a little hard on the postseason Christmas buying season if all our commerce were oral sex-based. Updates like that are what keep This Filthy World as fresh as the dog shit Divine ate. The show that we fell in love with on Netflix is 95 percent different now, dealing with religion, politics, art and a host of other subjects. Fans looking to connect with one of our most creative and controversial minds, as well as explore areas of culture you might have been completely ignorant of, cannot afford to miss this performance.
In addition to the show, Waters is revealing another side of himself that he rarely talks about. He is a dedicated visual artist, bringing his trademark style to another medium.
"I don't talk much about my art in conversations about my films and such," said Waters. "I keep the two very separate, even though art has been a huge part of my life for a long time. The art world can be somewhat closed, so I'm careful."
An exhibit called Neurotic involves Waters capturing stills from movies in bizarre contexts that have nothing to do with the overall plot. One piece, for example, had him acting as an art burglar in the film The Bad Seed, lifting all the art from the walls in the film and hoarding it in his own private exhibition. Another incredible, eerie work is titled 9/11, and consists of nothing but the title shots from Night Rider and Dr. Doolittle 2... the films that were showing on the planes in the terrorist attack. That something so inconsequential, so banally trivial could somehow become haunting and sad is something that could only happen at the hands of John Waters. He is a pestilent, corrupting influence that threatens all common decency. Thank God he's here to save us from ourselves.
This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier, 8:30 Wednesday, March 14, DiverseWorks, 1117 E. Freeway. Call 713-223-8346 or visit www.diverseworks.org. Tickets are $250-$5,000.
Neurotic, 6 - 8 p.m. March 15 through April 14, McClain Gallery, 2242 Richmond. For more information, call 713-520-9988 or visit www.mcclaingallery.com. Open to the public.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.