Beyond the filth, behind the camp: John Waters

By Lisa Summers

For those of us who hoarded Odorama cards under our mattresses after the 1981 release of “Polyestor,” the scheduled arrival of film legend John Waters at the 15th Sonoma International Film Festival is nothing less than a coup d’état.

Waters, known for his off color humor and his cast of misfits, carved out a reputation as the master craftsman of camp in the 70’s and 80’s, only venturing into the mainstream in 1988 with his hit film and Broadway musical “Hairspray;” the 2007 remake with a cast featuring superstars Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, John Travolta, and Queen Latifah was a huge commercial success despite the 20 year gap.

Inspired by the people and cityscape of his native Baltimore, Waters describes himself as a “cult filmmaker whose core audience consists of minorities who can’t even fit in with their own minorities.”

Waters early career was marked by low-budget, self-written and produced underground movies shot on location in Baltimore. Films such as “Mondo Trasho,” “Pink Flamingos,” and “Female Trouble” earned Waters a reputation as an iconoclast willing to test any and all boundaries of propriety and censorship in film. In addition to his childhood friend and muse Glenn Milstead, a.k.a Divine, Waters cast criminals, convicts and other ill-reputed performers alongside a core group of regulars known as The Dreamlanders. After the success of “Hairspray,” however, actors such as Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Kathleen Turner and Johnny Knoxville began appearing in his films.

There is much more to Waters and his pencil thin mustache than meets the eye. Waters has always been openly homosexual but finds the focus on sexuality limiting as an artist. In a recent NPR interview, he confesses, “I understand wanting gay marriage. I would never vote for somebody who was against gay marriage. [But] I purposefully have no desire to imitate a rather corny tradition of heterosexuals. I would owe three alimonies.”

In his new book “Role Models,” Waters discusses his love of reading, his desire to be buried in a graveyard, the close relationship he shares with his parents, and the biggest creative influences in his life and art; included among the latter are Johnny Mathis, Federico Fellini, and Tennessee Williams. He writes, “I was unhealthily interested in everything — the condemned movies, rock ‘n’ roll — everything that you weren’t supposed to like. Somehow that didn’t seem to bother me. And then I read Tennessee Williams. … I learned that there was another world — bohemia, basically.”

On Saturday, April 14, Waters will perform his one-man show “This Filthy World” at the Sonoma Memorial Veterans Hall. “This Filthy World” explores the origins of Waters’ filmmaking in the trash genre, the challenges of surviving in the trenches of Hollywood and personal anecdotes from his life and career. The Veterans Hall will be transformed into a supper club with live music during dinner and later at the festival after-party. Seating is limited, and tickets are sure to sell out quickly. For more information about the event and ticket options, visit SonomaFilmFest.org or call the box office at 707-206-4484.


2 Responses to Beyond the filth, behind the camp: John Waters

  1. Lorna says:

    Great article!

  2. Flamingos put me off, but I enjoy everything else he does and of course I am looking forward to seeing his presentation. We also would love to have him come to the premiere of “Derby Baby” about modern Roller Derby, a phenomenon of women’s empowerment that is so underground that people are not aware that there are 1200 leagues in 38 countries with over 100,000 participants who own their own leagues and pay to skate. It is showing at 3 PM at the Sebastiani and I would not only love to see Mr Waters attend, but we are having a skating demo in front of the theater at 2 PM involving the Sonoma County Rollers and Resurrection Roller Girls, the two leagues in Sonoma County. Oh by the way, I have no ownership of the film, but Carolyn Stolman and I started the film festival in 1997 to restore the theater; my father invented Roller Derby in 1935; I promoted the Bay Bombers from 1959 to 1973….I have the unofficial title of “The Commissioner” from the derby girls around the world, and have lived in Sonoma since 1993.