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Naked lunch
Waters serves up A Dirty Shame

FOR SOME TIME now, John Waters has shocked and entertained audiences more as a personality, with his books and one-man shows and off-the-wall, on-the-money quips and interviews, than as a filmmaker. He may have outraged the world ó or at least the good people in his hometown of Baltimore ó back in 1972 when Divine, his 300-pound-transvestite star, ate a dog turd while competing for the title of Most Disgusting Person in Pink Flamingos, his first break-out success. But now, a public inured by TV shows such as Fear Factor can only see that as quaint.

Waters didnít help his reputation as enfant terrible of the Midnight Movie when, in the í80s and í90s, he turned out Hollywood-produced and, for him, anyway, more mainstream comedies. They were rough around the edges, maybe, but they were no Multiple Maniacs (1970). Still, not even Watersís excremental vision at its raunchiest could raise an eyebrow anymore; itís hard to offend when bad taste has become the fashion of the day.

Waters didnít give up trying. One way was through new technology, such as the "Odorama" cards accompanying his 1981 film Polyester, the tale of a middle-class housewife (Divine, again) whose respectability is a façade for debauchery. You scratch and sniff a spot on the card as each number is cued by the movie; number two is exactly what youíd think it is.

He also experimented with inventive casting, bringing in dubious cultural icons to play against such Waters stand-bys as Edith Massey and Mink Stole. Tab Hunter took a turn in Polyester, Sonny Bono starred in Hairspray (1988), Johnny Depp and Traci Lords had fun in Cry-Baby (1990), and Patty Hearst made her big-screen debut in Serial Mom (1994).

In interviews, Waters tried to reinvent himself as a social commentator. His message of tolerance and freedom, however, had less impact than his films, which simply shocked audiences into awareness of those virtues or made them laugh with recognition at their own weaknesses and imaginative limits. Not that Waters went completely PG. Who else would bring out a film about a terrorizing gang of teenagers a year after Columbine, as he did with Cecil B. Demented (2000)? Who else could release a film called Pecker (1998) under the auspices of a major studio? Nonetheless, he was in danger of turning into a gay, more flamboyant Alan Alda.

His latest film, A Dirty Shame, recalls the Waters of old. For one thing, itís his first film in three decades to cop an NC-17 rating. There is hardly any real sex in it, and there is only one shot of gratuitous frontal male nudity. But it does broach a number of behaviors perhaps not familiar to the anonymous members of the ratings board.

And maybe the premise touched a nerve. Set in deepest Baltimore, it concerns some working-class slobs who shed their inhibitions after bumping their heads. Formerly "neuters" ó uptight bluenoses who condemn sex even though they have no experience with it ó they turn into "addicts," engaging compulsively in such practices as "upperdecking," molysmophilia, and "splashing." (I didnít know what those meant, either.) Tracey Ullman plays one such victim, orally stimulated to ecstasy by the filmís sexual messiah, Ray-Ray, played by Jackass maven Johnny Knoxville.

In short, itís John Watersís funniest and most shameless film in about two decades ó a long way from the PG-rated Hairspray, which in 2002 became an award-winning Broadway musical. I had more fun, however, having lunch with him recently at UpStairs on the Squareís fittingly overripe Soirée Room and listening to him expound on such subjects as his distaste of pets ("animals condemned to a lifetime of human caresses"), his renunciation of parenthood (he owns a fake, lifelike baby), his fear that his parents will be angered by the new filmís desecration of the "hokey pokey," his prediction that Sean Penn will be the first big Hollywood actor to have unsimulated sex in a movie, and his contention that inventing a sex act is more important than making a movie.

Sex is back, he contends ó not that itís ever left his repertoire ó but amid the scatological and sexual jokiness he outlines a powerful case for the end of repression and the restoration of genuine fun, laughter, and bad taste. If his new movie might advance that cause, his conversation makes it seem inevitable. If everyone could have lunch with John Waters just once, the world would be a better place.

Q: Are you still feisty?

A: I donít know. I just kind of make people laugh. Is that feisty? I just make the next movie every time. I never try to position a movie, or I never think, "This oneís going to be commercial, or weirder." It just comes out the way it is. The same way Hairspray came out one time and it was PG. This one just came out NC-17, which I never expected. I still donít think it deserves it. When I made Hairspray and it got a PG, I thought, "I didnít plan that either." I just wrote the next movie at that time. I never thought, "Oh, this is a movie that regular people would like," or that it would be a family movie.

Q: Ever been banged in the head?

A: Actually, I had a concussion. I was mugged in 1974 but I didnít turn into a sex addict. I actually went to a friendís house because Iíd been to a bar with her earlier. And I donít even remember this, but she told me later that I was covered in blood and knocked on the door and she thought Iíd just murdered five people. I said, "Iíve come to involve you." So I guess I kept my sense of humor. But I donít remember it. I do have a relative that had a brain tumor. And as he recovered, he would always be, like, "fuck" and "shit" and stuff he would never have said in front of my parents or relatives and stuff. Maybe that was a little of that, like Touretteís syndrome. ... Maybe the Touretteís syndrome of sexuality, just blurt out and do things.


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Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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