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Monday, July 26, 2010

From ‘Pink Flamingos’ to ‘Role Models’

The eccentric world of John Waters

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Anyone who has ever felt like a misfit, an outsider or a hopeless dweeb needs to adopt John Waters as his or her fairy godfather. Waters put himself on America’s reverse cultural map with Pink Flamingos, in which his star, Divine, snacks on dog feces. He subsequently went on to more conventional fame with the movie and Broadway show Hairspray. In Role Models (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) he has given us 10 essays featuring the odd, phantasmagoric characters that light up his universe.

Waters’ two pop favorites, Johnny Mathis and Little Richard, could not be more opposite in their images, yet both fit into his models of aesthetic and moral excellence. Mathis, who avoids publicity, has remained a genteel, romantic icon throughout his long career, while Little Richard has been shocking parents since Ike was president. Waters celebrates their compulsion to create, which they would follow whether they were rich and famous or not.

One of Waters’ heroes, Bobby Garcia, lives in a run-down shack with a rooster and an appalling number of rats for roommates. His claim to fame is the creation of a large body of pornography featuring himself as the protagonist and handsome male Marines as his leading men. In other, less gentle hands, the Bobby Garcia saga might be played for easy laughs, but that’s not Waters’ way. He portrays Garcia as a respectable if obsessed man on a mission, with an aesthetic vision worthy of deconstruction. He even understands Garcia’s simpatico ways with rats.

Waters says that he would make a good advocate for the damned. Not only is he attracted to people who walk on life’s dark side, but he is driven to know what makes them behave the way they do. He brings compassion and empathy to the task. The people he cares about in his native Baltimore and from his extensive travels are often not only the damned, but the redeemed damned. Waters keeps a to-do list, and one of his goals is to free Manson family member Leslie Van Houten. He makes it clear that the 60-year-old Van Houten, whom he has known for 30 years, is light years away from being the murderer and cult member she was in 1969.

The closest Waters comes to regret was for his movie Multiple Maniacs, based loosely on the Manson family’s Tate/LaBianca murders. He expresses sorrow for his “flippant disregard for the terrible aftermath of these crimes.” What drove him was his insatiable curiosity about people. “How had these kids from backgrounds so similar to mine,” he wonders, “committed in real life what we were acting for comedy in our film?”

The wrongheaded transgression of his Manson movie notwithstanding, John Waters is, at heart, a decent, honorable man. Role Models clearly illustrates that you can be gloriously unique, hilarious and far from what is called “normal” and still be manifestly worthy of respect.