Everybody needs a bad influence. John Waters wants to be yours.
He’s been called a philosopher of filth, a baron of bad taste, an equal opportunity offender. The great William S. Burroughs called him “The Pope of Trash.”
Best-known for his unremittingly odd films, the 66-year-old Waters hasn’t made a movie in nearly a decade. He’s turned his attention instead to writing books (best-selling books, actually) and to the vaudevillian spoken-word act — “This Filthy World” — that comes to Belly Up Aspen on Friday, Jan. 18.
“It’s a new way that I have to tell stories,” Waters told me from a tour stop in Indianapolis.
Truth be told, it’s not entirely new. The Waters road show has been going since the late 1960s, when he’d travel to college campuses with Divine, the drag-queen star of Waters’ first 20 years-worth of movies, screening their films and introducing them in-person.
Most nights in those days, it went something like this: Waters goes on stage dressed as a hippie pimp. He talks about nudist camp movies. He introduces Divine, the plus-sized queen. Divine comes on stage. She rips telephone books in half. She throws dead fish into the audience. A policeman — actually a paid hippie (“That is, if we had any kind of budget,” Waters adds) — then runs into the theater and onto the stage. He tries to arrest Waters and Divine. They resist. Divine strangles the policeman to death.
The lights dim, the movie starts.
“That was our act,” Waters deadpans. “It basically grew from that. Maybe it never got better, but it grew from that to this.”
He can’t promise dead fish or policemen — or Divine, who died in 1988 — but “This Filthy World” promises a full night of Waters, his legendarily dry and quick wit, and his encyclopedic knowledge of culture low and high.
“I’m always updating it and adding to it,” he says. “It’s not even that much about my films anymore. It’s really about my life. I talk about everything from fashion to crime to advice on how to be a happy neurotic to advice for parents.”
Essentially, it gives us a look through Waters’ uncanny eye for the bizarre, the same transgressive take on the world that has made him a counterculture icon.
His early movies were groundbreaking, subversive and, yeah, gross.
Waters’ first film of note, the 1968 short, “Eat Your Makeup,” gave us Divine playing Jackie Kennedy and crawling through pig feces when the Virgin Mary appears to her.
1972’s infamous “Pink Flamingos” brought back Divine, this time actually eating dog feces, and captured the timeless close-up shot of a man’s anus opening and closing, appearing to be singing along with “Surfin’ Bird” as it blared on the soundtrack.
People still argue whether this stuff is art or social commentary on censorship or a statement against intolerance, or, well, just exploitative trash.
He once screened the film in a prison, only to be told by an inmate: “You are f-ked up, man!”
It was a proud moment for Waters, who, in his autobiography, wrote that he felt making someone vomit from watching his films was like a standing ovation.
The gross-out antics and sexual anarchy of his early work predated the “Jackass” phenomenon by 30 years. Unsurprisingly, Waters and Johnny Knoxville began collaborating after he came on the scene — Knoxville acting in Waters’ “A Dirty Shame,” Waters appearing in “Jackass: Number Two.”
In 1981 he released “Polyester,” screenings of which included a scratch and sniff card, made to correspond with scenes in the film. He billed the gimmick as “Filmed in Odorama!” but, really, it was all a ruse to get people to buy tickets to smell a fart.
By the 80s, he went sort of mainstream, with the PG-rated movie “Hairspray,” a 1988 teen classic that was unpredictably transformed into a kid-friendly and Tony-winning blockbuster Broadway musical. In 2007, it became a movie musical of its own — not made by Waters — with John Travolta in the role originally played by Divine. He followed that up with the early Johnny Depp vehicle “Cry-Baby” (1990) and the mommy-murder fantasy “Serial Mom” (1994).
Waters, in the public persona of “This Filthy World” and in his films, taps into something in us that wants to shock and be shocked. On tour, he’s obliged fans who’ve asked him to autograph their mastectomy scars and colostomy bags (felt tip pens only on those, please, he says).
The stage act has taken him around the world — even selling out the Sydney Opera House.
“It’s become a new way that I make a living, to be honest with you,” he says. “It grew from a way to promote my movies in the beginning, to now becoming a one-man-show thing. It’s my vaudeville act.”
If you saw Waters speak at Aspen Shortsfest back in 2001, or you’ve seen the 2006 concert film version of “This Filthy World,” Friday’s performance promises to be completely different. Coming on the tail end of Aspen Gay Ski Week, the visit also gives Waters, long out and proud, a chance to pick up some new material.
“Gay people have to start to be more open to the idea of ‘coming in,’” he says with a laugh. “I think we have enough gay people. I try to tell some of them, at rich-kid schools, that they’re not gay, they’re just trend-sexuals. We have enough, if you’re faking it.”
While his cult-icon status brings out fans and fills theaters for his spoken word act, ironically, Waters can’t get the backing to make a movie today. His latest project, “Fruitcake,” has been stalled since 2008. The last one he directed was the NC-17-rated “A Dirty Shame” in 2004. (It featured, most notoriously, semen shooting out of Johnny Knoxville’s character’s head and splattering on the camera.)
“My last book was a bestseller,” he laughs. “Yet I can’t get a movie made. Everything in my life is going better than it ever has, except for movies.”
Studios, he says, want him to make movies on the same barely-there budget with which he made “Pink Flamingos” — something he isn’t interested in doing, especially when he can tell stories in books and on stage.
“They’re looking for me when I was 18,” he says. “They’re looking for a kid who can make a movie for $15,000. I did that, and to be honest, I would never do it again.”
Last May, Waters undertook a blend of performance art and book research, in the form of a cross-country hitchhiking trip. The trip — totaling 21 rides in 9 days, from Maryland to San Francisco — is the fodder for his forthcoming book, “Carsick.”
Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, like a dwindling few places in America, hitchhiking remains a commonplace. Not so in most of the U.S., and not in his native Baltimore, where he started the trip. He saw just one other hitchhiker on his whole journey, and he hopes his positive experience on the road will encourage people to go back to thumbing it.
And Waters, stick-thin and wearing his signature pencil moustache over his sleazy used-car-salesman grin, may not look like an ideal person to pick up on a highway in the middle of the night. The guy looks, he admits, a bit like a child molester. (In fact, for a time he made a habit of going to see animated Disney movies alone, just to watch parents move their children in every direction in the theater away from him.)
He says he got recognized a lot by confused fans finding him, thumb-out, on the roadside. When he wasn’t recognized, it made for some interesting hitchhiking interactions.
“There was this kid in a car, who was like 8 years old,” Waters laughs. “He just froze and said, ‘Dad, why is this man in the car?’”
The book, he says, opens with two novel-like sections — written before he left — playing out the best- and worst-case scenarios for the trip.
He’s been writing non-fiction books since 1981’s “Shock Value,” but the fictional sections of “Carsick” fulfill his lifelong ambition to write a novel, among the last dreams of his that have yet to come true.
“My dreams came true years ago,” he says. “I’ve had a great career. I’ve been understood. I’ve always said the real purpose of a career is not to get money or power — it’s to never have to be around assholes. So, I have achieved that level of success and I’m never around assholes. That’s really the thing to work towards. That’s power.”