On the Bright Side of Smut

John Waters returns to his sex-mad (but never mean) moviemaking roots

Context is all. When Waters made his early movies in the '60s and '70s, he was an integral, even defining part of the counterculture, albeit an extreme wing of it. He was also part of a sexual revolution, and his films were anathema to the culture at large. Today, in more ways than one, he's part of the mainstream. A&E is airing a biography, tied to the release of A Dirty Shame, in which it is revealed that his father financed Pink Flamingos, and was repaid with interest. His movies get distributed by studios, some of whose top executives, in their youth, undoubtedly went to see his early films stoned out of their minds.

Three decades ago, John Waters was also one of a kind. Today he's competing in a crowded field with the likes of the Weitz brothers, the Farrellys, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone, all of whom possess Waters' gift for hitching extreme good nature to extreme gross-out. In this company Waters holds his own, but he no longer stands out, and when it comes to technique, he's a lesser filmmaker than the others. I love what his films stand for—inclusivity, tolerance, liberation and fun—but I've always felt about his movies as I do about Monty Python: half an hour is a riot; an hour and half starts to be a chore. A Dirty Shame tootles along amusingly enough, with Ullman's character transformed by her accident from a workaholic and prissy hater of all things carnal into a sexaholic who freaks out an entire assisted-living center by turning the hokey-pokey into the hootchie-coochie. There's some entertaining lampooning of 12-step recovery groups as Sylvia's relatives and friends try to change her back into the prig they knew and loved. But as the head-banging rises to a crescendo, switching sex fiends into "Neuters" and back again, the movie grows wearyingly repetitive as physical comedy of this no-holds-barred kind must.

Oddly enough, this giddily frivolous movie is more likely to survive as a cultural bellwether than as comedy. You could parse A Dirty Shameas nostalgia for a libertine past that Waters acknowledges will not come again during his lifetime, and about which even he has mixed feelings now. "In the wildest days of the '70s," he says, "people were having sex like that. I remember in Providence people had sex on the streets coming home from parties." He remembers public sex clubs where "you could be standing there having a discussion with a curator from MOMA, and a dick would come through the glory hole. That got to a point where it was pretty frightening. Especially on Eighth Avenue in New York—oh my God—where you saw hookers taking a shit in the street in daytime. So you think, Jesus, this was really out of control, right before AIDS, it was really pretty crazy."

Now fewer people over 25 are having sex in fewer ways, but everyone is talking about it, and the movies are full of it, which makes A Dirty Shame very much a creature of its time. "If you can't do it you can look at it," says Waters. "That's why porn is doing so wonderfully." Waters is partly amused by today's fearful sexual climate: "People in New York have less sex than anywhere in the world," he says, "because it's about power. If you come on to someone they say, 'No, you've lost power.' In Baltimore we don't have that. We're no longer the VD capital of the world, but we were a couple of years ago." But he's also saddened by all the sexual terror, especially as it affects youth. "I know young people who are 20 years old and HIV-positive, and I'm so shocked by it. But I understand it, because they think, 'Oh, they have medicine for that.' Well, you know what, they do, if you want to take 800 pills per day that have hideous side effects. For some reason we're not reaching young people today about this great fright. That's a terrible thing to put on them, because it's young people's right to be able to go out and have wild sex. But they can't, because they have to think of these ridiculous things like sploshing. Sex is much more complicated now. So the movie is about that, and I don't think there's any way it could have been made 10 years ago."

When it comes down to it, 90 minutes in John Waters' company is consistently more interesting than 90 minutes in the company of A Dirty Shame. It isn't just that he's funny—he's uproarious. He loves to party, and he's great company, the kind of vibrantly irreverent presence who could liven up the dreariest dinner party. He's a famously nice man, and everlastingly loyal to his friends. A Dirty Shame has small parts for old friends like Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, and of course, Hearst, the very mention of whose name in conjunction with the trials of the former Symbionese Liberation Army members leads to a 10-minute, spirited defense of his friend's testimony against what remains of the group. He's a smart, thoughtful observer of cultural change, and he can surprise you. I asked Waters to watch a new film by the French feminist Catherine Breillat that, like his film, traffics in sexual extremity. Breillat's Anatomy of Hell is slow, deliberate, sadistic toward its subject and the viewer, and saturated with high-flown theory about the mutual hatred between men and women. I'd have expected Waters to hate her work. It turns out he's a fan. He likes structuralist theory, "because it's a secret language." And, he says, "I love the idea of this kind of extreme sexual politics, told in this intellectual way." Anatomy of Hell, though, is in part about gay male loathing of women—it centers on a woman who pays a gay man to subject her to all manner of indignities that include shoving a pitchfork between her buttocks. Waters is clearly struggling between his admiration for Breillat ("This is the most politically incorrect movie I've ever seen in my life, so I have to respect that"), his amusement at its straight-faced solemnity ("When they put that pitchfork in her ass and she didn't notice, I thought, well!"), and his repulsion at its recalcitrant pessimism about gay misogyny. "This is her hardest movie to like," he says, "her most un-joyous." Out of loyalty to the filmmaker, he asked that the rest of his critique be off the record.
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