On the Bright Side of Smut

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

I'm admiring John Waters' socks—reverse colors, with giant polka dots—and he obligingly lifts the pant bottoms of his impeccably tailored suit so I can get a better look. Kicking off his green crocodile-skin loafers, American cinema's ťminence grise of filth and smut plumps down cross-legged on the bed of his suite at the Four Seasons to discuss A Dirty Shame, his new comedy about a band of sex addicts who lay siege to a respectable working-class Baltimore neighborhood.

Ten years ago, when I interviewed Waters about Serial Mom, an amiable trifle starring Kathleen Turner as a suburban assassin of all who fail to recycle, he was feeling pleased about returning to R-rated territory after Hairspray and Cry-Baby, both commercial successes that drove fans of his early forays into the sociology of disgust to cry sellout.

But Serial Mom was a tea party compared to A Dirty Shame, in which that practiced shape-shifter Tracey Ullman plays Sylvia Stickles, a sex-hating grump whose slumbering libido gets a fresh outlook after she suffers a concussion and is recruited by Ray-Ray Perkins (Jackass' Johnny Knoxville), a generously hung tow-truck driver, to a group of similarly "afflicted" sex maniacs. Together, this band of solid citizens–turned–fiends of carnal bliss plays havoc with Sylvia's community of "Neuters," while delighting, at least for a while, her sex-starved husband (Chris Isaak) and her daughter (Selma Blair), a recovering go-go dancer with breasts the size of watermelons. Given that the sexual fetishes showcased in the film include licking dirty floors, running fingers through ground beef at the supermarket, dressing up as an adult baby, frottage (Patricia Hearst, in her fifth movie with Waters, is the frotteuse) and something called sploshing, only Waters could come on astonished that his new movie has been slapped with an NC-17. Especially since every one of these attractive proclivities, he assures me, can be found on the Internet, which was where Waters located the adult baby outfit worn by a middle-aged cop in the movie, and the copious websites devoted to hairy gay men called "bears." "I'm an old otter," Waters says with his trademark satyr's grin. "An otter is someone who's not fat or hairy yet, but will be."

Like many of Waters' films, A Dirty Shame is torn from an obscure headline—in this case an article he'd read about a tiny proportion of people who suffer concussions and later become sex-mad—which he then tortured into his own merrily anarchic genre mutant. "I wanted to do a Three Stooges sex comedy," he says. The film's deeper roots, so to speak, lie in Waters' lifelong fascination with sexual aberration. Raised Catholic in an upper-middle-class Republican family (his uncle was Undersecretary for the Interior in the Nixon administration), Waters was taught that he would go to hell if he saw any of the movies listed by the same Catholic Office of Film that has bestowed an "O" (for Offensive) rating on A Dirty Shame. In the mid-'50s, his idea of "let's pretend" was to imagine that he owned a dirty-movie theater. He kept scrapbooks on and redesigned ad campaigns for movies like Love Is My Profession and Baby Doll. I've heard these stories before, told in much the same way. Waters narrates his life as if it were one of his movies. The tone is jocular, jaunty, playful, as if to say, "Can you believe this lovable freak that I was?" It's delightful and seems intimate at the time, but one senses it's also a way of charming his listener into keeping her distance and not asking what she longs to ask but doesn't dare to: Just how dark and lonely was it to be a little boy who makes believe he owns a sexploitation movie theater? Years ago Waters told me that his benign leading lady, Divine, had in fact been a very angry man. Perhaps that's why Divine is dead and Waters, a self-professed optimist, is alive and thriving. Still, I can't imagine his childhood was an unmitigated lark. For someone who's devoted his career to teasing out the American id, Waters is remarkably good at keeping his own id under wraps.

Waters' interest in show business began when his parents took him to New York to be on The Howdy Doody Show—to this day he can deliver a rousing imitation of the show's warm-up chant. He became a Variety subscriber when he was 12 years old (at that time the trade paper reviewed everything, porn flicks included). The sexploitation films of Russ Meyer and others, about which he'd read in The Village Voice, were huge hits in Baltimore: "I think we were the exploitation capital of the world," says Waters proudly. At 20, Waters started making dirty movies of his own. Like many countercultural happenings during that period, Roman Candles, Eat Your Make-Up, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs played in Episcopal or Unitarian churches. "That way I could escape the censors," he says. "They weren't going to bust a church."

Always an equal-opportunity satirist, Waters goes out of his way to poke fun at the hippies and liberals who were his audience. The funniest characters in A Dirty Shame are a starry-eyed liberal couple from Washington, D.C., who come slumming to Waters' beloved blue-collar Harford Road area in search of "diversity," only to flee in horror when the neighborhood is flooded with variety in the form of sexual perversions they never bargained for.

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.

For all the robust excess of his movies, Waters' guiding motto might be "raunchiness is next to kindliness." Like all his films, A Dirty Shame is a tongue-in-cheek plea for tolerance. "I don't think my movies are ever mean," he says. "Even Pink Flamingos wasn't mean. They're not against women. They're not hateful, and I always try to be joyous even in the most despairing situations. It's hard to be joyous if you have to lick floors every day for sex, but I try," he says archly, "to think on the bright side of that. You can't get AIDS, you can't get pregnant, you can't be disappointed. There are dirty floors everywhere—you can do it alone. I try to think of the best in the worst." Evidently he gets his sunny optimism from his mother, who, on being told that he was making a film about sex addicts, remarked brightly: "Oh! Well, maybe we'll die first."

A DIRTY SHAME was written and directed by JOHN WATERS; produced by CHRISTINE VACHON and TED HOPE; and stars Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak and Selma Blair. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Loading...