Review: Author, Auteur John Waters and the Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder

Iconoclastic film- and filth-maker John Waters told interviewer Michael Phillips that the first time he came to Chicago was with a “drive-away” car. He couldn’t believe a stranger trusted him with an automobile. Trust and risks were among many leitmotifs in the hilarious and warm, hour-long-ish conversation about “failing upward,” held on colorful low-slung chairs in front of a curtain at the Studebaker Theater. Witty Waters, despite coughing with “the croup” on occasion, was a scream: forthright and funny, more of a stand-up than a storied filmmaker, writer and bon vivant who introduced most of America to gayness and real greatness (certainly not the MAGA flavor). Phillips said he saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead and Waters’ Pink Flamingos the same year, 1978, but was most in awe of the auteur’s Smoking No Smoking ad. Waters looked snazzy is a lush, complicated embroidered blazer and what seemed like track pants with a white stripe down the side, as he compared Chicago with his famous hometown of Baltimore, both cities sharing pothole woes and vying for the murder capital title. “And I like Chicago’s buildings,” Waters said. “They look like Superman might jump off them.” He visits here frequently for the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the longest running underground film festival in the world, running June 5-9 this year. He’s here now to promote his new book, an essay collection, the light and lively Mr. Know-It-All. He remarked he wasn’t as prolific as authors like Danielle Steel, who have “writing diarrhea.” Writing is, though, a regular job to him, and he said he works from 8 to 11:30am every weekday, after reading six newspapers and checking his emails. Waters complied the 21 essays over the last three years, and he and Phillips referenced several brief sections throughout the evening. Like how Waters appreciated Andy Warhol’s movies because they “stomped on cinema,” and how all those plastic-surgeried Hollywoodites look like “fish and androids, surprised.” He talked about his parents, who loved him but were horrified by his films, despite the fact they financed Flamingos (but never saw it). About being inspired by Tennessee Williams, and how “being gay just isn’t enough any more; but it’s a start.” When asked by an audience member about the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this year, he said he never attended the club, but knew it was full of hustlers. It wasn’t chic. “But,” he added, “aren’t all revolutions started by poor people?” The book has a chapter about the endless success and numerous resurrections of Hairspray, probably the most famous and lucrative of his 17 movies; his Trojan Horse that even racists like, now performed in high schools across the country. He also talked about how its star, and his dear friend Divine, died weeks after the first film’s release. When Waters dies, he wants to be buried near Divine and other friends, in an area they’ll call Disgraceland. He said the fun of films is making them up; the drag is making them real, and that his writing is “the clothesline where to hang his filthy wash.” Waters shared solid Hollywood plot points to hit in screenplays:
  1. Get something
  2. Lose something
  3. Learn something
Also, it’s the first 10 pages of the script that should “get” the studio execs, and the last 10 pages will let you know if the film is a hit or not. He hitchhiked across America at age 66 (chronicled in 2014’s Carsick), and took LSD at 70 with lifelong B’more friend Mink Stole, taking a dose with such pure provenance that “it came from Timothy Leary’s asshole.” The only things Waters really doesn’t do is singing, sports or sci-fi. He also doesn’t like other films being called “John Waters-esque” and the fact that modern trailers are basically the entire movie. Waters declared he just wanted to make people laugh and be a little uncomfortable, like what a good defense lawyer should do. He’s currently working on his first novel called Liar Mouth, about a woman who steals suitcases at the airport. Because of course it is. Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder is out now. John Waters spoke with the Chicago Tribune’s film critic Michael Phillips at the Studebaker Theater on Tuesday, May 28, as part of the paper’s “Unscripted” series, which will continue with an interview with Obama’s friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett on June 3.
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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.