Confessions of a Documentary Whore: Another Film on 'Filthy' Waters


John Waters, star of the perfomance documentary This Filthy World

"To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste."

- John Waters

 

He made felching jokes before they were in vogue. He taught us that "cunnilingus" sounds a whole lot more appealing when you call it "yodeling in the canyon." He's been pushing the boundaries of bad taste ever since his large, leading cross-dresser lady ate a pile of dog shit shortly after the pooch crapped it out. Yet in 2007, in a world where one of the most powerful religious leaders in America and head of the National Association of Evangelicals recently revealed his secret passion for crystal meth and men... well...perhaps there's nothing that a provocateur like John Waters can do that can shock us anymore. Except star in a documentary.

Waters, the self-proclaimed "documentary whore," has been the subject of several documentaries, including 1985's Divine Waters (directed by Vito Zagarrio), as well as Steve Yeager's Divine Trash (1998) and In Bad Taste (2000). However, it is his latest effort, This Filthy World, a performance film of his one-man show--released for a limited theatrical run this past November through Red Envelope Entertainment, and now available on DVD through its parent Netflix--that may prove to be the most revealing and provocative of his career.

Instead of featuring his usual cast of misfits from cult movie classics such as Pink Flamingos and Polyester, for 90 minutes, Waters just talks. The core of his material has been honed for years while he performed in small clubs and lectured on college campuses.

"It's something that's evolved from the earliest days when Divine and I used to have no money for promotion, so I would come out in the beginning and talk about nudist camp movies and Divine would come out and strangle a fake cop and the movie would show," Waters recently told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's my vaudeville act."

In between the Michael Jackson jokes, his fascination with true crime stories, exploitation films and "fashion lunacy," and his advice on how one can be a "filth follower," the majority of the monologue focuses on Waters' life in movies, and in that sense, it is a memoir, but a devious one nonetheless. The timing seems right for such an effort; Waters, now 60, is enjoying the fruits of his work playing to a wider audience: Hairspray, the Broadway musical based on his 1988 film of the same name, is a smash. A new Hairspray film starring John Travolta in drag is being produced with a budget that might very well exceed the total budget for all of Waters' previous works. Cry Baby, another of Waters' films, is also gearing up for a stage adaptation. Waters even had a part in Jackass Number Two, this generation's most infamous trashy entertainment and a stepchild to Waters' work.

At the helm of This Filthy World is director and comedian Jeff Garlin, a master improviser, who is known to most of the world as Larry David's doting manager on HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Besides being part of Curb's company of actors, Garlin is also executive producer on the show and actively advises David during production. Alex Witchel of The New York Times recently described Garlin as a "comic's comic, possessing an uncanny eye and a golden gut for what plays funny." This is particularly important when directing live comic performances; in addition to Waters, Garlin has shot concerts of comedians Denis Leary and Jon Stewart.

"Jeff is able to see, perhaps better than the performer, what is authentic and organic," says Stewart. "It's like pitch problems in terms of music. He lets you know when you're in your sweet spot."

Anyone who has seen live comedy acts instantly uploaded to YouTube knows there is an art to making a live show play on film and television. No matter how dynamic the performer, simply turning on the camera isn't enough. When the film is done well the director encapsulates the comedy with the character of the comedian, and the results can be stunning. The performances are replayed endlessly for generations with lines from the act memorized by a legion of fans. Think Bill Cosby: Himself, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, or last year's indie hit, Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic

"I've seen comedies that only play in the theater, but when you see them on television, the timing's all wrong," Garlin told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "This'll play well both ways."

For This Filthy World, Garlin shot Waters over two nights at the intimate Harry De Jur Playhouse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Waters' comfortable, snarky demeanor plays for both the camera and the crowd as he easily moves from an almost touching anecdote about his childhood to autographing colostomy bags to his early ventures in bad taste recreating the Kennedy assassination starring Divine as Jackie Kennedy.

Garlin keeps his shots simple, allowing Waters' razor-sharp wit and the setting (complete with a confessional, purple drapes, even trash elegantly strewn about the stage) to be the focal point.

It was a fitting stage for the man William S. Burroughs once anointed as the "Pope of Trash." That alone should award him the title. Indeed, Waters seemed to have a noble purpose (albeit one well disguised in raunchy humor) for the documentary, one that lingers well beyond nostalgia for the outlandish films of yesteryear. Waters reiterates the point that "everyone has limits" several times during the film. For his late friend Divine, it was Richard Simmons (a man who brought out the homophobe in the crossdresser). For Waters it's Forrest Gump (he quit watching when Forrest started running.). The fashionable drug ecstasy also drives him nuts: "A drug that makes you love everyone?" ponders Waters. "Sounds like hell to me."

A cautious warning for a world that seemingly, thanks to K-Fed, Stevio, Paris Hilton and US foreign policy, has caught up with Waters. 

 

John Koch is a Board Member of the International Documentary Association and Events and Programs Manager for the Writers Guild of America, west. He is a frequent contributor to Written By magazine. His favorite John Waters film is Pecker.

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