Books / Trash

Demented Forever: John Waters’s “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder”

Dear John, forgive us our sins…Dear John, forgive us our sins…Dear John…Whoa! What’s that? Oh, I’m just praying to the Father–no not Father who art in heaven, or John Wayne like Lana Del Rey in Tropico. I’m praying to our ultimate filth elder John Waters, hoping he’ll guide our way into filthiness, like a beacon of berserk. Teach me how to be, John!

Of course, I don’t have to tell you how much influence John has had, inspiring decades of bad behavior and psychotic breaks so much so that we, here at Filthy Dreams, have fashioned our lives in the image of Waters aestheticism. Case in point: this year, Marion and I took a madcap pilgrimage from Indiana to Columbus, Ohio (has that phrase ever been uttered previously?) to see John’s retrospective Indecent Exposure at the Wexner Center for the Arts after missing its Charm City debut. However, barely setting off on our trip, we were sidetracked in Fortville, Indiana by a vision. A vision of tack! Cheese! Camp! Kitsch! It was our golden calf painted in Pepto-Bismol pink: a giant sculpture of a pink elephant holding a martini glass in its trunk. Staring through black glasses with bloodshot eyes, this pink elephant sat in what appeared to be an abandoned lot full of burnt out pickup trucks. And no, we weren’t hallucinating this precisely perfect image of the trash aesthetic. After quickly doing a U-turn, sparks flying, and taking photographs with our new pachyderm god, we set off for breakfast at a local pancake house straight out of Pawnee where we both had dueling panic attacks, shaking and hyperventilating so much it was impossible to eat our gigantic mountain of food. Our fragile minds couldn’t handle the majesty we just witnessed. Those camo-dressed Hoosier pancake patrons knew we didn’t belong there, and we knew it too! We belonged with the elephant!

Praise be!

Now, I can’t help but blame this incident somehow on John–an overwhelming aesthetic obsession bordering on a nervous breakdown. I bet it would have made him proud, though I’m sure it would have made him prouder if we forgot about his fancy institutional exhibition entirely, forgoing the trip to the Wexner to try to extend the elephant experience by partying at its feet and popping whatever pills we could get our hands on. You know, act bad.

However, we didn’t. A decision that, even months later, I still question. But, what we found in Indecent Exposure was obsessive kinship. As John has always asserted, what is life if you’re not obsessed? I mean, what do people do? Have HOBBIES?! How gauche! From a collection of pimples from Pasolini films to an oversized bottle of Rush to a sweet baby Charles Manson to a selection of John’s movie stills, depicting hilarious alternative narratives through screengrabs, Indecent Exposure laid out John’s endless fanaticism.

John Waters, Divine in Prayer (photo by author)

Perhaps my favorite work, and the one most relevant to our elephant incident, was Divine In Prayer, depicting multiple images of Divine in her platinum wig from Mondo Trasho as she stands below the beaming rays of heaven, soaking in the light of the lurid lewd Lord. She has transcended, becoming, well, divine. On the photograph itself, though, there appeared to be a flurry of face makeup stains, dots upon dots of prints that looked as if someone–I hope the collector–had flung themselves on Divine’s image (perhaps after eating their makeup) scratching, clawing, and trying to grasp its trash essence in pure raunchy reverence. Researching other images of that work, it appears that this frenzy of foundation-stained fingers wasn’t originally intended, which is another indicator that a maniac was thrown into foaming, crazy-eyed, demented devotion as encouraged by John. Glory be His filthiness!

Lucky for all us fanatics, then, John has followed-up his visual art retrospectives with his own Bible: Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Though Mr. Know-It-All is billed as a pseudo-guide book, so to speak, of living in filth–a self-help book for the mentally ill, the book itself reads as a combination of all of his previously published books (not that those weren’t also how to guides to sordid living). There’s the juicy and riotous on-set details from John’s films after his prior Shock Value left off, from Polyester to A Dirty Shame. There’s Crackpotesque opinionated essays about Provincetown, Brutalism, monkey art (an untapped art market for all you collectors), and his fantasy restaurant Gristle, featuring some delectable recipes from the semen-forward cookbook Natural Harvest. There’s the idol worship of Role Models with his grammatically garish Warhol chapter, and even, a trip akin to Car Sick, though this trip is of the more psychedelic kind through a surprisingly sweet septuagenarian acid trip with Mink Stole and Frankie Rice.

Mr. Know-It-All starts, though, with the astonishment that I’ve continually felt about John’s career in the last couple years. “Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how, the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17,” he begins. And it’s true (though I’ll defend A Dirty Shame to the death). John’s climb from the wild-eyed, long-haired mustachioed Cecil B. Demented-type, lurching onto midnight movie screens, to this elder Comme des Garçons-sporting statesman, speaking at college graduations, receiving awards and medals, and experiencing institutional acceptance has been nothing, but startling. I mean, John’s show at the Wexner was paired with the elegant Peter Hujar: Speed of Life exhibition. Somehow Hujar’s portraits don’t have the same “je ne sais quoi” as a Waters photograph of a high-heeled shoe filled with shrimp. This goes to show you that you can continue to shock, even as an insider.

John Waters, Shrimper, 1996 (via

But by reaching, what he calls, “the worst thing that can happen to a creative person” (acceptance), John seems to have settled into his role as preeminent filth elder, showing us how we can fail our way to eventual success. In Mr. Know-It-All, John guides us through his later films, while providing some helpful showbiz tips like how to land a big star such as Tab Hunter in Polyester: “I raced home, boxed up Tab’s script, and, as always, licked the package several times, getting it wet with my saliva to remove any “curse” of show business rejection before dropping it in the mailbox.” Nothing is as bewitchingly convincing as saliva! Or dealing with rejection: “The damaged and the driven like you and me are so determined that we don’t take no for an answer.”

John even gives a glimpse at some of his failed treatments like Raving Beauty, showing that you, too, can pitch a film that seems pretty clear nobody would ever make: “the searing comic melodrama about a female movie star shooting a film on location in Baltimore who is driven crazy by stalking fans, rabid tabloid reporters, her controlling megalomaniacal director, a vengeful ex-husband, a Tourette’s-syndrome-suffering personal assistant, a teenage daughter who is only sexual attracted to the homeless, and her radical ACT UP gay son who relentlessly cruises the Teamsters on set.” I mean, I’m sold.

But for me, as a writer not in Hollywood, John’s book still provided inspiration. If Gary Indiana’s Vile Days made me want to continue to be an art critic, Mr. Know-It-All made me want to keep trying to perfect unsettlingly hilarious descriptions. I read some of John’s hysterical phrasing with palpable awe, most notably in his chapter “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which explores some of John’s musical recommendations. This includes teenage tragedy car accident songs like Nervous Norvus’s “Transfusion,” and the necrophilia-promoting “I Want My Baby Back” by Jimmy Cross. However, the section on country music is where John’s literary prowess hits its stride, describing songs like Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm” as “a real mating call for the ill-bred” and Kevin Fowler’s “If I Could Make A Living Drinking” as “the perfect pickup song if you were looking for a date in either the welfare or unemployment line.” Not only do I have a crop of new favorite songs, I am green with envy at the writing.

Installation view of John Waters: Indecent Exposure at the Wexner Center (photo by author)

There’s a similar vivid literary genius at work in “One-Track Mind,” a eulogy for the bygone days of leather bars and sex clubs, many of which appeared in John’s artwork Bill’s Stroller. Some of these clubs like The Toilet and The Hellfire Club, including its infamous bathroom that’s just a guy in a tub for you to use as a toilet, were already known to me. However, others were new, like The Hungry Hole: “Here was a bar with a backroom with glory holes for assholes. Big holes. Butch asses. Tough tongues. Indiscriminate rimming. My friend Van Smith used to go there and he told me all about it, but I never had the nerve. I figured you’d need a gamma globulin shot first and I never planned that far ahead.” Talk about painting a picture. I can just smell it, John!

While the book concludes, after an arresting letter to his Reborn doll Bill, with a musing on his own death (“No cremation for me. I like the idea of decomposing.”), the Duke of Dirt cannot be kept down, rising again like the undead or a manic messiah. Though his ego cannot be contained in the netherworld in his imagined resurrection, John is correct in that his influence and the stain he’s left on those of us whose brain chemistry he’s changed will continue. Filth cannot die, and it cannot be contained. And his denizens of dirt will be out there, spreading his influence like an infectious disease.

And there’s something strangely life-affirming and even, dare I say, moving in that takeaway from Mr. Know-It-All–that John has really created a sense of kinship and community amongst all his pathological fans, committed to a lifestyle of filth, obsession and trash. As John writes, “We’re in a club of sorts, the lunatic fringe who are proud to band together. There’s a joyous road to ruin out there, and if you let me be your garbage guru, I’ll teach you how to succeed in insanity and take control of your low self-esteem. Personality disorders are a terrible thing to waste.”

I’m with you, John. Demented forever.

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