Are our idols destined to inevitably disappoint us? Are our role models preordained to fall short of our astronomical expectations? While some of our role models are known for their, at times, offensive outbursts (and we love them all the more for it), others have been so formative to our pathological world view that when their opinions falter, embarrass, shame, or even worse, become…dare I say…conservative, it’s time to speak up and stage an intervention. Especially when nobody else will.
Yes, I’m about to commit blasphemy. Yes, I’ll probably receive gasps (or emailed ire) from our fellow filthy denizens. But, I feel compelled to call out our preeminent filth elder John Waters. And no, I take no pleasure in doing so. I mean, dammit, John, we modeled ourselves in your trashy image! However, digesting some recent interviews with and articles by our Pope of Trash, I’ve found myself clutching my perverse pearls in horror at some of John’s bad takes, making it seem like his transformation into your average white gay boomer is nearly complete. This is not the filthiness we were promised!
And sure, throughout his career, John was always the relatively–ok, barely–stable center amidst the circle of demented Dreamlanders, the eye of the swirling hurricane of juvenile delinquents and the criminally insane. But still, he was always subversive. How DARE he forsake us?!
Admittedly, this has been a long time coming. As John told us in Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, “Suddenly, the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted.” This mainstream acceptance seems to have finally taken a major toll if certain recent publications are any indication.
Sure, there were warning signs that I consciously ignored, namely Camp John Waters. I know, I know some of you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, have probably attended that nerdy Wet Hot American Summer for adult devotees of the Prince of Puke in Connecticut. I’ll concede that maybe folks have found a cracked community at the getaway, but I just assume that minorities who don’t even fit into their own minorities are entirely too misanthropic for canoeing. And yes, I am speaking personally. Count me out. But, I could forgive it. Maybe other people have a different idea of fun than I do, and hey, they did have karaoke. I call “Surfin’ Bird”!
I even was content to overlook his egregious dismissal of camp last summer during the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decidedly un-camp Camp: Notes on Fashion and the corresponding Camp Gala, in which John was insultingly not invited. In a sprawling interview with New York Magazine, John asserted that camp was “a word I haven’t said out loud in 40 years.” Maybe you haven’t John, but we certainly have! He also explained how he’s so beyond camp: “In my book, I try to push a new agenda on gay people: for gay men and gay women to have oral sex together for the first time, which I don’t think anyone has ever advocated yet. So I’m trying to go beyond any of those terms–camp, trash or filth–into another level of humor.”
Camp. Trash. Filth. You could call us out by name, John! We don’t bite!
John, however, wasn’t wrong about camp being usurped by straight culture, but he was certainly incorrect in his refusal to acknowledge Trump and other conservative’s admittedly masterful use of camp, saying that the President ruined camp. “That’s not camp,” he asserted, “You have to like what’s camp. It has to be so bad it’s good. He’s so bad, he’s bad.” Well, unfortunately some 35% of Americans seemed hooked into it.
And this is where the trouble starts: John’s foray into political discussions. Last week, John was featured in Interview Magazine with his commentary on a range of topics from Lizzo (who he wants to play Divine in his bio-pic) and Santa (“another white man spying on children, judging them and keeping slave labor reindeers”). While I swore I’d never pay attention to Interview after the Brant-owned publication screwed over their freelancers and employees, I had to break my promise, particularly when I read some of John’s more worrisome political takes.
First on Elizabeth Warren:
“Well, she’s never said a funny thing in her life. I feel like she’s always scolding me. Look, I’ll vote for anybody against Trump, but I think if Hillary couldn’t win, she sure as hell can’t.”
Yikes, right? Ok. Let’s break this down: first, do we want our president to be funny? You know who is funny? Trump! I mean, he recently appeared on television to ramble about flushing the toilet ten to fifteen times. No matter what your political leaning, you have to admit that’s funny. I think we can do without a wannabe standup comedian in the White House for a couple years. This isn’t even the first time John has aired his views on needing a leader who can tell a good joke. “I’d vote for any of them, even though it would be really hard for me to vote for Elizabeth Warren who has never once said a funny thing in her life,” he stated in New York Magazine. I guess women just aren’t funny.
But what’s worse is the description of “scolding.” What kind of misogynistic old gay man shit is that?! It’s as if he stopped short of calling her “shrill.” Look. If you don’t want to vote for Warren, that’s fine, even though I met her and she endorsed me as her Secretary of Filth. There are real critiques of her policies and her records, and then there’s John’s problem, which also feels out of character. John has always promoted, supported and encouraged particularly shrieky women. Is this the same filmmaker who celebrated women like the hysterical Mink Stole, Baltimore beauty Cookie Mueller, and the talk show diva herself Ricki Lake?
But what Democratic candidate is John for? While I can’t say definitively, he did say in New York Magazine, “You know, the gay one I like.”
PETE, JOHN, PETE?!!! Pete is a neuter if I’ve ever seen one and John has even said himself, “Gay is not enough.” Considering Pete’s views skew toward moderate Republican as if he somehow misread a breakdown of the political parties somewhere along the way, this is a head-scratcher. I’d assume even John would know Pete needs to huff some poppers, ditch Chasten for some leather chaps, and live a little before leading our country.
And if that weren’t terrible enough, John, in that same Interview piece, offered some revolutionary ideas to counter Trump:
“What I think we should all do for Trump is everybody should start dressing like him up until the election. Just imagine if you saw hundreds of people in the street dressed as Trump, it would be a really anti-thing. It’s easy to do. You just go the day after Halloween, buy a Trump wig, and put on Lone Ranger glasses and get inside the tanning bed and wear grapes hanging in your underwear and a long red tie to cover it and it would work! It would be a really, really good protest leading up to Election Day.”
Huh? Would it be a good protest? How? He’d probably love it! To me, this is an even worse crime–a felony not a misdemeanor–against trash than his Warren comments. It’s not only unimaginative; it’s lame and unfunny. THE HORROR! And this from the same director who created Eat Your Makeup, which dramatized JFK’s assassination with Divine in the role of Jackie just mere years after the tragedy.
There are lots of other sleazier ways to protest Trump. What about taking a tour of the White House only to lick the bannisters and every other available object, including Melania’s now-disappointing Christmas decorations, like Divine and her family did to the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos? Getting assaulted by the Secret Service would totally be worth it. Even better, stage a public performance akin to Dawn Davenport’s in Female Trouble, but rather than copping to unsolved crimes, admit to all of Trump’s impeachable offenses! It was YOU that called Ukraine about number 1 boy Hunter Biden! Trump couldn’t take someone outshining him. The only method of dressing up like Trump that might be antagonistic enough to be an effective protest would be to get inspired by comedian Artie Lange’s appearance on The Howard Stern Show claiming to to be “the REAL” Iron Sheik to the wrestling icon Iron Sheik’s stunned dismay. Go to Trump Tower and claim to be the REAL Donald Trump, and watch his Adderall-fueled meltdown, you jabroni!
Sure, you might be thinking: Emily, settle down. Everyone in 2019 seems to have garbage political views. Hell, the Democratic Party may nominate 1929 push-up competition champion Fightin’ Joe Biden. But, that’s not all. Even John’s annual Artforum best film list was concerning. I mean, where is my feel-good movie of the year: Midsommar?! While I’ll give John his admiration of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, even though it feels much too mainstream for John’s typical tastes, I was shocked to see that number 10 was Todd Phillips’s improvisational interpretive dance epic Joker:
“Irresponsible? Maybe. Dangerous? We’ll see. The first big-budget Hollywood movie to gleefully inspire anarchy. Bravo, Todd Phillips! Only you could get away with it.”
As I previously ranted in a maniacal, unhinged fashion, Joker is neither irresponsible nor dangerous. It didn’t amount to that huge incel uprising that was promised, unless you count a bunch of dorks walking down a staircase in the Bronx as an uprising. Irresponsible and dangerous films are the only films I want to see, but that’s definitely not what Todd Phillips made. Whatever happened to cinematic terrorism?
And “gleefully inspire anarchy”–Really? That the filmmaker who inspired our collective gleeful anarchy–the man who brought us the Singing Asshole, assassinations over assholeism, an acceptance speech on the electric chair, and the political ideology to beat all other ideologies: “Kill everyone now. Condone first degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life”–would find gleeful anarchy in some sad sack open mic-er is a disappointment. Arthur Fleck wishes he could deliver a line as deliciously demented as, “Crime is beauty, Dawn!” or “Look at these trees! Stealing my oxygen!” John’s films were the ones that made us want to destroy society with our trashy transgressions, not some chip-on-the-shoulder line about getting what you deserve.
Of course, after experiencing this existential crisis, I questioned why this might be happening. Are we destined to eventually surpass even our filth elders in extremity? Could it be age? John is after all 73-years old. It’s only natural that he’d soften with age. We all do, even our greatest idols. I mean, Nick Cave, who used to kick audience members straight in the face, seems to like people now, gaining strength from the collective grief and support he finds from his audiences. The difference is, though, his aesthetic interests and outlook have remained fairly consistent throughout his career. Plus, he’s not calling anyone “scolding.”
The prime counterpoint that made me dismiss the age explanation is David Lynch, John’s age-mate and fellow filmmaker who, for a period, abandoned filmmaking as the bottom fell out of independent film fundraising. Like John, Lynch turned his focus to his deranged art, books, even more deranged music, and promoting transcendental meditation. However, David has always maintained his surrealist edge and semi-unsettling, folksy charm–never has catching the big fish felt so enticing. But then, Lynch returned with, well, The Return, his 18-hour film that was recently named the film of the decade (television be damned) by Cahiers du Cinema. Twin Peaks: The Return was somehow more impenetrable and challenging than even his previous inaccessible film and my personal favorite Inland Empire. But unlike John, Lynch has never seemed to care about mainstream approval. You don’t include minutes of sweeping in a hour-long episode of television if you’re going for pats on the back.
Which brings me to what’s happened to our preeminent filth elder–he’s become mainstream. Accepted. An insider. Respectable (*gasp*). In 2015, John delivered a speech for the graduating class at RISD, which was subsequently published in a small volume titled Make Trouble. In the meandering and hilarious speech, he makes one argument that has become very telling in retrospect:
“These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider so 2014? I mean, maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy–the insider. Like I am.
Ha! The final irony: A creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it: I didn’t change. Society did. Who would have ever thought a top college like RISD would invite a filth elder like myself to set an example to its students? See? There’s hope for everybody.”
As we’ve seen, there is a flaw in his argument. Four years later, John is definitively an insider. But at what cost? John did change; society didn’t (and doesn’t). Transgression can never and will never come from the inside. It’s like the countless artists that argue they’re somehow enacting change by being shown in [insert corrupt art institution here]. You’re not speaking “truth to power” or “dismantling” anything; you’re merely a willing participant within a system. Just as visibility won’t save us nor will placement within hallowed institutions, neither will being an insider. What it will do is erode the very things that made us subversive, special, filthy, transforming them into paltry shadows of what they once were. And somewhere along the way you think dressing like Trump as if every day were Halloween is a revolutionary tactic. Insider-dom came with consequences.
This is not to say John–or my idolatry–is without hope. Come join us back in the outside, John! It’s not so bad–it’ll just take a few changes. Throw away all those Comme Des Garcons suits and start wearing Fashion Nova. Renounce your sexist views about Elizabeth Warren by endorsing an even more unhinged woman candidate, our crystal witch Marianne Williamson (yes, she’s still running)! Have Camp John Waters attain its cult promise–instead of ziplining, why not gather around a campfire and sing the songs from Charles Manson’s album Lie? Or practice creepy-crawling in other cabins? And forget trying to make a sequel to Hairspray–how about fighting to green-light Multiple Maniacs the Musical or better yet, actually film the threatened Christmas abomination Fruitcake starring Johnny Knoxville?
Or even better, make Cecil B. Demented 2: Demented Forever, in which Cecil didn’t, in fact, die in an inferno, but survived with severe burns only to become a cinematic martyr in the eyes of Hollywood, a dreaded insider. In response, a group of disturbed denizens of Cecil, driven by their maddening admiration for his cinematic atrocities, kidnap Cecil (as he did Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock in the original film), and force him to regain his prior glory days as the prophet against profit. Long live guerrilla filmmaking!