Post image for Los Angeles Concert Review: JOHN WATERS, THIS FILTHY WORLD: FILTHIER AND DIRTIER (Luckman)

by Jason Rohrer on February 14, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


It’s edifying how much of practical value you can learn at the theater. I found out last night, for example, that if John Waters invites you over, you’ve got some work to do first: “You’re not taking a shit at my house. Dinner guests should eliminate before arriving. I don’t want you in there straining on my toilet while I’m cooking. No Shitting.”

Forewarned is better than foreskinned, I always say.

These days Waters does speaking engagements – like the one I saw with a thousand other people at the Luckman in L.A. Saturday and which he will do again Valentine’s Day at the Neptune in Seattle – far more often than he makes movies. The auteur of transgressive cult fare like 1974’s Female Trouble and multiple-platform hits like 1988’s Hairspray hasn’t released a new film since 2004’s A Dirty Shame (which was). And at 69, he might be expected just to show up, screen a few film clips, and lob chestnuts of mutual appreciation into a crowd of aging well-wishers. I 533277_10150967276549583_369464737_nwas looking forward to provoking a timely comment on the death of Justice Antonin Scalia from the sex-positive and very queer bad taste aficionado, but I didn’t expect much.

Despite a title that includes the words “dirty” and “filthy,” the one-man show’s first few minutes were agile but coy, clean and presentable, with no hint of visual aid to support the man and his microphone. (There were in fact no film clips, and hardly a prop at all.) He talked of receiving honorary doctorates, of being feted at festivals and retrospectives. He talked about appearing in a Chipmunks movie. The rebel without a gag reflex seemed to have been subsumed by the establishment. He mentioned the restrictions of performing on a college campus these days and launched a tepid joke or two on the subject of trigger warnings. I got nervous for him. I had walked through a parking lot full of bong smoke and a courtyard full of fairly serious drinkers, many of them dressed like acolytes – lots of brothel creepers and pompadours – to get into the hall. We none of us wanted a tame, elegiac, “an evening with”-type affair.

So Waters’ first joke about child rape opened us up like a fresh can of Crisco a few minutes in, and we happily accepted the next hour and a half of penetrating remarks. It is now a rare experience to see a man admit before a $50-a-ticket crowd that, although the product of a Catholic education, he doesn’t much care about pedophile priests since “they didn’t fuck me.” It is galvanizing to see a boorish joke told unapologetically by someone in a well-appointed public space that also hosts symphony orchestras and ballet companies. But this wasn’t shock for shock value; we ate it up because it was fed to us by an artist with a genuine fascination with the profane, the seedy, the base. And love is a catching bug.

John Waters This Filthy World, Filthier and Dirtier.Touching dutifully on most of the movies in his 40 year career, Waters bounced within a rambling chronological framework to offer a pleasant jumble of social criticism and salacious anecdote. He thinks of getting back into drugs; he wants to start a brown-ribbon campaign for anal warts sufferers; he wants to add a new smell to the Odorama scratch-n-sniff card at screenings of his 1981 flick Polyester – the stink of wig adhesive and sweat.

Waters seems to remember everyone he’s ever worked with, and his wit was as sharp as his purple silk suit when he recalled drinking with Kathleen Turner (star of 1994’s Serial Mom) or watching Susan Tyrell’s entourage steal from his film crew on Cry-Baby (1990). He is glad that, on the street corner where he filmed the female impersonator Divine eating a piece of dog shit for 1972’s Pink Flamingos, the city of Baltimore plans to erect a memorial; but Waters worries lest people will say, rightly, “They took money from schools for this fucking thing?”

The hour of mostly prepared material, before a half-hour’s Q & A, veered occasionally across the borders of a not entirely first-rate stand-up routine. But mostly it was witty and sly and delightfully so. This was no sad old man crying about how he doesn’t get to make movies anymore. When asked why he didn’t crowdsource a new film, Waters laughed and said, “Kickstarter? No. I have three houses. I can’t be a faux anarchist.”

John_Waters002He doesn’t seem to be hurting. He’s been getting paid for various development deals in recent years, including turning Hairspray – which has been a movie, a Broadway musical adapted from the movie, and yet another movie adapted from that Broadway musical – into a television show. And he explained that since his last few movies didn’t do much box office, and his recent books have been bestsellers, he’s going where the money is and currently writing another book.

It’s jake with me. My favorite John Waters movie is the 30-second No Smoking bumper that has played before screenings at the NuArt and other art houses since 1982. And that’s not even technically a John Waters movie – it was shot by Douglas Brian Martin. John Waters the artist has never been as interesting as John Waters, provocateur. I cherish the punk personality behind his work, but the filmmaking is blithely, even gleefully incompetent – sloppily written, indiscriminately lighted, acted as if on a dare. These movies impose less upon taste than upon patience.

And so it was with surprise I heard Waters complain that as a proud member of the Writers and Directors Guilds, he was outraged at the freedom movie stars now enjoy to ad-lib their own dialogue. He vilified directors who lack the moral authority to hold performers to the letter of the script.

It is difficult to imagine a movie made up on the spot that would be less polished than Serial Mom, so it had never occurred to me that Waters’ bad taste would extend to his own chops. He’s such a keen observer of so many people and ideas, how could he take himself seriously? Look at 1998’s godawful Pecker. Well, no, don’t.

Even more shocking was that, when an audience member asked, “Will you miss Antonin Scalia,” Waters said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

We couldn’t believe it – he’d already made Donald Trump jokes; the man who had Danny Mills screw Cookie Mueller with a chicken (Pink Flamingos) couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to speak ill of a dead Scalia. More of us called out stuff like “The Supreme Court Justice?” but he just shook his head. Though by 9:30 at night the news had now consumed the better part of our day, we realized Waters had yet to be informed. Someone yelled, “Scalia is dead!”

Waters shrugged and to me seemed to half-pretend not to have heard. He said, “I don’t know what’s on TV unless someone turns it on for me,” and he moved on to other questions.

It felt a significant omission, a remarkable out-of-touchness on the part of this fit, successful, savvy man who had just spent 90 minutes on top of his cool-guy game. A sterling self-promoter and raconteur, he has always given great interview – how could he not know the biggest news item of not only the last eight hours but the election cycle to date? But for a certain kind of entertainer, the field is narrow and deep, and outside of it there is no field. And for Christ’s sake, he spent half the day on a plane, what do you want? It’s not like he came out and ate a dog turd and went home. Waters did his job – fuck Scalia.


caricature by Daniel Nardicio
poster photo by Greg Gorman

John Waters
This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier
Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State LA
played on February 13, 2016
for future Luckman events, call 323.343.6600 or visit Luckman

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