Filmmaker John Waters coming to town

by Amy Kingsley

Two decades ago, when filmmaker John Waters visited cities outside of Baltimore to perform his one-man show, his fans lugged him around on impromptu sightseeing trips of the eccentric and morbid type.

Sometimes he ended up at the scene of a grisly crime. Other times his fans treated him to an evening out at a kitschy corner bar.

“Usually I didn’t have any choice,” Waters said of these excursions.

A lot of things have changed since then. Waters’ films have moved from the art house to the megaplex, and even, in the case of Hairspray, to Broadway. He’s authored two books, compiled song collections and appeared as a guest commentator on NPR.

And Waters, a crime buff who hosts a show on Court TV, no longer has much time to linger in the towns he visits. But for a brief time, at least, he will be in Greensboro on Saturday to perform his one-man show at the Carolina Theatre.

Waters first made a name for himself in the early 1970s with the film Pink Flamingoes, a comedy starring longtime collaborator Divine most famous for its closing scene: a shot of the star eating dog poop. Since then his films have moved into the mainstream, although the writer/director maintains a skewed and slightly scatological view of modern middle-class mores. Waters said he always had an eye on Hollywood, even when his films were being banned in his hometown Baltimore.

“I read Variety from the time I was 12,” he said. “I wasn’t like an idiot savant who grew up in the kinds of trailer parks I filmed my movies in. I had a career. I wasn’t naïve about it.”

The trick, Waters said, is perseverance.

“If you stick around long enough, they have to accept you,” Waters said. “It’s a battle of wills.”

Waters, who’s been dubbed the “Prince of Puke,” is philosophical about the labels critics have attached to his oeuvre.

“They used the term ‘sick humor’ in the fifties,” Waters said. “I try to call it ‘filth’ because I think that’s a term that still has some meaning.”

The difference between good bad taste and bad bad taste, he said, is the amount of sympathy you have for your characters.

“Bad bad taste condescends,” he said. “Good bad taste treats the audience and the characters with respect. I think it’s a class issue as much as anything.”

These days, Waters is drumming up funding for his first kids movie, Fruitcake. It’ll still be a John Waters flick, even though it won’t deal in the kinds of adult themes for which he is known, featuring a variety of eccentric characters.

It should come as no surprise to viewers familiar with Waters’ 1990 Johnny Depp vehicle Crybaby that Waters also has an interest in criminal rehabilitation. He taught a film class at Patuxent Institution, an experimental prison in Maryland.

“I was sort of a therapist in a way,” Waters said. “They had to play the opposite of themselves, which is always very hard. I think I got as much out of it as they did.”

The experience piqued an interest in another side of true crime – the aftermath.

“My real interest is how people change,” he said. “I believe that some people can get better. Some of the people I taught turned out fine, and others went out and murdered again. I’m more interested in the people who rehabilitated.”

The filmmaker, who’s also an author, artist, professor and actor, has kept one thing constant in his four-decade show business career. Waters first started grooming his facial hair into a pencil mustache when he was 19 because he wanted to be Little Richard.

“I shave it every day from the top down,” he said. “I’m sixty-one now, and I’ve had it since I was nineteen, so I could probably do it in my sleep. I trim it once or twice a week. Since it’s started to get a little gray, I fill it in with eyeliner. I prefer Maybelline black.”

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