I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Pope of Trash: John Waters

by Whitney Weiss
Dec. 3, 2014

When I was 22, I was lured to Provincetown (once a thriving hotbed of underground artists and cultural revolutionaries, now home to condominiums and dogs in strollers) by the promise of relatively easy money and the opportunity to meet my favorite living director, John Waters, who spends his summers there. When the film festival brought Jane Lynch and Gael Garcia Bernal to town, I kept my eye on the prize: a man whose own twenties were spent living in a treehouse and having sex in the town cemetery, activities that seemed to have been replaced by the current crop of twenty-somethings with shopping at Marc Jacobs and fucking in the gym.

While the money never came that summer, a chance to speak with The Pope of Trash did. One balmy evening, he and his boyfriend were sitting on a bench in Town Square while I walked by on my way to another shift of slinging cosmos in plastic martini glasses. Despite the encouragement from the friend I was with, the minute I saw John Waters living life like a normal individual, I heard some kind of high-pitched squealing noise, realized it was coming from me, and hauled ass in the opposite direction. To make matters worse, the owner of the house where I was living (whose incredibly candid footage of Waters is a part of this very Talk Show) was a friend of his. So the summer was spent in fear of walking upstairs from the basement in my pajamas, only to run into into the two of them (and maybe Patty Hearst), all enjoying brunch.

Fortunately, I never bumped into John Waters eating eggs benedict. But I think my uncharacteristic shyness comes from the fact that he is a national cultural treasure, one of the only edgy people from the 1960s and 1970s who has managed to age gracefully and mature according to his own standards. Before cheerful, well-adjusted people figured out how to co-opt the experience of feeling like an outcast to sell records, Waters was legitimately weird, terrorizing a Baltimore suburb and sticking up for his effeminate overweight friend, who would later star as the leading lady in most of his films. (An aside: if you ever watch Divine talk, you will feel as though you've seen the face of God. He embodies kindness when offscreen, which might make you feel weird if you've watched him eat poop).

More than just being audacious, John Waters made his own education, sneaking off to see art films and b movies in equal doses, and devouring cinephile magazines of the time. He eventually moved to New York to attend NYU, got thrown out for smoking pot, and decided he didn't need to be enrolled at university to learn to make movies (so punk rock if you factor in the year: 1966). But listen to him talk about film, and it's like Martin Scorcese with a sense of humor. He is an encyclopedia of cinema, and one of the only people who can drop lines like "when Fran Lebowitz and I went to see Fuego in Times Square" like that's a perfectly natural life experience to be sharing.

When it came to making his own movies, Waters was all about the shoestring budget and DIY ethos (though to be fair, there wasn't much of an alternative). He rounded up his friends and found suitable roles for all of them, dragging them out in bad weather and even worse outfits to shoot for 22 hours a day in his hungry years. Long before David Lynch, Waters understood that the creepiest thing in the United States is suburbia. His brand of weirdness feels closer to center now, but there's still plenty of grit (the fact that someone could see Hairspray and decide to rent Pink Flamingos next is the gift that keeps on giving). And despite the fact that two of his films are now Broadway musicals, John Waters is still more progressive and transgressive than most of the people who look up to him.

Being ahead of the game in all of those ways would be enough, but here's the thing: John Waters is also infinitely quotable, fitting somewhere between Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. I would venture to say that he's the most quotable person alive, in that old-world sense of always having something seemingly simple yet hilarious (and insightful) to say. And whether his material is rehearsed or off-the-cuff, it appears to come out of nowhere, and is never anything but resonant. It can be with a touch of humor, like encouraging people going home with potential new lovers to only fuck 'em if they have books in the house, or can be a lot more serious, like when he stands up to talking heads who speak poorly about Leslie Van Houten, one of the Manson girls (and one of Water's close friends).

The point is, the man can speak. And in his words, you'll find important lessons. Such as: be nice to rich people, because poor people aren't going to finance your art. And: cultivate a fascist work ethic, where hangovers are scheduled months in advance. You won't find those particular tips in this Talk Show, but you'll find plenty of others. Perhaps enough to leave you in much awe of The Sultan of Sleaze as so many others have been for decades.

Whitney Weiss lives in Buenos Aires, where she DJs, throws a party called Father Figures, and is one-half of a band that bridges the gap between Snap! and Quad City DJs. If you want to hear what she's up to, you should visit soundcloud.com/djwhitneyweiss.