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A few years after being kicked out of film school, director John Waters unleashed his unique talents on an unsuspecting public with 1973's Pink Flamingos, a film about the filthiest people alive that broke every rule of good taste and cinematic lighting.
He went on to make the underground trash masterpieces like Female Trouble and Desperate Living as well as mainstream hits such as Hairspray and Polyester which firmly established him as a Hollywood icon whose over-the-top antics have changed the way the world laughs.

Along the way, Waters discovered talk show host Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, a 300-pound drag queen named Divine, and directed a wildly eclectic group of performers, including Johnny Depp, Deborah Harry, Sonny Bono, Tab Hunter, Iggy Pop, Patricia Hearst, Christina Ricci, and Kathleen Turner.

Filthy : The Weird World Of John Waters
Available from Amazon 10.99.
Writer Robrt Pela embarked on a quest to find the world (and the inhabitants) immortalized in such Waters' classics as Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble. His findings are presented in the new book Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters published by Alyson Books this week and Mike Gray has been speaking to him for OutUK.

OutUK: Why did you decide to write this book?
Robrt: I ran into the man who turned out to be the editor of this book at a writers conference in Boston about three year ago. We had been acquainted and we literally bumped into one another in a restaurant.

Talk turned to John Waters over lunch. I found out he was a big fan and I just said just conversationally that it was too bad that there wasn't any documentation on John Waters' impact on popular culture. It was the kind of thing that you say at lunch y'know and then promptly forget about... He went back to LA and I came back here to Phoenix. He wrote to me about two weeks later and said why don't you write a book based on that conversation we had the other day and it just sort of took off from there. Polyester with Tab Hunter and Divine
Tab Hunter and Divine in Polyester (1981)
Available on VHS from Amazon
OutUK: So what do you think John Waters' impact has been?
Robrt: Well I think that it's impossible to look at things like The Jerry Springer Show and so many of the programmes which aggrandize trashiness and what we refer to as white trash which is an unfortunate expression. You can't look at those things without realising that he at least forwarded the notion that they can be entertaining. The Jerry Springer Show is literally a John Waters project except that by the time it came along he was no longer interested in that sort of thing and he had moved on to something else himself. I drive down the streets here and there are giant billboards for Ricki Lake for her talk show and if you watch her show the people that are on the programme are essentially written by John Waters even though they really just live in a trailer park down the road. He helped popularise the idea that certain taboo subjects really aren't and they can be channelled into a kind of entertainment.

OutUK: Have you talked to John yourself?
Robrt: I've met him three or four times. I remember running into him one night at a black tie event in Louisiana and another time I went to an exhibit of his photographs at a gallery but we didn't work together on this project . He very politely declined to participate because he didn't want to giveaway more stories because he's still planning to write a sequel to his autobiography which came out ten or fifteen years ago. He has a lot of stories which he hasn't told yet. He certainly didn't want to give them to another writer. Having said that he was really generous and always kind. He actually apologised on the afternoon he declined to participate. He called and said 'I've been thinking about this a lot and I really am sorry to have to tell you...' You know he could have been a real prick and had one of his people call me. He was lovely about it and I sent him a copy of the manuscript when it was done, just as a courtesy thing, and he called one day and said "Hey I really like this book'.

OutUK: Do you think John has really become almost mainstream now...and does it upset him?
Robrt: No, but it certainly upsets his hardcore fans who, if you sit down with them as I did many times, will always explain to you that what's wrong with his work nowadays is that he doesn't use Mink Stole in starring roles anymore. I finally gave up trying to forward the notion ouitside the pages of this book that he, like any of us, has evolved both as a person and as an artist. I don't consider myself an artist but we move along in our careers and interests shift. He's done that too, also the kind of little independent film that he used to make aren't really made anymore. He's made the point over and over again that midnight movies don't exist anymore and so he had to make that transition to more mainstream films otherwise he wouldn't have a job.

OutUK: Think of John Waters and you still think of Divine and that poodle scene...
Robrt: It was very clearly a public relations move. It was. He sat down with Divine and thought what can I possibly do in a film that will make me an overnight star. John was a really awfully intelligent young hippy. He was thinking down the road. He was thinking "I want to continue doing this...how in the world can I make that next step with my $13,000 budget. He had that scene thought out long before he knew what the movie was going to be about, and Divine was going on record out promoting Multiple Maniacs and people would say what are you going to do next? She didn't have script yet but she just knew what she was going to be doing. He did it because he wanted to attract attention and it worked brilliantly. The problem, if there is one is that thirty years later everyone is still talking about that rather than anything else.

OutUK: Do you think the result is that no-one takes him seriously as a filmmaker?
Robrt: I think that outside the industry that's more than likely. I think that when you say to someone I'm going to go see the new John Waters picture they don't immediately think of A list stars like Kathleen Turner and Melanie Griffith but they certainly think about that poodle scene and being in college and having been to those slightly scary and more than unusual underground pictures that he was making at that time. I don't think within the indiustry that's the case though. And what really solidified that opinion was that he was approached about an adaptation of The Confederacy of Dunces which he had and that was a very popular property for a while in the film industry. There was a great deal of interest in having him do that. I think that people in the industry know that particularly after having seen Hairspray and Cry Baby that he can work outside of the peculia milleu that he chooses but in fact he prefers to stay there.

OutUK: How would you assess his influence in the film industry?
Robrt: He's been for a lot of us, particularly those of us who were 20-25 years old when his underground films were just gaining a lot of attention...He provided a kind of transition. A lot of us didn't know about Fassbinder, about Warhol...we might be able to go to the local passion pit and see Multiple Maniacs but we hadn't yet seen Couch by Andy Warhol because no-one was showing it, but at least we knew about underground films because of John Waters. So he provided an awareness of smaller, more obscure filmakers. There's a film called Lust In The Dust which everybody thinks is a John Waters movie and it represents a very short subgenre of comedy that was being made immediately after Polyester and Hairspray by more mainstream film makers who thought 'well, wait a minute...his films are starting to gain recognition and I can hire Divine and I can make a peculiar movie too'.

Order Filthy direct from Amazon at 10.99 here. Robrt L. Pela is a contributing writer for The Advocate and Men's Fitness magazines. His theatre reviews appear each week in New Times and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. When he isn't restoring an ancestral home in Niles, Ohio, he lives in Phoenix and in Bargemon, France.

OutUK talks to Divine's mother Frances Milstead

 

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