Desperate Living (1977)

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John Waters’s America

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1. “A very American film.” That’s what John Waters called Pink Flamingos, his first movie to gain a significant distribution. “It deals with very American subjects – competitiveness and war – and concerns two groups of outcasts vying for the title ‘The Filthiest People Alive.’”  A couple has sex while rubbing a live chicken between them, decapitating it.  A contortionist flexes his sphincter to the beat of a pop song.  In the movie’s money shot, Divine, the colossus of transvestites, eats dogshit. Every homosexual invents homosexuality for himself. Every homosexual American invents his own America. And the America of Pink Flamingos is a trailer-park carnival where violence overwhelms sex and the monstrous becomes heroic. Waters’s camera didn’t cut away from his spectacles and Pink Flamingos has as much in common with a work of pornography as it does with a work of cinéma vérité. After I first saw the film in 1997, I walked out convinced that the entire cast had died in the 25 years since the film premiered, pursuing whatever they were pursuing on screen. I was wrong. They hadn’t all died at that point and Waters’s performers were very much performers. Divine, the John Wayne to Waters’s John Ford, was an actor who forced himself to smile for the dogshit-eating scene and later called the local hospital, freaking out that he may have done himself serious harm. Everything was scripted. Nothing was improvised. Still, Waters’s motive in not cutting away from his spectacles has something in common with the documentarian’s desire to capture the truth with his camera.  And some viewers’ assumptions suggest a subliminal knowledge of American history.  Since the seventeenth century, and probably before then, this continent has been home to transvestites who eat dogshit. In the back of his mind, Mark Twain probably imagined a dogshit-eating transvestite, but couldn’t find a place for him in Huckleberry Finn. And someone somewhere during the silent era probably filmed a dogshit-eating transvestite and then showed it to his buddies in a church basement. John Waters just concentrated his attention on that dogshit-eating transvestite, stood back and said, “America!”    In the years since, Waters’s carnival became tamer and tamer. His circle of misfits expanded beyond Baltimore’s outcasts of Divine, David Lochary, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole, to include the oddballs of American pop culture and respectable actors taking a vacation in the world of camp. There’s room in his world for Sonny Bono, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, Johnny Knoxville, Ricki Lake, Kathleen Turner and Sam Waterston. Like Fellini, he selects and sculpts perfect ugly faces. There’s a difference, of course. Fellini Satyricon can give you an erection. Female Trouble and Desperate Living can’t. In Waters’s carnival, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue, and Traci Lords are virgins who can only imagine fucking as comedy. His new book Carsick presents Waters at his absolute tamest.  The book chronicles his adventures hitchhiking from Baltimore to Los Angeles playing the role of a “hobo homosexual.” It’s divided into three parts. The first two are novellas, “The Best That Could Happen” and “The Worst That Could Happen,” in which he imagines his journey playing out like one of his movies. The third part is the actual memoir, “The Real Thing,” in which Waters meets just the nicest people, some of whom recognize him with glee, some of whom have at least heard of him, and some of whom treat him as a friendly anonymous stranger. He eats at chain restaurants, including an Outback Steakhouse, which he had never heard of, and stays at a La Quinta Inn. His novellas aren’t as funny as any of his movies.  His sense of the berserk is stronger when he’s working with the moving image than when he’s working with the written word. His memoir is earnest, lacking the irony and introspection of his 1980s essay collections Shock Value and Crackpot.  People who eat at Applebee’s and humble farmers exist too, his book says. No one in Carsick is a stereotype, many are lovable eccentrics, but he doesn’t turn anyone into a grotesque. He’s a kind man who meets kind people. 2. Waters is not the first wandering homosexual in American literature. John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night depicts the life of a half-Irish, half-Mexican outlaw who lives an American Satyricon in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Edmund White’s 1980 book States of Desire is a celebration of pre-AIDS gay America, and White’s niche celebrity as the author of The Joy of Gay Sex leads him to Hollywood’s kept boys, adorable campus activists, Cuban immigrants, celibates, pedophiles, Boston intellectuals, and an Indian who practices homosexuality as a tribal tradition. John Waters does not travel America as an adventurous hustler or as a celebrity unknown outside gay circles, but as “John Waters”, the “Prince of Puke”.  Early in the memoir he meets a 20-year-old who’s never heard of him, who happens to be the youngest City Council member in the state of Maryland, an affable Republican who picks up Waters out of grace and curiosity. While in the car the young man calls his mother and tells her what he’s doing. Waters enters panic mode, and imagines all the horrors she would discover if she did a Google search. “That I was just awarded the Outfest Gay Award and would be performing my one-man show, This Filthy World: Gayer and Filthier, in two months? Or my friendship with ex-Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten? Or the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos?” The punchline: No one is scared of his resume. The highlights include a couple of would-be grifters setting out to take advantage of North Dakota’s oil boom and a Republican farmer who says that he’s glad Obama came out for gay marriage, thus temporarily quelling Waters’s persistent gay paranoia. He meets disabled vets and hippies. The 20-year-old boy from earlier in the book returns and they enjoy a fun night in Reno. They share a misunderstood bromance. He likes everyone he meets and almost everything he sees, and yet he is always “John Waters”, the pervert who wants to discover new perversities. The guy who gave the world Tracy Turnblad is for some reason shocked by the fat teenagers he sees in Denver. “Four hundred pounds fat. All with giant plates of alarmingly unhealthy food piled in from of them in outdoor cafes.” He just adores the coal-mining town of Wellington, Utah with tiny houses painted in “gay pastel colors.” He eats tilapia at a Ruby Tuesday and discovers something fascinating. Ruby Tuesday serves good tilapia. 3. In the first novella of Carsick, John Waters imagines a meeting with Edith Massey, who was immortalized as The Egg Lady from Pink Flamingos.  Massey enjoyed a camp celebrity in the late ’70s and early ’80s, appeared in a music video during the early years of MTV and died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 66. In Waters’s fantasy, Massey never died. At 94, he finds her playing a new role, running a store in the middle of nowhere which sells “toiletries out of their boxes and thrown into a 25¢ bin, makeup jars half-filled, shampoo tubes squeezed almost empty, loose Band-Aids without the paper wrappers, outdated sunblock” and an assortment of unused prescription pills. Waters is writing one final role for one of his finest muses. It’s a touching scene, and one that upsets my immature assumption that everyone in Pink Flamingos met an untimely end doing the things they were doing on screen. It’s true that Divine’s morbid obesity probably led to the heart attack that felled him shortly after the filming of Hairspray and that David Lochary died of a drug overdose in 1977. But Waters’s camera didn’t capture Massey doing anything dangerous, just something disgusting and interesting and that’s exactly how he imagines her in advanced old age. There was nothing about Massey’s behavior onscreen that physically threatened her or anyone else. (To be fair, there was nothing about Lochary’s or Divine’s behavior onscreen that was all that dangerous either.) The puritan impulse teaches us that every eccentricity is a weapon that threatens the state and that threatens oneself. Waters’s oeuvre up to this point teaches that every eccentricity is absolutely a weapon that threatens the state but also a means of ennobling and even saving oneself. In recasting Massey in one final role, and in seeing an America he has never allowed himself to see before, John Waters finally settles into an uneasy peace.