From ‘Pink Flamingos’ to ‘Role Models’
The eccentric world of John Waters
Waters’ two pop
favorites, Johnny Mathis and Little Richard, could not be more opposite in
their images, yet both fit into his models of aesthetic and moral excellence.
Mathis, who avoids publicity, has remained a genteel, romantic icon throughout
his long career, while Little Richard has been shocking parents since Ike was
president. Waters celebrates their compulsion to create, which they would
follow whether they were rich and famous or not.
One of Waters’
heroes, Bobby Garcia, lives in a run-down shack with a rooster and an appalling
number of rats for roommates. His claim to fame is the creation of a large body
of pornography featuring himself as the protagonist and handsome male Marines
as his leading men. In other, less gentle hands, the Bobby Garcia saga might be
played for easy laughs, but that’s not Waters’ way. He portrays Garcia as a
respectable if obsessed man on a mission, with an aesthetic vision worthy of
deconstruction. He even understands Garcia’s simpatico ways with rats.
Waters says that he
would make a good advocate for the damned. Not only is he attracted to people
who walk on life’s dark side, but he is driven to know what makes them behave
the way they do. He brings compassion and empathy to the task. The people he
cares about in his native Baltimore
and from his extensive travels are often not only the damned, but the redeemed damned. Waters keeps a to-do list, and one of his goals is to free Manson
family member Leslie Van Houten. He makes it clear that the 60-year-old Van
Houten, whom he has known for 30 years, is light years away from being the
murderer and cult member she was in 1969.
The closest Waters
comes to regret was for his movie Multiple
Maniacs, based loosely on the Manson family’s Tate/LaBianca murders. He
expresses sorrow for his “flippant disregard for the terrible aftermath of
these crimes.” What drove him was his insatiable curiosity about people. “How
had these kids from backgrounds so similar to mine,” he wonders, “committed in
real life what we were acting for comedy in our film?”
The wrongheaded transgression of his Manson movie notwithstanding, John Waters is, at heart, a decent, honorable man. Role Models clearly illustrates that you can be gloriously unique, hilarious and far from what is called “normal” and still be manifestly worthy of respect.