Folks who know John Waters only from his reputation as the film chronicler of the middle-class American id are always shocked when they see him in his less famous incarnation -- as orator. He is polite, articulate, compassionate, even debonair, and lest you think this is some kind of elder-statesman pose adopted by a man who can no longer cut the scatological mustard, you should check out Steve Yeager's documentary Divine Trash (co-produced by SMU professor Kevin Heffernan). Opening in select cities around the country in the coming weeks, the movie takes us through the filming of Waters' 1972 Pink Flamingos and features footage of a young director soberly, even eloquently, discussing his career ambitions. The face he shows the press is a contented and confident one compared with the manifesto Divine offered as Babs Johnson in Flamingos: "Kill everyone now! Condone first-degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit!"
"I've never tried to outdo myself in shock since Pink Flamingos," he notes over the phone while sitting in his Baltimore kitchen. "But I do feel pressure that I have to get up every morning and make people who hate authority laugh. Maybe pressure is the wrong word, but it is my duty. Every morning I get up at 8 a.m., come to the kitchen table, and think up weird things."
Preparing for the Cannes premiere of his latest, Cecil B. Demented -- and the punishing rounds of international publicity that will follow -- hasn't left him with a lot of idle kitchen-table time. Thanks in part to the Kevin Heffernan connection, Waters has squeezed in a speaking appearance at Southern Methodist University's Student Film Festival. As always, his talk will be titled "Shock Value," but Waters fans who have caught him in Dallas and Denton over the past 12 years needn't worry that the once-christened "Prince of Puke" will regurgitate too much.
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His chat follows a screening of Pecker. It's free, but seating is limited
"One or two jokes may be the same," he says. "But I'm always updating. A lot of jokes in my new movie were in the club act [that he toured nationally several years ago], so I knew they worked. They've already been tested. I'm kind of a human trailer for my movie."
Waters insists he always secretly admires the kinds of people -- the pampered, the impoverished, the criminal, the glamour-hungry -- he makes fun of, claiming "satire that hates the subject matter isn't funny." Indeed, he despises the term "white trash," which he has called "the last acceptable racist term in America." He prefers "extreme white people" for the kind of eccentrics featured in his last flick, Pecker, which will be screened before his SMU presentation.
The conversation turns to the collision of nontraditional sexuality and the working class, which is portrayed so unflinchingly in one of Waters' favorite recent movies, Boys Don't Cry. He is fascinated by the lines of tolerance that people draw and then redraw while dealing with transsexualism and transvestitism when they occur in the family. Divine's father, it seems, told the budding star in his household: "I don't care if you wear women's clothes [in Waters' movies], but don't become a ballet dancer. That makes me sick." Waters also recalls seeing a documentary titled What Sex Am I?, in which the father of a female-to-male transsexual declares of his child's operation: "We're quite happy about it, because at least she's not gay anymore."
John Waters adds a whispered comment to the man's quote: "And there wasn't a trace of humor in his voice." As if to take up the slack, he explodes in delighted laughter.