Watered Down


If scandal, sleaze, and celebrity worship are our national religion, then John Waters is an American prophet. For the past 30 years, this Baltimore-based sage has been joyfully asserting–in his movies, writings, photographs, and talk-show guest shots–that freedom is just another word for trash cult and tab TV.

Waters was a trial buff whose fascination with criminal justice antedated Court TV, an aficionado of serial killers long before it became fashionable, a gross-out king when the Farrelly brothers were farting around the schoolyard. Waters’s self-described “celluloid atrocities,” Multiple Maniacs (1969), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974)–all underground sensations starring the 300-pound genderblur Divine–explored the outer limits of hippie tolerance.

The young Waters thrived on publicity, outrage, and exhibitionism–Pink Flamingos concerned nothing less than a contest to determine the “filthiest people alive.” But Pecker, which has its world premiere this week at the Toronto International Film Festival (and opens in New York on September 25), shows the now mellowed provocateur in a self-reflexive mode. A portrait of the artist, it begins with the teenage shutterbug Pecker (Edward Furlong, still button-cute seven years after T2) snapping away in downtown Baltimore. His subjects are Waters’s–teenage hair-hoppers, roach-infested fast food, copulating rats, the antics of lesbian strippers, and the supposed weirdness of blue-collar Baltimore.

“You’re crazy, you see art when there’s nothing there,” Pecker’s shoplifter friend (Brendan Sexton III) tells him–summing up in a sentence the process by which photography, a technology allowing any idiot to produce an image worthy of Da Vinci, drove painters to exhibit their own “found” objects (as when, in a gesture Waters would surely appreciate, Marcel Duchamp exhibited an inverted urinal). “Everything always looks good through here,” Pecker explains. Thanks to the camera, as aesthete-of-aesthetes Andy Warhol once put it, “all is pretty.”

Pecker is a Warholian joke–a personification of the camera’s innocent gaze and capacity to spin gold from dross (or worse). He is able to create art by casting a glance. But no man is an island in Watersworld. As Stefan Brecht was the first to point out, virtually all Waters movies pit one clan (nonjudgmental, unselfconscious, generous) against another (status-seeking, uptight, commercial). Thus, Pecker is surrounded by other primitives. His father is a morose barkeep; his mother is the cheery proprietress of a thrift store stocked with goods rejected by the Salvation Army; his grandmother peddles pit beef and uses a statue of the Virgin Mary as a ventriloquist’s dummy; his older sister (Martha Plimpton) is the good-natured MC at a gay male stripper bar; his little sister is a candy-addicted brat who drools white sugar and talks as though she studied elocution with Edie the Egg Lady.

They are all natural performers–an important Waters value. In addition to cultivating his own stock company of Baltimore superstars, Waters contrived to have Tab Hunter romance Divine in Polyester and Kathleen Turner hawk a loogie on a crying baby in Serial Mom. Johnny Depp first revealed the depths of his ambitions by starring in Cry Baby while Sonny Bono donated his last (screen) performance in Hairspray. This tradition of courageous self-display predates the current wave of daytime talk shows–indeed, it was Waters’s Hairspray that gave the teenage Ricki Lake her break.

Not unambitious, Pecker has his first exhibition at the scurvy fast-food place where he works. He’s fired (for hanging an artsy close-up of a stripper’s pubic bush), but simultaneously discovered by a slumming New York dealer (Lili Taylor) who gives him a show in her Chelsea gallery. The opening, which Pecker photographs, is a great success: The work sells out. Cindy Sherman attends as herself. A rich collector, Waters regular Patty Hearst, goes gaga. Pecker is hailed as a “humane Diane Arbus.” An admiring Village Voice review dubs his girlfriend and model Shelley (Christina Ricci) a “stain goddess.” One of his photographs graces the cover of Artforum. The Whitney Museum wants to give him a show.

New York is of course Pecker‘s vision of the bad scene–mercenary and trendy as opposed to Baltimore’s sweet and friendly village. Pecker’s innocence is corrupted. After his show even the local Baltimore newspaper cites his “delicious photographs of his culturally challenged family” (whose house is robbed while they are away), although other locals are less impressed. “What they call art up in New York looks just like misery to me.” Shelley warns Pecker that he is becoming an asshole, Child Protection Services shows up to monitor his little sister, even Mary stops talking.

Unlike Warhol’s, Pecker’s creatures (both in Baltimore and New York) are offended by being repackaged as art. But really, what’s the problem? What malign magic has transformed Pecker into a paparazzi? And since when has John Waters shied away from the trappings of show business?

To some degree, Pecker suggests Waters’s own recent reinvention as a gallery artist. His photographic pieces–which he calls “re-directing jobs”–are mainly serial images culled from various movies (his own and others), at once rigorously conceptual and punch-line funny. But there’s another cultural re-direction at work. Pecker concludes by invoking “the end of irony.” Does John Waters feel that things have gone too far?

As recently as April 1997, when Pink Flamingos was rereleased in its 25th anniversary edition, it seemed that the cheap and vulgar Clerks was the closest contemporary equivalent to Pink Flamingos. But that was before There’s Something About Mary put the gross in grosses. For all its references to dingleberries and tea-bagging, Pecker has nothing that approaches Mary‘s mock-castration or hairdo money shot. Nor, for that matter, does the perversity of Pecker’s family drama remotely approach the agonized ickiness of Todd Solondz’s upcoming Happiness–a movie that is steeped in a viscerally Watersian sense of Middle American corruption.

The 1980s, when Waters published two books, made two nouveau teen movies (Cry Baby and Hairspray), and appeared as a guest commentator in Newsweek, signaled his arrival in the mainstream. But, although he has managed to release only two features since Hairspray, the ’90s have been the real Waters decade: the Menendez brothers, Jeffrey Dahmer, Joey Buttafuocco, Tonya Harding, Lorena and John Wayne Bobbit, Marv Albert, and Dick Morris are all Waters characters–not to mention Jerry Springer and every single one of his guests. And, speaking of the filthiest people alive, what of Lucianne Goldberg, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, and the stain goddess named Monica?

Filthy? Perhaps we should say tacky. Tripp and Starr don’t even have the uncouth cool of the evil heteros typically played in Waters’s early movies by David Lochery and Mink Stole. Perhaps that Chelsea gallery which transforms the innocent Pecker into a hot commodity is not really the voracious and snobby New York art world but an even more voracious American media culture. Could it be that Waters is the snob, reacting to the saturation of his own once-rarefied vision?

These days, the President of the United States finds himself playing the Divine role in a real-life remake of Pink Flamingos. The spectacle of Bill Clinton eating shit may be enough to make even John Waters gag.