One of the tamer sequences in Eat Your Makeup (1967), an early, no-budget film by John Waters currently screening at the New Museum, shows a female member of the director’s tribe of degenerates being wheeled in a shopping cart through a carnival-type chamber of horrors. The exhibits there include a woman in curlers cuddling with a man who guzzles a beer as they stare absentmindedly at a television, a guy getting busted for smoking a hookah, and a Girl Scout. Our unflappable reprobate merely laughs at them.
The retrospective “John Waters: Change of Life,” organized by New Museum director Lisa Phillips and guest curator Marvin Heiferman, focuses on the director’s recent forays into photography and sculpture, but it also includes his first three films. All celebrate the perverse, while shining a gleefully absurdist spotlight on America’s blemishes. Long known as the “King of Kink,” the “Sultan of Sleaze,” Waters has by now outgrown such epithets; his rise from the cultural dustbins of Baltimore to the summit of Broadway (with the hit musical Hairspray) is an inspirational story worthy of daytime television. Like Warhol, Waters made stars of the rare personalities surrounding him; unlike Warhol (whose thirst for glamour seemed unquenchable), he also cultivated the abject, the obese, the pockmarked, and the rabid. In film and photography, he plays along the thin border separating celebrity from criminality, exposing the stalker that lies within every fan, and the demon time, which covers all with oblivion.
Waters began taking pictures in 1992, while searching for an image from his 1970 film, Multiple Maniacs. (A true obsessive, he has annotated each work on the exhibition checklist.) That particular still didn’t exist; so he watched the film on tape, with his camera poised to capture the late Divine, his pulchritudinous transvestite muse, writhing in ecstasy “in the second between rape and Catholic sainthood.” The fascination with fixing the moment of orgasm/spiritual transfiguration and the longing for an elusive past recur in his work, suggesting a personality at once madly controlling and melancholic.
From that single, “degraded” image (several times removed from its original source), it was short leap to creating “little movies”—single shots stolen from one or several films, and recombined to create new mini-narratives. Their stomping ground is the twilight of celebrity and melodrama—forgotten works that screen (if at all) late at night on television. Who remembers Susan Slade, in which Connie Stevens’s illegitimate baby catches fire but is saved by Troy Donahue, her boyfriend? Waters’s version is a series of 16 prints that jump between yearning, penitence, and conflagration. Peyton Place—The Movie consists of cutaway shots—fall foliage, sailboats, ducks by a snowy riverbank—that served as cinematic stand-ins for small-town sexual shenanigans, circa 1950.
The elegant Lana Backwards combines eight images of Lana Turner, seen from behind in different films; with her tightly curled up-do and glamorous Edith Head costumes, leaving a room or poised before a mantelpiece, she seems to recede ad infinitum. Part of cinema’s allure (impaled here like a butterfly’s wings) is the way it slips through our grasp as its image of times past unfurls, forever out of reach. As for Lana—Proust’s mother, departing from his childhood bedroom each night in Combray, never looked so good.
Of course, you don’t need a lot of highbrow references to enjoy Waters’s art. Take the hilarious self-portraits, which show his iconic, mustachioed visage morphing from the face of bug-eyed character actor Don Knotts (inspired by a day of “low self-esteem,” the artist notes) or Elizabeth Taylor, post-cosmetic surgery. Take (or leave) the little photo essays, Puke in the Cinema and Movie Star Junkie—the latter a series of needles entering arms, culminating in a single, lonely puncture.
Several works in a different vein explore the abstract language of the bits of tape indicating the placement of actors and props on a movie set’s floor, which evoke the ghosts of cinematic exchanges. A collage of envelopes Waters mailed to mostly deceased celebrities and criminals like Charles Manson (returned by the post office, marked “no forwarding address”) embalms their fame in ludicrous bureaucracy.
Die-hard Waters fans will enjoy the life-size, photographic mock-up of the director’s Baltimore home, created by his set designer, Vincent Peranio. (Marooned in New York while finishing up his latest film, Waters told me he longed to sleep there.) And don’t forget those rare, early movies. Though it could use some editing, Eat Your Makeup is still my favorite. From its opening shots of a woman muttering desperately for makeup as she crawls across the desert sands, to its scenes of kidnapped young beauties “modeling themselves to death,” to its climactic tableau, with Divine dressed as Jackie Kennedy, waving from the cavalcade on that fateful day in Dallas, you know you’re watching the work of a true American original.