The key to enjoying Filthy, critic Robrt Pela’s breezy stroll through the vomit-splattered world of filmmaker John Waters, is resigning yourself to its second-rank status. It’s a wildly entertaining and snappily-written biography of the man who broke the shock barrier in the 1970s doing about Mach 5, but it must still be treated as a minor work simply because the last word in the Waters mythos was penned by the man himself in his 1981 autobiography Shock Value. If you can get over that—and Pela seems resigned to it by about halfway through the book—Filthy is a fun rehash of oft-told Waters lore, with a few extra-credit chapters so bizarre it’s hard to believe Waters himself isn’t behind them somehow.
Arriving so soon after the youth upheavals of the ’60s, John Waters must have felt like a particularly nasty counterculture hangover to many at the time—something guardians of good taste and decency in his native Baltimore wanted only to squash underfoot before, God forbid, it had a chance to spread its disease elsewhere. Like good folks everywhere, Charm City moviegoers wanted their Steve McQueens and John Waynes back; Waters gleefully handed them violent girls school delinquents, baby-breeding rackets for childless lesbian couples and a fabulous 300-pound drag queen whose trademark look suggested a death mask of Jayne Mansfield painted by the inmates of an insane asylum.
Far from apologizing for the surly hillbillies and screeching hairdressers of films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, Waters made them his heroes, enshrining them in an aesthetic so singularly trashy that it still packs the brute force to rupture eyeballs 30 years later. After all this time, watching Pink Flamingos again is like witnessing the violent birth of American sleaze culture, the Big Bang of virulent primordial gunk that would spawn everything from “The Ricki Lake Show” to the Weekly World News. Who knew? John Waters, apparently. Look upon these early snapshots of cantankerous sleaze and be wonderfully mortified at the extent to which popular culture has come to imitate them.
The many ironies of this perversely American success story—anyone remember the time Waters was featured on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous?”—are not lost on author Pela, who devotes his final chapter to the vindication of a filmmaker who seemed to divine (sorry!) the true extent of our suppressed appetite for squalor long before we ourselves felt ready to come to terms with it. Honestly, though, this is doy-ralph stuff for any halfway-observant pop culture critic-cum-Waters biographer, and Pela’s 11th-hour toast to the “Prince of Puke” and his newfound respectability is a little disappointing for being so predictable.
Equally disappointing is a chapter devoted to Pela’s own quest to uncover the tawdry back alleys of Waters’s cinematic Baltimore, one of several chapters in the book where the author boldly makes himself the center of attention. Pela expresses chagrin upon learning that Baltimore, the “Charm City,” nowadays is populated by mostly nice folks and a few gruff punks instead of the wall-to-wall cast of snarling, DayGlo-haired scumbags he’d anticipated. There’s nothing really radical about Pela’s implication that Waters actually created a Baltimore that was more to his liking than the humdrum real thing—a notion reinforced by several of the people he interviews—but disappointment is about as far as he gets with it.
As mentioned earlier, though, the author’s more unorthodox attempts to transcend rote biography produce some truly bizarre results. A “bluffer’s guide” to people wishing to discuss Waters’s movies without actually seeing them is illuminating, as is the chapter devoted to hardcore Waters devotees that shows just how powerful a gravitational pull the director’s films can exert on like-minded rejects. At one point Pela has to holler a quote from a John Waters film at Suki, an obsessive collector of Watersiana, and Suki has to approve the quote before she’ll even let him in the house. Once he’s in, the Miami tract-house dweller puts on a fittingly Watersian show by hollering at rival eBay bidders and walking Pela through a collection of Waters-related relics ranging from an autographed baguette to a bathroom shrine complete with the director’s voiced looped in perpetuity from old talk show appearances. And Suki is the very model of well-roundedness compared to Earl, the former public school janitor from Albuquerque who claims that Waters mines his cat for movie ideas, first entering the tabby’s rectum as a puff of smoke and then rummaging around for plotlines and characters inside the animal’s furry brain.
There’s also a chapter—way too good to be true—in which Pela hires a spiritual medium to put him in contact with Divine (a.k.a. Harris Glenn Milstead, who died only a week after his last movie, Hairspray, opened to rave reviews in 1988) from beyond the grave. The medium, whom Pela describes as a six-foot two-inch linebacker of a man in a paisley caftan, insists that the author use a pseudonym for him in the book because his special talent for deceased-celebrity contact has already made him a target for disrespectful yahoos, like the drunken bachelor party whose guest of honor wanted to sleep with Natalie Wood before his wedding. Divine, speaking through the medium, describes an afterlife filled with luncheon dates and hair appointments, where every Wednesday is “Holy Torment Day,” a chance to therapeutically torture and maim anyone who was ever mean to you while you were still alive. Priceless stuff, and, again, far too good to be true.
And speaking of Divine’s torments: Would any study of his and Waters’ intertwined careers be complete without a healthy discussion of the infamous poodle scene at the end of Pink Flamingos? Pela creates the definitive filmgoer’s companion to the fecal incident by mustering a cavalcade of coprophagous quotes from actor, director, critics and fellow Waters alumni. Talk about a crap sandwich! Not the best book written about Waters, but Filthy is a great guilty pleasure nonetheless.