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A Waterloo Moment in the Culture Wars: a John Waters Retrospective’s Comforting Shock and Awe

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There might be people with a better pedigree and resume than my own when it comes to John Waters expertise, but I do have a Polaroid from the day I asked him to sign my tits with a sharpie and he obliged. Maybe that is enough qualification to adequately appreciate his recently opened retrospective at LA’s famed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. I do think of myself as a superfan. I am an actor (on strike!) and writer (no longer on strike!) and of course I love the work of many, many filmmakers, but with John it’s different. 

It’s likely my decision to go to college in Baltimore was driven by the films I loved. I was in Female Trouble, yes indeed, and a degree in something as strange as “Writing Seminars” was probably the only cure. At Hopkins and now back in LA, I was not unlike sweet and chunky Tracy Turnblad even if I wanted to be Muffy St. Jaques. At the very end of the DVD era, I collected Waters video cassettes, and I ironed my hair, dig?! If you’re reading this, you probably, almost certainly, get it.

 

Portrait of John Waters. Photo by Greg Gorman, ©Academy Museum Foundation
John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
I found this retrospective exceedingly inspiring—something that will be especially appreciated by those of us on strike or recently on strike.
Liz Eldridge

The Academy Museum can be a disjointed experience to put it gently, though the cast of Cecil B. Demented would probably love to shoplift there. It does have the best gift shop of any museum in townand the Waters merch designed by LA artist Seth Bogart is particularly swoon-worthy. I will 100% do my holiday shopping there. The handsome man who rang me up let me use his discount, presumably because I’m pleasantly plump and charming, much like a teenage Ricki Lake, although he might have just been a nice dude.

Getting to the point: the John Waters retrospective is fantastic. You will love it. If you love him and his work, you’ll love it. If you’re a bit new to his work, you’ll love it. Just go. It’s here for a whole year! If you miss it, you’re a mess. As for the rest? The Academy is famously backwards looking—even they were so surprised that they were (rightly) giving the best picture to Moonlight that they mis-announced it as La La Land. But their John Waters love fest is right on and reads the moment exactly—they are correct, he is fantastic and almost shockingly influential for someone never quite embraced by the mainstream, episodes of the Simpsons, Broadway musicals, and now a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame notwithstanding.

 

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation

For any superfan, it’s worth the trip to LA. You will see the most exciting ephemera at this show. Yes, Mink Stole’s eyeglasses! Yes, Edith Massey’s itty-bitty booties! Yes, Jean Hill’s Mortville makeover outfit! Take a picture with the RV! Enter the church of John! Fuck yes! And more, more, more! So much more! Heart eyes emojis! DELIGHT! It’s very fun. Go! 

And what is the point? 

I found this retrospective exceedingly inspiringsomething that will be especially appreciated by those of us on strike or recently on strike. At the end of the show, there’s a short documentary in a room just to the side that places Waters’ work in the pantheon of queer cinema, interspersing clips of his work with his own idolsKenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Mike Kuchar, to name a fewthen with those 90s queer avant-garde filmmakers influenced heavily by Waters, including Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Rose Troche, among others. It is thrilling.

As you are starting to feel a bit bummed that you’re not seeing the new queer avant garde of cinema, you realizeoh, actually this is the new monoculture. Troche’s groundbreaking setups from ‘94 are now whateverthey could be on a reality show or in a commercial, for better or for worse. What is the film underground when literally anybody can upload anything to YouTube or TikTok? Best not to worry too much.

 

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
Our cultural moment is a baffling ouroboros of shit-eaters. And what better way to combat that than eating actual dog shit, right?
Liz Eldridge

But worry we must, because we are living in a terrifying time. Waters has spoken on many occasions about embracing bad taste and gleefully sending up the hypocrisy of “good taste.” Like the 50s, like the 80s, “good taste” these days is verging awfully close to genuine fascism in the United States. Between the buttoned-up puritanism of some corners of the Left, and the violent puritanism of much of the Right, queerness is yet again under attack in all of the stupidest, scariest ways.

Big cities and California are not immunelast week saw Davis closing schools because of transphobic bomb threats and Glendale and North Hollywood had unhinged creeps threatening their whole districts with shutdown. Why? Seriously, why?! Because… queer people exist? Because kids maybe sometimes read books and trans people also go to libraries? It’s nonsense, it’s infuriating, it’s frankly so boringand it’s literally the protest at the porn theater in Polyester, filmed more than 40 years ago. I so desperately wish I could fart these people away. 

Our cultural moment is a baffling ouroboros of shit-eaters. And what better way to combat that than eating actual dog shit, right?

To my mind, the best thing about this show and John Waters’ films in general, is that they are so genuine, so loving, and so, so funny. You can see and feel that everyone is having a fantastic time. They are never mean. They are joyful films. What an accomplishment! Waters’ oeuvre looks forward always and it trusts the next wave of queer cinema to shock us into a new level of joy. There is a lot to be afraid of. Every generation thinks theirs could be the last, that the end is nigh. However, we may actually be right. In the meantime, we desperately need art to show us and remind us that the future could exist and it could maybe even be FUN.

 

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation

Waters has had visual art retrospectives other large exhibitions, but this is the first focused on his films. It was William S. Burroughs who called him the “Pope of Trash” and the (sac)religious fervor of his devotees is legendary. (This Borroughs guy seems pretty observant.) You enter John Waters: Pope of Trash through a chapel complete with pews and stained-glass depictions of Divine and other Dreamland stars. As you march through rooms devoted to each of John’s movies, starting with the short films he made with his buddies (and, yes, screened at the Episcopal church), all the way up to A Dirty Shame, and then onto fan art and cultural appearances, you cannot help but smile—and laugh a lot. 

Thank God Waters was kicked out of NYU for smoking weed and had to go back to Baltimore! Praise Jesus his eye for talent and penchant for second chances gave us the chance to love Divine and Jean Hill and Mink Stole and all these brilliant artists and the chance to re-fall in love with Liz Renay and other “disgraced” stars who made comebacks in Waters’ films.

Pulled from Waters’ archive at Wesleyan, handwritten bits of scripts and budgets are incredibly charming. I found myself profoundly moved again at the length of so many of Waters’ collaborations— Dreamlanders would seem to be lifers. They love John and he clearly loves them back. At the risk of becoming hopelessly cringe, you really feel the love all through this show—from Waters, to Waters, to the weirdos on the screen and back to us, the weirdos with the popcorn—and it feels really, really good. Despite events like Divine being raped by a 15 foot lobster, there’s a wholesomeness in Waters’ work that is a big part of why he is so beloved.

 

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation

There are other treats: an app for Divine-ified selfies, a lil’ peephole, and all those fantastic props and glorious costumes. But what really drove home the power of Waters’ work came at the end of the show for me, when I witnessed a twelve-ish year old kid watching a clip of A Dirty Shame with a look that I can only describe as, “shock and awe.” I was witnessing a sacred moment: the birth of a John Waters superfan. I hope he grows up and makes his own work that reminds us that life can be good. 

And I hope it made him gay.

 

 

John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
John Waters: Pope of Trash, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Photo by: Charles White, JWPictures/©Academy Museum Foundation
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