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While drafting an introductory letter to Johnny Mathis in his new collection of writing, Role Models, John Waters thinks: “Explain what? A role model? Someone who has led a life even more explosive than mine, a person whose exaggerated fame or notoriety has made him or her somehow smarter or more glamorous than I could ever be? A personality frozen in an unruly, blown-out-of-proportion position in society who earns my unmitigated respect for his or her other turbulent, ferocious will to survive frightening success or failure?”
By this definition and at rough count, John Waters mentions 35 of his most admired, influential, inspiring, outrageous, or obsessed upon: Johnny Mathis, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Johnny Ray, Clarabelle the Clown, Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, Dagmar, Cyril Ritchard’s Captain Hook, Bad Seed’s Patty McCormack, Dorothy Malone, (“Monster Mash” creator) Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Tennessee Williams, (Manson girl) Leslie Van Houten, Jean Marais, James Purdy, Yukio Mishima, Rei Kawakubo, (Baltimore burlesque legends) “Lady Zorro” and Esther Martin, Cy Twombly, Mike Kelly, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Richard Tuttle, Richard Baker, Moyra Davey, Little Richard, (“outside pornographers”) Bobby Garcia and David Hurly, (high-brow authors) Denton Welch, Lionel Shriver, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and (slain atheist) Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The most mentioned name in Role Models is Andy Warhol, whose legacy hovers about the pages like the ghost of art history future. Which seems telling for this one-time underground auteur turned Broadway millionaire turned busy conceptual artist.
Since the bulk of John Waters’ latest publications have been artist monographs (Director’s Cut, John Waters: Change of Life, and Unwatchable), Role Models can be read as a sort of follow-up to 1986’s Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. Which is to say it’s a Frankenbook: republished essays stitched up with repurposed musings to create enough girth to give his publisher a suitable price point.
Crackpot was a very funny follow-up to the brilliant (and still best), Shock Value (1981), which concentrated on his truly independent filmmaking and the Dreamlanders, his insane cast of on- and off-screen characters from the immortal Divine to the costuming genius Role Models is dedicated to, Van Smith. Whereas most of Crackpot’s essays were like stink bombs tossed at the establishment, many of the essays in Role Models make the author come off sounding like a square. As an artist, he’s still fixated on the tension between the mainstream and the extreme, but as a man and as a writer, he seems almost dignified, a man of letters. Of course twenty four years and all that “Hairspray” money separate the two volumes, so the change is understandable. He can meet anyone and travel anywhere. He can fill his four abodes with pricey kunst. He has all the leisure time to find and read the out-of-print books of obscure novelists like Ivy Compton-Burnett. But with Role Models John Waters has seemingly lost his desire to shock. And furthering the irony, when he does manage to shock, it’s unintentional.
Instead of finely-crafted comic essays like “Why I Love Christmas,” “Going To Jail,” and “Why I Love the National Enquirer” (from Crackpot), we get: a sanctimonious profile on fashion trickster, Rei Kawakubo; a rehash of all that was redemptive and repulsive from his Baltimore upbringing; and essays like “Roommates,” in which Waters unintentionally takes on the tone of a docent giving the reader a tour of the expansive–and no doubt expensive–collection of contemporary art he “lives with.” He shares his San Francisco apartment with his “favorite roommate,” Cy Twombley, or rather the scrawlings of Cy Twombley. In New York hangs a rendering of a repulsive coke mirror by Mike Kelly, whom Waters compliments as a “‘shitty’ roommate.” In these and in his homes in Provincetown and his beloved and beloathed Baltimore, his pronouncements on pieces by Fischli/Weiss and Richard Baker and Moyra Davey make the one-time anti-authoritarian sound like Sister Wendy.
Perhaps the greatest indication of John Waters’ wayward bourgeois tone are his ho-hum revelations that Johnny Mathis and Tab Hunter are Republicans. It’s also a bit of a shock to the system when the man behind Pink Flamingos “ins” both Tom Cruise and John Travolta and even discusses Scientology’s “perceived” attitude toward homosexuality with unwarranted respect.
Role Models may fill in some blanks for rabid fans. It also raises some interesting points and genuine laughs. But one thing’s certain: John Waters can stop milking the “Pope of Trash” epithet William Burroughs bestowed on him decades ago. He’s come a long way from “Female Trouble” to narrating Court-TV’s “Til Death Do Us Part.” As one of my early role models, I hate to say this but: if he keeps this up he’ll end up being most famous in the future as the campy toy collector in “Homer’s Phobia,” the gayest episode of the Simpsons ever.
In “How Not To Make A Movie” (also from Crackpot), he wrote, “I’ve always wanted to sell out. The problem is nobody wanted to buy me.” And it is true, John Waters never sold out. He didn’t have to. Our entire culture eventually slagged to his level. People behaving abominably to get attention, televised gross-outs, serial killers as heroes: these are the things John Waters once pushed the envelope with. It’s not that he’s come a long way from ending a film with a drag queen eating dog shit, it’s that we’ve come to expect such actions on YouTube at whim.
By John Waters
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Hardcover, $25, 320pp