With his latest exhibition, “John Waters: Pope of Trash”, the Academy Museum Paradoxically, he has found a way to venerate the irreverent.
The show, which opens to the public Sunday and runs through August 2024, embodies the equally serious and campy sensibility that characterizes the Baltimore-born writer-director. “Hair spray” and “Multiple maniacs.”
Taking its playful nickname to heart, visitors are greeted with a space that invites them to sit at the altar of Waters, literally. A portrait of the thinly mustachioed director like a saintly figure sits alongside stained glass recreations of some of his most famous collaborators, including Divine and David Lochary, in a chapel-like anteroom. The church pews face a screen playing a quick montage featuring some of the most iconic moments from Waters’ six-decade (and counting) career.
From the beginning, “John Waters: Pope of Trash” announces itself as a lovingly staged celebration, which it does so with a wink. Before exiting, visitors are ushered into the pink-hued “Filth Shop,” adorned with a quote from Waters that sums up the tension at the heart of the exhibit: “I’m so respectable I could throw up.” For someone whose career was built on outlaws, outliers and outsiders, Waters feels right at home within the hallowed halls of the Academy Museum.
“Well, I’m used to having strange things happen in my life that you never imagined would happen,” the director told The Times on Thursday morning, after wandering around his fourth-floor shot. Props, scripts, costumes and even a replica of the 1972 “Pink Flamingos” trailer serve as a chronological and immersive summary of Waters’ film work.
He had no irony to spare in the face of such a kind tribute, even when he received the first call about the exhibition years ago.
“I was incredibly excited and a little melancholic that Divine would have been so proud to be here today,” Waters said. “But he was absolutely thrilled.”
Waters’ muse, Divine, the drag performer who fascinated on screen, whether playing a criminal vixen or a deluded suburban mother, died in 1988. But she, rightly, remains the beating heart of this retrospective. Her face (arched, penciled eyebrows, a dramatic lip) and her demeanor (an incomparable, relentless approach to acting) feature prominently in the more than 400 works on display. Together, they trace how a young man who once orchestrated violent puppet shows and began making ridiculously outlandish 8mm films with his friends in the 1960s became a fixture of American pop culture thanks to his self-styled creations. “dirty”.
“We were like a terrorist cell against the tyranny of good taste,” Waters says of his early days working with the self-styled Dreamlanders, the ragtag group of artists who helped bring the director’s deliciously deranged visions to life. In his films, the world of polite society – of suburban fences and provincial worldviews – was ready to be skewered.
“I grew up in the tyranny of good taste and that is appreciated because you have to know the rules,” he says. “If you’re going to parody any genre of film, you have to know that genre. That’s why I never made a science fiction movie, because I’m not a fan of that genre. And I always scoffed at the rules of the outlaw world I was lucky enough to live in.”
To walk through “John Waters: Pope of Trash” is to appreciate these various parodies (of melodramas, like in 1981). “Polyester,” or true crime courtroom dramas, like in 1994 “Serial mom”) as works of art that are given enough space to exist as cinematic experiences and at the same time brimming with extravagance.
At 77 years old, waters He knows how lucky he is to see this career-spanning retrospective during his lifetime. “Debbie Harry and I talked about this because things are going very well in her career right now,” she says. “I said, ‘Aren’t we just glad we grew up to be able to see this?’ And she agreed. “It’s just amazing when so many other people on that circuit that we know aren’t.”
He is amused to learn that the curators have pored over objects that would otherwise have been forgotten (even by himself) and are now on display for the enjoyment of die-hard Waters fans and neophytes alike. “I like the little things, like Mink’s glasses in “Pink Flamingos,” enthuses Waters. “They were rotting in an old box and now they are restored. I just think he’s great. And I think, then, of all the things that have happened in between.”
It has been a career of ups and downs, successes, scandals, irregular financing and everything in between.
“I always had a backup plan,” Waters recalls. “If I couldn’t make a movie, I would. write a book or do a spoken word program. You always have to have a backup plan because nothing lasts. And I think I’m not mean -That is the most important. “I made fun of myself first, from the beginning.”
Don’t confuse your mood with melancholy. “I don’t “I’m nostalgic,” Waters assures me. “I am always working for the future. This is not the end of me, you know? I plan more. So I feel quite nostalgic, but not completely.”
For starters, you never want to see yourself undermining the struggles of younger generations with a rosy view of your radical past.
“If you say we have more fun than them, you’re dead wrong,” Waters says. “Now they are surprising us with this new sexual revolution. I don’t look back and think we had more fun. The job of youth is to surprise me. And they have really achieved it.”
Surprise has long anchored his work, as has shock. The most talked about scene in all of his films remains the one in “Pink Flamingos,” in which Divine eats dog feces. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t fake.)
But Waters always knew that shock wouldn’t be enough.
“It’s easy to be surprised,” he explains. “It is not easy to scare, make people laugh and change things. I learned the term at school shock value. You say something outrageous to get someone’s attention and make them listen to you. I knew it worked. But I never tried to top the impact of ‘Pink Flamingos’ once I won. And I won. It’s easy to surprise people. But that doesn’t mean it’s funny or clever or good.”
Shock should be a starting point, never the point itself. “Everyone can be disgusting; they have to be disgusting.” and funny,” he adds.
And Waters has been both. Her filmography is rife with a brash attitude toward everything from fame and crime to racial segregation and sexual revolutions, anarchy and ennui. Sex too. “No one has masturbated to one of my movies yet,” she jokes.
But his satires have infiltrated the lexicon of American popular culture precisely because his humor is rooted in a desire to subvert. The exhibition follows this example in a fun way. A peephole (designed to spy on other gallery-goers) sits alongside more serious accessories, such as Waters’ WGA lifetime achievement award or a pair of shoes worn by Edith Massey. There’s even an animation cel from the director’s famous 1997 episode of “The Simpsons.”
“The mere fact that the Academy is giving me a show shows how things change,” Waters says. “Everything that lasts at the beginning causes problems. I built a career on bad reviews. We got a great review in Variety for ‘Female Trouble’ that I remember touched my heart. But then I had the bad ones. You tend to remember them.”
She has long followed her mother’s advice in that regard: read the bad ones once and the good ones twice. And then save them.
And they are gone, to his archive at Wesleyan University, where many of the artifacts that make up “John Waters: Pope of Trash” are normally kept.
“And now they have ended up in a museum,” he adds, almost incredulous.