John Waters: Role Models

I’ve been a fan of John Waters since my teens, when I heard about the “most disgusting movie ever made,” and went to our local video store to find it. It was, of course, PINK FLAMINGOS, Waters’ assault on good taste that became a midnight movie sensation. It’s revolting, ridiculously funny and absurd, and today it is rather prescient. Two couples vie for the title of “The Filthiest People Alive,” which describes the current state of reality TV. How else can you describe people who pretend their child is in a weather balloon, or behave like the troglodytes on “Jersey Shore”?

Me & John in 2006

John was ahead of his time, and he’s stayed a few steps ahead. Lately, with the dismal state of independent film and the stranglehold the MPAA has on films- see my review of THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED for details- he has taken to the spoken and the written word. If his show “An Evening with John Waters” comes your way- often at college campuses- I recommend you go. Better than most comedians and sharper than most social critics, you’ll get an unforgettable evening and a lot to think about. But if you can’t make it, pick up a copy of his latest book, Role Models. In it, he explains the celebrities and heroes that he most reveres and goes off on wild tangents telling outrageous anecdotes and proclaiming absurd wisdoms that just make too much sense to ever be put into practice. It’s a great, gripping read that delivers interviews with Little Richard and Johnny Mathis- two polar opposites of music, both consumed by fame in different ways- but also a detailed history of Leslie Van Houten, a former Manson groupie still denied parole mostly due to the histrionic political ambitions of district attorneys, than any danger she still represents to society.

That was the hardest part I had with the book. Having read Helter Skelter, I still had a hard time absolving Manson’s brainwashed cultists. It was interesting to hear her side of the story, how she takes full responsibility for her actions, but gets called “remorseless” any time she tries to explain how someone can be terrorized, drugged and brainwashed at a remote commune in the desert into believing the ravings of a psychopathic maniac. In the end, John makes a convincing argument, but I doubt Leslie will ever be released. Look at the hysteria over Kathleen Soliah, which admittedly consumed me as well, when I lived in Minnesota. But we are a Puritan nation, and believe that you die for your sins, even though Jesus was supposed to have done so already. Your Scarlet Letter is branded upon you until death, and then we visit the sins of the fathers upon your children, too. Do you think we could ever have a Reconciliation commission like South Africa did? If only we’d had one after the Civil War.

John Waters writes quite well, a witty and poignant satirist on our ridiculous society, which still hasn’t shed some of its absurd hypocrisies left over from the ’50s. He’s a modern-day Revoltaire, if you will. Pick up a copy of his latest, and you’ll see beyond the dog shit eating shock and see a scathing critique of our values that will make you think for quite some time after. And you’ll laugh a lot, too.

© 2010 Tommy Salami